Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Defusing Sunni Anger

Will the sense of anger and disenfranchisement among Sunni Arabs doom Iraq to long-term chaos?
By Lisa Clifford

As Iraq lurches towards its first democratic elections in more than a generation, an increasingly angry and militant Sunni Arab community looks set to opt out.

Though Iraq observers can agree on little else, all concede that if the population at the country’s geographical heart won’t join in the process of building a unified country, the state will struggle to function.

Also clear is that a mass Sunni boycott of the January 30 poll will only feed the rage and resentment felt by many in the community. This has already manifested itself in an increasingly violent armed resistance, and will be fuelled further by the sense of exclusion – however real that is – if the Sunnis shun the election.

Despite the obstacles, the Iraqi government and its United States and British allies are keen that voting for the 275-member transitional National Assembly, whose primary task is drafting the country’s new constitution, should proceed on schedule, be seen as legitimate by all those involved and ultimately pave the way for its withdrawal from Iraq.

An estimated 40,000 insurgents roaming the “Sunni Triangle” also want the US soldiers out - but on their own terms. Their strategy seems simple enough: hang on until the Americans eventually tire of the war of attrition, and are forced to retreat under the weight of public opinion at home.

But will Sunni discontent and possible disenfranchisement doom Iraq to long-term chaos, or a complex and diverse community that runs the gamut from lawyers, doctors, writers and academics to Kalashnikov-toting militants be brought back into the fold?

Experts interviewed by IWPR agree that the Coalition is badly mired in the current insurgent morass, but suggest civil war is far from inevitable if earlier mistakes are noted and attempts are made to re-engage with the country’s Sunni minority.


One central conclusion is that international actors as well as Iraqi government officials need to be realistic about the nature of the insurgent movement that now threatens the country’s emergence as a sovereign nation.

Observers say the Coalition needs to accept that a series of errors have allowed the rebellion to expand far beyond its Baathist roots and spread throughout the Sunni community at large.

The rebel movement now encompasses a myriad number of organisations with a variety of ideological backgrounds. The insurgents themselves have become increasingly bold and successful, sustained by a significant support base among both urban and rural constituencies.

“We must stop pretending it [the insurgent movement] is all Baath-driven, foreign influenced,” said Toby Dodge, Iraq specialist at London’s Queen Mary University. “It has escaped its birth under Baathism and is now a fractured local insurgency pulled together by local ties.”

Though the Baathists remain at the core of the revolt, there is now a prominent Islamic nationalist element mingling with Iraq’s former rulers. They are joined by young fighters from the various Sunni Arab tribes, foreign and domestic Islamist extremists, criminal gangs and perhaps most worrying for the Americans, disgruntled Iraqis, the so-called ordinary citizens.

Zaki Chehab, a journalist with London-based Al-Hayat newspaper and the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation, has been inside the resistance, where he discovered that popular anger towards the Americans is forging an alliance between disparate strands of the guerrilla movement.

Chehab met Saddam Hussein loyalists in Tikrit, but also fighters in Ramadi who have sworn off all Baathist links and blame the former dictator for bringing the Americans to Iraq in the first place. In Mosul and Fallujah, he spoke to groups linked to Islamist organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Analysts including Turi Munthe, head of the Middle East and Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, say that looking too hard for a “mastermind” is to misunderstand the loose nature of the insurgent structures, based on common aims rather than organisation.

These rebels are united by a single goal: to get rid of the Coalition troops.

“The insurgency is not a united movement directed by a leadership with a single ideological vision,” Ahmed Hashim, a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Naval Warfare Studies in Rhode Island, wrote in the Boston Review magazine in late 2004.

“Articulating the desire to be free of foreign occupation has sufficed to win popular support. Because they wish to avoid fratricidal conflict, these groups are cooperating with one another and coordinating attacks at the operational and tactical levels despite profound political differences. As one insurgent leader put it, ‘We first want to expel the infidel invaders before anything else’.”


Sami Zubaida, an Iraq expert and professor of politics and sociology at Birkbeck university in London, maintains the militants have no political programme at all, calling them nihilists who are simply trying to stop the economy functioning.

“If the Americans leave, the insurgents have some sort of vision of being able to exert their control again by force of arms or whatever,” said Zubaida. “This is clearly what is behind it. All they want is to stop things from being normalised.”

A July 2004 interview by IWPR journalists with a militant belonging to a group calling itself the Iraqi Resistance supports Zubaida’s view.

"If we do not hold authority in Iraq, then we will allow no one else to hold authority," said the insurgent leader, a former intelligence officer who transferred to the Fedayeen paramilitaries before the war. The interview took place in a location outside Baghdad, which the reporter could not identify as he was driven there wearing a blindfold.

