November 24, 2004

Figuring out the Sunnis

I really don't know what's going on with all of these Sunni cleric assassinations, but I'm going to hope that we're not behind it. One theory: The killings are being carried out by either foreign insurgents or hardline Baathists trying to foment ethnic violence in Mosul—between Sunnis and Kurds, or more likely, Sunnis and Shiites. It's certainly a quick way to replenish the ranks of the Sunni insurgency with hordes of angry fundamentalists.

On another note, it's time to do a break-down of "the Sunnis," because it will help us understand what's going on in the coming months. Like every other commentator out there, I tend to portray Iraq as comprised of three basic groups—Shia, Kurds, Sunnis. Naturally this is facile. There is no single, unified "Sunni" group. To start with, there are some Sunnis who take a very active part in an insurgency. This movement is presumably led by foreign jihadists, native Salafi fundamentalists, "dead-enders" from Saddam's Mukhabarat, and a legion of disgruntled Baathists. The extra manpower from the insurgency comes largely from tribal groups—especially the Albuaisa and Jumaila tribes in Fallujah (which together comprise over a quarter of the city), but also the Janabi, Kargouli, and Dulaimi tribes in cities like Ramadi, Latifiyah, Tikrit and elsewhere. (I'm throwing out these names to sound smart, by the way.)

Right then. The tribes. Some—not all, but some—of these tribes actually cooperated with the United States in the early days of the war, but we either offended them or killed too many of then, and now they're fairly united in their opposition to us. I should note that the bulk of these tribal Sunnis do not participate in the violence, though many of them are rather sympathetic to the insurgents. As well, a good deal of these Sunnis are bound by "blood feud" codes, which makes razing a city like Fallujah rather problematic. As for hard numbers, I can't really say exactly what percentage of Sunnis are part of these tribal clans—the tribal system was weakened dramatically during Saddam Hussein's regime, especially in the cities, with only a few major exceptions (Fallujah, Latifiyah, Samarra, Tikrit, etc.).

Needless to say, fierce nationalism is a big motivating factor for many Sunnis, tribal or otherwise.

In addition to tribal networks, there are various forms of Islam at work that envelop both tribal Sunnis and other, more urban Sunnis. The degree to which radical Islam holds sway often varies from place to place—the majority of Sunni Arabs follow the Hanafi school (yes, as in Abu Hanifa), which is generally a pretty liberal strain of Islam, as strains of Islam go. Over the past decade, though, more radical Salafi schools have won huge followings, especially among younger Sunnis. Note that Salafism is a 19th century "reformist" school of Islam that has produced a few moderate movements, but generally produces very violent sects (think Protestantism in 17th century Europe).

It's also important to distinguish between the mainstream Sunni religious institutions—including the mosques, charities, and religious schools—and the fundamentalists who are advocating a Taliban-style Islamic state. The latter group is probably doing much of the fighting. But the former, much larger network, may be drawn into the fighting if, say, clerics start getting assassinated and the U.S. or Shiites or Kurds are accused of doing it. Some of the religious institutions are part of the insurgent network. But note that the majority of Sunni fundamentalists preaching at mosques and whatnot are not involved in the violence, although they're almost all opposed to the occupation, and could incite their followers to violence or civil war if need be.

Finally, note that though some Baathists are religious, the party is officially secular. Sunni fundamentalists who want an Islamic state would normally be bitterly opposed to Baathist ideology, though Baathists and religious Sunnis can put aside their differences to fight the U.S. (Also, if you really want to complicate things, there are a good number of Shiite Baathists as well—some of which may be in the insurgency, although this is a small number.)

Okay, so that's the disgruntled set. There are also a large number of secular, more urbane Sunnis who are by and large peaceful and willing to cooperate with the U.S. Interim President Ghazi al-Yawer falls into this category, but so do a good chunk of Sunnis in Baghdad, Mosul, and probably even towns like Fallujah (though less so the further out you get out into the provinces.) Some of these Sunnis have tribal connections (Yawer certainly does), some of them don't. Many of these Sunnis have intermarried with Shiites—the split here becomes less pronounced.

Anyways, I got excited today about rumors (reported by al-Mutamar) that Yawer was forming his own political party. Why? Well, for starters, he's going to bring a number of prominent secular Sunnis together. Many of these Sunnis would just as soon join some of the other secular parties—INC, INA, whatever. But Yawer is a popular figure across the country who could draw a good deal of support from moderate Sunnis and some of the less violent tribes. That could—and this is wildly optimistic—have a "snowball effect" on some of the disgruntled Sunnis elsewhere, maybe even a good portion of fundamentalists.

Of course, so long as groups like the Muslim Association of Scholars are boycotting the election, the majority of Sunnis will likely just sit out. And the truly disgruntled Sunni tribes—especially those in Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, and elsewhere, have very little incentive ever to join a government that will permanently deprive them of power. Meanwhile, "hardcore" insurgents—including foreign groups like Monotheism and Jihad, radicals like Ansar al-Islam, and former Mukhabarat Baathists—are going to do everything they can to prevent Sunnis from believing that they'll get anything from democracy. That's a problem. A big problem. Still, Yawer's move is an encouraging start.
-- Brad Plumer 12:53 AM || ||