Trouble in the Triangle

December 09, 2003|By Zaki Chehab

LONDON - Shortly after Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, stated there was a 30 percent reduction in the number of Iraqi attacks, statistics for November highlighted the real situation: 109 dead, 81 of them Americans.

General Sanchez's positive spin on the situation failed to note the sophistication of recent attacks carried out by well-trained and organized guerrillas who are carefully selecting their targets - Spanish intelligence officers, Japanese diplomats, Italian soldiers as well as American forces.

The majority of the attacks have been concentrated within the so-called Sunni Triangle, an area extending from Baghdad west and north to Iraq's border with Syria and Jordan. The Sunni Muslims are the second-largest majority in Iraq after the Shiite Arabs, and they represent an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent of Iraq's 25 million people. No census was conducted during Saddam Hussein's reign.

The U.S.-led coalition has ignored the Sunnis. They are underrepresented in the Iraqi Governing Council, which is dominated by Shiites and Kurds. Excluding the Sunni Arabs and leaving them with no hope of playing a future role in Iraq after decades of governing the country has complicated the post-Hussein era. They have resorted to violence and are chiefly responsible for the bloodiest of recent attacks.

Residents of the Sunni heartland believe there is no choice but to harbor, support and offer logistical help to the guerrillas who carry out these operations - a reflection of the loyalty that is inherent in the tribal system operating in Iraq. Sunnis are subjected to frequent searches of their homes by U.S. soldiers, who the Sunnis claim take their jewelry and cash - their life savings in a place where there are no functioning banks.

From the Sunni point of view, how does a male member of Iraqi society simply stand by while a young male soldier bodily searches his female relatives - a wife, a sister or a daughter? This is a cultural taboo.

I spoke with several Sunni elders on a recent trip to the Triangle, and they expressed no objection to a Shiite- or Kurdish-led government so long as it is elected by the people of Iraq and is not imposed on them by outsiders.

The Sunnis charge that the majority membership of the Shiites and Kurds in the Governing Council and their influence is a result of their close cooperation with the Americans during the Hussein era. But if asked, the Shiite Governing Council members would respond by saying that the Sunnis did not form a strong organizational structure because it just wasn't necessary in a Sunni-dominated Hussein regime.

Recent events have tragically illustrated that U.S. and British tactics in dealing with postwar Iraq were flawed. It was only recently - before President Bush's state visit to London - that senior U.S. and British officials reached a consensus that the wave of attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq resulted from the Sunnis being marginalized. So envoys were dispatched beginning two weeks ago to meet with Sunni elders in Tikrit, Fallujah and other cities and towns in the Sunni Triangle.

Over traditional mint tea, the envoys tried to convince these elders that the Sunni role in a future Iraq is guaranteed and that the present arrangement, the interim Governing Council dominated by Shiites and Kurds, is temporary and will not last beyond June.

President Bush acknowledged that he has no immediate exit strategy from Iraq when he said in London: "We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq and pay a bitter cost of casualties and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins."

Security in Iraq is the overwhelming issue that must be tackled and solved. The United States and Britain accept that their military strategy hasn't worked, and they are now turning to the tribal rulers they previously ignored by enticing them with contracts for reconstruction - a "hearts and minds" approach and a 180-degree turn by the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Zaki Chehab is a political editor in London for Al Hayat Lebanese Broadcasting Corp., based in Beirut.

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