Sunnis Change Course

Ahmed Duraid is ready for a new era. Like almost all of his neighbors in Adhamiya, a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency along the Tigris River in central Baghdad, the 35-year-old clothes vendor boycotted Iraq's National Assembly elections last January on the advice of Sunni fighters and influential political groups such as the Association of Muslim Scholars. But the consequences for Adhamiya were severe: shadowy religious militias with ties to the Shiite-dominated government began arresting, kidnapping and sometimes murdering young Sunni men in the neighborhood; Duraid felt unprotected, even abandoned, by the country's new leaders. "We didn't participate, and the others took power alone, and this is the result," Duraid told NEWSWEEK.

Saddam Hussein once ruled Iraq with brutal predictability. In the political realm, nobody had to think, or to choose, or to compete. You did what you were told, and when elections came around, you voted for Saddam. But today, as the ex-dictator stands trial for atrocities, even some Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers are beginning to acknowledge the power of the ballot box. Duraid and his fellow residents say they've learned from their mistake: they plan to participate in the Dec. 15 vote for a new National Assembly.

This new determination has transformed the atmosphere of places like Adhamiya. Posters for the Iraqi Consensus Front--a slate consisting of the three main Sunni parties--have sprouted on walls and lampposts. Candidates are drumming up votes in mosques and meeting halls. On one street corner last week, a mute 10-year-old boy enthusiastically passed out cards adorned with photos of Salih al-Mutlaq, a popular Sunni politician. "Iraq now is at a crossroads," reads a political leaflet distributed in Sunni neighborhoods, urging people to vote next week. "Either unity, dignity and security... or division and bloodshed."

Everyone in Iraq has a sense of urgency. U.S. diplomats, convinced that the insurgency can't be defeated by military means alone, see the elections as a vital chance to find a political solution to Iraq's seemingly intractable problems. Growing numbers of Sunnis, meanwhile, realize that pursuing a guerrilla war against the Americans and shunning the political process won't end their marginalization. For many Iraqis, the trial of Saddam is also a reminder of the pitfalls of a one-party state. (In days of emotionally charged testimony, victims of Saddam's regime told stories of torture, rape and murder.) Even some insurgent groups are encouraging people to vote. "We will participate, and we have called on all of our battalions in Anbar province and [the rest of] Iraq to take part," says Abu Baraa, 35, a fighter for the Islamic Army in Fallujah.

Nobody is saying that a heavy Sunni turnout will end the violence: radical Islamic militants loyal to Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi have vowed to continue their terror campaign until they establish an Islamic state in Iraq. But the Bush administration, which has seen one "turning point" after another lead nowhere, believes this one could be different. "If you have a government that comes out of participation by all communities," U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told NEWSWEEK, "then resistance against it is illegitimate."

Sunni candidates know that they're playing a dangerous game. On one side, radical Shiite militias aren't keen to see figures with ties to the Sunni insurgency acquire political power. On the other side, Zarqawi routinely targets moderate Sunni leaders for assassination. Half a dozen Sunni politicians have been killed in the past six months, most of them prominent moderates. Two weeks ago Ayad al-Izi, a well-respected cleric and National Assembly candidate from the Iraqi Islamic Party, was gunned down minutes after giving a conciliatory speech to high-ranking members of a Sunni tribe. "He created a wave of acceptance around the political process, and that scared some people," says Alaa Makee, a senior member of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

Despite the threat of violence, most observers believe that the Sunnis will achieve large gains in the elections. The Shiites will likely remain the dominant political force. But with the Sunnis holding a large number of seats, religious Shiite parties will find it difficult to implement at a national level the sorts of measures--banning alcohol, creating ad hoc Islamic courts--that have become increasingly common in southern Iraq, where those parties dominate.

Could Sunni power in Parliament help weaken the insurgency? The resistance has fed on many grievances--a lack of jobs, poor salaries, little development--that a new Sunni political bloc could help address. "They'll get more ministries, more patronage, more money," says one U.S. military intelligence analyst in Baghdad. "They'll become a part of the kleptocracy, just like the other guys." The government might also become more responsive to the insurgents' key demands, including a U.S. troop pullout from the cities. "Give these insurgents the rights to be in the security services, the police in their areas, so that they can secure their families, then [the violence] will settle down," Mohammed Shahwani, director of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, the powerful Sunni-dominated security agency, told NEWSWEEK.

Yet many insurgents say that they support a two-track strategy: keep up the attacks on U.S. troops to hasten their withdrawal while pushing for political power. Thousands of disaffected young Sunni men have been drawn by the glory--and the money--of the insurgent life and may not come back into the fold any time soon. They may even pursue new opportunities to infiltrate government agencies, either as spies or as saboteurs. Zarqawi's legions of suicide bombers, meanwhile, have no desire to compromise. And if the elections fail to produce substantial changes, Sunni frustration could explode. "Everything has to change," says Makee, of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "If the religious Shiites win [the prime minister's post], chaos will occur." And the next chance to resolve that at the ballot box will be four years away.