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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 March, 2004, 10:28 GMT
Fighting for hearts of Iraq Sunnis

Barbara Plett
BBC correspondent in Baghdad

An anti-American demonstration
Many Sunnis feel a sense of resentment and humiliation under the new order
The American general plunges into the crowd, pressing the flesh of the men who fill the hall.

They have turned out in their thousands at this police academy in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul. They are former Baathists ready to denounce the old order and pledge fealty to the new.

Many are also Sunni Muslims, reflecting their privileged position under Saddam Hussein. They have been forced to surrender that under their new American rulers.

Brigadier General Frank Helmick addresses the throng.

"All of you have gathered voluntarily, and your only benefit from these actions will be the sense of personal closure that comes from disavowing links to the former regime and supporting those who want to build the new Iraq."

In unison the men stand to their feet, raise their right hands and cement his statement with an oath.

I was running a very good school, and I think those who kicked me out found it difficult to have someone in charge who belonged to a different sect
Former headteacher

The Americans believe this is the way to give Iraq a new start. It is part of the de-Baathification policy that dissolved the army, costing 400,000 Iraqis their jobs.

Thousands were also purged from professions like teaching, many of them Sunnis. The decision has caused resentment and a sense of humiliation.

Tough times

"I haven't received my salary because I was a Baath Party member," says one man after the oath ceremony. "Life is difficult, I have a family and children. I came hoping they would give us salaries. So far I got nothing."

In a small flat in Baghdad a former headmistress also remembers better times. Once her work was praised. Now she is afraid to show her face.

Sunnis should not be approached as Sunnis, they should be approached as Arabs and citizens of Iraq.
Analyst Wamid Nathmi

She says she had to join the Baath party to keep her job. She lost it after the old regime fell and the education ministry was taken over by Shiite religious parties.

"I think the main reason I was fired is because I am Sunni," she says.

"I was running a very good school, and I think those who kicked me out found it difficult to have someone in charge who belonged to a different sect. I don't know how many other Sunnis have lost their jobs, but two of my friends did."

Sectarian struggle

It is a sense of persecution widely held by Sunnis. They believe that de-Baathification is not just about punishing the guilty. They say it is also about power in the new Iraq, a struggle expressed in increasingly sectarian terms.

Some have turned to fighting the occupiers. Sunni areas have been the stronghold of the Iraqi resistance.

At first US forces responded with mass arrests. It was a strategy that only further alienated the Sunni community, an error the Americans seem to have recognized.

A wrecked Sunni mosque
Sunni Muslims have seen their mosques destroyed by attacks

"Now I think they have started to understand that was a mistaken policy, so they are having rapprochement with Sunni society," says Iraqi analyst Wamid Nathmi.

"But I think they are doing it also in a wrong way, because the Sunnis should not be approached as Sunnis, they should be approached as Arabs and citizens of Iraq.

"This is a short sighted policy which might calm certain sections of the Sunni population, but it would not put an end to the attempt to divide the country into ethnic and sectarian groups."

Political solutions

Others are turning to sheikhs to solve their political problems.

In January, Sunni clerics set up a religious council. It is an attempt to communicate with an occupation they feel has spurned them.

"We wanted a gathering that has executive power and political representation which will help preserve the rights of the Sunni people," says council member Sheikh Sabah Nur al Qaisi. "We needed to unite all Sunnis in the country and avoid problems and conflicts that may emerge."

Secular Iraqis say the American policies of de-Baathification and repression have done much to encourage this sectarian identity.

And they warn that as long as Sunnis feel excluded, they will continue to resist in the name of the nation or the mosque, mostly likely a violent fusion of both.


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