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Tuesday, November 30

U.S. faces daunting `Sunni problem'

By John Yaukey | GNS

WASHINGTON - Pentagon war planners have talked optimistically about starting to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq as soon as this summer, but that can't happen until U.S. and Iraqi forces get a handle on the Sunni problem.The resistance in Iraq is now largely being waged by tenacious Sunni guerrillas using insurgency tactics hauntingly reminiscent of the strategies the Algerians used in their campaign to drive out the French half a century ago.

The Sunnis - about 20 percent of Iraq's people - have populated the nation's ruling classes for 80 years and now fear dominance by the long-oppressed majority Shiites as soon as elections are held.

``If (we) can't get the Sunnis on board, and they remain sullen and angry and supportive of the insurgent guerrillas, then you're talking about hostility for years to come,'' said professor Juan Cole, a noted expert on Iraq at the University of Michigan.

Despite the recent fall of Fallujah, the Sunni stronghold west of Baghdad, hit-and-run guerrilla attacks continue. And the insurgents are equipped to fight indefinitely.

Within two weeks, ``A single (U.S.) military unit found 191 weapons caches, and 431 improvised explosive devices (homemade bombs) in one sector of Fallujah alone,'' said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Meanwhile, the critically important elections scheduled for Jan. 30 draw near.

The challenge for U.S. and Iraqi forces now is to get control of the insurgency in time for the elections without killing and alienating so many Sunnis that they feel rebellion is their only option.

Sunnis and elections

The keys to successful elections in January will be minimizing the violence and maximizing participation by Sunnis.

The prospects are neither disastrous nor highly encouraging.

``We're worried that in some areas, again, not all, in some areas it would now be difficult to have elections,'' William Taylor, the coordinator of reconstruction aid in Iraq, recently told reporters by video.

U.S. Marines are sweeping through Sunni-held swaths south of Baghdad, rooting out insurgents in precision raids meant to minimize the kind of damage that left Fallujah in ruins.

The violence in Fallujah has prompted influential Sunni clerics to call for a boycott of the elections.

Because of the Fallujah invasion, Iraq's major Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, has withdrawn from Baghdad's interim government.

On the streets, insurgents have burned hundreds of thousands of voter registration forms, executed Iraqi forces and have threatened to attack Sunni voters.

Ayad Allawi, Iraq's interim prime minister, has said he is determined to keep the voting on schedule, which President Bush supports.

Even if the elections are relatively successful, experts warn not to think of them as anything close to an end of the political process.

The voting in January will produce a 275-member national assembly tasked with writing a constitution that will determine how to hold a second series of elections for a new government in late 2005.

``There's always a sense of euphoria with the first election,'' said Amy Hawthorne, an expert on U.S. policy toward democracy in the Middle East at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. ``What's just as important is what happens afterward.''

Odds of winning

If the Sunnis exclude themselves from the political process, the elections could sow more resistance that U.S. troops likely would have to put down, and that could delay an eventual U.S. pullout.

Iraq would have to contend with legions of disenfranchised, fighting-age Sunni men, many unemployed. Those who refrained from fighting before the voting would have a powerful new incentive to join.

But plenty of moderate Sunnis might be persuaded to join the political process if it appears the U.S.-led counterinsurgency has a chance of winning and there are gains to be had for participating in the new government.

Sheik Ghazi al-Yawer, Iraq's largely figurehead president and Sunni tribal leader, has formed a political party to run in the elections even though he favors postponing them.

Some of the leading Shiites are even trying to persuade Sunnis to join their candidate slates in hopes of widening voter participation.

To encourage more of this and calm Iraq in time for the elections, U.S. war planners are studying other insurgencies, especially France's disastrous handling of the Algerian rebellion from 1954 to1962, for clues on how to win hearts while wearing down holdouts.

One sobering lesson from the past, however, is that well-armed insurgents have rarely ever lost.

The French fought Islamic insurgents for eight years in an attempt to hold on to Algeria. In 1959, it appeared the French army had suppressed the insurgency. But it flared up again, reinforced by insurgent recruits driven to arms by harsh French measures, and France gave up in 1962 and granted Algeria independence.

By then, 15,000 French soldiers had died and Muslim casualties were estimated at between 300,000 and 400,000.