In the Minority, Iraq's Sunnis Lack Clear Leadership

Sheikh Harith al-Dhari

Sunni cleric Sheikh Harith al-Dhari has been indicted by Iraq's Shiite-run interior ministry on charges of inciting terrorism and violence. Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Khaled Fazaa/AFP/Getty Images

Of all the major factions in Iraq, the Sunni minority is remarkable for its lack of an obvious leader. The Sunnis were in power under Saddam Hussein, and often repressed the Shiite majority.

The Sunnis are split between those who have become part of the political process and those who have refused to enter that process. The latter group includes violent insurgent groups, which also are not monolithic. Besides al-Qaida-inspired groups, there are tribal groups, clerical groups, political groups and criminal gangs.

One group that is often mentioned is the Muslim Scholars Association. They are a group of Sunni clerics that was formed only days after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. They have refused to take part in the political process and are believed to have contacts with the insurgency. The group itself has been attacked by the Shiite-dominated government, and the group's chairman, Sheik Harith al-Dhari has been indicted by the Shiite-run interior ministry on charges of inciting terrorism and violence.

The association refuses to take part in the political process, but many Sunni political leaders rushed to defend Dhari after the charges against him were announced.

But while the Muslim Scholars Association is influential, no one group or person tells the Sunnis what to do.

One of the problems complicating any relationship between the United States and the Sunnis is that no Sunni politician will speak out against the insurgency. While they will admit that terrorists may be involved in the insurgency, there are also honorable nationalists resisting the American military occupation of their country.

Simultaneously, many Sunnis, while openly hostile to the U.S. military presence, don't want the Americans to leave too soon lest it lead to further attacks from Shia death squads. But Sunni leaders, fearful of losing their fragmented bases, can't even come out and publicly acknowledge a dialogue with the United States.

Another major source of problems is that the United States does not know — or understand — the Sunnis all that well. While individual U.S. military officers have gotten to know local tribal leaders in their area of command, that has not generally been the case in every community.

At the beginning of the war, the United States seemed to lump all of the Sunnis under the category of Baathist supporters of Saddam, failing to understand the complex issues of clan, tribe and traditional divisions and differences among Sunnis.

To take just one example, the United States is only now seeking to find common cause with some Sunnis in Anbar Province, the heart of the insurgency. There, some tribal leaders have begun fighting against al-Qaida-related groups in their midst. But this was done not out of support for the United States, but because they felt these groups were alien to their culture and insurgency. Because of the lack of American understanding of the Sunnis, many have felt that the United States was against them. Only recently have some begun to think they could work with the Americans.

U.S. officials remain frustrated by the lack of any unified Sunni leadership, and the lack of any unified agenda among the Sunnis. The only common ground hinges around negatives: They oppose the United States and the Shiite-led government the Americans helped set up.

But the Sunni have failed to articulate what they stand for and what role they see for themselves in post-Saddam Iraq. Many Sunnis still claim that they are the majority in the country even though all estimates say they make up, at most, 20 percent of the population.

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