Reports of Sunni Enthusiasm May Be Premature

The George W. Bush administration is citing the formation of a coalition of Sunni political organizations to run candidates in Iraq’s December parliamentary elections, and high Sunni turnout in the recent referendum, as evidence that its policy of attracting Sunnis away from the insurgency is working.

But this argument ignores the evidence from both the January election and the Oct. 15 referendum that the overwhelming majority of Sunnis have followed the political strategy urged by the insurgent leadership and anti-occupation Sunni clerics.

After the announcement last week by three Sunni political groups that they had united to run candidates on Dec. 15, the Los Angeles Times quoted a "Western official" in Baghdad – the usual term for U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad speaking on background – as arguing that Sunni involvement in the political system would eventually cause "a gradual erosion of support for the insurgency."

Even as the votes in the constitutional referendum were still being counted on Oct. 16, Khalilzad had said the high Sunni voter turnout "was a good indication that our approach to the Sunnis is producing results." U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice echoed the same theme, declaring, "The Sunnis are joining the base of this broad political process."

This view of the relationship between the Sunni population and the insurgency is politically convenient for the administration. However, the evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority of Sunnis went to the polls on Oct. 15 not because they had been urged to do so by Sunni politicians, but because Sunni clerics and armed organizations had agreed on a campaign to defeat the constitution.

The nearly complete absence of violence that could disrupt the poll throughout most of the Sunni heartland, which U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch later credited to the "vigilance of American and Iraqi security forces," was in the fact the result of a decision by the leaders of major Sunni insurgent organizations in August to get out the maximum number of Sunni votes against the constitution.

That decision was supported by the influential Association of Muslim Scholars and most secular political organizations It was almost reversed in early October after the Shi’ite and Kurdish lawmakers passed a law that would have required opponents to get two-thirds of all eligible voters rather than two-thirds of those who voted to defeat the draft constitution.

In response to that move, a senior commander of the "Army of Mohammed" told Time magazine that the leaders of several insurgent groups had been considering "a total shutdown" of the three key Sunni provinces for 10 days before and after Oct. 15 to enforce a boycott of the vote.

After the parliament reversed its position under pressure from world opinion, however, the Sunni insurgent leaders coordinated a cease-fire intended to ensure a huge Sunni voter turnout, as confirmed by a spokesman for those leaders to Reuters on Oct. 19.

Foreign jihadists, on the other hand, tried to disrupt the voting in Sunni areas by violence, including an attack on a polling center in Ramadi. Combined with offensive U.S. military actions in Anbar province, jihadist threats and violence reduced Sunni turnout in Anbar to a very low level, except in Fallujah.

The announcement by the three Sunni groups that they will participate in the December elections should not be confused with a broader Sunni decision to participate. The Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi People’s Gathering, and the National Dialogue Council are all elite groups with no mass base of their own.

The primary motivation of the leaders of these three elite groupings is to get elected to the Iraqi parliament. That motivation has made both the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Iraqi People’s Gathering willing to compromise with the Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders – and the U.S. officials standing behind them.

Just four days before the referendum, a small group of Sunni political figures, including leaders of the Iraqi Islamic Party, agreed to a deal with Shi’ite and Kurdish leaders under which they would support the constitution in return for assurances that the new parliament could negotiate on certain points in the constitution.

One of the Sunni politicians who agreed to campaign for the constitution, Mishan al-Jabouri, owns a satellite channel, and he declared confidently that 80 percent of the population of Salahuddin province would vote "yes" on the constitution. But the vote in Salahuddin showed that traditional Sunni power-brokers no longer influence the Sunni voters. Eighty-one percent of the vote in Salahuddin was against the constitution.

In Tikrit, 96 percent voted "no," according to IECI officials. In Fallujah, the figure was 97 percent, and in Samarra, 95 percent. No figures have been released for the Sunni districts of Mosul, but Sunni leaders said the vote there was similar to those in the other major Sunni urban areas.

Last January’s parliamentary election also demonstrated the decided lack of support for the Sunni parties now courted by Khalilzad to help rescue U.S. policy. Both the Iraqi People’s Gathering and the Iraqi Islamic Party wanted to run candidates in the January election, but the Sunni insurgent leaders and clerics called for a boycott.

The Iraqi Islamic Party registered for that election but then threatened to boycott if the election was not postponed, and ultimately did not campaign. The Iraqi People’s Gathering did campaign but received only 15,000 votes.

Although it was never acknowledged by U.S. officials or news media, the boycott of the election organized by insurgent groups and clerics was stunningly successful. Based on firsthand reports from virtually all the Sunni population centers, it appears that 95 to 98 percent of Sunnis stayed away from the polls.

Based on the results of the election and referendum, there can no longer be any doubt that the Sunni community has been remarkably united, and that it has responded to the strategic direction of clerics and insurgent leaders.

There are already some indications that the new Sunni electoral coalition does not reflect the views of those who will decide Sunni strategy toward the December election. Other Sunni politicians have already pointed to the apparent vote-rigging in favor of the constitution in Nineveh province as the critical factor in strategy toward the elections.

Hussein al-Falluji, a Sunni negotiator who rejected the final draft of the constitution, warned on Oct. 18, "If the referendum was corrupt, then we will boycott the December elections.""

Saleh al-Mutlak, a leading figure in the National Dialogue Council, said it would be "very difficult to convince people to come back to the political process," because they would be "disappointed that their voices mean nothing." After the decision by others on the Council to join the electoral coalition, al-Mutlak publicly rejected that course.

The other political shoe has yet to drop in regard to the Sunni participation in December election, and a decision to return to the boycott stance of last January now seems most likely.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.