STEVE INSKEEP, host:
This week on MORNING EDITION we're describing key players in Iraq. These are the names you hear on the news almost daily. So far we've learned of a militia leader, the prime minister, and an ayatollah, all of them Shiite Muslim leaders. Today we will explore the leadership of Iraq's Sunni Muslims. That's the group that once ruled Iraq, but is in the minority and is providing key support to the insurgency.
Our guide all week is NPR's Anne Garrels. And Anne, we've talked all week about big-name Shiite Muslim leaders. Who is their counterpart among the Sunni Muslims?
ANNE GARRELS: They're really are no counterparts. I mean, this is the big problem for the Sunnis - they are split. They are split between any number of politicians who have now decided to become part of the political process, as well as figures and organizations who refuse to be part of the political process. And that, of course, includes the insurgent groups.
INSKEEP: Now, there's a group in Baghdad called the Muslim Scholars Association, and their name comes up frequently in news reports. Who are they?
GARRELS: They are, indeed, very influential. Though, as I say, I mean, there is no one group who tells all Sunnis what to do. This group refuses to take part in the political process. It is believed to have links to the insurgents.
The Sunnis' problem is that no Sunni will come out and attack the insurgency. They will all say that there is an honorable resistance against the American military. Yet, at the same time, Sunnis increasingly are looking to the American military - not all Sunnis, obviously, but many - to protect them against the Shiites.
INSKEEP: When I listen to you, it makes you makes you wonder why is it so hard for some Sunnis to make common cause with the United States? If they're saying we want protection; we want, in affect rights for minorities; we want a unified Iraq; we're nationalists - those sound like goals that the United States could sign on with.
GARRELS: That's right. And privately, I think, there is a dialogue. The problem is they can't come out and publicly say this, because they're afraid of losing their fragmented basis, if you will. And the other problem is that the U.S. does not know the Sunni community that well.
INSKEEP: Are you saying that after three and a half years, there might actually be an influential Sunni leader who could be helpful, and the U.S. wouldn't even know who to call?
GARRELS: No, I don't think there is one particular Sunni leader. I think what the Iraq Study Group and others are saying is that from the very beginning, the U.S. sort of lumped all of them as Baathists, didn't understand the tribal issues, the competition between them, and only now is beginning to appeal to Sunnis who might be sympathetic to the U.S. Increasingly, it is quite clear there are splits amongst the Sunnis. But some of them now are fighting al-Qaida, the foreigners, the radical Islamists who they do not like.
But in general, all the Sunnis felt that the U.S. was against them in principle, and so they never could find common cause until now. Just beginning to be able to work together.
INSKEEP: And as the United States reaches out to Sunnis, afresh, does the U.S. have something really to offer them?
GARRELS: U.S. officials say that their problem is that when they do reach out to Sunnis, the Sunnis are not realistic about what their future is in Iraq. Many of them still believe and say that they have a majority in Iraq. Which is, the general perception is, that they have, at best, 20 percent.
INSKEEP: You know, we had a respected analyst come through NPR not so long ago, and he was suggesting to us that the U.S. has tried to reach out to Sunnis, has gotten very little in return, and has only angered the other major group: the Shiites.
GARRELS: That is true. But the U.S. would also say, first of all, you can't ignore the Sunnis. The Sunnis themselves have to sort of speak more than in the negative. At the moment, they've united against a negative: it's getting the U.S. out, and is against the government. And that's been very frustrating for any U.S. officials who have tried to deal with them.
INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR's Anne Garrels about major players in Iraq. Anne, thanks again.
GARRELS: Thank you.
INSKEEP: And we'll continue our conversations tomorrow, when we learn about two key Kurdish leaders in Iraq. Anne profiles Iraq's prominent Shiite leaders at npr.org.
And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.