The New Sunni Jihad: 'A Time for Politics'

Abu Theeb, a guerrilla leader, canvassed Sunnis for votes against Iraq's charter, a shift from violent rejection of the political process.
Abu Theeb, a guerrilla leader, canvassed Sunnis for votes against Iraq's charter, a shift from violent rejection of the political process. (By Ghaith Abdul-ahad For The Washington Post)
By Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 27, 2005

NORTH OF BAGHDAD -- For weeks before Iraq's constitutional referendum this month, Iraqi guerrilla Abu Theeb traveled the countryside just north of Baghdad, stopping at as many Sunni Arab houses and villages as he could. Each time, his message to the farmers and tradesmen he met was the same: Members of the disgruntled Sunni minority should register to vote -- and vote against the constitution.

"It is a new jihad," said Abu Theeb, a nom de guerre that means "Father of the Wolf," addressing a young nephew one night before the vote. "There is a time for fighting, and a time for politics."

For Abu Theeb and many other Iraqi insurgents, this canvassing marked a fundamental shift in strategy, and one that would separate them from foreign-born fighters such as Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian who leads the group al Qaeda in Iraq.

Two years of boycotting the process had only marginalized Sunnis while Iraqi's Shiite majority gained power. And Abu Theeb's entry into politics was born partly of necessity; attacks by Shiite militias, operating inside and outside the government security apparatus, were taking an increasing toll on Sunni lives.

So at 6:30 a.m. on the day of the referendum, Oct. 15, Theeb was already at the polling center in his village, which he had scouted out days in advance. Two of his fighters took up positions. Abu Theeb and the rest of the fighters, more relaxed, propped their Kalashnikov rifles against walls or placed them on tables.

"No one will attack," Abu Theeb assured a reporter. "I made sure some wrongdoers are protecting the school," he said, jokingly referring to al Qaeda loyalists. To head off any violence, he had co-opted the group by enlisting two of its supporters as his polling site guards.

This article is based on five days of travel and interviews with Abu Theeb and his associates before and after the referendum. The reporter was allowed such access on the condition that the guerrilla commander's real name and the name of his village would not be disclosed.

It was not possible to confirm directly how many Sunnis share his views on the political process. But Iraqi and U.S. analysts in Baghdad express hope that such a shift in outlook will eventually lead large numbers of radical Sunnis to abandon their weapons permanently and take part in the political process.

For men such as Abu Theeb -- who said he shaved his bushy beard, a sign of an Islamic holy fighter, to pass more easily into and out of Baghdad -- taking part in politics is a step taken only reluctantly.

"Politics for us is like filthy, dead meat," he said, referring to pork, which is eschewed by observant Muslims. "We are not allowed to eat it, but if you are crossing through a desert and your life depends on it, God says it's okay." Even if politics gets him a result he likes, he said, he will continue to wage war against the Americans, because he views them as occupiers.

To Vote, by All Means

Abu Theeb's tribe has a reputation for kidnappings and executions, and election officials declined to make the trip from Baghdad to his village to operate a polling station there. Instead, an elderly local sheik, deputized by Abu Theeb and village leaders as election monitor, settled onto a wooden bench in the classroom polling center.

Men of the village trickled in. Guerrillas soon realized that the women of this deeply conservative Tigris River hamlet were not ready to leave their homes to cast ballots. So each man who came with his identity card received a stack of ballots to take back to his family.

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