Iraqi Raid Appears Aimed at Wooing Sunnis

By ROBERT H. REID
The Associated Press
Wednesday, November 16, 2005; 4:29 AM

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The unprecedented U.S. raid on an Iraqi detention facility filled with malnourished torture victims appears aimed in part at scoring points among Sunni Arabs, whose participation in next month's parliamentary election is key to an American exit Iraq.

Sunni Arab politicians have complained for months about arbitrary arrests, torture and assassinations of Sunnis, allegedly at the hands of special commandoes of the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry, who are at the forefront of the battle against the largely Sunni insurgents.

The discovery Sunday night of 173 malnourished prisoners _ some of them bearing evidence of torture _ in an Interior Ministry lockup appeared to vindicate many of the Sunni Arab claims. Most of the prisoners are believed to be Sunnis.

One Sunni politician, Mohsen Abdul-Hamid, said he had personally told Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari about conditions at detention centers, including the one seized by American forces Sunday night. Other Sunni leaders who meet regularly with American officials have been outspoken in complaints about Interior Ministry forces.

But the need to address Sunni Arab grievances has taken on new urgency as the Dec. 15 parliament election draws near and as Congress is demanding a greater role in Iraq policy.

Most Sunni Arabs boycotted the January parliamentary election _ a move that shut them out of power, worsened sectarian tensions and stoked the insurgency. This time, more Sunni Arab politicians have entered the race, and changes in the election law guarantee Sunnis a stronger voice in the next government.

The Bush administration hopes that a broad-based democratic government will in time undermine the insurgency, enabling the United States to begin drawing down its 150,000-strong military force starting next year.

A low Sunni Arab turnout would raise doubts about the minority community's commitment to a political process that U.S. commanders say is the best way to beat the Sunni-dominated insurgency. The legitimacy of Sunni Arabs elected to parliament would be in doubt.

With stakes so high, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan have all visited Iraq within the past week. Each encouraged a big Sunni Arab turnout.

For their words to have meaning, however, moderate Sunni Arab leaders must convince their people that their interests are better served by the ballot than the bullet. That task becomes difficult if rank-and-file Sunnis believe the Americans ignore them in favor of the majority Shiites and Kurds.

It is unclear if such raids alone will win over disaffected Sunni Arabs, and insurgents may argue that the findings justify their attacks on Shiite civilians.

The perception of U.S. favoritism to the Shiites and Kurds, who suffered the most under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime dates, from the beginning of the occupation in 2003.

It was fueled by U.S. decisions to disband the Sunni-led Iraqi army, to endorse Shiite moves to purge the bureaucracy of former Saddam party members and to change the political roadmap to accomodate the views of the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Iraqi army and Interior Ministry troops are mostly Shiites and Kurds, despite recent overtures to Sunni ex-officers to return to the ranks. Since most of the insurgents are Sunnis, U.S. and Iraqi military operations are concentrated in areas where Sunnis live.

Raiding the Interior Ministry is an attempt to redress the balance. U.S. officials appear to be gambling that al-Sistani, who aides say is alarmed by rising sectarian tensions, won't complain about a move to stop torture.

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Robert H. Reid is an AP correspondent-at-large and has frequently reported from Iraq since 2003.

© 2005 The Associated Press