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Iraq: Sunni, Shi'a Parties Have Conflicting Visions Of Future

Iraqi Sunni and Shi'a political organizations have different perceptions about what is going on in the country. They don't share a common vision of Iraq's past or its future and don't even agree on the numbers of Shi'a and Sunni communities in the country.

Baghdad, 3 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Sunni and Shi'a political parties have conflicting visions about the role of their communities in the country's past and in its future. There seems to be little that unites the followers of the two main branches of Islam in Iraq.

The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), established in 1960, is the major Sunni political organization in the country and is represented by Muhsin Abd al-Hamid on the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council. The party was suppressed during the regime of former President Saddam Hussein. Many of its members were forced to flee the country. The party returned to public life after coalition forces occupied Iraq.

The IIP seeks to preserve the leading role Sunnis have had in running the country starting with the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in the beginning of the 20th century.

A member of the Political Committee of the IIP, Fuad al-Rawi, told RFE/RL that Sunni Muslims should continue to play an important role in the future of Iraq.

"The Sunnis ruled Iraq from 1921 until 2003, and they were efficiently ruling it. They have their intellectuals, their religious scholars, their politicians, and they have the elite people," al-Rawi said. "They also have political awareness, and they have the capability to run this country."

He says that, contrary to popular belief, Sunnis are not the minority in Iraq. Al-Rawi did not give any statistics to support his claim but said, "Western media is distorting the real statistics."

Al-Rawi has his own interpretation of the resistance against coalition forces. It is widely believed that Sunni Arabs make up the core of the resistance fighters. Al-Rawi says that is not the case and that Iraqis are resisting the occupation across the entire country, not just in the so-called Sunni Triangle.

"The reports about the attacks in the 'Sunni Triangle' are not accurate. This is a point of view presented by the media," al-Rawi said. "The attacks have happened in Al-Basrah, in Karbala, in Al-Najaf, in Amara, and they happen in every place. They happen in Mosul, and they happen in Dyala."

Al-Rawi says several forces have joined to fight the Americans -- Hussein loyalists, foreign fighters and people whom the U.S. troops wronged in one way or another, such as arresting or killing relatives or destroying property. These people seek revenge, he says.

Al-Rawi says the resistance in Al-Fallujah is a good example of when the Americans themselves triggered the fighting. He says U.S. troops came to the tribal town against the will of the people, who wanted the Americans to be based outside Al-Fallujah. Al-Rawi says the fighting in Al-Fallujah began in April after 24 demonstrators were killed by American troops in separate incidents. The killings likely caused blood revenge, he says.

The violence in Fallujah continues. Yesterday, a U.S. Chinook helicopter was shot down near the town. Sixteen U.S. soldiers were killed and many injured in what was the single bloodiest attack against U.S. forces since the war began in March.

Shi'a Sheikh Abd al-Jabbar Menhal represents Al-Hawza Al-Ilmia, a powerful Shi'a movement in Baghdad. Its elders are regarded as the final authority on religious and political matters for Shi'a worldwide. The organization is based in the holy city of Al-Najaf and is headed by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Menhal has a completely different vision of Iraq's past, present and future. He says the Shi'a are not fighting against coalition forces and that, without a doubt, the resistance is concentrated in Sunni areas.

"Maybe some Sunni groups came to resist the coalition forces in Shi'a areas to give the impression that the Shi'a also resist the coalition forces," Menhal said.

Menhal says Sunni areas around Tikrit, Ramadi, and Al-Fallujah fiercely fight U.S. troops because the majority of high-standing officials of the former regime came from these towns and a lot is at stake for them.

"These people do not defend the interests of Iraqis. They defend their own interests because their future is being buried together with Saddam Hussein," says Menhal. He adds that he is "sure if the Americans offer leading positions for Sunnis in the future government, they would quickly calm down."

He says Hussein was a Sunni from a small village near Tikrit and put Tikritis and people from his own tribe in high positions. Meanwhile, the Shi'a were ruthlessly discriminated against during Hussein's rule. Thousands of Shi'a were tortured and killed when they rebelled against Hussein in 1991, just after the first Gulf War.

Menhal says he totally disagrees with Al-Rawi that Sunnis make up the majority of Iraq's population and that only they are able to rule the country properly.

"This is funny, this is a joke, and it is not true," he says. "Shi'a make up more than 60 percent of the population." He says the Shi'a have everything they need to rule Iraq.

"We also have thinkers, we have philosophers and [ruling the country] is not a matter of Sunni or Shi'a. It's a matter of justice. We believe in justice, and we follow the leader who leads Iraq in a just way and does not waste the fortune of Iraq to kill the millions, as Saddam Hussein [did]," Menhal said.

Menhal says "justice" means representing all communities, giving the Shi'a the role they deserve. He says the Shi'a can rule the country alone and if democratically elected, they will do so effectively.

However, Menhal says that, until now, the Shi'a have not been represented proportionally, even on Iraq's Governing Council. He says Ayatollah Jakubi, a Shi'a leader, suggested 31 October that two Shi'a politicians be added to the Governing Council -- one representing Al-Hawza and the other to represent a radical Shi'a group led by a young cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr.

Menhal says the move would give more stability to Iraq. He says coalition authorities are discussing the proposal.