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Don't underestimate Iraqi nationalism

The anti-IS campaign in Iraq has deepened sectarian divisions between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions, but despite communal and political fractures, many communities remain loyal to the Iraqi state.
Protesters display a huge Iraqi flag during a demonstration against corruption, poor services and power cuts in Baghdad, Iraq, August 21, 2015.  REUTERS/Ahmed Saad - RTX1P48C

In many ways, Iraq’s battle against the Islamic State (IS) has deepened ethno-sectarian schisms between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions. Sectarian militias act autonomously from Baghdad while the Kurds dig trenches around their expanded territories. Internal divisions are being encouraged by regional states seeking to create spheres of influence across the country. Iran has extended its reach to Shiite groups in Baghdad and southern Iraq, as well as the Kurdistan Region. Turkey has penetrated northern Iraq through Sunni Arab and Kurdish groups. Still, alongside these communal and political fractures is a resilient commitment to the Iraqi state. Distinct communities may benefit from the anti-IS campaign, external patrons and a weak Iraqi government, but they also have their own power struggles and political red lines that enforce Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Iraq’s aggrieved Sunni Arab populations are alienated from Baghdad, seek greater autonomy and oppose Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units and hard-line Shiite groups. They are also Iraqi nationalists and do not want to break up the state. In the absence of a cohesive political agenda or unifying leader, Sunni Arab Iraqis are pursuing distinct and competing local projects — all of which depend upon structures, resources and populations within the Iraqi state. Some Sunni Arab leaders want their own Sunni region while others seek to create new governorates based on greater decentralization. One proposed project includes Christians and other minorities in a new province to be carved out of Ninevah. Other Sunni Arab tribal groups are collaborating with Baghdad against IS and support a stronger government and local self-rule. In Ramadi, about 40,000 Sunni Arab fighters have joined the Popular Mobilization Units to defend their localities.

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