Iraq's Sunni insurgent groups gather to plot comeback amid political crisis

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

BAGHDAD -- Seven years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, dozens of Iraqis representing various insurgent groups checked into a five-star hotel in Istanbul this spring to plot a comeback. Days later, members of the outlawed Baath Party held a public meeting in Damascus, Syria, to hail the party's rebirth.

The unusual anniversary gatherings rankled Iraqi and American officials. Although the groups don't have large constituencies in Iraq, officials worry that their appeals could gain traction amid a political crisis in Iraq that has weakened the government and left the Sunni Muslims who were dominant under Hussein feeling newly disenfranchised.

Attendees at the Istanbul meeting included representatives of the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the al-Rashideen Army, which were among the Sunni insurgent groups formed to fight the U.S. occupation. Leaders of the loosely connected groups have tried unsuccessfully to band together in the past. The creation of U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitary squads in 2007 deflated the insurgency, driving some leaders into exile and forcing others to pledge to help the Americans.

As the U.S. military draws down, many Iraqi Sunnis who aligned themselves with the United States say they feel abandoned and vulnerable in a country run by Shiites. Until recently, insurgency leaders had kept a relatively low profile from exile in countries such as Syria and Jordan.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki condemned Turkey and Syria for allowing the gatherings, and in an interview he accused them of helping to destabilize Iraq.

"The only ones benefiting are al-Qaeda and the terrorist organizations," Maliki said. "Thus, our advice to our friends and brothers: Terror does not know borders, religion or ethnicity. They are now attacking Iraq because there are suitable circumstances, and tomorrow they will attack Turkey and others."

Feeling shut out

The groups could find receptive audiences in Iraq if the next government is widely seen as having insufficient Sunni representation. Many Sunnis accuse the Shiite-led Iraqi government of being sectarian, pointing to factors such as the disproportionate number of Sunni detainees and efforts to weed out Sunnis from government jobs.

Sunnis made a strong showing in the March 7 parliamentary elections, propelling the largely secular Iraqiya bloc to a first-place finish. The bloc did not win enough seats to secure the majority needed to form a government, however, making it likelier that an alliance of two Shiite groups will appoint the new prime minister.

"There is no doubt that Sunnis will feel excluded, disenfranchised and marginalized if they are not given a significant share in government," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the International Crisis Group. "After all, it is with this expectation that they agreed to abandon the insurgency during the surge in 2007."

The Sunni insurgency sprang up after the United States disbanded Iraq's armed forces and a large share of its government workforce following the March 2003 invasion. The groups attacked U.S. troops and sought to sabotage their efforts to install a parliamentary system that empowered the majority Shiites.

The indigenous Iraqi insurgent groups were eclipsed in 2006 by the foreign-led organization al-Qaeda in Iraq, which came to control key parts of the capital and large areas in the west and north. Many members of the original insurgency surrendered or joined forces with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Aside from al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliates, the insurgent groups that remain have maintained a relatively low profile of late. In the past, they often were divided by rivalries. "It remains unclear how serious a threat to the security of the state they could pose," Hiltermann said. "The Sunnis' greatest liability is their own internal divisions and lack of popular leadership."

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