Rumsfeld: Iraqi Sunnis 'Made Big Mistake' by Not Voting
By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sep. 30, 2005 Iraq's Sunni Arabs marginalized themselves and fanned fractional discord when they largely boycotted national elections held in January, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told U.S. House of Representatives members at a Sept. 29 hearing here.
"The Sunnis made a big mistake in Iraq; they didn't participate in the election," Rumsfeld told members of the House Armed Services Committee. Sunnis received favored treatment during Saddam Hussein's reign and constitute around 20 percent of Iraq's 25 million people.
More than 8 million Iraqi voters selected 275 of their countrymen on Jan. 30 to form a national assembly, which is crafting Iraq's new constitution, slated for public vote during an Oct. 15 referendum.
The Sunnis now realize they should have participated earlier and more fully in Iraq's new political system, Rumsfeld said. Today Iraq's Sunnis are "participating in the drafting of the constitution and they've been registering in large numbers" to vote during the October referendum, the secretary said.
"And, my information is they intend to vote quite heavily in the election scheduled for Dec. 15," Rumsfeld said. More than 12 million Iraqis have now registered to vote.
Rumsfeld's observations about Sunni participation in Iraq's political system were prompted by a House member's query about possible civil war in Iraq between the country's ethnic and religious factions. Iraq's two other major ethnic groups, the Kurds and the Shiites, constitute about 20 and 60 percent of Iraq's population, respectively. Saddam's Sunni-dominated government had persecuted both these groups.
The insurgency in Iraq "is primarily a Sunni Arab insurgency," said Army Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. Central Command, who accompanied Rumsfeld at the hearing along with some other senior U.S. officers.
Yet, "there are more people in Iraq trying to hold it together as a nation than trying to tear it apart," Abizaid said.
"It's very possible," the general said, for Iraq "to come together in the right way" to ensure peace and prosperity for all of its citizens.
Some Sunni Arabs are said to worry about the loss of their political and economic power under a new Iraqi government that would divide the country into a prosperous north and south populated by Kurds and Shiites, respectively, and a poorer central region populated by Sunnis. Iraq's considerable oil resources are located in its northern and southern regions.
Such an issue demonstrates that "the Sunni Arab community needs to be part of the future of Iraq and participate fully" in the new political system, Abazaid said. If the Sunnis do that, then "they'll hold the country together" and "move forward in a good way," the general said.
Increased peaceful and lawful involvement in Iraq's political affairs by its Sunni citizens would "eventually set the conditions that allow a substantial drawdown of American forces," Abizaid said, "provided the security conditions and security forces of the Iraqi armed forces continue to develop."
The concept that the majority of Iraq's Sunni Arabs would reject their country's new political system "is a dynamic that's unhealthy" for Iraq, Rumsfeld said.
"There needs to be a way to have a compact evolve over the coming period so that all elements in that country recognize that they have a stake in it and feel they have a future in it," he said.