The bloody takeover of their cities by Islamist forces has sparked soul-searching among Iraqi Sunnis, writes Salah Nasrawi
In an opinion article in the New York Times last month, two Iraqi Sunni leaders wrote that America’s support for the Iraqi Sunnis was crucial and urged the US administration to appoint “a senior American official to reach out to Iraqi Sunni leaders in and outside the country.”
“Despite the horrors of our recent history, we can pass through this difficult period, with help from our American friends,” wrote Rafe Al-Essawi, a former deputy prime minister and minister of finance, and Atheel Al-Nujaifi, governor of the now jihadist-controlled Nineveh province.
The awkward yet passionate appeal reflects a dramatic shift in Sunni politics since the US-led war in 2003. At that time, the minority Sunnis considered the American occupation as the end of their decades-long rule over the country and the beginning of a new era under the majority Shia.
Soon afterwards, Sunnis, marginalised by the newly empowered Shia political groups, launched an armed resistance against the US troops and the post-Saddam Hussein regime.
While most Sunnis supported the insurgency, some moderate Sunni politicians reluctantly joined the US-backed political process in the hope that it would end their isolation and secure their people an equal share of the power and national wealth.
Much had changed some ten years later. With the US withdrawal, Sunnis started a massive anti-government protest movement. Their efforts for effective Sunni political participation had been stalled by the increasingly authoritarian Shia prime minister, Nuri Al-Maliki.
The insurrection turned into a rebellion to push for the Sunni demands, bringing a new bunch of disfranchised local Sunni groups into the debate and signifying an intensification of Iraq’s sectarian politics.
Despite their ideological and political differences, Sunni rebels (including Baathists, secular nationalists and groups affiliated with the Al-Qaeda offshoot group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) came together against their common enemy — Iraq’s majority Shia. ISIS considers the Shia to be apostates who deserve to be killed.
But the seizure of major Sunni cities by ISIS jihadists in June may have changed all that. Horrific crimes and extreme measures imposed by the Islamic State (IS), as declared by ISIS, have alienated many Iraqi Sunnis.
Following their capture of Mosul and the declaration of a mediaeval-style caliphate, the militants imposed strict Islamic Sharia law in the city. They banned smoking and forced women to wear loose clothing and full-face veils. They also established Islamic courts that were ordered to apply their extreme interpretation of Islam.
The group issued orders to Christians to convert to Islam, pay a tax, or leave. Almost all Christians who lived in Mosul, the descendants of a centuries-old population, have left. Their property has now been claimed by IS.
The seizure of Yazidi-populated towns this week and the forcing of hundreds of thousands of their inhabitants to flee threatens ethnic cleansing of the area after the expulsion of the Christian and Shia minorities.
The extremists also started the systematic destruction of landmarks in the Sunni cities they controlled, including tombs that were believed to be the biblical prophets’ burial places and dozens of shrines, mosques and churches.
In addition, Islamic State militants destroyed statues of poets, blew up bridges, threatened dams and took over key oil infrastructure.
Moreover, they carried out summary executions of government employees they deemed disloyal to them. Among the atrocities committed by the group was the execution of hundreds of soldiers in the newly captured cities.
Since the capture of the towns, the Islamic State has released many shocking videos showing scenes of mass executions of Iraqi soldiers and others who dared to resist them.
The graphic footage of atrocities has spread fear of future attacks, while also triggering a Shia backlash. As the advance continues, the Shia response is becoming more aggressive and has prompted reprisals.
Reports by human rights groups in recent weeks have documented the kidnapping and killing of Sunni civilians throughout Baghdad and other provinces in recent weeks.
Based on eye-witness accounts and medical and government sources, they report that Shia militias have killed hundreds of Sunnis in villages and towns around Baghdad.
Some of the murders are so gruesome that they are raising the spectre of full-blown sectarian warfare. In Baquba, an ethnically and sectarian mixed town northeast of Baghdad, gunmen believed to be members of a Shia militia last week hung the bodies of 15 Sunnis from electricity poles in a public square.
The incident shows the methods the Shia militias are using to frighten Sunni sleeper cells from joining the jihadists’ brutal campaign and creeping into Baghdad from Sunni-populated satellite cities surrounding the capital.
Last week, Reuters news agency reported that Iraqi Shia militias had drawn up hit lists of suspected Sunni insurgents in the “Baghdad belt” to be kidnapped, executed and hung in public because they considered them a threat to the Shia.
With jihadists taking one town after another and inching closer to Baghdad and other Shia-populated centres, the Sunni offensive has also invited Iranian intervention. There have been numerous reports of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards fighting in Iraq to help counter the threat posed by IS.
A London-based newspaper reports that a heavily armed Iranian military force arrived at Sulaymaniyah International Airport in the autonomous northern Kurdistan region of Iraq this week en route to Kirkuk to help defend Shia shrines from Sunni militant attacks.
Quoting an Iraqi Kurdish security official, the Saudi-owned Asharq Al-Awsat reported on 31 July that the Iranian contingent was granted access to Kirkuk province by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which controls Sulaymaniyah.
However, IS’s savage onslaught over the last two months and Shia reprisals have heightened the problems faced by Iraqi Sunnis as they weigh how to respond to Iraq’s existential crisis as the nation falls apart.
Indeed, Sunnis have been rattled by the rapid gains of the Islamic State and the threat its brutality presents to the future of the Sunni community. But the more important and immediate question is whether the Sunnis can put together a coordinated plan for their future in a united Iraq.
The Sunnis seem to be divided over what strategy they should adopt as IS’s brutal onslaught rips up the union. On the one hand, there are the die-hard Saddam loyalists who seem hell bent on keeping their alliance with the IS terrorists to end of Shia rule.
Last week, Saddam’s former deputy, who now leads the Iraqi Baath Party, Izzat Al-Douri, hailed IS and Al-Qaeda fighters as heroes. “God bless the Ansar Al-Sunna. In the forefront of these groups are the knights of Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State,” Al-Douri said in a recorded statement.
Saddam’s army commanders are believed to form the backbone of IS strategists, while senior officers are playing a key role in the fight against the Shia-led government.
On the other hand, moderate Sunnis who want political and peaceful means to end their community’s exclusion by the Shia-led government accuse the IS of pushing Iraq into a sectarian abyss in which the Sunnis could be the losers.
Much of the Sunni Arab population in Mosul and other cities has become increasingly resentful of the abuses exercised by IS and believe that the terrorist group will turn against them after finishing with the Shia.
Osama Al-Nujaifi, former speaker of the Iraqi parliament and brother of the governor of Mosul, said this week that he was forming armed “brigades” to fight IS and liberate Mosul. Tribal leaders in several other Sunni cities have made similar pledges.
Sunni armed groups have already clashed with IS militants over the destruction of the tombs and shrines in Mosul. In other places they are joining government forces to fight the group.
For all the blood and misery in Iraq, Sunnis now have a chance to exercise political wisdom to save the country from further chaos. Having made their point, they could return to the negotiating table, this time with a stronger position to secure their demands and end their marginalisation.
Every Iraqi and friend of Iraq should press them to do so. The nasty strategy of IS and other extremists, eliminating the Shia and other minorities and imposing their brutal style of rule over the country, is not a good option.
It is not too late for the Iraqi Sunnis to show that they have heard this advice. (see p.