Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 July 2011
Issue No. 1055
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Fears of a Sunni opt-out

Sunni Arabs have been feeling out of place in the increasingly Shia-dominated order in Iraq, raising questions as to whether they will now try to opt out of the country, writes Salah Nasrawi

With little more than six months to go before the United States withdraws its troops from Iraq, the notion of partitioning the country, advocated by some American politicians and writers following the US-led invasion of the country in 2003, has resurfaced following a row over a Sunni leader's declaration that Iraqi Sunnis might decide to secede from the war-battered nation.

During a visit to Washington last month, Osama Al-Nujaifi, a key leader of the Sunni-backed Al-Iraqiya List and holder of the post of speaker of the Iraqi parliament, told the US government-owned Al-Hurra television channel that Iraq's Sunni minority was "frustrated" and might declare "a region" of its own in the country.

"As a matter of fact they [the Sunnis] have strong feelings of frustration. They feel they are second-rate citizens and are not partners in the government," Al-Nujaifi said in an interview. "If this is not solved quickly and in a prudent way before things get worse, they might think about separation or taking measures to ensure their rights," he said.

Al-Nujaifi's unusually blunt remarks prompted criticism from Shia leaders, who accused him of sectarianism and separatism. Some 75 Iraqi Shia MPs asked for a debate in parliament and demanded an apology from Al-Nujaifi.

However, so far Al-Nujaifi has remained defiant, and upon returning from Washington he told a press conference that "the formation of such regions is a constitutional right", referring to the Iraqi constitution written after the US-led invasion, which declared Iraq to be a federal country and gave its different groups the right to form autonomous regions.

Despite Shia criticism, Al-Nujaifi received wide support from fellow Sunni leaders. Head of the parliamentary Al-Iraqiya bloc Salman Al-Jumaili told a press conference that "calls for federalism are a reaction to wrong policies and marginalisation."

Ahmed Abu Risha, an influential tribal leader in the Sunni-dominated Al-Anbar province, said "establishing a [Sunni] region is the ideal solution if the government keeps its policy of exclusion and marginalisation."

Whether Al-Nujaifi was crying foul, or whether he was just sending up a test balloon, his statement was a departure from earlier Sunni postures, which had rejected a federal system in post-Saddam Iraq.

Sunni political dominance of the country stretches back to the birth of Iraq as a nation state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Under Saddam, the country's Sunni minority prospered, and its elite dominated the government, the army and the intelligence and security forces.

Most Sunni Arabs boycotted a referendum on the constitution in 2005 because the document, supported by Shia Muslims and Kurds, had carved Iraqi into a federation of three autonomous regions.

They also opposed a proposed plan to create a predominantly Shia region in the south of Iraq much like the largely independent zone declared by the Kurds in the north. Such a plan would have left them with only the centre of the country, a vast desert region devoid of the oil reserves in the other regions.

Since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state following World War I, Sunni Arabs have regarded themselves as the guardians of the country's unity, keeping the multi-ethnic nation together by force if need be.

As a result, the country's Shias, who make up 60 per cent of the population, were denied access to political power until after the US-led invasion, when the Shias seized on their majority numbers to emerge as key players in the shaping of a new Iraq.

This Shia resurgence in turn produced a Sunni backlash, and Sunnis who felt the tide had turned against them resorted to armed resistance and political manoeuvring in order to try to challenge the Shias' newly acquired power.

While the Shias are unlikely to surrender their political influence easily, the Sunnis now seem determined to continue challenging the new order, something that will deepen the already significant mistrust between the two communities.

Even though the Sunnis have the largest parliamentary bloc and their representatives participate in the present Shia-led partnership government, they view the government ministries as bastions of Shia power in which Sunnis say they feel unwelcome.

Sunni lawmaker Dhafir Al-Anni has described what he called "systematic discrimination" against Sunnis in the country's government, army and security forces. He told the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper on Sunday that of some 40 senior officers in the army there were only four Sunnis.

It is difficult to gauge how popular the Sunni politicians' demand for a separate region is among ordinary Sunnis, but on a recent visit to Iraq their increasing frustration and even sense of humiliation could be seen.

According to Iraqi ministry of planning estimates, Sunni Arabs number about seven million out of the country's nearly 32 million population. They live predominantly in four provinces, composing nearly half of Iraq's 43,4920 square kilometres of land.

When Al-Nujaifi went public in talking about "separation" last week, it was clear that the political game had changed, and that the Sunnis might now opt for tougher options. By threatening secession, the Sunni message to the country's Shias was clear: the only thing that stands between a unified Iraq and the collapse of the country is you.

Al-Nujaifi made his statement after a meeting in Washington with US Vice President Joe Biden, who had been a main advocate of dividing Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions held together by a central government.

Under a so-called "soft-partition plan" he jointly proposed with Leslie Gelb, former president of the US Council on Foreign Relations, in 2006, there would have been three loose Kurdish, Shia and Sunni entities gathered under a large, if weak, central umbrella.

Biden and Gelb denied that their plan aimed at dividing Iraq into separate nations at the time, arguing instead that the aim was to maintain a united Iraq by decentralising the country and giving each community enough room to run its own affairs, while at the same time leaving the central government in charge of national interests.

US institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations, which usually reflects state department thinking, have also recommended the restructuring of Iraq into several states under a single national government.

Supporters of such plans have argued that Iraq's Shias, Sunnis and Kurds have failed to move toward national reconciliation, and that they have failed to build national institutions, such as the army and security forces. In addition, they have not agreed on a fair division of the country's resources.

Whether or not Al-Nujaifi and Biden had earlier discussed the plans, press reports have suggested that the US has been quietly mulling the prospect of Iraq's eventual break-up into autonomous regions.

While the Kurds already enjoy a semi-independent federal region in northern Iraq, an increasing number of Shias are also mulling over the prospect of an autonomous Shia region in central and southern Iraq. Last week, the radical Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr said he would have no objection to federal entities if they came about as a result of a referendum.

Many observers now believe that a united Iraq is linked to how long the United States is prepared to keep its forces in the country.

They argue that Iraqi forces are not up to the job of providing full security once the remaining 50,000 US troops pull out by the end of this year and that a US withdrawal would plunge Iraq into sectarian violence.

All this raises the question of whether by invading Iraq and mismanaging its aftermath, as Peter Galbraith wrote in his 2006 book The End of Iraq, the United States has precipitated Iraq's collapse as a unified state.

Given that Iraqi politics have been in a state of confusion since the occupation, it is a fair question to ask if Al-Nujaifi and his fellow Sunni politicians are now seeking a "partition" of the country as a kind of easy opt-out from finding a solution to more complex problems.

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