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 dead groups of Sunni civilians 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 American diplomat said. Sunni politicians have made their viewpoints known to the Americans through informal discussions in recent weeks.
In Adhamiya, a neighborhood in north Baghdad, 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 supporters of Mr. Hussein. "They are here to help you."
It's only natural that as time has gone on and sectarian attacks between Shiites and Sunnis have increased, the Sunnis would begin to look to our forces for protection. We Americans have gotten used to thinking of the problems in Iraq being entirely related to the insurgency and foreign terrorists like al-Zarqawi, but the last six months have shown us that amazingly, for all it's violence, the insurgency is quickly taking second place as the most serious problem in Iraq. As Shiites outnumber Sunnis considerably in Iraq, the Sunnis have begun to fear that if all-out civil war erupts, it will be a contest that they are doomed to lose. Of course, as the Sunnis begin asking us to stay, the government and the Shiite militias begin wishing for us to leave. Muqtada al-Sadr has openly called for American forces to depart, and his Mahdi army is once again engaging in sporadic firefights with our troops. But even the leadership of the Iraqi national goverment, spurred on by recent atrocity stories, is beginning to call for the eventual withdrawal of our troops (time, phased, immediate or otherwise.)
Whatever your personal thoughts may be on withdrawal from Iraq, the fact of the matter is that if we cannot bring the Shiite militias under control before we begin the process, they will continue to dominate the security forces and the Iraqi army, and those forces will in turn continue to give the Shiite militias free reign to do as they please against the Sunnis. The Sunni insurgency will not abate, but will act with more violence to defend themselves. And the hope of a unified, stable Iraq, will be completely dead.