Iraq’s Sunnis: Rebels with a cause?

Lack of unity and a clear vision for the future cast doubts on Iraqi Sunnis’ new election strategy.

Iraq voter provincial election
Iraq's marginalised Sunni minority are seeking a bigger role in the next government [Reuters]

Following the resignation of 44 Iraqi MPs over violence in Anbar province, leading Iraqi politician Tarek al-Hashimi said that it was about time that Iraqi Sunnis “unite and have a common vision”. With the publication of the official list of political blocs running for Iraq’s parliamentary election due in April 2014, that “vision” was about to become real as Sunni political forces discuss ways to outline a common electoral strategy. Dozens of Sunni-dominated political groups have already registered for the poll which many believe would determine which direction Iraq will take- staying united or breaking up.

The post US invasion arrangements have left Iraqi Sunnis feeling marginalised and excluded. Yet, neither their 10- year-old insurgency, nor their half-hearted participation in the last two parliaments and governments, brought them any tangible political gains or allowed them to articulate a strategic vision. The political process initiated by the US didn’t do much to persuade Iraqi Sunni that democracy was in their interest, and their fellow countrymen – namely  Shia political forces – did little to initiate a process of reconciliation and inclusion.

It was last year when protesters took to the streets in the Sunni-majority areas of Iraq to demonstrate against what they viewed as marginalisation of their sect. They set up a camp which the Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki repeatedly vowed to remove as he accused protesters of stirring strife and sheltering fighters linked to al-Qaeda. This week, events took a dramatic turn when MP Ahmed al-Alwani, a Sunni lawmaker of the Iraqiya bloc was arrested during a deadly raid on Saturday December 28. Two days later, police broke up the camp, leaving at least 13 people dead, but most importantly confirming Sunnis’ perceptions about the Maliki-led government’s targeting of their leaders.

Is there a Sunni question in Iraq?

Getting to the roots of the Iraqi Sunni question, it is important to make the disclaimer that their problem isn’t – as some simply and superficially put it –  their dislike of what they perceive as a Shia-Kurdish domination at their expense. Rather more crucially, It is the lack of any clear agenda to address the nation’s chronic woes, especially how to come to terms with present day realities and address the problems that effect transformation of Iraq into a democracy. The Sunni leadership is stubbornly clinging to the old frames of reference, continuously yearning for the past. Their refusal to change didn’t only make them lose focus on the larger purpose of rebuilding the devastated nation after the war, but also left the Shia political froces, that wanted to build a shared future with their Sunni counterparats, defenceless. Above all, al-Qaeda-driven violence exacerbated Shia population suspicions and consequently led to further their dominance over power. 

In a diverse nation, there is a lot of symbolism in government appointments and Kurds have always argued that they deserve the presidency because they are the second largest community.

The apparent popular support among Iraqi Sunnis to participate in 2014 election, despite frustration over their confinement to a minority status, appears to reflect a high sense of political realism. Moreover, it signals a new approach to rectify the sectarian apportionment through active political involvement rather than insurgency, protests or isolationism.

In the 2010 elections, Iraqi Sunnis ran under the cross-sectarian Iraqiya coalition with Ayad Allawi at its head, to provide a vehicle for forming a government if they won a majority of seats. That highly ambitious approach ended in tatters, forcing Sunnis to join a “partnership government” in the hope of ending their exclusion under the Shia and Kurdish-controlled governments. Having seen Iraqiya marginalised as a political force, and their hopes dashed again when al-Maliki government rammed through a series of measures that consolidated its control over wealth and power, Sunni political leaders had little option but to run in the forthcoming elections on an avowedly sectarian platform. They are trying to rationalise the sense of the divided identity and set new rules for political competition.

There is apparently another adjustment to the Sunnis’ elections strategy. Realising that transitional periods are shaped by the dynamics of power and influence, Sunnis are now looking for the post of the president instead of the parliament speaker, which they were granted according to an informal agreement over powersharing. Credible media reports are suggesting that the Sunni leadership is proposing current Speaker Ossama al-Nujaifi to be the next president, hoping that the top post will be a positive reinforcement of authority to achieve their goals.

Challenges on the road

There are four problematic issues with that strategy. First, the Kurds are not likely to relinquish the top post, currently held by ailing Jalal Talabani, which they had always insisted on having as part of their quota in the post-Saddam era. In a diverse nation, there is a lot of symbolism in government appointments and Kurds have always argued that they deserve the presidency post because they are the second largest community. The prospect of losing the presidency will be considered a key game changer which will require re-negotiating the terms of the “partnership government” that includes Kurds, Shia and Sunnis.  

Second, there is considerable Sunni opposition to participation in the next election. Sheikh Abdel Malik al-Saadi, who is viewed as the spiritual leader of the Sunni uprising against Maliki government, has decreed to “de-legitimise” the election. In an interview with Asharq Al-Awssat on December 13, he said Sunnis should stay away from the elections “in order to deny the government legitimacy”. Many Sunnis believe elections are useless because it will bring to parliament the same corrupt and inefficient lawmakers who were imposed by local tribal chiefs or power hungry politicians who are out to win the poll at all cost.  

Third, the bid by Sunni political leaders to use the  2014 national elections to change their agenda will clash with the strategy of the radicals including al-Qaeda, Saddam’s loyalists and other armed Sunnis groups – who are trying to channel Sunni discontent into an armed revolt against Baghdad. A larger Sunni participation in power-sharing is unlikely to end the decade-long insurgency that has killed hundreds of thousands.

Iraqi Sunnis’ best bet is to continue their endeavours to build a multi-sect coalition with secular Shia.

The atrocities visited on cities across Iraq by al-Qaeda since the US troops withdrew in 2011, is a bloody reminder that the terrorist network is bent on continuing its strategy of toppling the Maliki-led government by force. From Basra to Erbil, al-Qaeda jihadists now control more territory and have recently pushed into eastern Syria from Iraq, following a resurgence there that is part of the more general pattern of bringing Iraq and Syria together into a single Islamic emirate under the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The fourth problem is that Iraq has become a playground for the so-called Sunni states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey on the one hand and majority Shia Iran, on the other. The three countries which have been fighting for regional clout, are believed to have played a pivotal role in shaping political alliances in Iraq’s previous elections. Bashar al-Assad’s possible win in Syria’s conflict and the interim Iran nuclear deal are perceived as a victory for Iran. Each of the three regional heavyweights wants to maintain a major influence in shaping the outcome of the next election and would not be happy to see any major shift in the balance of power in Iraq that might be to their disadvantage.

Doubtful strategy

Still, Iraqi Sunnis’ national prospects are unclear. While a reaction to what Sunnis see as marginalisation is well understood, the significance of the change in their politicians’ electoral strategy remains in doubt. By running in the election on a communal line, Sunnis will risk deepening the sectarian divide and paving the way for institutionalising confessional politics. A Sunni politician in the president’s seat will give them a moral boost and satisfy the ego of some presidential hopefuls, but not real power.

Seen from this perspective, Iraqi Sunnis’ best bet is to continue their endeavours to build a multi-sect coalition with secular Shia. That might not put a Sunni politician in the presidential seat next year, but could, in the long run, be the perfect package to end polarisation and bring about a truly national unity government. The failure to force al-Maliki’s government to adopt policies that end their exclusion, led many Sunnis to seek autonomy. A disappointment that will result from another failure to achieve sufficient representation will have far-reaching consequences and may force many of them to push for the so far unthinkable secession from Iraq.

Salah Nasrawi is a veteran Iraqi journalist who worked for international media, including the Associated Press and the BBC in the Middle East. He wrote for leading Arab newspapers and periodicals.