A series of recent meetings among Iraq’s Sunni politicians was supposed to be a time for the leaders of the country’s second-largest community to probe ways to restore the Sunnis’ place in a post-Islamic State (IS) Iraq.
Instead, the discussions held in several foreign countries over more than a year have turned into a polemic between the Sunni political groups and Shia politicians and then between the Sunni factions themselves.
With the military campaign to drive IS militants from their last main stronghold in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul drawing to a close, attention in Iraq is turning to the future. In 2014, IS rolled into the country’s Sunni provinces and overran huge chunks of territory and proclaimed a self-styled Islamic caliphate.
The United States, which is leading an international coalition to fight the terrorist group, plans to host a 68-nation meeting this month to discuss next moves following the IS defeat. The agenda of the meeting in Washington is believed to include stabilisation in the newly liberated Sunni-dominated provinces of Iraq.
Beyond the need for economic development in the former war zones, and humanitarian support for civilians displaced by the conflict, the peacetime political role of the country’s large Sunni minority is of key importance.
Devolving powers to the provinces may go some way towards addressing Sunni grievances, though violent rebellion, albeit on a much smaller scale, will remain a threat.
The controversy has escalated after dozens of Sunni politicians met in Ankara, the Turkish capital, last week to discuss the community’s future in post-IS Iraq and to work out a strategy to close Sunni ranks behind a unified platform.
The discussions in Ankara culminated in a series of meetings in the Qatari capital Doha, the Jordanian capital Amman, the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam (Dodoma) and Geneva to probe ways of empowering the Sunnis in post-IS Iraq.
But the meetings came under fire from the ruling Shia Iraqi National Alliance (INA) in Baghdad, which has expressed reservations about holding discussions on Iraq’s future abroad and in gatherings sponsored by foreign governments or NGOs.
Such meetings, the Alliance said, aimed at “creating confusion and division” and were designed to weaken resistance to IS. “Selling the destiny of the Iraqi people to foreigners is to be utterly rejected,” a statement issued by the INA said after a meeting of its leadership on Friday.
Some 50 Shia and Sunni legislators also signed a petition to the country’s judiciary demanding possible charges of treason against those Sunni leaders who had participated in the meetings.
They accused Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other unnamed foreign countries of “conspiring” against Iraq and entertaining plans to partition the country on a sectarian basis.
The talks have caused displeasure among rival Sunni leaders and generated warnings from among some in Sunni ranks. Even some participants at the Ankara meeting voiced concerns about its outcome.
The discussions are perhaps the most important steps taken thus far by Iraqi Sunni leaders to unite into a single force to defend their community’s interests. Yet, the venues of the talks in foreign countries, some considered hostile to the Shia-led government, and the lack of transparency about the deliberations have probably been behind much of the controversy surrounding them.
Attempts made by this writer to obtain details on the contents of the talks were unsuccessful. The host governments remained tight-lipped, and the Iraqi participants refused to discuss the details of what had gone on behind closed doors.
The Crisis Management Initiative, a Finland-based group which brought together representatives from Iraq’s Sunni groups for a roundtable discussion in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam in September 2015, also did not respond to questions about the talks.
In response to questions put to the European Institute of Peace (EIP) that hosted the Sunni round-table discussions in Geneva, the EIP described the gathering as “an informal discussion to discuss prospects for inclusive peace and stability in Iraq.”
“The meeting had a particular focus on the region affected by IS, which explained the presence of representatives from majority Sunni areas. As such, this is not a sectarian initiative, as has been suggested in some media reports,” said Andreas Müllerleile, a spokesman for the EIP, which describes itself as non-political and impartial organisation working on mediation and dialogue.
“The meeting was conducted in full recognition and support of national efforts for inclusive peace and reconciliation by the government of Iraq. The initiative does not seek to undermine or bypass existing country-wide efforts. On the contrary, we expect this dialogue to render leaders more willing to participate in official reconciliation,” Müllerleile wrote in an email.
A statement released by participants at the Ankara meeting tried to clear up the controversy and shed light on the objectives of the participants.
The statement said the discussions in Ankara had focussed on “the situation in Iraq after IS.” It said the participants, who had included Sunni “politicians, social figures and intellectuals,” had stressed the need to preserve “Iraq’s unity, security and stability.”
“They reject any plan or attempt to divide Iraq’s territory or its people,” it explained, insisting that the discussions had been “in line with the Iraqi Constitution” and aimed to “support reform demands.”
Outlining their goals, the participants said they had also discussed how to help refugees and displaced people from the Sunni provinces in Iraq that had been retaken from IS and how to support those who still faced hardships.
“They agreed to call on international organisations to shoulder their responsibilities in the rehabilitation of the devastated provinces and their reconstruction and in encouraging displaced people to return to their homes,” the statement said.
One of the main objectives of the participants was to press the Shia-led government in Iraq to adopt a strategy for the “equal disruption of wealth,” a reference to the country’s energy resources.
The statement said the participants would meet again to “crystallise a joint vision” for Iraq’s Sunnis in dealing with the challenges of post-IS Iraq.
The statement did not give the names of the delegates, but local media suggested that they included Iraqi Vice-President Osama Al-Nujaifi and his brother Etheel, the former governor of the Nineveh Province, the leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party Iyad Al-Samaraei, former Iraqi finance minister Rafea Al-Essawi, former deputy prime minister Saleh Al-Mutleq, and several members of parliament.
They also included loyalists to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and leader of the ultra-Sunni group the Association of Islamic Scholars in Iraq Muthana Al-Dhari. Parliamentary speaker Saleem Al-Joubouri, who belongs to the Islamic Party, did not participate in the meeting but came to support the participants.
“Some of the consultations that aim at closing ranks inside a certain community or among political factions are legal,” said Al-Joubouri in a statement. “They are in the interests of Iraq and the political process,” he added.
However, the squabbles about the meetings should not overshadow what seems to be a dramatic shift in the attitudes of many Sunni leaders to seeking political solutions for their community’s grievances.
The hostile approach towards the meetings of Sunni leaders by Shia and some Sunni politicians is therefore short-sighted at a time when Iraq’s future is expected to remain hanging in the balance after IS militants are driven out of Mosul.
Iraq’s troubles are largely due to the Sunni rebellion and demands for empowerment following the collapse of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime that many analysts believe could outlast the IS terror group.
Many Sunnis have undoubtedly collaborated with IS, and they may be ready to do so again with whatever groups will resist the Shia-led government if the Sunnis are not sure that they will be given a full share of power in post-IS Iraq.
Representatives of the Sunni community, including those who are critical of the Shia-led government, should have a say in how the country will be run after the IS defeat and by whom without fear of intimidation or reprisal.
For many Iraqis, resolving the grievances of the minority Sunni community will remain a major challenge for the country following the end of the campaign against IS. They agree that the burden of ending the country’s stagnation lies on the Shia groups that control the government, armed forces and oil resources.
Iraq’s Shia leaders should show that they have learned the key lesson of the wrenching experience of the last 14 years since their empowerment after Saddam’s ouster: In the absence of work for national healing, the country will remain divided and IS or something like it will make a comeback.