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The murder of Juma’a, the headmaster of a primary school in the Ghaziliyah district of west Baghdad, explains why many Sunnis are increasingly hostile to al- Qa’ida in Iraq. At the same time, the Sunni community as a whole continues to support armed resistance to the US-led occupation.
Juma’a, a teacher in his forties with three daughters and one son, was told by members of al-Qa’ida in his Sunni neighbourhood to close his school. Other headmasters got the same message but also refused to comply. The demand from al-Qa’ida seems to have come because it sees schools as being under the control of the government.
Juma’a knew the danger he was running. A few months earlier, he was detained by another Sunni insurgent group as he queued for gasoline. The insurgents suspected he was carrying fake identity papers and was really a Shia. They held him for three days until he proved to them he was a Sunni.
Two weeks later, Juma’a was kidnapped again. This time there was no release. Other headmasters were kidnapped at the same time and their bodies found soon after. His family wanted to look in the Baghdad morgue, the Bab al-Modam, but faced a problem. The morgue is deemed by Sunni to be under the control of Shia militiaman who may kill or arrest Sunni looking for murdered relatives.
Finally, Juma’a’s sister-in-law, Wafa, and niece went to the morgue on the grounds that women are less likely to be attacked. They passed through a room filled with headless bodies and severed limbs and looked at photographs of the faces of the dead. In 15 minutes, they identified Juma’a, but they were not strong enough to transport his body home in a cheap wooden coffin.
The revolt in Iraq against the occupation has been confined hitherto to the five- million-strong Sunni community. The growing unpopularity of al-Qa’ida in Iraq among the Sunni is partly a revulsion against its massacres of Shia by suicide bombers that lead to tit-for-tat killings of Sunni.
It is also because al-Qa’ida kills Sunni who have only limited connections with the government. Those killed include minor officials in the agriculture ministry, barbers who give un-Islamic haircuts and garbage collectors. The murder of the latter is because it is convenient for al-Qa’ida to leave large heaps of rubbish uncollected on roadsides in which to hide mines.
The most visible sign of the revolt against al-Qa’ida in Iraq is along the roads passing through the deserts of Anbar province to the west of Baghdad to Jordan and Syria. In recent weeks, the road to Syria has been controlled by members of the Abu Risha tribe, led by Mahmoud Abu Risha and supported by the US.
It may be al-Qa’ida has overplayed its hand. In January, its leaders announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) based in western Iraq. That united resistance groups sympathetic to al-Qa’ida. The ISI began to purge resistance activists disagreeing with its line. Sunni families were forced to make contributions and send some of their young men to fight alongside the ISI.
The Iraqi insurgency is notoriously fragmented and its politics are shadowy. By one account, the ISI got chased out of Mosul in the north soon after being formed and took refuge in the Himrin mountains south of Kirkuk. Though shaken, it remains effective under the leadership of Omar al-Baghdadi, a former army officer.
The ISI, as with other resistance groups, owes its military effectiveness in large part to well-trained officers from the Iraqi army and, in particular, the Republican Guards.
Windows at the US embassy in Baghdad were rattled by an explosion yesterday during a visit by Dick Cheney. The US Vice-President had arrived unannounced to see Iraqi political leaders. Washington may be getting worried that the so-called “surge”, the 30,000 US reinforcements being sent to Iraq, are not producing the dramatic results hoped for by President George Bush.
Meanwhile, a suicide bomber in a truck packed with explosives killed at least 19 people and wounded 80 in the Kurdish capital of Arbil. It was one of the first bombs in Kurdistan for over a year and blew up outside the Kurdish Interior Ministry, leaving an enormous crater.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.