(CNN) - By now, everyone knows about the long-standing tensions between Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis. Saddam Hussein and his fellow Sunnis ruled over the Shiites with an iron grip even though the Shiites represent about 60 percent of Iraq’s population. The Sunnis compose only 20 percent of the population, while the Kurds, who are clustered largely in the northern part of the country, represent the remaining 20 percent or so.
With the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Shiites have come to dominate Iraq, including the government. To a certain degree, there has been plenty of payback.
Many Sunnis resisted that domination. Some went into exile. Others were in the forefront in the insurgency against the U.S. military and the Iraqi government.
That was especially true in the al-Anbar province which became a hotbed of violence. The Iraqi Sunni insurgents killed a lot of Americans.
But that began to change about a year ago when the U.S. counter-insurgency strategy was implemented by General David Petraeus. Part of the strategy was to put the al-Anbar Sunnis on the U.S. government’s payroll. That worked. More than 90,000 so-called “Sons of Iraq” began to cooperate with the U.S. military.
All of which is good background in understanding this exchange on Wednesday between Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and General Petraeus - an exchange that mentioned something I had said in The Situation Room on Tuesday.
Congressman Smith referred to this comment I had made: “A lot of people fear that as quickly as these guys switched from being enemies, insurgents, terrorists killing Americans, killing Iraqi troops, and now being on the payroll, in effect, of the U.S. government, they could flip right back very quickly if they weren’t on the payroll of the U.S. government.”
That was what I noted. A lot of experts do believe that. Smith, however, suggested that the change of heart by the Sons of Iraq was more the result of enlightened self-interest, and Petraeus agreed. “And we have reminded these newly enlightened Sunni Arabs of what they received from Al Qaeda, which was indiscriminate violence and extremist ideology that on reflection they realized,” the general said. “They’d wondered why they’d ever let these folks into their communities.”
We can only hope that Smith and Petraeus are right. Still, there’s no shortage of Iraqi experts who continue to fear that as quickly as those Sunni Iraqis began to cooperate with the U.S., they could just as quickly turn against the U.S.