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Iraq's Sunnis turn toward the ballot

Even Sunni Arabs who have engaged in insurgent violence are actively supporting an electoral process they hope will boost their sect's low representation.

January 31, 2009|Ned Parker

BAQUBAH, IRAQ — Abu Mujahid brags that he bombed a U.S. Army Humvee and wounded two American soldiers just last month. Now he's stumping for Sunni candidates and talking matter-of-factly about the importance of safety as Iraqis head to the polls today.

"This is something like a truce so the elections will be implemented in a secure environment," said Abu Mujahid, an active member of the 1920 Revolution Brigades, an armed Sunni Arab group. "We want to allow people to vote and let them decide without pressure from any groups."

With one foot in the political process and the other firmly rooted in violence, fighters such as Abu Mujahid offer a glimpse of the Sunni community's evolution over the last five years: from waging guerrilla war against Iraq's ascendant Shiite Muslim majority and its U.S. backers, to tentatively embracing electoral politics.

Abu Mujahid's ambivalence illustrates how the decision to buy in to Iraq's fragile democracy is hardly irreversible -- that the gun is still seen as a viable tool for effecting change.

"When U.S. forces leave and these guys feel they have made no headway via elections and U.S. attempts at strong-arming [Shiite political leaders], they may well revert to violence," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group. "For them, it's all about the identity and future of Iraq and their role in it; they will not accept being cut out."

The attitudes vary from province to province, but the general outlook of armed Sunni groups represents a sea change from local and national elections in January 2005, when insurgents threatened their communities with death if they voted. In Baghdad, former insurgents have signed on to slates with established Sunni parties. In places such as Baqubah and Samarra, once synonymous with the Sunni revolt, armed groups have endorsed candidates.

Shiite politicians, alarmed by the participation of Sunni armed groups, worry that militants want to win jobs inside the government so they can destroy the country's new order.

"Unfortunately . . . we find many figures who are suspected of or accused of sectarian killings," parliament member Taha Dira Dahan said. The Shiite lawmaker warned that these candidates stopped killing and displacing Shiite families only when the Iraqi government grew strong. He put the number of suspicious candidates here in Diyala province at 20.

"Today they are participating in the elections in order to reach the positions of power in the province," Dahan said. "This, surely, forms a big threat for the area's security and stability."

Abu Mujahid, who wouldn't give his real name because of his own security fears, wears a denim jacket and khaki pants, and styles his hair with gel into a mini-pompadour. Cleanshaven, he stands outside the office of the group he favors, the National Development and Rehabilitation Party.

Several windows were missing in the building, which had been bombed a few days earlier. The blood of a party member killed in the blast had been mopped up. The villa's walls were papered with posters of a raised fist and beefy, mustachioed men. Nearby buildings were pockmarked with bullets.

On Thursday, three Sunni candidates were killed in Iraq, including one in Diyala from the party Abu Mujahid supports.

"We suffered the last four years in this province. There were sectarian elements who wished to run this governorate," Abu Mujahid said, referring to Shiite factions in the provincial council and police.

Now Abu Mujahid, who will serve as an election monitor today, and his fellow fighters desperately want to change the equation, to correct their fateful decision to boycott the earlier elections that stripped them of their voice.

After that vote, they pressed on with violence, fighting alongside groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq in hopes of toppling the new U.S.-imposed order. In turn, newly empowered Shiite security forces and militias tried to crush the fighters. Sunni militants terrorized the population with car bombs and assassinations, while police and army units often provided cover for Shiite militias.

Baqubah and the rest of the country fell into civil war. Anarchy reigned as tens of thousands were displaced and militants regularly executed civilians who weren't part of their sect.

The bloodshed dropped only after Sunni insurgents turned on the most extreme elements from Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007. Some Sunni fighters teamed up with the American military and joined the U.S.-funded Sons of Iraq paramilitary force. A smaller number, including Abu Mujahid, battled Al Qaeda in Iraq but refused to deal with the U.S. military and, in fact, kept fighting it.

Abu Mujahid, who said he took up a gun when he "discovered the Americans were not liberators but occupiers," says he has carried out more than 200 attacks in the last five years and lost 70 friends in combat.

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