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Iraqi Sunni Leaders Aim to Build on Shia Peace Gains - 2004-09-03


It has been a week since a peace deal was struck in the Iraqi city of Najaf, bringing an end to three weeks of fighting and opening the predominantly Shia city up to millions of dollars in reconstruction aid. Sunni leaders say they are not resentful, but they want a similar deal for the Sunni areas ravaged by fighting. VOA's Patricia Nunan reports.

Three weeks of fighting between radical Shia insurgents on the one side and Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops on the other, left parts of the the holy city of Najaf in ruins.

Iraq's most revered Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani brokered a deal to end the clashes with militants loyal to radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. As part of the deal, millions of dollars in reconstruction aid is to go to Najaf, a predominantly Shia city.

That diplomatic drive and those pledges of support did not go unnoticed by leaders from Iraq's Sunni community, many of whom live in cities that have received little in the way of money for reconstruction.

But Mishaan al-Jubori, a Sunni member of Iraq's interim legislature, the National Council, says the issue is not one of resentment: Sunnis would simply like to see the formula duplicated in Sunni areas affected by fighting.

"The Fallujah people ask why for example, you pay for all the people who have damage in his house or hotel or building in Najaf?" asks Mr. Al_Jubori. "Why the people in Fallujah don't have the same? So we try to push the government to use the same way, to solve the problem by this way, by discuss[ion]."

The government of former President Saddam Hussein was dominated by Sunnis, who make up less than 20-percent of Iraq's total population. The power-balance has evened out in the interim government, with the new legislature, the National Council, almost evenly divided between Shia and Sunni.

Along with Najaf, the interim government has also made some promises of aid to Sadr City, a predominantly Shia part of Baghdad also devastated by continuing clashes. Still, Sunni leaders insist they are not resentful. Amaar Wajeeh is with the predominantly Sunni, Iraq Islamic Party. He says everyone in Iraq is pleased with peace efforts directed at Sadr City.

"If it is true, we will be so happy. We believe that, especially Medinat al-Sadr - Sadr City, if it will be reconstructed, we believe that they will be more calm and more quiet," he said.

Mr. Wajeeh insists that international media pay too much attention to Sunni and Shia schools of Islam and the potential for a religious divide in Iraq.

"We believe that different groups or religious groups live in Iraq, Sunni Muslim and Shia Muslim, but we don't believe to divide them in such division," he noted. "So when our Shia friends as you have said became stronger in the government, we don't think this will bother us."

The U.S. group, the International Republican Institute, has done a number of surveys of groups across Iraq about the current political situation. Political director Sam Patten says Iraq is far too diverse and complicated to break down in the simple black and white question of Sunnis versus Shia.

Two recent surveys done by IRI, reveal that on the whole, Iraq's Sunni community is more dissatisfied than the Shia community with the direction the country is taking. But the IRI's political director Sam Patten says it gets more complicated.

"One thing that we've found working in Iraq is that we've become much more careful about trying to make generalizations," he explained. "That Sunnis will think this on a particular issue and Shia will think this on a particular issue. Certainly there are areas. For instance, whether the country is heading in the right or wrong direction, probably you're going to see Shias having a more optimistic views than Sunnis, but on other questions, you see there is a much more complex at times unity of views, at times a cross over between Sunnis and Shias."

But what unites the Iraqis, analysts say, is the yearning for peace and security.

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