Many Sunnis now say they need U.S. protectionBAGHDAD As sectarian violence soars in Iraq, many Sunni Arab political and religious leaders once staunchly opposed to the U.S. presence here are now saying they need American troops to protect them from the rampages of Shiite militias and Shiite-run government forces.
The pleas from the Sunni Arab leaders have been growing in intensity since an eruption of sectarian bloodletting in February, but they have reached a new pitch in recent days as Shiite militiamen have brazenly shot Sunni civilians to death in broad daylight in Baghdad and other mixed areas of central Iraq.
The Sunnis also view the Americans as a "bulwark against Iranian actions here," a senior U.S. diplomat said. Sunni politicians have made their viewpoints known to the Americans through informal discussions in recent weeks.
The Sunni Arab leaders said they have no newfound love for the Americans. Many said they still sympathize with the insurgency and despise the Bush administration and the fact that the invasion has bolstered the power of Iran, which backs the ruling Shiite parties.
But the Sunni leaders have dropped demands for a quick withdrawal of American troops. Many now ask for little more than a timetable. A few Sunni leaders even said they want more American soldiers on the ground to help contain the widening chaos.
The new stance is one of the most significant shifts in attitude since the war began. It could influence White House plans for a drawdown of the 134,000 troops here and help the Americans expand dialogue with elements of the insurgency. But the budding reconciliation is already stirring a backlash among the Shiites, who make up about 60 percent of the population but were brutally ruled for decades by the Sunni minority.
In Adhamiya, a northern Baghdad neighborhood, Sunni insurgents once fought street-to-street with American troops. Now, mortars fired by Shiite militias rain down several times a week, and armed watch groups have set up barricades to stop drive-by attacks by black-clad Shiite fighters. So when an American convoy rolled in recently, a remarkable message rang out from the loudspeakers of the Abu Hanifa Mosque, where Saddam Hussein made his last public appearance before the fall of Baghdad in 2003.
"The American Army is coming with the Iraqi Army - do not shoot," the voice said, echoing through streets still filled with Saddam supporters. "They are here to help you." Abdul Wahab al- Adhami, an imam at the mosque, said later in an interview: "Look at what the militias are doing even while we have the American forces here. Imagine what would happen if they left."
Even in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, where insurgents are carrying out a vicious guerrilla war against foreign troops, a handful of leaders are turning to the Americans, asking commanders to rein in Iraqi paramilitary units. Sheiks in Falluja often complain to American officers there of harassment, raids or indiscriminate shooting by Iraqi forces.
A year ago, the party of Tariq al- Hashemi, a hard-line Sunni Arab who is one of Iraq's two vice presidents, was calling for the immediate withdrawal of foreign troops.
"The situation is different now," Hashemi said. "I don't want the Americans to say bye-bye. Tomorrow, if they were to leave the country, there would be a security vacuum, and that would lead inevitably to civil war."
The U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been at the forefront of American efforts to bring Sunni Arabs into the political process. Part of that strategy is to crack down on Shiite militias and push for amnesty for some guerrillas.
This month the American military has stepped up operations against the Mahdi Army, a volatile Shiite militia, and the top American commander, General George Casey Jr., said Wednesday that the Americans would hunt down "death squads" that are a driving force behind the rising bloodshed. Some Shiite leaders deride the American policy toward Sunnis as appeasement. "This strategy will destroy their goal of establishing democracy in Iraq," said Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite legislator. "Compromising with the insurgency will encourage the insurgents to do more and more violence in the region."
Investigations into possible wrongdoing by American troops in two major cases - the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha last November, and the rape and murder of a 14-year-old girl and the killing of her family in Mahmudiya in March - have ignited anger among Sunnis, but not nearly to the degree as they might have in 2004, when the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal emerged. But back then, Iraq had not crept to the brink of full-scale civil war.
Of much greater concern now is the massacre of up to 50 Sunni civilians in Baghdad's Jihad neighborhood on the morning of July 9, when Shiite militiamen dragged people from cars and homes and shot them in the head. Some families fled the area for makeshift tent camps in the backyards of mosques.
"The problem is that American crimes are only a hundredth of the crimes committed by the militias," said Omar al-Jubouri, the human rights officer for the Iraqi Islamic Party, a powerful Sunni group that still considers itself the vanguard of political resistance to the Americans. "It's like one hair compared to all the other hairs on a camel." He added: "We want to tell the American people to increase the presence of the Americans here, to control the situation."
Sunni Arab leaders in the strife-ridden neighborhood of Dawra recently secured an explicit agreement with Shiite-led commando forces based there that said the Iraqi forces would not raid a Sunni mosque or private home without being accompanied by American forces. A new brigade of Iraqi forces has just moved in, and the Sunnis are likely to reach the same agreement with them.
A similar but more informal agreement exists in Adhamiya. Leaders of the Sunni Endowment, an Iraqi organization that helps administer Sunni mosques, say they have asked the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to extend the Dawra agreement to all of Baghdad.
"If the Iraqi forces come without American soldiers, people will shoot at them, because we'll know they're militias," said Akrim al-Dulaimi, the head imam of the Holy Mecca Mosque in Dawra. "Civilians don't trust the government." The Sunni fear of militias and government forces - and a growing affinity for American soldiers - extends to other mixed areas of Iraq.
In Diyala Province, Sunni fighters and members of the Mahdi Army battle regularly. The town of Muqdadiya there is an epicenter of sectarian killings; on Wednesday, at least 20 people were abducted from a bus station and later found killed.
In late June, gunmen set afire 17 shops in the town center as the Iraqi Army stood by, said Hamdi Hassoun, a provincial council member and a Sunni Arab.
"We have called on the Americans for help, we have called on the prime minister's office," he said. "The infiltration of the police and army is common."
Khalid al-Ansary and Ali Adeeb contributed reporting for this article.