Iraq’s Sunni minority is pushing for a greater say in power once the Islamic State group is defeated, reflecting growing sentiment that the country’s government must be more inclusive to prevent extremism from gaining ground once again.
But so far, there’s little momentum. Many Shi’a politicians are wary, and the Sunni leadership is divided and disorganized. On the ground, tensions are further stoked because Shi’a militias and Kurdish fighters control some mainly Sunni areas recaptured from IS militants and are resistant to withdrawing.
The danger is that Iraq will miss the chance to break the sectarian cycle that has fueled extremism for more than a decade.
Sunni resentment over disenfranchisement and the rise of Shi’a power after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein fueled an insurgency and gave a foothold to al-Qaida. The US military, backed by Sunni tribal fighters, largely crushed al-Qaida. But Sunni bitterness over continued discrimination by Shi’a helped in the subsequent rise of the Islamic State group. Each time, the rise of militants only deepened Shi’a suspicions that the Sunnis cannot be trusted.
US officials backing Baghdad in the fight against IS have warned repeatedly that the same could happen again now unless the government is made more inclusive.
A prominent Sunni lawmaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, said Iraq could fall apart unless a “historic compromise” is reached.
“Such compromise is a must, otherwise Iraq will be gone,” the former parliament speaker told The Associated Press.
He and some Sunni factions put together a working paper outlining their stance for talks on a new system, calling for negotiations over dramatic changes to the constitution.
Shi’a Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called repeatedly for unity after the defeat of IS, and Shi’a politicians say they recognize the need for more inclusiveness.
“We have big concerns for the post-Daesh period,” said Shi’a lawmaker Ali al-Alaq, using an Arabic acronym for IS. He says proper distribution of resources and rebuilding of state institutions are key to keeping the country together.
He pointed to a referendum on independence that the Kurdish autonomous region aims to hold later this year. “We are concerned that Sunnis could demand the same,” he said.
But any real talks are on hold while fighting still rages over the Islamic State group’s last main urban bastion, Mosul.
And already there are fault lines over numerous issues.
The Sunni working paper calls for steps to address their complaints that crackdowns on militants have unfairly hurt their community. It demands a halt to “random arrests,” the freeing of detainees not convicted of crimes and eventually a review of anti-terrorism laws.
Shi’a politicians have long resisted those demands, pushing for a tougher fight against terrorism. Shi’a Muslims — estimated at up to 60 percent of the population of more than 36 million — often suspect the Sunni minority of secret sympathies with militants and of aiming to regain power. Sunni Arabs dominated the ruling Baath Party and leadership positions during the rule of Saddam, a Sunni himself who brutally suppressed Shi’a Muslims.
Long term, many Sunnis want provincial governors to have greater control over security forces on their soil, ensuring that Sunnis are patrolling Sunni regions.
Khalaf al-Hadidi, a provincial council member in Nineveh, the mainly Sunni province where Mosul is located, said local security forces need to be given a “bigger role in protecting the province. These [local] forces must be under the governor’s control instead of many parties from outside the province.”
But Shi’a-led governments have long distrusted local Sunni security forces, at times refusing to arm or pay them. The collapse of mainly Sunni police forces in the face of the IS blitz of 2014 only reinforced Shi’a fears that Sunnis would not act against militants.
Intertwined with Sunni security demands is their deep opposition to Shi’a militias, which have a major role in the fight against IS but are also accused of abuses against Sunnis. The working paper calls for the disbanding of the Hashd, the government-backed umbrella group of militias, most of them Shi’a.
Far from agreeing to disband, however, the militias are pushing for greater official recognition of their power.
Shi’a militias and Kurdish fighters hold significant parts of Nineveh province and other mainly Sunni areas. The Federal Police, an overwhelmingly Shi’a force, is also fighting in Mosul alongside the military. Sunnis want those forces to leave quickly.
But a senior Shi’a politician — Ali Adeeb, head of the State of Law coalition in parliament — said those forces cannot leave Mosul until there is “certainty that Daesh ideology will not return … We are worried this ideology will come back and Daesh will come back to regain control.”
A main Sunni call is for greater authority and resources to be handed down to the provinces, giving Sunnis more say in areas they dominate.
A major issue would be how to distribute government funds. Sunnis have long complained that Sh’a-majority areas get favored in budget spending, infrastructure development and directing of investments. That question will become particularly acute after IS’s fall because billions of dollars are needed to rebuild Sunni cities destroyed in the fight against the militants — and already there is grumbling that no plan has been put together for reconstruction.
The working paper also calls for significant reforms to ensure Sunnis have a voice in the central government. It demands an end to the system of divvying up government posts that effectively turns ministries into fiefdoms of political factions, particularly Shi’a ones.
But that could meet resistance from Shi’a parties with entrenched interests. Shi’a Muslims also say their election victories — carried by their demographic majority — give them the right to set up ruling coalitions.
In the eyes of some Shi’a Muslims, Sunni complaints over Shi’a domination only fuel sectarianism. In comments Tuesday, senior Shi’a politician Amar Hakeem warned against agendas that “pit communities, religions and sects against each other.”
“One of the cracks through which Daesh entered was by playing with the social fabric and claiming to protect one community,” he said, according to Iraqi press reports.
Iraq faces another possible conflict over the Kurds. The Kurdish autonomous region in the north has repeatedly called for a referendum on full independence from Iraq. Now, Kurdish leadership says such a vote could happen as early as September.
That is potentially more explosive because the Kurds seized extensive areas outside their self-rule zone during fighting with IS. Most notably, they hold the oil-rich central province of Kirkuk, which they have long claimed as their own but has significant Sunni Arab and ethnic Turkmen communities.
Not all Sunni factions have signed onto the working paper. Since Saddam’s fall in 2003, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have been wracked by divisions and lack a strong political party to press their case in Baghdad.
If a compromise is not reached with Baghdad, it could strengthen calls for Sunnis to demand outright autonomy like the Kurds. So far, that holds limited appeal among Sunnis because their provinces lack resources and would likely be squeezed out of oil wealth.
Still, Atheel al-Nujaifi, the former Nineveh governor, is one of a few calling for a self-rule region. He says the priority is the liberate Mosul, then try talks with Baghdad. But failing that, Mosul residents have the right to create their own region.
“We will still need Baghdad only to protect the borders,” he said.