Some fear larger uprising among Iraq's Sunni Arabs

Overwhelming anger stems from mistakes by military, analysts say

April 03, 2004|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - As U.S. Marines prepare to return to the Iraqi city of Fallujah, scene of the grisly killings of four American security workers on Wednesday, there is growing fear in both Washington and Baghdad that the insurgency centered in the Sunni Triangle could swell into a general uprising.

Yesterday, clerics in the city condemned the desecration of the bodies as violations of Islamic law - but said nothing of the killings themselves. The Sunni anger is reflected in a new poll that said seven out of 10 Iraqis who live in the region where the four Americans were killed and their bodies mutilated think attacking coalition forces is acceptable behavior. The survey was conducted for ABC News and others by Oxford Research International.

"I think it's getting much worse in the Sunni Triangle," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who recently returned from Iraq. He said he is troubled by what appear to be "spontaneous riots" in Fallujah. "There is, I fear, a growing popular discontent. It's becoming a political struggle now," he said.

The macabre scenes in Fallujah, say lawmakers, analysts and Sunni activists, are rooted in political and military missteps that began more than a year ago.

The United States did not send enough troops to pacify and rebuild the Sunni Triangle, the region north and west of Baghdad, these observers say. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Sunni were purged from the Iraqi Army and the government, even those with few or no ties to fellow Sunni Saddam Hussein.

With no means of support and little reason to accept the American-led coalition, observers say, the Sunni were further humiliated by heavy-handed raids, sweeping arrests and cultural insensitivity at the hands of U.S. troops.

Even more critical, they say, is the gnawing insecurity of Sunni Muslims about their political future in Iraq. Leaders of the Shiite Muslim majority, brutally oppressed for decades by Hussein, are maneuvering to dominate the new government that takes power in less than three months. The Shiites have shown little interest in protecting the minority rights of the Sunni.

"It's a reflection of the animosity of the Sunni community to the occupation," said retired Army Gen. Barry M. McCaffrey, referring to the Fallujah killings. "They hate us for it and they're fighting. I think it's a widespread rebellion about losing control of Iraq."

Hatem Mukhlis, a physician who grew up in Baghdad, practiced medicine in Binghamton, N.Y., and returned to Iraq last year to organize his fellow Sunni, said the Fallujah unrest resulted from aggressive tactics of the American military, a lack of communication between the military and Sunni leaders as well as an overriding fear about being politically marginalized.

"There's the danger of a general uprising," said Mukhlis, in a phone interview yesterday from Baghdad, noting that he had just spoken with friends in Fallujah. "Things are going to escalate unless we start a good communication."

U.S. military officers have long said that the insurgency is composed of remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime along with foreign Muslim fighters. This week, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, told reporters that Hussein loyalists were perhaps involved in the Fallujah atrocities, though he acknowledged it was "disappointing" that city residents took part.

The attacks reflect a "small ... malignant cancer" inside Iraq society, Kimmitt said. "Unless it is dealt with, it does have the chance and does have the possibility of getting larger."

Kimmitt pointed to other cities in the Sunni Triangle where the insurgency was tamped down by repeated raids or cordoning off entire areas.

`It's getting worse'

Despite Kimmitt's claim that other cities in the Sunni Triangle had been calmed, William Arkin, a former Army intelligence officer and defense analyst, said that the region has never been under military control. "We never really defeated the Sunni Triangle," he said. "Now it's coming back to haunt us. I think it's getting worse because it's not getting better."

Part of the problem was the rapid invasion of Iraq that seemed to pause after the fall of Baghdad. The Americans failed to take the fight into the Sunni Triangle - other than Hussein's hometown of Tikrit - and lacked a detailed knowledge of the internal dynamics of the area, Arkin said.

Some military officers also say another reason for continued insurgency was the lack of sufficient American troop strength to stamp out resistance.

But Pentagon officials say the best way to improve security in the country is to train more Iraqis to take over such duties, rather than send in more American soldiers.

There are now more than 200,000 Iraqis who are part of the security forces, from police and soldiers to members of a civil defense corps, Pentagon officials said, although critics say they are ill-trained, riddled with corruption and in some cases cooperating with the insurgents.

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