Prague, 19 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Some 80 religious and political Sunni Arab leaders gathered in Baghdad in late December 2003 to give their community a unified political voice.
The result is the Sunni State Council, which has already come out in strong opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq and expressing deep concern over the future of the Sunni community.
Sheikh Ayad al-Izzi sits on the Sunni council as a representative of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which in turn is a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. He says the body's main goal is to ensure that Sunnis remain united as Iraq's future is decided.
"The Sunnis are now very concerned about their own future and survival as a community.... Every community is afraid that other communities might get in their way..."
"The original idea [for the creation of the Sunni council] came from the [pan-Arab Sunni movement] the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to create an atmosphere for coordination and consultation between the Sunni Muslims in this country," al-Izzi said.
From the time the Iraqi state was established by the British at the beginning of the 20th century, Sunni Arabs have held the position of the privileged ruling minority. Iraq's kings and the majority of its prime ministers have been Sunni Arabs.
Deposed President Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni, favored fellow Sunni Arabs for membership in his powerful Ba'ath Party. Many of Hussein's former political, military, and security officers hail from the Sunni towns of Tikrit, Al-Fallujah, Al-Ramadi and Baqubah.
But Sunni Arabs have seen their traditional position of power shaken by the U.S.-led occupation and the capture last month of Hussein. Many attacks on U.S. forces have been launched from the so-called "Sunni triangle" north and west of Baghdad, and have been blamed in part on Sunni anger over their sudden loss of privilege.
Many Sunnis believe that they alone are subject to continued U.S. hostilities. "The New York Times" newspaper cites one Sunni council leader, Fakri Abdullah Al-Qaisi, as saying "Sunni mosques have been destroyed, along with [Sunni] houses, and Sunnis have been killed." He added: "Only the Sunnis are oppressed by the American invasion."
The Sunni State Council appears to be gaining force and influence, as the participation of the Iraqi Islamic Party indicates. Al-Izzi says although Sunnis are in the numerical minority in Iraq, they are far more unified than the country's majority Shi'as.
"To believe there is a united Shi'a authority -- the reality shows that this is not the case. This is why there are so many Shi'a political groups and Shi'a religious authorities. I would say that in fact, the Sunnis are more united than the Shi'as," al-Izzi said.
Not everyone agrees. The deputy director of RFE/RL's Iraqi Service, Kamran al-Karadaghi, says the Sunni council was formed in order to create a sense of unity at a time when Sunni Arabs are rapidly losing their voice.
By contrast, says al-Karadaghi, the voices of Iraq's Shi'a and Kurdish communities are far more distinct. The majority Shi'as want fair representation in a future Iraq; the Kurds want to preserve their autonomous status. Until now, however, the Sunni position has been unclear:
"The Sunnis are now very concerned about their own future and survival as a community, and that is something really common between all communities in Iraq. Every community is afraid that other communities might get their way at the expense of the interests of different communities," al-Karadaghi said.
Al-Karadaghi says many observers in Baghdad say the Sunnis fear they will be squeezed out of the political scene by the Shi'as -- who make up some 60 percent of the population -- and the Kurds, who enjoy a certain amount of support from the U.S.-led coalition. Many Sunnis worry that if the Shi'as and the Kurds manage to unite political forces, it will be a devastating blow for the Sunni cause in Iraq.
Some observers have speculated the Sunni council may be acting as a mouthpiece for the armed Iraqi opposition. But Karadaghi casts doubt on the notion, saying the council was formed legally and amid media attention:
"This was an event which happened in Baghdad and it was open and legal and there were journalists there. And really, there was nothing to suggest that this is a voice of the resistance," al-Karadaghi said.
Al-Qaisi, the council member interviewed by "The New York Times," also dismissed any links between the Sunni council and Iraqi guerrillas, saying the council represented the "opposition" and not the "resistance."
Still, the council has not been shy about voicing its anger at Iraq's U.S. occupiers. It has urged coalition authorities to release more than 70 Sunni clerics detained by U.S. troops. And al-Qaisi has warned American troops to stop raiding Sunni mosques "if they want to avoid bad consequences."
Are such hostilities likely to worsen? Al-Karadaghi says the Sunni council's diverse membership make it difficult to predict how the body's attitude may change in the months to come. Council members represent not only mainstream religious movements but also Sufi mystics and the conservative Salafiya branch of Sunni Islam.
(RFE/RL's Iraqi Service contributed to this report.)