Why Sunni are key in sectarian warfare

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The Sunni Arabs of Iraq feel they are fighting for their very existence. Some 5 million strong, they see themselves as fighting against a foreign occupation and impending Shia and Kurdish domination.

The past three years have brought nothing but disasters. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown many Sunni reviled him as a disastrous ruler. They scarcely fought for him during the US and British invasion, despite dominating the officer corps and security services. But as foreign occupation was established and the army dissolved, they launched a guerrilla war.

The Sunni insurgency proved highly effective. They could not drive the Americans out, but neither could the US stabilise its rule. This still remains true.

"The Kurds were able to destabilise Iraq for 50 years," said the Iraqi commentator Ghassan Attiyah. "The Sunni can certainly do the same."

But the insurgency was of a peculiar type. All its organisations were against the occupation. Many were to a greater or lesser degree nationalist. But they were also Islamic and Salafi - Islamic Sunni fundamentalists - seeking to re-establish the pure faith by war against unbelievers and heretics. The latter include the Iraqi Shia, 60 per cent of the population.

From August 2003, suicide bombers attacked the Shia, killing several thousand as they queued outside army and police recruiting offices, or simply waited for work in the street. But sectarian war only really got underway in 2005.

There were two elections, on 30 January and 15 December, and a new constitution. The elections, the first boycotted by the Sunni, established the Shia and the Kurds as the new powers in Iraq. The constitution formalised the break up of the country into large regions.

The Sunni community in Baghdad became terrified. Death squads run by the Interior Ministry picked Sunni up on the street, and several days later their badly tortured bodies would be found on garbage dumps. There were tit-for-tat killings. But the blowing up of the Samarra shrine on 22 February this year led to the outbreak of wholesale sectarian warfare.

The real battle will be in the capital, where the Sunni are a minority - but a large one. Districts like al-Dohra in south Baghdad are becoming Sunni strongholds as the Shia flee.

There will be Sunni ministers in the government which is expected to be announced today in Baghdad. The US is eager to conciliate them if only because it fears a take-over of Iraq by Shia religious parties possibly sympathetic to Iran.

But there is no reason to think that Sunni political leaders speak for the insurgents. And in any case, the elections confirmed that the Sunni are only 20 per cent of the population. Therefore, their political strength depends on their ability to go on fighting.