Worryingly for the Americans, the attacks are becoming increasingly sophisticated and coordinated. Strong networks appear to be in place to recruit new fighters and obtain weapons and money from a broad range of people and businesses.

A late December attack on a US army base in Mosul killed 19 American soldiers and marked the beginning of an intense period of violence leading up to the elections. More Americans were killed in this incident - which was well planned and appeared to be based on precise intelligence - than during any single incident in the Iraq campaign to date.

Since then, bombing and killings have become a daily event, with attacks across the country now averaging 80 each day, according to media reports. The murder of aides to top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and remarks such as the January 23 statement from Jordanian-born militant leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have sparked fears that the rebels are trying to touch off conflict between the Sunni and Shia communities.

“The fighters are getting much better,” said Dodge. “If you graph their effectiveness, it’s a steep climb upwards. If someone learns something, the insurgency diffuses the new knowledge effectively.”


Though it has moved beyond its Baathist roots, most agree that ex-party loyalists remain a driving force within the insurgency.

They have vast wealth at their disposal, having raided the banks before the Americans arrived, and a large supply of weapons and other resources, many of which enter Iraq through the country’s long and porous borders. With just 150,000 US troops on the ground, the likes of Zarqawi and other al-Qaeda operatives have little trouble entering Iraq and moving around at will.

So preoccupied were Coalition troops with finding weapons of mass destruction and protecting Iraq’s oil fields and refineries that conventional arsenals were left unguarded. During the looting that followed the fall of Baghdad, substantial weapons caches of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and mines found their way into insurgent hands.

The Baathists were uniquely prepared for a new role as leading light in a rebel movement, given the ruthless activities of Saddam’s security men and the immense amount of grassroots intelligence that was held on file.

“Baathists did killings and beheadings when they were in power. They were trained to do this. They know everything about Iraq and they have the money and the weapons,” an Iraqi source told IWPR.

It is thought that the on-the-ground intelligence that ex-Baathist security men can offer informs some of the attacks by Islamic radical groups and others, who provide the manpower.

In a recent interview with the Sulaimaniyah paper Hawlati, leading Baathist Salah al-Mukhtar claims his party is currently “leading one of the greatest, most ferocious and most complicated armed revolutions launched against colonialism in human history”.

He says that US attempts to crush the party through the de-Baathification process have been unsuccessful and describes the organisation as better, stronger and more deeply-rooted than before the invasion, adding that its new leaders are unknown to the public.

Many analysts agree that the way de-Baathification was handled was a major contributor to the current disorder and to Sunni disaffection with the US.

Under a plan to ensure that those responsible for the excesses of Saddam’s regime were removed from power, the Coalition Provisional Authority, CPA, outlawed the Baath party and demobilised the army. More than 350,000 ex-soldiers and several thousand civil servants were left without a job, contributing to the country’s already serious unemployment problem.

The cuts went deep, moving well beyond the country’s former political elite and leaving the impression that de-Baathification was a general witch-hunt targeting rank-and-file party members who had only joined in order to get a public-sector job. This angered and alienated Sunnis and proved a missed opportunity for the Coalition, which had initially been well-received by sections of the community that had suffered under Saddam, who generally favoured his own tribe and regional allies over others.

In an attempt to undo some of the damage and soothe ruffled feathers, in spring 2004 the CPA decided to allow some Baath party members to return to military and government service.

But “re-Baathification”, too, was greeted with outrage. Former victims of Baathist persecution protested, and Iraqi National Congress chairman Ahmed Chalabi reportedly said that inviting former Baath party members back into the fold was “like allowing Nazis into the German government immediately after World War II”.


Meanwhile, harsh American military tactics in the Sunni Triangle continued, drawing unfavourable comparisons with Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories – a hearts-and-minds disaster. Images of US abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, the civilian deaths in Sunni flashpoints like Fallujah, and apparent American indifference to Iraqi religious traditions swelled the ranks of the rebels.

Though dislike of the Americans is the overwhelming ideology, all agree the rebels are also fighting for a more practical outcome – to prevent paybacks from an elected Shia government.

Sunni Arabs have formed the Iraqi political and social elite since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Under Saddam – a Sunni from Tikrit – the community dominated both politically and militarily, snapping up the best jobs, attending the best schools and accumulating wealth, while the Kurds and Shia Arabs fared worse.

Under the new electoral system of proportional representation, however, the Shias who make up about 60 per cent of the population compared with the Sunnis’ 15-20 per cent will be in charge for the first time.

“Sunnis cannot expect to govern Iraq. They are not going to be in top positions,” said Phebe Marr, senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and the author of the Modern History of Iraq.

