Near ABU NAJIM, Iraq - As newly elected government officials speak of a unified Iraq, the country's three dominant ethnic groups struggle to reposition themselves for power and stability in a world without Saddam Hussein. Not surprisingly, Sunni Arabs-the ethnic group most favored under Saddam's regime-have the hardest hill to climb.
The plight of Kurds moving back to reclaim land lost when Mr. Hussein tried to oust them from Iraq has filled this area northeast of Baghdad with Kurdish refugee camps. But since Saddam's ouster, successful land claims by many Kurds also are reshuffling the world of thousands of Arabs who can no longer claim the land Saddam gave them as home.
Often placed in the middle of these disputes are U.S. soldiers. On May 20, troops stationed near here visited a Sunni Arab camp of displaced persons who are begging for the lands taken from them by the returning Kurds. The soldiers who met with these Sunni Arabs said the mud hut village they now must call home, about 10 miles north of Tuz, proves life has turned hard for the minority group. Once they could claim power in Iraq through Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni Arab whose Baathist regime showed favoritism to those belonging to its branch of Islam.
Now Sunni leaders realize that they stand to lose not only their homes in contested areas but also any claim to power in a new Iraq. On May 21 one of the largest gatherings of Sunni sheiks, clerics, and political leaders took place in Baghdad, as the Sunnis clamored to win back lost political ground by forming a new alliance. The Baghdad press reports that the Sunni leaders hope to persuade the now-ruling Shiites and Kurds to open 20 new seats in the National Assembly to Sunnis, rather than the 14 originally allotted them after January elections. The group also hopes to persuade former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who resigned from a key committee post following his faction's poor political showing, to return to the ring. What is significant about the Baghdad gathering is its implicit endorsement of the current government and the constitutional drafting process now underway. Many leading Sunnis, including the Association of Muslim Scholars, endorsed the gathering after once urging Sunnis to boycott the elections.
But political rapprochement may not swiftly help the displaced. Mahmod Khalaf Muamed, the tribal leader over about 700 Sunni Arabs forced to move two years ago, said his people used to live in a village whose remains are still visible across the desert horizon from the scrap heap of sun-dried sand they now call home.
When the Kurds, no longer fearful of Saddam or his army, reemerged in 2003 and drove the Sunni Arabs off the land, they destroyed the Arab homes, according to Mr. Muamed. The Kurds then set about reviving the town they themselves lost to the Sunni Arabs years ago.
"This is de-Arabization," said Sgt. 1st Class Bobby Mullins as he looked over the array of about two dozen mud and straw huts.
As horrid as life is today, Mr. Muamed said it was worse when the homeless Arabs first lost their village. He said the evicted Arabs separated by families and lived in tents until their current homes could be built. Today almost 10 people per hut live with no electricity and collect greenish water from a nearby stagnant irrigation ditch.
The future rule of the minority Sunni Arab population in the new government is a topic of much debate in Iraq's bigger cities as well as among members of the U.S. military stationed here. But Mr. Muamed said his tribe of Sunni Arabs just wants to enjoy life's basic necessities such as clean water and reliable electricity. While admitting life was better for his tribe under Saddam, Mr. Muamed said he is thankful that U.S.-led coalition forces allowed them to live on this new land. "It is harder because of the Kurdish people not because of coalition forces," he said through a translator.
U.S. forces should give the tribe back its destroyed village area, Mr. Muamed argued. But Lt. Col. Frank McCauley, Second Squadron commander of the 278th Regimental Combat Team, said the Army has orders to remain neutral in such land disputes. He said many of these quarrels are in arbitration through the Iraqi Property Claims Court, which has an office in Tuz.
The cluster of men who gathered around Lt. Col. McCauley during his unit's May 20 visit blamed Saddam's government for originally bringing them and other Sunni tribes here to this northern area as part of his plan to overrun the Kurds. The Arabs told Lt. Col. McCauley they did not want Iraq separated by ethnic groups. "We wouldn't mind living with Kurds and Turkmen," he said, but "the government or coalition forces have to solve this problem for us if they can."
The men here who greeted Lt. Col. McCauley all said they voted in January's election despite reports of low voter participation by Sunni Arabs across Iraq. Now stuck living in poverty far from Baghdad, they want the government's aid. "The new government is good enough for us if it helps give us back our rights," said one Sunni Arab villager.
Here the people do not debate national controversies about how Sunni Arabs claim they are unfairly represented in the new government and how such disenfranchisement among the Sunnis is driving the insurgency. "We don't care about that. We just want to live in peace and that's it," Mr. Muamed said.
Before a convoy of seven U.S. military Humvees, the men condemned the insurgency and its weapon of choice: the roadside bomb. "People say [Sunni Arabs] are anti-American," said Lt. Col. McCauley. "But they sure don't act that way."
The only creatures hostile to the Americans here May 20 were a few barking sheepdogs protecting their flock. Sheep herding is the sole industry in this makeshift village. Residents keep their sheep separate from one another using crude fences and by painting different colors on the back of the animals.
Not taking sides in area land battles does not mean the U.S. soldiers can't help. After meeting with the tribal leaders, soldiers in Lt. Col. McCauley's unit handed out truckloads of food, water, medical supplies, and toys to the villagers. Besides basic charity, U.S. forces hope the charity will drive a wedge between the insurgents and their recruitment base among poor, displaced locals. One boy amassed such a bounty of flip-flops, stuffed animals, bouncing balls, and school supplies he could not pick up the cardboard box a soldier gave him to carry home his new possessions. So the boy stood guard over the box and waited for help from his family. Other children fought over soccer balls, while one U.S. soldier chased the laughing children around with a super-soaker water gun.
Meanwhile the Sunni Arab fathers unloaded six pallets of milk, trail mix, beef jerky, and fruit juices off of a truck-dividing the food and drinks in even stacks for each of the tribe's families. One man kept track using a pad and pencil. Another man used a stick to swat away children who wandered too close to the stacks. Other men carted off the empty wooden pallets for use in their sparse huts.
Women carried buckets to a water buffalo brought by the Americans and bulging with 400 gallons of water. "This is the first group I've ever seen share," said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Webb. "For the rest of them it is just a free-for-all."
Children here have learned enough English to shout two popular phrases to get the attention of the Americans-"Mister! Mister" and "Baby! Baby," the latter of which is an attempt to tell the soldiers there is a baby back in the hut.
In the midst of this pleading, Capt. Don Spradlin, the National Guard unit's surgeon, attended to the village's medical needs. Capt. Spradlin treated Iraqis with arthritis, ear infections, hip displacement, allergies, and typhoid. "I've seen diseases here I've only read about in medical journals," Capt. Spradlin said.
As the convoy left after the soldiers' two-hour visit, the Sunni men waved goodbye to the passing Humvees. The village women walked back to their huts loaded down with boxes of drinks and food.
-Edward Lee Pitts is military affairs correspondent for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, currently embedded with the Tennessee National Guard 278th Regimental Combat Team in Iraq