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IRAQ: The Sunnis

Author: Sharon Otterman
December 12, 2003

What role will Sunnis play in the new Iraq?

Sunni Arabs make up some 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq's population, but they dominated the country's government and economy throughout the 20th century. If the new Iraq is a representative democracy--as is planned--power will shift to the Shiites, who comprise 60 percent of Iraqis. Sunni Kurds, the other major population group in Iraq, make up some 18 percent of the population; they were the target of harsh repression in the Saddam Hussein era.

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Where do the bulk of Iraqi Sunnis live?

Approximately half live in urban areas, such as Baghdad and Mosul, where they form the backbone of Iraq's educated middle class, says Phebe Marr, author of "The Modern History of Iraq" and a former senior fellow at National Defense University. Many of the remaining Sunnis live in provincial towns and rural villages in the so-called Sunni triangle north and west of Baghdad. U.S. forces are facing the most entrenched resistance in this zone. Many Sunnis, especially in urban areas, are lawyers, bureaucrats, and educators, and many are believed to be secular, experts say. Sunnis in provincial areas, experts say, tend to be more conservative and religious, and tribal and clan ties are stronger than in larger cities.

Do all Iraqi Sunnis object to the U.S.-led occupation?

No. Iraq's Sunni Arabs on the whole "are frightened by their sudden, dramatic loss of political power, social status, and economic well-being," Judith S. Yaphe, a Middle East expert at National Defense University, writes in the November Arab Reform Bulletin. Their apprehension about the future, coupled with their reported anger at the presence and tactics of U.S. forces, creates sympathy for the minority fighting the occupation, many experts say. On the other hand, some Sunnis cooperate with the U.S.-led occupation, joining coalition-sponsored police forces and the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. Many more--even some of those fighting the coalition--do not support the return of Saddam, according to press reports. Harnessing the support of those Sunnis unwilling to take up arms against the occupation should be a key aim of the occupiers, Marr says.

What's the main difference between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam?

Shiites, who account for some 10 percent to 20 percent of the world's Muslims, split off from the mainstream of Islamic practice because of a disagreement about who was rightfully qualified to lead the Muslim community. Shiites believe Islam's leader should be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. Sunnis say leaders should be chosen through ijma, or consensus. Shiites revere Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Prophet Mohammed's cousin and son-in-law, who was killed while serving as the top leader, or Caliph, of Islam in the 7th century. His tomb is in Najaf, Iraq's holiest Shiite city.

In terms of Islamic practice, Shiism differs from Sunnism only in certain details. For example, Shiites permit temporary marriages, or mut'a, which can be contracted for months or even days, and follow different inheritance laws. In matters of theology, most Shiites reject the "official" Sunni doctrine of predestination and believe in the freedom of human choice. They also believe that qualified religious leaders have the authority to interpret Islamic law and dogma, a practice known as ijtihad. For Sunnis, the "door of ijtihad" has been at least theoretically closed since the 10th century, according to Fazlur Rahman, the author of "Islam."

How significant is the Sunni-Shiite divide in Iraq?

Not as important as some press reports make it out to be, many Iraq experts say. There has been considerable intermarriage between the two groups among the urban middle class. Some Iraqi tribes have both Sunni and Shiite branches. In addition, experts say Iraqi nationalism is very important to both groups. In the most telling example of this, Sunnis and Shiites fought side by side against the British colonizers. On the other hand, there are Sunni-Shiite tensions, and some radicals on both sides preach hatred against the other group. Sectarian differences will be exacerbated if the coalition emphasizes them, experts say. "Tribal, ethnic, and sectarian [differences] may reflect local truths, but Iraqiness— incorporating all elements of society— should ultimately form the basis of national identity," Yaphe writes.

Do the Sunnis want their own state?

There has been no popular call for this, experts say. While Iraq's Sunnis have a strong sense of communal pride, they are above all Iraqi nationalists who "place Iraq's political independence and territorial integrity over other identities and values," Yaphe writes.

What's the history of the Sunni community in Iraq?

They have served as army officers, bureaucrats, and teachers since the days of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were Sunnis, as are some 80 percent to 90 percent of the 1.4 billion Muslims worldwide. During the British occupation of Iraq and following independence in 1932, Iraq's Sunnis were leading nationalists, heading up the government and shaping the country's identity as both an Arab and an Iraqi state. Saddam's Baath Party, which assumed power in a 1968 coup, used Sunnis to fill the ranks of the elite Republican Guard, the officer corps of the regular army, and the security and intelligence services. Many of Iraq's most dedicated Baathists were Sunnis, though the party also had many Shiite members.

Did Saddam treat all Sunnis equally?

No, experts say. He particularly favored members of his Al-bu Nasir tribe, who he placed in charge of the security services and ministries. He treated some Sunni tribes and clans badly, and coup attempts against Saddam most often came from these adversaries. Overall, however, Saddam built loyalty among the Sunnis as he did with other Iraqis--by doling out land, money, and other privileges. On the whole, Sunnis fared better, had more resources, and faced less persecution than Shiites and Kurds.

How observant are Iraq's Sunnis?

It varies. Urbanized Iraqis became quite secular between 1968 and the early 1990s, in large part because the Baath Party emphasized a socialist, non-religious Iraqi state. That changed somewhat after the first Gulf War when, to shore up support, Saddam began to use religious symbolism and encourage Islamic observance. Religion, one of the only permissible outlets for personal expression, grew in popularity, and more Iraqi women began to wear the veil, or hijab. Since the end of Saddam's regime, attending services at mosques appears to have become less popular in some parts of Baghdad, says Faleh A. Jabar, a senior fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and professor of sociology at Birkbeck College at the University of London. On the other hand, increasing numbers of younger Iraqis appear to be drawn to more radical Islamist groups, Marr says.