“This sharp loss of prestige and power is at the heart of what is going on. Underlying all this is a sense of loss they won’t have a dominant position in the new Iraq.”


In the US, support for the war is slipping fast. Recent polls found 56 per cent of Americans now think the cost of the war outweighs the benefits, while 60 per cent disapprove of the way the US is handling the situation in Iraq.

Analysts point out it took years for the Vietnam conflict to become so unpopular and worry the US has no real idea how to solve its Iraqi problems - in part because it is still unwilling to re-examine its original premise for the war and accept it was wrong to expect to be universally greeted as a liberator.

“I’ve been briefed by Rumsfeld and the chief of staff of the army and I really don’t think they have a plan,” said a US analyst, who asked not to be named.

Because Iraq is seen by the Bush administration as part of its broader war on terrorism, the idea of actually negotiating with at least some of the insurgents has so far proved difficult.

When the US Marines pulled out of Fallujah last April they turned over security to a group of former Iraqi officers called the Fallujah Brigade. But the Coalition was soon forced to disband the brigade which not only failed to combat militants, but actively helped them by surrendering weapons, vehicles and radios to the insurgents. Some even participated in attacks on US forces.

So, if negotiation is fraught with problems and if, according to Dodge, the insurgency has “no military solution”, what should the Americans do?

Iraqi observers say an important first step would be addressing the concerns of the wider Sunni community, which is currently offering the insurgents a popular base of support and allowing them to move freely around their population centres.

“The fear the insurgents once felt has progressively declined,” the International Crisis Group wrote in a December 2004 report, based on field work in Iraq. “They now operate with ease among a supportive or subdued population.”

Violence from hard-core Baathist and Islamists was to be expected, the analysts say, but the frustration that has driven some ordinary Iraqis to take up arms has contributed hugely to the problem.

In his Boston Review article, Hashim said that the goodwill of Iraq’s middle class, potentially an invaluable asset to the Coalition, was lost when the Americans failed to protect this section of the community following the breakdown in law and order and the economic chaos that accompanied the invasion.

As one Sunni told Hashim, “If the Americans came and developed our general services, brought work for our people, and transferred their technology to us, then we would not have been so disappointed. But it is not acceptable to us as human beings that after one year America is still not able to bring us electricity.”

Gaining the support of the general population might prove a more effective counter-insurgency strategy than battling shadowy militant groups.

As Hashim noted, “In preventing the insurgency from transcending the constraints of localisation, the centre of gravity remains without a doubt, the people – ordinary Iraqi citizens who crave security and law and order, then economic activity.”


Sunnis whose interests may differ from that of the hard-core insurgents, including intellectuals and business people, form identifiable constituencies that could be courted.

Marr, from the United States Institute of Peace, points out the Sunni urban elite – an educated, well-travelled group of professionals – would be easier to integrate into the new Iraq as they lack a real sense of tribal identity, unlike their rural counterparts.

The Americans could also exploit the historical divisions that exist among the Sunnis themselves. Birkbeck’s Zubaida says that stretching back to the Ottoman times, two separate Sunni communities have co-existed in Iraq, not always harmoniously. In one faction were the ruling families and in the other the people of the Sunni Triangle.

Until the Fifties and Sixties, Zubaida says, the latter group were largely poor peasants living in the least developed part of the country. Illiteracy rates were high, and they had little in common with the rulers in Baghdad and Mosul. But their power grew as they began providing the mainstay of the security forces, and subsequently of the Baath regime.

“The Sunni Triangle people were the main source of recruitment into the army and many went to military college and became officers,” said Zubaida. “That is the source of their power in subsequent coup d’etats, but they’ve never seen eye to eye with the old Sunnis who had contempt for them.”

He believes the current military approach to solving the insurgency problem is not viable and like most Iraq specialists interviewed by IWPR suggests that a more political approach – forming alliances with anyone who is prepared to talk – would be more successful when dealing with both the general population and the insurgents.

“There is one very powerful force: the majority of people everywhere, as much as they hate the Americans or the Shia, want a quiet life,” he said. “They want to have jobs and families, and that is a powerful incentive. There would be plenty of people willing to make deals in order to have a quiet life. That’s what the Americans should play at.”


However, there are stumbling blocks in the way of engaging the Sunni community in a non-violent path of dialogue and eventual inclusion in mainstream politics.

The Sunnis lack the diversity of established political parties that the Kurds and Shia both enjoy, presenting a problem for those who would brave violence and intimidation to turn out at the polls.

The Iraqi Islamic Party, a Sunni grouping which has affiliations with the wider Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East, has withdrawn from the interim government and from participating in the election.

But in a sign that it is not absolutely ruling out further engagement in the process, a member of its ruling council, Ammar Wajeeh, was quoted by Al-Hayat on January 14 as saying his party was not barring individual members from voting, and they were free to pick any of the existing party lists they wanted.

