An existential question
While Iraqi Sunnis’ revolt may be waning, resentment of their community’s perceived marginalisation remains strong, writes Salah Nasrawi
Some carried umbrellas to protect themselves from the scorching sun, others covered their heads with cardboard sheets, while the rest sufficed with their kifiyyas, or traditional Arab headdresses.
The crowd converged after Friday prayers on a section of the desert highway near the city of Ramadi in Iraq, which they named the “Square of Dignity and Honour” and chanted slogans denouncing the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
The rally in the provincial capital of Iraq’s western province of Anbar, the stronghold of Iraq’s Sunni minority, was one of several being held by Sunni Arabs every week to voice their anger and press demands for ending their grievances.
For months, Sunnis have taken to the streets across Iraq to protest against the perceived exclusion, marginalisation and persecution of their sect under Iraq’s Shia-led government.
In this weekend’s protests in Ramadi and elsewhere, the mood was still upbeat but the meetings drew notably fewer people than previous rallies held since December that drew unprecedented numbers of tens of thousands to each.
No one knows exactly if the fewer number of protesters in Ramadi and elsewhere in Iraq’s Sunni provinces is a sign that the Sunni demonstrations are fading or whether it is just the lull before the storm.
The low turnout of the protesters could signal a shift in strategy as organisers have indicated that they might be ready to negotiate a settlement with the government to handle their demands.
On Friday, tribal leaders in Anbar agreed to give the parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi, a moderate Sunni politician, the go-ahead to negotiate an agreement with the government to end the protests.
Before travelling to Ramadi, Al-Nujaifi ended nearly five months of boycotting Al-Maliki after mediation by another Shia leader. Al-Maliki has made some concessions to the protesters, but after the meeting with Al-Nujaifi he made no promises to meet the protesters’ demands.
Sunni anger has been growing for several months over what they see as their mistreatment in Shia-run Iraq. Their complaints have included the arbitrary use of anti-terrorism laws and the prolonged detention and mistreatment of prisoners in government jails.
They have also demanded the abolition of a law banning senior members of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party from public service. Sunnis say the rules target mostly Sunni Arabs, who were largely in power during Saddam’s rule.
The protests were triggered by the arrest of the bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafei Al-Essawi on 21 December. They quickly grew to include rescinding the US-orchestrated political process, which Sunnis believe has empowered Shias and Kurds at their expense.
The protests reflect a widely shared Sunni Arab hostility to a political system and constitution that they say have subjected them to an order that will do nothing to restore Sunni Arab primacy.
Regardless of the reasons behind the nearly six-month-long protests, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs seem to have opened a new chapter in their struggle to regain prominence a decade after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country that toppled Saddam’s minority Sunni regime and propelled Iraq’s majority Shias to power.
For months, the Sunni protest movement was seen as sign of regained confidence, driven by increasing support from Iraq’s Sunni neighbours and hopes that a Sunni-dominated regime would come to power in neighbouring Syria following the fall of President Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawite regime.
But the Shia-led government’s insistence on rejecting any drastic changes in Iraq’s political process that could weaken its hold on power and Al-Assad’s recent gains in his war against opposition forces might have pushed Iraqi Sunnis to rethink their options.
One of those already floated looks at establishing an autonomous region within federal Iraq like that already established by the Kurds.
Recent statements by many Sunni leaders provide important evidence for the growing acceptance of regionalism.
Many leaders are now saying that they should seek their own autonomy and set up a federal region like that of the Kurds. Such ideas are considered to be a major shift in the perspective of the country’s Sunni Arabs.
Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution allows ethnic communities or provinces to set themselves up as autonomous regions under a federal system.
The idea was pressed by the Kurds and backed by the Shias, but most Sunnis boycotted the referendum on the new constitution in 2005, arguing that the document was a recipe for the end of Iraq as a unitary state.
Now proponents of federalism say the establishment of an autonomous region could improve the Sunnis’ lot by boosting their province’s share of federal revenues and giving them a larger say in running their own affairs.
Among those who support a Sunni autonomous enclave is Al-Nujaifi. He has said that the Sunnis should seek autonomy because they are being treated as second-class citizens in Iraq and not partners in the government.
He has even warned that if things get worse, the country’s Sunnis might even think of separation.
Tarek Al-Hashimi, the country’s Sunni vice president who fled Iraq in 2011 after being charged with terrorism and murder, is also an advocate of a federal Sunni region.
Under Article 119 of the Iraqi constitution, “one or more governorates shall have the right to organise into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum.”
However, many Sunnis reject the federal notion. These pride themselves as being the sons of the builders of modern Iraq, which came into being after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I.
Iraq’s Sunnis are vehement exponents of Arab nationalism, and they consider themselves to be a bulwark against Iranian ambitions and the guardians of Iraq’s unity in the face of Kurdish secessionism and Shia dominance.
Some of these Sunnis have been active in the insurgency, and they are expected to continue their armed rebellion against the Shia-led government.
Indeed, there have been increasing concerns that these disenfranchised Sunnis might be behind the mounting violence of recent weeks in an attempt to increase pressure on the Baghdad government.
The attacks, including bombings that ripped through Shia neighbourhoods, mosques and markets, killed some 1,700 people in April and May. There have been reports of retaliatory violence, including killings by Shia militias, triggering memories of the brutal sectarian conflict that followed the US-led invasion in 2003.
With the lack of a common goal and a unified strategy, Iraq’s Sunnis seem to be in an existential dilemma. The key question facing their leadership remains what options they really have to end their perceived marginalisation.
That they have started weighing their options to advance their cause away from armed insurgency is good news, but it is also imperative that they should end their divisions and make it clear what they want to all.
On the other hand, the country’s Shias should also know their limits and should provide leadership that shows understanding of the deep structure of the legacy of the Baath regime and an even more profound understanding of the foundations of the envisaged pluralistic Iraq.
They should know that Shia empowerment is not just about having Shias in leadership positions. It is also a matter of a visionary leadership that expands the boundaries of opportunity to all citizens, enabling them to contribute their expertise and talents to creating a prosperous and egalitarian society.
In this regard, the Shia-led government should understand that a dwindling number of Sunni protesters is not a sign of an end of the Sunni rebellion.
Sunni resentment is unlikely to wane as long as their dissatisfaction with the government, which stems from feelings of marginalisation, continues.