Leadership: Sunni Warlords Reconsider

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November 14, 2007: The centuries old battle between Sunni and Shia Moslems in Iraq has just shifted gears. Sunni Arab groups that have been fighting since 2003 to regain power, have renounced their 2004 alliance with al Qaeda and sought to eliminate al Qaeda militias in their territory. What is unclear, both to foreigners and the Shia dominated government of Iraq, is what the Sunni Arab warlords will do next.

From the 1920s until 2003, the Sunni Arab minority controlled Iraq. Before that, back to the 16th century, the Sunni Turks had relied on the Baghdadi Sunni Arabs to help run things in what is now Iraq. Britain had to re-occupy Iraq during World War II, because the Sunni Arab government (not the king) tried to ally itself with the Nazis. At the time, many Arabs admired Nazism. The Brits again conquered country, using three divisions and taking three weeks to do it. The Brits found another bunch of Sunni Arab notables and told them they could run things if they stayed away from the Nazis. That lasted for about a decade, until the Sunni Arab politicians and generals decided that this democracy stuff wasn't working for them. The royal family was massacred and parliament purged of disloyal elements. The Sunni Arabs were back in charge, via a series of dictators, until Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003.

Saddam was a particularly brutal dictator, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis (mostly Shia and Kurds), and terrorizing nearly everyone. After being run out of Kuwait in 1991, and barely surviving another Shia rebellion, he made peace with the Sunni Arab tribal leaders, and unleashed yet another terror campaign on the Shia Arabs. The Kurds were now independent, protected by British and American warplanes.

Now, this is the critical thing that many Americans don't understand, or even know. When Saddam was deposed in 2003, most (well, many) Sunni Arabs believed they would only be out of power temporarily. This sort of thing you can pick up on the Internet (OK, mostly on Arab language message boards, but it's out there). Saddam's followers (the Baath Party) and al Qaeda believed a few years of terror would subdue the Shia, and the Sunni Arabs would return to their natural state as the rulers of Iraq. U.S. troops quickly figured out what was going on . That's because, since Sunni Arabs were the best educated group, most of the local translators the troops used were Sunni Arabs, and even these guys took it for granted that, eventually, the Sunni Arabs would have to be in charge if the country were to function. The Sunni Arabs believed the Shia were a bunch of ignorant, excitable, inept (and so on) scum who could never run a government.

Four years later, the Shia have proved the Sunni Arabs wrong. Now many Sunni Arabs want to make peace, not suicide bombs. But there are still basic differences about how the country should be run. Many Iraqis believe only a dictator can run the country, and force all the factions to behave. However, a majority of Iraqis recognize that dictatorships tend to be poor and repressive, while democracies are prosperous and pleasant. The problem is that the traditions of tribalism and corruption (everything, and everyone, has their price) do not mesh well with democracy. This doesn't mean democracy can't work under these conditions, many do. It does mean that it takes more effort, and the results are not neat and clean, as Americans expect their democracies to be.

The Shia parties, tribes and militias are also growing up. Fearful of Iranian domination (because both share the same Shia beliefs, and Iran ruled the country for centuries before the Sunni Turks marched in nearly five centuries ago), the Shia are starting to sort out their differences. The Sunni are also divided between democrats (who would take their chances with the Shia), religious conservatives (who want a religious dictatorship) and nationalists (who still believe in Sunni Arab supremacy.) All of these groups are cooperating with the government, for now, mainly to get rid of al Qaeda, and renegade warlords. But once these threats are eliminated, no one is sure what the Sunni Arabs will do next. Logic indicates that Sunnis will try to work with the government, and democracy. But logic doesn't always apply in this part of the world. Moreover, the Sunni Arabs are aware that many Shia hate them, and want the Sunni Arabs expelled from Iraq. While the government can't officially back that, many government officials have looked the other way in the past, or even supported Shia death squads in their attacks on Sunni Arabs. How this will play out should be clear early next year. If the Sunni Arabs don't play ball, or if too many Shia turn on the Sunni, American troops will still be needed to cope with the potential slaughter of Sunni Arabs.

 


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