Drawing Iraq's Sunnis into the Political Process

The U.S. and Iraqi governments are increasing efforts to involve Sunni Arabs in the country's political process. But officials acknowledge that it is difficult to identify the real powerbrokers. Critics of their efforts suggest that the United States is talking to the wrong people.

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The US and the Iraqi government have both been increasing efforts to reach out to Sunni Arabs and pull them into the political process. State Department and Pentagon officials acknowledge it's difficult partly because it's hard to identify the real Sunni power brokers. Critics suggest the problem is that US is talking to the wrong people. NPR's Vicky O'Hara has more on that.

VICKY O'HARA reporting:

The US relationship with Iraq's Sunni Arabs has evolved since the invasion of 2003. The US initially held many Sunni leaders at arm's length, knowing that most of the loyalists of Saddam Hussein were Sunnis. Lieutenant Colonel Richard Welch spent 18 months in Iraq starting in January of last year, and his job was to act as a liaison between the US military and Iraq's religious and tribal leaders, including those in the Sunni triangle. Welch says that some of his colleagues did not approve of his assignment.

Lieutenant Colonel RICHARD WELCH (Former Liaison in Iraq): There were those in the organization who were a little upset that I would be meeting with people that we were fighting with. But my position always was, `If you want people to stop fighting, who are you going to talk to?' And my position is you talk with the bad guys.

O'HARA: Pentagon and State Department officials say that the United States engaged the Sunnis from the beginning through reconstruction projects, but they say it took much longer for the US to reach out politically. Retired Colonel Patrick Lang says that's because the US went into Iraq with the attitude that Iraq's political transformation would follow the US model. Lang, former chief of intelligence for the Defense Intelligence Agency, says that model was one man, one vote, that people's rights and interests should be addressed on an individual basis.

Colonel PATRICK LANG (Retired; Former Chief of Intelligence, Defense Intelligence Agency): What we learned was, in fact, that in the Middle East people don't really operate that way. You have to address their group interests, either as an ethno-religious community or as a clan or a tribal group, because they identify themselves in terms of one or more groups that they belong to.

O'HARA: Lang, Welch and several State Department officials say the US changed its approach after Sunnis boycotted Iraq's national election last January. One State Department official said that after the parliamentary vote, it became easier to reach out to the Sunnis politically because at least some of them concluded that boycotting the political process was a mistake.

Another State Department official, Jeff Beals, political adviser at the US Embassy in Baghdad, says that military commanders and US diplomats now meet with a wide range of Sunni tribal leaders.

Mr. JEFF BEALS (Political Adviser, US Embassy in Baghdad): There are broad efforts by the US government and the Iraqi government to find influential leaders in the Sunni Arab community who are able to get out the message that the political process has room in it and can only succeed when every part of the population is part of it.

O'HARA: Beals says that US officials do not meet with Sunnis who are actively involved in the insurgency, but he concedes that it's difficult to determine everyone's history.

Mr. BEALS: What you know is that when voices are out there saying, `I want to talk to the United States about ways to find a way into the political process, and I'm ready to do so on the terms of peaceful participation in that process,' then they will find interlocutors on the US side and they'll find them on the Iraqi side, and they regularly do.

O'HARA: State Department officials say the outreach is paying off. They note the relatively peaceful Iraqi constitutional referendum last month and the fact that Sunni groups are fielding candidates in next month's parliamentary elections. But Patrick Lang says that none of the Sunnis who are participating in the election meets his definition of a hard-liner.

Zaki Chehab, political editor for the Al-Hayat newspaper, based in London, has extensive contacts among the Iraqi insurgents. He says the US is not talking to the right Sunnis, as evidenced by the continuing violence.

Mr. ZAKI CHEHAB (Political Editor, Al-Hayat): I believe that such attack will not take place if it's not approved by the head of a tribe. We can talk about success in reaching these influential in the Sunni triangle when really there is like a cease-fire or some kind of agreement.

O'HARA: US officials acknowledge that it's been hard for Americans to identify the Sunni leaders who are the true power brokers, but Jeff Beals at the US Embassy in Baghdad says it's getting easier.

Mr. BEALS: One of the things that is now becoming even more crystallized are who are the key leaders.

O'HARA: As the Sunnis get more involved in politics, Beals says, the US can more accurately identify Sunni leaders who have real clout in their communities. Next month's parliamentary election, he says, will be pivotal in that process. Vicky O'Hara, NPR News, Washington.

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