Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1330, (2 - 8 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iraqi Sunnis in disarray

Iraq’s Sunni groups appear more divided than ever about carving a way forward for their community

Iraqi  Sunnis  in disarray
Iraqi Sunnis in disarray

Claims by the grand mufti of Iraq’s Sunnis that an attempt on his life last month was orchestrated by rival Sunni leaders have raised questions about the ability of the Iraqi Sunnis to remain united as the community faces the daunting challenge of reconstitution in post- Islamic State (IS) Iraq.

The charges by Sheikh Mahdi Al-Sumeidaei that Sunni politicians close to IS were behind a blast targeting his motorcade on 2 January while he was on his way to his office at a Baghdad mosque, were the latest sign of increasing polarisation inside the Sunni community.

Police have said that five people were killed in an explosion on a highway used by Al-Sumeidaei’s motorcade the same day, but it was not clear who was behind the attack and whether the sheikh had been targeted by the assailants.

Al-Sumeidaei is a controversial clergyman whose claim to be the grand mufti of Iraq’s Sunni Muslims has been disputed by many Sunnis who see him as very close to the Shia-led government.

The Sunni Endowment, the state organisation which oversees Sunni religious affairs, won a court ruling last week to kick Al-Sumeidaei out of a key Sunni mosque in Baghdad which he has been occupying for years and using as his headquarters.

Bickering among Iraq’s Sunni groups about political approaches to their demands for partnership and greater autonomy has been normal, but in recent months the disputes have come out into the open as the dust has begun settling on the battle to drive IS militants out of territories they seized more than two years ago.

The rise of political sentiments among the Sunni groups comes as efforts have been underway to launch a national roadmap for stabilisation and reconstruction in the Sunni-dominated areas of the country following the liberation of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and IS’s last main stronghold.

In order for stabilisation to take effect, the minority Sunnis will need to place their faith in the central government by being fully integrated into Iraq’s political system, which has been dominated by the country’s majority Shia since the US-led invasion in 2003.

The post-US invasion arrangements have left Iraqi Sunnis feeling marginalised and excluded. Sunni politicians’ half-hearted participation in the parliament and government has not done much to persuade the majority of the community that the Shia-led government is not governing in their interests.

The disappointment that resulted from their failure to achieve sufficient representation in power and wealth led to an armed rebellion among the country’s Sunnis that paved the way for terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and later IS.

Yet, neither their participation in the post-invasion political process nor their 13-year-old insurgency has brought them any tangible political gains, further disrupting the community’s cohesion.

Today, Iraq’s Sunnis stand at another crucial crossroads as the community faces the challenge of finding a clear political strategy to guide its efforts in national reconciliation following the liberation of Mosul and in the post-IS era.

At the roots of the Iraqi Sunni problem is their disunity vis-à-vis what they perceive as Shia domination of the country at their expense. In addition, there is a lack of leadership and of a clear agenda to address internal political differences, ideological disagreements and tribal divides.

The main reason behind the Sunni failure lies in the community’s inability to sort itself out and abandon the old frame of reference of its having been Iraq’s rulers since the country’s independence in 1921 and adapt to changing realities.

The liberation of the Sunni-dominated provinces from IS has prompted speculation that the Sunnis will now close ranks behind a united leadership and community authority to engage the Shia-controlled government and negotiate a new political contract.

Unfortunately, the evidence to date suggests that progress has been minimal in this regard and that the community is likely to remain fractured. There are even signs that the liberation of Mosul will increase intra-Sunni fragmentation unless the community addresses its disagreements.

A political map of Iraq’s Sunnis shows that the Sunni groupings which have been in the parliament and the government have lost much of their standing since the rise of IS in summer 2014 and the group’s seizure of most Sunni areas.

Evidence abounds that the Sunni communities have lost their trust in their elites and political leaders, whom they accuse of opportunism and the betrayal of Sunni voters and interests.

Many of these leaders have not been able to visit the newly liberated Sunni areas from IS or displaced persons’ camps for fear of being harassed or kicked out by their constituencies.

Yet, these groups are readying themselves to participate in next year’s elections in Iraq by making political deals with the ruling Shia parties to cut out emerging local political leaders and forces in the Sunni provinces.

The war against IS has entangled not only Shia government forces, but also local Sunni tribes and social forces that are now seen as legitimate representatives within the Sunni communities. Those groups and leaders who have emerged during the war against IS are now seeking a leadership role on a national level.

Meanwhile, the disconnect between local Sunni communities and Sunni political elites who live abroad is growing despite the extensive financial networks funded by some Sunni neighbouring countries.

Sunni exiled opposition leaders who have long struggled to influence the course the community is taking in Iraq are now watching their ambitions being dashed by those who have done the actual fighting against IS and are seeking greater power and influence.

On the other hand, some Iraqi Sunnis remain sceptical about the Shia-led government’s plans and remain either indifferent to efforts to engage the community in the political process or even supportive of IS.

Seen from this perspective, the increasing partisan animosity among the Iraqi Sunnis is expected to have far-reaching consequences on the community’s ability to achieve sufficient representation in its efforts to end its perceived exclusion and marginalisation.

As the international community attempts to steer Iraq away from setbacks after the liberation of territories from IS and towards a political resolution of the crisis, much of the focus has fallen on what to do about the Iraqi Sunnis’ political future.

A UN-backed reconciliation plan that is now under discussion could provide a national platform for a political settlement that would end the Iraqi Sunnis’ marginalisation after cleaning the country of IS.

The basis of the settlement, according to several versions of the plan in circulation, will require every community to make compromises of a kind that will ensure power-sharing and partnership in the country’s wealth.

While meditators will still need to knock heads together in order to get a deal done, Iraq’s Sunnis should be able to form a united front that could represent all the community at the negotiating table and give it a stronger voice.

As the number of actors in Iraq’s Sunni camps multiplies, prospects for an early resolution to the problem of Sunni representation are growing more difficult and their case for resolving the conflict over power-sharing with the Shias seem less straightforward.

As big an obstacle is the Sunni political elites, who are in a de facto tactical alliance with the Shia ruling groups that have helped them build a political and economic power base to bolster their influence inside the Sunni community.

While losing control of the Sunni-dominated provinces and the tribes and local groups who fought against IS, these groups, such as the Islamic Party and the Al-Mutleq Arab Front, are still trying to undercut and fragment the rising Sunni forces.

In order for a national political settlement to take root, the rising and ambitious Sunni tribal and other local forces should be given a leading role in representing the community at the expense of the old Sunni elites.

The concern is that in post-Mosul Iraq the Sunni Arab community will face new cycles of disagreements that will not only undermine their engagement with the Shia groups for a national compromise, but will also deepen their own community divisions.

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