Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State

Middle East Report N°144 14 Aug 2013, crisisgroup

Executive Summary

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The question of Sunni Arab participation in Iraq’s political order that has plagued the transition since its inception is as acute and explosive as ever. Quickly marginalised by an ethno-sectarian apportionment that confined them to minority status in a system dominated by Shiites and Kurds, most community members first shunned the new dispensation then fought it. Having gradually turned from insurgency to tentative political involvement, their wager produced only nominal representation, while reinforcing feelings of injustice and discrimination. Today, with frustration at a boil, unprecedented Sunni-Shiite polarisation in the region and deadly car bombings surging across the country since the start of Ramadan in July, a revived sectarian civil war is a serious risk. To avoid it, the government should negotiate local ceasefires with Sunni officials, find ways to more fairly integrate Sunni Arabs in the political process and cooperate with local actors to build an effective security regime along the Syrian border.

The origins of the crisis run deep. Throughout his seven-year tenure, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has implemented a divide-and-conquer strategy that has neutered any credible Sunni Arab leadership. The authorities also have taken steps that reinforce perceptions of a sectarian agenda. Prominent officials – predominantly Sunni – have been cast aside pursuant to the Justice and Accountability Law on the basis of alleged senior-level affiliation to the former Baath party. Federal security forces have disproportionately deployed in Baghdad’s Sunni neighbourhoods as well as Sunni-populated governorates (Anbar, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala). Al-Iraqiya, the political movement to which Sunni Arabs most readily related, slowly came apart due to internal rivalries even as Maliki resorted to both legal and extrajudicial means to consolidate power.

This past year has proved particularly damaging. As events in Syria nurtured their hopes for a political comeback, Sunni Arabs launched an unprecedented, peaceful protest movement in late 2012 in response to the arrest of bodyguards of Rafea al-Issawi, a prominent Iraqiya member. It too failed to provide answers to accumulated grievances. Instead, the demonstrations and the repression to which they gave rise further exacerbated the sense of exclusion and persecution among Sunnis.

The government initially chose a lacklustre, technical response, forming committees to unilaterally address protesters’ demands, shunning direct negotiations and tightening security measures in Sunni-populated areas. Half-hearted, belated concessions exacerbated distrust and empowered more radical factions. After a four-month stalemate, the crisis escalated. On 23 April, government forces raided a protest camp in the city of Hawija, in Kirkuk province, killing over 50 and injuring 110. This sparked a wave of violence exceeding anything witnessed for five years. Attacks against security forces and, more ominously, civilians have revived fears of a return to all-out civil strife. The Islamic State of Iraq, al-Qaeda’s local expression, is resurgent. Shiite militias have responded against Sunnis. The government’s seeming intent to address a chiefly political issue – Sunni Arab representation in Baghdad – through tougher security measures has every chance of worsening the situation.

Belittled, demonised and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, the popular movement is slowly mutating into an armed struggle. In this respect, the absence of a unified Sunni leadership – to which Baghdad’s policies contributed and which Maliki might have perceived as an asset – has turned out to be a serious liability. In a showdown that is acquiring increasing sectarian undertones, the movement’s proponents look westward to Syria as the arena in which the fight against the Iraqi government and its Shiite allies will play out and eastward toward Iran as the source of all their ills.

Under intensifying pressure from government forces and with dwindling faith in a political solution, many Sunni Arabs have concluded their only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms. In turn, the government conveniently dismisses all opposition as a sectarian insurgency that warrants ever more stringent security measures. In the absence of a dramatic shift in approach, Iraq’s fragile polity risks breaking down, a victim of the combustible mix of its long­standing flaws and growing regional tensions.


To de-escalate violence in the short term

To the government of Iraq and provincial councils of Anbar, Ninewa, Salah al-Din and Diyala:

1.  Negotiate local ceasefires entailing restraint on the part of government forces and cooperation by local authorities.

2.  Seek to establish joint command and coordination structures involving the federal army and local forces (police and sahwa – awakening – units), with a view to prioritising the struggle against al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq, and ensure that no Iraqi fighters, whether Sunni or Shiite, cross into Syria.

3.  Investigate jointly the killings in Falluja, Mosul and Hawija.

To address longer-term issues contributing to the country’s instability

To the government of Iraq:

4.  Lower sectarian tensions by, inter alia:

a) easing, unilaterally or in the context of locally negotiated ceasefires, security measures such as SWAT team deployments and intrusive security checks; as well as restrictions on mobility and on access to religious sites wherever possible;

b) providing equal benefits and opportunities to northern and southern tribes;

c) launching a national dialogue to agree on both reforming the Justice and Accountability Law and establishing an oversight and appeals mechanism for the Justice and Accountability Commission, while setting a time limit for its activities;

d) clarifying the role and responsibilities of the defence, interior and justice ministries in procedures related to the arrest, detention and trial of individuals taken into custody pursuant to the Counter-Terrorism Law; and

e) refraining from inflammatory sectarian statements while implementing gestures aimed at national reconciliation (eg, placing the Samarra shrines under the joint management of Sunni and Shiite endowments).

5.  Seek to insulate Iraq from the Syrian conflict by, inter alia:

a) refraining from any statement suggesting Iraqi support to a party in the conflict; and

b) preventing fighters, whether Sunni or Shiite, from crossing into Syria, notably through cooperation with Anbar and Ninewa local actors (tribes and provincial officials); locally-recruited security forces (eg, police and sahwa); and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

To Sunni local and national leaders:

6.  Refrain from incitement to armed struggle or calls for establishment of a Sunni federal region.

To Sahwa (Awakening) leaders:

7.  Reestablish a single sahwa corps under a unified leadership in a position to present the government with a clear set of demands.

8.  Cooperate with federal government forces in both securing the provinces against the Islamic State of Iraq and policing the Syrian border.

To the Sunni Endowment, clerics associations and prominent clerics:

9.  Negotiate with the central government over specific demands (presence of security forces; salaries to clerics; funding to religious schools), publicly denounce violence and refrain from calls to form a Sunni region.

Baghdad/Brussels, 14 August 2013