Sunni political blocs in Iraq are launching early preparations for April provincial council elections by forming new parties and alliances — but also pointing fingers at each other. This shows the depth of political conflict in the areas liberated from the Islamic State (IS).
More than a year after legislative elections, Sunni parties have failed to form a united bloc in the Iraqi parliament, though their political leaders boasted about working within the large National Axis Alliance. This alliance, however, became divided between the main Shiite blocs, Hadi al-Amiri’s Construction Bloc and the Sairoon Coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr.
Currently, three main Sunni parties are vying for the Sunni leadership. The Iraqi Forces’ Union is led by parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi, and the National Axis Alliance is led by Khamis al-Khanjar. Meanwhile, Osama al-Nujaifi, a former parliament speaker and a former vice president, on Sept. 14 announced the formation of the Salvation and Development Front. The front has the participation of several parliament members, parties and Sunni tribal sheikhs.
The parties are calling for rights for Sunnis who have been displaced by war or were once forcibly disappeared, and for the government to ameliorate the difficult situations in provinces liberated from IS.
Disputes among the parties surfaced after the conflict over key positions when the federal government was formed in October 2018. Halbusi split from Khanjar and Ahmad al-Jubouri (former governor of Salahuddin) after Halbusi objected to the nomination of Mansour al-Mareed as governor of Ninevah. Mareed, a Sunni from the Ataa Movement led by Faleh al-Fayadh (a Shiite who heads the Popular Mobilization Units), is supported by Khanjar.
Meanwhile, Nujaifi’s alliance includes figures and parties that believe they weren't assigned their rightful share of public positions and that Sunnis in the Construction Bloc (which includes Khanjar's and Halbusi’s groups) are monopolizing key executive positions.
The Salvation and Development Front accused Halbusi of “submission" to Iran and Shiite parties loyal to Tehran. The front believes Halbusi is refraining from addressing issues related to the displaced and forcibly disappeared out of fear of losing his position. The front also thinks Khanjar is trying to woo Shiites to preserve the gains he achieved and to fulfill his bloc’s desire to hold the minister of education position. When unidentified corpses were unearthed in Babylon in August, the parties forming this front exploited the incident to reignite controversy over forcibly disappeared and jailed Sunnis and the continued refusal to let Sunni families return to liberated areas, specifically Jurf al-Sakhar. Salim al-Jubouri, the head of the small Amal Party and a former speaker of parliament, formed an independent panel to follow up on the incident. There were calls for internationalizing the crisis to pave the way for announcing a new front that would truly represent Sunnis and would show that Nujaifi is the genuine leader of liberated provinces.
Halbusi, 38, is seen as practical and capable of achieving goals for Sunni provinces because of his position and large parliamentary bloc. The bridge construction project in Anbar, for example, owes its success to efforts of his bloc, which controls the provincial council there.
Kamel al-Dulaimi, a member of the Iraqi Forces’ Alliance, told Al-Monitor, “Most killings and displacement cases of Sunnis happened when Nujaifi was vice president, and many members of the [Salvation and Development Front] were part of the former government, but they didn't call for internationalizing the crisis and returning the displaced to their cities.”
Khanjar, who is allied with Ahmad al-Jubouri in the National Axis Alliance, refuses to join Nujaifi’s new alliance, saying it includes “losers that the Iraqi people rejected.” Khanjar wants to be the sole leader of Sunnis, especially after he supported Mareed. Meanwhile, the National Axis Alliance controls the key positions in Salahuddin province and awaits the vote of parliament for its candidate as education minister. Khanjar believes he can achieve good results in the coming local elections without joining a large alliance that doesn't back him to be the leader of Iraq’s Sunnis.
Competition among these Sunni leaders goes beyond forming alliances or exchanging accusations that the other are exploiting the suffering of Sunni provinces for political gain. An informed source said Khanjar’s bloc is concerned by the recent amendment to the local election law; the changes forbid the displaced from voting in camps. The source said Halbusi’s bloc might be behind the amendment because most of the displaced come from Ninevah and Salahuddin — the areas of influence of the National Axis Alliance. The source told Al-Monitor, “The National Axis Alliance is seeking to amend the law once again and appeal against its current version because it violates the constitution and deprives citizens of their right to vote. There is coordination with Kurdish blocs that refuse this chapter of the law.”
The dispute between the major parties and others over controlling Sunni cities is set to escalate as the April provincial council elections near. The disagreement is taking different forms that are far from political. Parliament’s decision to deny parliamentary immunity to some Sunni members from Anbar province shows that Halbusi is personally targeting his rivals from the Salvation and Development Front. The tribes of these parliament members are interceding to defend the members.
All this shows how the difficult situation of Sunni areas has led Sunni political parties to compete to earn political gains from their suffering people; the newly formed coalition is another face of this trend.