How are Sunnis organized religiously?

There are three basic spheres of religious organization among Iraqi Sunnis: institutional Islam, political Islam, and popular Islam, Jabar says.

What's institutional Islam for Iraq's Sunnis?

It refers to the official network of Sunni mosques, charities, and schools in Iraq. Unlike Iraq's Shiite clergy, who were persecuted by Saddam, Sunni clergy were largely employed and controlled by the Baathist government. Sunni imams, or preachers, were led by an official mufti, or grand Sunni authority, paid by the Ministry for Religious Endowment, experts say. Some Sunni clerics trained at the elite Saddam University in Baghdad. The recent collapse of this system of patronage has apparently left many clerics searching for sources of funds, Jabar says. Fundamentalist Islamic movements, such as the Wahhabi faction based in Saudi Arabia, appear to be offering money to newly impoverished clerics, which may be increasing support for Sunni fundamentalism.

What's political Islam among Iraq's Sunnis?

Groups that support political Islam, also called Islamists, believe that states should not be secular but rather run according to sharia, or Islamic law. Saddam had a complex relationship with such groups in Iraq, experts say. He forbade Sunni fundamentalist teachings that called for the elimination of the officially secular Baath regime. On the other hand, especially in the past decade, Saddam allowed some fundamentalist preaching to help Iraqis "blow off steam," says Juan Cole, an expert on Iraqi history at the University of Michigan. There are two main kinds of Sunni groups now advocating an Islamic state in Iraq: Salafists, or Muslim militants that call for a jihad to bring about their goal of an Islamic state, and organizations that have adopted the model used by the Muslim Brotherhood in many nations, that attempts to achieve their goals by working through the government.

What is popular Islam?

Scholars use the term to describe Islamic practices that have emerged from a mixture of folk traditions and official Islamic doctrine. Among Sunnis, the most common form of popular Islam is called Sufism, a mystical form of Islam. The aim of Sufi groups, or orders, is to gain a closer connection to God and higher knowledge through communal ceremonies, often using trance, music and other techniques. Iraq is home to two important Sufi orders: the Maqshbandi and the Quadari. However, Sufi practice in modern Iraq is no longer thought to be widespread and Iraq's Sufi groups do not appear to have political aspirations, some experts say.

How much popular support do these groups have?

According to a September poll by Zogby International, some three-quarters of Sunnis favor a secular state for Iraq. That said, Sunni Islamists are active. A number of previously unknown Salafist organizations--which, among other things, appear to favor a jihad against the United States similar to that supported by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden--have declared responsibility for attacks against U.S. forces and civilians cooperating with them. These groups include the Al-Faruq Brigades, the Mujahadeen al Ta'lifa al-Mansoura, and the Mujahadeen Battalions of the Salafi Group of Iraq.

The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in Egypt in the early 20th century. The IIP also appears to favor an Islamic state in Iraq but via peaceful means. Its head, Moshen Abdul Hamid, is a member of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council and a professor at Baghdad University. He is the author of more than 30 books on the interpretation of the Koran.

Are Islamist groups leading the insurgency?

The insurgency campaign appears to consist of many groups of varying beliefs unified by a desire to expel U.S. forces from Iraq, according to press reports. Most of these groups, however, appear to consist largely of Sunnis. Its fighters include former Baathists; army and intelligence officers; criminals and mercenaries; ordinary Iraqis angry at the occupation; and Islamist mujahadeen (holy warriors). U.S. officials have said that former Baathists appear to be directing much of this insurgency. Jabar, however, says that the most brutal attacks against civilians --such as the massive suicide car bombings— are likely conducted by Islamists. "They are bound by hatred and self-righteousness; they are the beating heart of the resistance," Jabar says.

Who leads the Sunni community in Iraq?

It's not clear. Overall, experts say there is a shortage now of respected leaders among Sunnis. This is a key problem for those trying to ensure that Sunnis participate in the creation of the new Iraq. Two decisions by the Coalition Provisional Authority, the U.S.-led occupation government, compounded this problem: the dismissal of the entire Iraqi army--some 400,000 men--and the wide scale de-Baathification program, which has prevented many Sunnis from resuming jobs they held in the Saddam-era bureaucracy. Both of these decisions, many Iraq experts say, have further alienated Iraq's Sunnis by depriving them of a way to earn a living and regain their former status.

Who are some of the most important Sunni leaders?
  • Adnan Pachachi, 80, serves on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). He also served as foreign minister before the Baath Party came to power in 1968. He has lived outside of Iraq for the past 32 years and appears to lack a popular following.
  • Ghazi Ajil al-Yawar, 45, is a sheik of the Shamar tribe--one of the largest in Iraq--and sits on the IGC. There are other important Sunni tribal leaders in Iraq, but their capacity to serve as broad-based leaders of the Sunni faithful is unclear.
  • Moshen Abdul Hamid is the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
  • Ahmed al-Kubaisi is head of an organization alternately referred to as the National Union Party or the Iraqi Muslim Ulema Front. He is a popular Sunni cleric who calls for the end of the U.S. occupation and the introduction of an Islamic state in Iraq. He also says the United States has invaded his country to defend Israel's interests and accuses the Americans of not giving Sunnis an adequate say in Iraqi affairs. So far, he has not openly called for violence against U.S. forces, but he has threatened that he may if the occupation continues.

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