Talisman Gate

Friday, November 26, 2004

Leave the Sunnis Behind

Copyright 2004 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

November 26, 2004 Friday


LENGTH: 1240 words

HEADLINE: Leave the Sunnis Behind

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


Oh, how the tables have turned, times have changed, and history has repeated itself. These three cliched phrases fit Iraq very well as it approaches the nationwide elections for a Constituent Assembly. The elections are to be held, without delay, during the last week of January 2005.

Around this time some 82 years ago, Shia ayatollahs issued fatwas to the effect that any faithful Muslim would be excommunicated and would thus forgo the rites of proper burial should such a Muslim vote in the elections for the Constituent Assembly of 1923, under the auspices of a British Mandate. In our present day, Sunni clerics are beseeching the faithful to boycott the upcoming elections since they are being held under an effective American mandate, and may lead to the majority Shias taking the cake and eating it too. This time around, Shia ayatollahs are instructing the faithful to participate or else go to hell.

This all started when Iraq was created by highly skilled British bureaucrats schooled in empire. These were seriously top-notch people, nothing like their modern-day counterparts at State and the CIA, and they still got it wrong. One such bureaucrat who stands out among the crowd for her intellect and influence was Gertrude Bell, but she managed to screw everything up because genius is often wedded to behavioral eccentricities. During the year 1905, when Miss Bell was exercising her spinsterly, wealthy, and Victorian exploits through travel and adventure, she came upon a little Lebanese village near Ba'albek. There, her doggie, Kurt (the word for 'wolf' in Turkish, a language Bell had mastered as well as Arabic, Farsi, the usual European ones, and some unusual languages of the Indian subcontinent), was lost but later retrieved. It seems that a Shia peasant has stolen him. Since then, Bell hated the Shias and subsequently handed Iraq over to the minority Sunnis.

That last sentence should have jolted many of her biographers and admirers. But I am adamant that this was the case since I can find no other logical explanation for what she pulled off in Iraq. Incidentally, Bell herself apparently was also at a loss for an explanation for the mess she had created, and that is probably why she decided to take her own life via a lethal dose of barbiturates one hot Baghdad summer in 1926.

Some of her admirers survived as a cult in the State Department who deal specifically with Iraq and fit within the broader faith of the Arabists. They too believe that Iraq should only be ruled by Sunnis. Their argument goes that the Sunnis who ruled Iraq were experienced ex-Ottoman civil servants and officers; much like the ex-Nazis who ran the trains on time. The ex-Baathists are, by this argument, at least theoretically adept at intimidating, interrogating, and incarcerating the trouble-makers in nowadays trouble-ridden Iraq. Or at least more adept than the alternatives, as shown by the failings of the Fallujah Brigade and by the recent police cowardice in Mosul. The Shia underdogs, far removed from power and constituting the majority of the population, were simply not up to standard on such delicate matters as statecraft and oppression.

Many Sunni Arab governments, which are incidentally very friendly to the Arabists in the State Department, also agree with them. Furthermore, they all concur that democracy is a bad idea for Iraq. This is why these upcoming democratic elections in Iraq where the Shia are poised to win and in an overwhelming fashion are nothing short of the Worst That Could Ever Happen in their book.

Oh, the horror, for it gets worse. Everyone assumed that all the major players, namely the exiled parties, would end up on the same electoral list, but nobody thought that the ethnic and sectarian breakdown that held in the past during exiled politics and the current administration would be thoroughly revised. The Shias have formed their own formidable list (Allawi isn't welcome at this point) and they are ready for the bargaining to begin. They want to increase their share of the political pie to a minimum of 60% from the current 53%.The Kurds, sulking now because they usually got a head start back in the good old days in such negotiations by virtue of a unified Kurdish list, must compromise down to a measly 20% or 22% from 30%. That leaves the usual 5% for the Turkomans and Assyrians to wrangle over -the Turkomans usually win. Final tally? All you need to know is that Sunnis are ending up with 13% to 15%. Some Shia extremists even want to give them a paltry 9%. The Sunnis, after enjoying the magical figure of 100% for 82 years, are not happy at all.

So now, the Arabist diplomats and their Arab friends are counseling President Bush to consider a delay in elections until America can guarantee 30% for the Sunnis. Such a delay is what the Sunni-led uprising is all about, and would give them a victory in return for the sacrifice of Fallujah. The token Sunnis who are part of the current government set-up and whose fathers and grandfathers once led the Sunni elite and ran the country Bell had bequeathed to them are not taken seriously in the heartland - the Sunni heartland. Places like Ramadi, Mosul, and Tikrit and its RPG-totting youth look toward the swashbuckling romantics who regale them with tales of a not-so-distant 100% Sunni dictatorship. That is why they are fighting: for the throne, and nothing but the throne.

History is about to turn an important corner in Iraq and it would be disastrous for it to be impeded by an American roadblock. Iraqi politics and pie-slicing are on autopilot. At the end of election day, eight out of 10 Iraqis (six Shia and two Kurds) will walk away from the voting booths feeling as if they have a stake in the future. Two out of ten Iraqis, probably Sunnis, would be busily boycotting the whole election or desperately trying to blow up the ballot stations.

The Arab rulers should likewise be ignored: at this point, Ayatollah Sistani is far more important to American interests in Iraq than Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. And Ayatollah Sistani wants the elections to be held yesterday.

The Sunnis will soon realize that, unlike their grandfathers and fathers, they missed the opportunity to be part of a newly remodeled Iraq. It took the Shias until 1927, a year after Bell died, to realize that they had missed their own opportunity and to try to rectify their situation, but by then the Sunni dictatorship had closed off all avenues to power sharing. In this century, it may take another five years for the Sunnis to get back on board. Only an Iraqi-led democratic process that is not micromanaged out of Langley, Foggy Bottom, or Cairo will leave the door open for them to do just that. Leave the Iraqis to sort this out, and just maybe Iraqi children will quarrel over marbles and soccer rather than sectarian identity.


In last week's column, "The Saudi First Amendment," I argued that America should ask the Saudis to lock up the Wahhabi clerics on Saudi turf, such as Salman Al-Audah, who are issuing fatwas for jihad against Americans in Iraq. Well, last week, Mr. Al-Audah found a note from his son, Ma'adh, telling him that he was off to fight the Americans in Fallujah. Mr. Al-Audah made frantic calls to the Saudi authorities who managed to locate and detain the son near the Iraqi border and return him safe and sound to his father. It would have been a touching father-son moment if not for the hypocrisy and danger it exposed.