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Eliminating sunni grievances in Iraq

The extremist militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which was later changed to Islamic State (IS) was able to seize control of Iraq’s second largest city Mosul on June 10th.

Meanwhile, the US-trained Iraqi army abandoned their positions. This was perhaps the greatest indicator that the unification of Iraq came to an end. In the absence of a united Iraq, it is necessary to prevent a full-blown civil war that has appeared sporadically since 2003 and onwards, after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Realistically speaking, a united Iraq has become increasingly less likely in Northwest of Iraq — sunni majority provinces. In the North East, Kurdistan Region can almost be considered as a separate state. The Kurdistan Regional Government runs its own internal affairs — has its own functional army — parliament and most recently established a separate pipeline to transfer its oil to a global market independently.

Iraq’s history is riddled with instances of abuse and violations of Human rights under the Sunni-dominated regime. Sectarian-orientated policies were brutal, thousands of Iraqi Kurds were buried alive in the deserts, and the usage of chemical weapons was sanctioned against them.

More than four thousand villages, towns and cities were destroyed between 1980 and 1988. In 1991, Saddam Hussein’s regime killed thousands of Marsh Arabs, bulldozed their villages and systematically attempted to eradicate them. The former Baathist regime targeted its Turkmen population, and significant number of them were killed as well, according to recent estimates. Many were also expelled from their hometowns during the 1980s.

Modern Iraq has not functioned as a stable democratic state because the population largely consists of Arab Shiites, Arab Sunnis and Kurds. Some argue that because of its complex ethnic mix, Iraq cannot function without separating. What is clearly illustratable throughout history is that Iraq cannot be ruled or based on a centralized majoritarian democracy. After the US-led invasion in 2003, an opportunity was born out of the ill-fated war. The new Iraqi constitution was a starting point to consolidate federalism and move towards power-sharing.

Power-sharing and decentralization was not possible in Iraq because of two issues — terrorism and sectarian conflicts. Paul Bremer, US-appointed Governor of Iraq in 2003 mentioned this in his book, “My year in Iraq”. Bremer’s expertise was counterterrorism, and not fixing a broken state at the heart of a historical sectarian conflict. In fact, many argue that Iraq was not about terrorism in the first place — Al Qaeda-Saddam link was a myth.

Prior to the US-led invasion in 2003, Shiites were suppressed by the Iraqi army, and Sunnis were favored. US troops were caught up in the middle of a civil war between Shiite militias led by Muqtada Al-Sadr and the Sunni resistance led by Baathists. The former dissolved when the Iraqi Army, dominated by Shiites was established. The Sunnis became divided — tribes, Baathists and Al-Qaeda affiliates. The Sunnis attempted to confront both the Iraqi army and US troops at the same time because they perceived the US troops as the invader, and the Iraqi army as an outsider. In addition to this, US troops trained and equipped Shiite dominated army to fight terrorism. In reality, some academics have pointed out this led to the elimination of Sunnis because they became a target of the Iraqi army.

The US army assisted and provided the Iraqi army with financial support. It is estimate that the United States has spent $25 billion training and equipping the Iraqi army, as well as security forces. The Iraqi army was largely successful in Southern parts of Iraq, mainly because these areas were already Shiite populated, and with an army that clearly represents them, there were little conflicts. However, Sunni provinces suffered from constant attacks, raids and arrests by the US troops and new Iraqi army. In other words, it is relatively clear why the sectarian violence in Iraq has not lessened within time — policies of counterterrorism led to targeting of Sunnis, and breeding a frustrated generation that increasingly perceive the Maliki-led government as inadequate representatives.

In contrast to this, the Kurdistan Region has established its own army (Peshmerge) despite US concerns. Bremer attempted to dissolve Peshmerge forces but Kurdish people unequivocally refused this. Consequently, the United States did not attempt to equip or train Peshmerge, despite the fact the Peshmerge have been recognized by the Iraqi constitution.

Iraq is on the road towards destroying not only its unity, but also harming a significant number of its civilian population through unnecessary sectarian tensions. The grievances of frustrated Sunni groups cannot be resolved through promises or speeches, but instead a political solution is necessary, whereby Sunnis in Iraq feel included within the governmental, and believe their concerns are reflected upon on a governmental level. Without serious engagement with Sunni grievances, Iraq will further plunge itself in sectarian violence, while Kurds will seek international support for independence.


*Sarkawt Shamsulddin is a co-founder of Kurdish Policy Foundation and director of programs.

About Sarkawt Shamulddin (61 Articles)
Sarkawt Shamsulddin is a political analyst on Middle East Affairs and co-founder of the Kurdish Policy Foundation

1 Comment on Eliminating sunni grievances in Iraq

  1. It is well explained,
    But what is the solution then? Sould it be divided or is another way out of this mess?

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  1. Who can defeat ISIS? – Kurdish Policy Foundation — KPF

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