The Sunni Civil War

The men who shot up Faisal Mohammed Ali's village couldn't have been more conspicuous. "They were all wearing their orange vests," says the 54-year-old teacher, referring to the?uniforms of locals enlisted in the fight against Al Qaeda. The U.S.-sponsored fighters have excelled at pursuing terrorists in Arab Jabour, a notoriously violent area south of Baghdad. But Ali and others say that after a roadside bomb killed two of their comrades in October, the gunmen killed five men from a rival clan in cold blood and torched several houses. The Americans say the victims died in a fire fight, but acknowledge the militia has sometimes gone after rival tribes. That's a familiar scenario in Iraq. In this case, though,all sides are Sunni.

Reconciliation in Iraq is most often portrayed as a matter of bringing Shiites and Sunnis together. But there are deep divisions within the Sunni community as well—between the new tribal levies and old politicians, Baathists and anti-Baathists, fundamentalist mosque-goers and secular whisky drinkers. Shiite leaders warn they can't be expected to find common ground with Sunnis who cannot find it among themselves. "We have been asking them to unify their front and be a full-fledged partner in the process of dialogue and reconciliation, but we cannot get a true partner," says Saad Yousif al-Muttalibi, an adviser to the Shiite leadership.

Ironically, success is fueling some of the internal squabbles. The militias in America's Concerned Local Citizens program now include more than 65,000 orange-vested fighters, many of them former insurgents. They rightly claim credit for quelling violence across Iraq, and want their voices heard. "They say, 'Hey, we've stopped fighting. We've come halfway'," says Col. Martin Stanton, a coordinator of the groups for the U.S. military. " 'We want into the … government'." But there are already Sunnis on the inside, such as the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is led by exiles who opposed Saddam's regime and joined the U.S.-crafted political system early. They're used to speaking for Iraq's Sunnis, and control the local governments (and more important, their budgets) in Sunni-dominated areas like Anbar province.

The stresses between the old guard and new are sharpest in Anbar, the Sunni heartland.

During the summer the Anbar provincial council was expanded to give the former insurgents about one fifth of the seats. That has only given the two sides a new forum in which to argue. Last month, at a conference to discuss how to spend public-works money in Anbar, the Sunni tribesmen angrily accused their rivals of monopolizing projects and pulled out of the council. "We are demanding our own share," says Ahmed Abu Risha, the tribes' most prominent leader. He threatens a wave of street demonstrations to force the creation of a new council.

In Baghdad's Ameriyah neighborhood, another Sunni stronghold, the Islamic Party just repainted and reopened its local office, which had been blown up by Al Qaeda. It's festooned with banners and flags but forlorn inside, where party officials have signed up only 65 members in the neighborhood of 25,000 residents. "We are part of the political process and we have always been dealing with the Americans," says party activist Moqdad al-Ani. "But others see us as traitors." Ameriyah now belongs to militia leader Abu Abed and his American-backed gunmen. When NEWSWEEK visited Abu Abed last week, he was surrounded by swaggering guards decked out with the black gloves, shades and kneepads worn by foreign security contractors. He mocked the Islamic Party for "running away" from Al Qaeda, and accuses it of trying to take credit for his men's success on the battlefield. Like many Iraqis, he wants nothing to do with the current crop of political parties. "It's too early to say" who should represent Sunnis in the government, he says.

At least the tribals and the politicians are arguing over political representation, rather than shooting at each other like the Sunnis of Arab Jabour. But that could change if there's no political progress. Sunni politicians are wary of compromising on matters like the release of Sunni prisoners and amnesty for former Baathists, lest they be painted as sellouts by their Sunni rivals. Shiite leaders aren't above playing one Sunni camp off another; last week Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tried to appoint an Anbar tribal loyalist to a cabinet seat that had been slated for someone from the mainstream Sunni parties. "Everybody is betting on violence to sort everything out. That psychology has to be changed," says Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. The last thing Iraq needs is another civil war.

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