The importance of Sunni unity in Iraq

Instead of exchanging accusations, all Iraqi components should deploy efforts in a bid to unify their ranks in the face of the Islamic State, and to avoid sectarian partition.

al-monitor Sunni volunteers attend a tribal conference, regarding the Islamic State, at the Ain al-Assad military base in Anbar province, Nov. 11, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Ahmed Saad.

Topics covered

tribes, terrorism, sunni, islamic state, iraq, isis, anbar province

Feb 20, 2015

Many Iraqi politicians do not hide their concerns and skepticism regarding moves made by Sunni political and tribal groups — whether in the region or Washington — to ensure a unification of Sunni political positions on the future of the war on the Islamic State (IS). Some of the reactions to these moves come loaded with accusations.

A visit by a delegation from Anbar to Washington at the end of January 2015 sparked numerous disagreements and assumptions both inside and outside the Iraqi political milieu. Some of these issues took on a personal nature, including accusations that the delegation included murderers, while others involved suspicions of a Sunni desire to obtain weapons to undermine Iraqi sovereignty.

Fears were not limited to this visit in particular, and were present on previous occasions involving Sunni gatherings or activities. The latter include the Sunni forces conference held in Erbil on Dec. 18, 2014, which saw widespread accusations from different political parties.

Things cannot stabilize in Iraq without a common understanding between Iraqi forces. It is also required that there be a recognition of the rights of each to coordinate their positions, unify their ranks and expand their bases of internal and external relations in the framework of coordination with the government and other forces, in line with the country’s supreme interests.

Iraq is facing a fateful moment in its history. IS occupies large tracts of land, most of them predominantly Sunni, and the continuous political conflict has brought the country to the brink of division. Amid these circumstances, what is needed is a recognition of the right of the Sunnis in the equation to unify their ranks, and they should be supported domestically to achieve this result.

While there are many reasons for IS’ emergence and spread in Sunni cities, one includes the rupture of the Sunni political fabric and the lack of clearly defined positions and leaders that can serve as a decisive party and a true representative of Sunnis — or at least most of them.

Of course, several mistakes have been made by the political, religious and tribal Sunni elites since 2003, most notably their refusal to interact positively with the requirements of the political process at an early stage. At least they now recognize this mistake, and are trying to open a dialogue with stakeholders in the Iraqi scene.

It is worth noting that the Anbar delegation, following its return from Washington, announced its intention to visit Tehran. Whether or not this visit happens in the near future, the fact that it was given serious thought indicates the Sunni political elite’s realization of the danger of the current stage and the need to reshuffle the deck in a consistent manner.

Such a development should be supported and encouraged by the Shiite and Kurdish forces. The principle of “partnership” has been absent from Iraqi political equations over the past years. There is a need for partnership in the true meaning of the word, based on supporting partners to unify them, not working to partition and weaken them.

Ten years of Sunni fragmentation and failure to produce leaders capable of representing their communities in an adaptable manner has led to missing the opportunity to reach permanent solutions to the Iraqi crises, based on mutual commitments between the parties. This missed opportunity cannot be attributed to the Sunnis alone, rather, other Iraqi parties played a part in it when they tried to deal with the concept of Sunni representation with selectivity. Some parties worked to produce Sunni leaderships that were in line with themselves and their own vision, not with the Sunni public.

The next stage should allow for change in the vision of the entire Iraqi political environment, with all its components and representatives. This change must include the need for forces to understand the requirements and priorities of the others. In the end, they must agree to set national identity as the primary basis, while retaining the rights of various Iraqi components to express their ideas and desires.

Eliminating IS is in no way a short-term task. Rather, it requires a long-term strategy that includes — in addition to military, political and economic efforts — equally important efforts to create an appropriate environment for social consensus in the country and bridging the widening gap between components. Such a task requires removing the atmosphere of skepticism and accusations that prevails in political circles, which is often reflected in the media, and then on the streets.