The Muslim Clerics’ Council, an association of influential Sunni religious figures, is demanding a total boycott of the poll for as long as foreign troops remain in Iraq.

There are also other options for Sunnis who choose to vote.

Though the influential United Iraqi Alliance is often described as a Shia bloc and includes the main Shia parties SCIRI (the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), al-Dawa and the Iraqi National Congress, it is by no means monolithic, and embraces some Sunnis as well, notably Sheikh Mohsen Ajeel al-Yawar, supreme leader of the Shammar – the largest tribe in Iraq.

Shia politicians have been at pains to stress that the post-election political process must be inclusive, and that the United Iraqi Alliance will not exploit its likely success at the ballot-box to exclude other parts of the nation.

The sheikh’s nephew, Iraqi president Ghazi al-Yawar, is leading a rival bloc called al-Iraqiyun (The Iraqis), built on the support of various tribes and smaller political parties. Like many other candidate lists, al-Iraqiyun has made a conscious attempt to transcend ethnic and religious divides. Islamic Party member Hachim al-Husseini, who decided not to resign as industry minister when the party withdrew from government in December, subsequently joined al-Iraqiyun.


Not everyone agrees that a unitary Iraq can be saved. Some analysts and observers argue that the only way out of the current violence, and the long-term solution to Sunni discontent, is to divide the country among its three main communities – a large southern state for Iraq’s Shias, an autonomous north for the Kurds, with the middle left to the Sunni Arabs.

One American source who asked not to be named says instead of making peace and planning elections the US should be “acting as midwife for the partition of Iraq. It would be difficult, but far better than a violent civil war with ethnic cleansing”.

Though this option is rarely mentioned among non-Kurdish Iraqis, it does have its proponents among some foreign analysts, including Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank. Thompson maintains the British created an unworkable state when they fashioned Iraq after the First World War, drawing arbitrary borders that forced diverse ethnic and sectarian groups to co-exist within the same country.

He points out that within a few years the British, like the Americans, faced a revolt that had to be forcibly suppressed. The British general election campaign of 1922 featured calls for the country to get out of Mesopotamia, amid newspaper editorialising about the heavy cost of commitments there.

Much of the country’s history since then, Thompson says, has been a “depressing chronicle of one dictator after another governing on the basis of tribal, ethnic and religious ties”. Saddam was no exception.

“Does this mean the people of Iraq can’t sustain democracy?” Thompson asked. “No, it doesn’t. The close alignment of ethnic and religious identities provides a powerful basis for political community. But each of the three major ethnic groups needs its own polity, rather than trying to co-exist in a consensual form of government with its historic enemies.”

Of course, actually dividing Iraq would be a daunting – if not impossible – task. Iraq is not the Balkans, and its Sunni and Shia populations are not as geographically separate as some may suggest. Though Shias dominate the south and Sunnis the central triangle, most large cities are ethnically mixed – Baghdad most of all. There has also been widespread intermarriage, particularly among educated Iraqis.

Another potential problem is the reaction of Iraq’s Arab, Turkish and Iranian neighbours to any redrawing of borders.


Right now, the furthest ahead that most people can see is the formation of the interim parliament or National Assembly, the drafting of a constitution, and the holding of new elections for a fully-fledged legislature and government.

Though most people interviewed by IWPR agree the elections must take place, the timing of the January 30 poll has been controversial, with some saying it should be postponed until more Sunnis can be persuaded to join in. Even Prime Minister Ayad Allawi recently admitted that some “pockets” in Sunni parts of Iraq won’t participate.

Turi Munthe of RUSI in London, however, believes they should proceed on schedule.

“Get the elections done with, and work out after that how the Sunnis can be incorporated. More elections could be held soon after if need be,” he said. “Iraq needs a legitimate government.”

The existing interim government has not been as effective as many hoped, because it has been unable to establish itself an identity separate from its US sponsors.

In its recent Iraq report, the International Crisis Group warned that elections are not a panacea and the new government will fail to unite Iraq unless the process is seen as a fundamental break from what has occurred in the past, not merely a continuation of it.

“National elections… will change little unless they produce institutions that can address basic needs and prove their independence by distancing themselves from the US and reaching out to all political components,” it said.

“What is required now is dual disengagement: a gradual US political and military disengagement from Iraq and, no less important, a clear Iraqi political disengagement from the US.”

Whatever happens on election day, an essential element of the political process will clearly be to include and involve the Sunni community. Despite the ongoing violence, there are still avenues for engaging various Sunni constituencies, and sapping the discontent that helps feed the insurgency.

Lisa Clifford is a London-based journalist and IWPR contributor.

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