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

Iraq: Quelling Sunni Arab Militancy

While the rest of Iraq tries to move on, the Sunni Arabs seem unable to find alternatives to fighting.
By Hiwa Osman

The bomb which devastated United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, killing at least 20 people including UN envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello, has underlined the need to tackle the roots of the violence as well as those directly involved.


The Shia south has also suffered unrest, but there has been fierce, sustained resistance to the occupation only in central Iraq.


Why has this Sunni belt - roughly the area between Baghdad, Tikrit and Mosul - seen repeated acts of sabotage and attacks against US soldiers and other targets?


It is easy enough to say that the “Sunni triangle” is making trouble because it was Saddam Hussein’s heartland. But that is an oversimplification.


The current political set up in Iraq - and the legacy of Saddam’s rule - offer a few deeper insights.


After the fall of Baghdad and the disappearance of Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq quickly evolved into three distinct political regions: a stable Kurdish north, a relatively calm Shia Arab south, and a Sunni Arab centre that is insecure and in turmoil.


Since its inception in 1921, Iraq has been a highly centralised state dominated by a minority Sunni Arab political elite that sidelined, often by force, all forms of opposition.


The Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south were subject to systematic persecution - ethnic, in the case of the largely Sunni Kurds, and religious in the latter case. In response, they organised clandestine opposition political networks in their separate areas.


In the autonomous Kurdish areas, these networks transformed into stable political leadership in the 1990s, while in the south they emerged as the basis for post-Saddam political activism.


It is a different story for the Sunni Arabs in the centre.


Saddam’s regime was the only organised political structure with a strong presence on the ground. High ranking members of the army and the Ba’ath party, and the regime’s security and intelligence apparatus, came from central Iraq.


Sunni Arabs found it easier to accept the Ba’ath leadership simply because they came from the same community. What Sunni opposition parties did exist operated from exile and exerted little influence on the ground.


With the fall of Saddam’s regime and the disappearance of the central government, a political vacuum was created throughout the country, except in the already liberated Kurdish north. Well-established Kurdish and Shia political parties offered an alternative political framework and quickly moved in to fill this vacuum.


Two Kurdish parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party - have been administering most of the Kurdish north since 1991, and after the other Kurdish areas were freed from Ba’ath rule they extended their influence there, too.


The main players in the south today are the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, SCIRI; the Da’wa Islamic Party; and the “Hawza” - the Shia religious establishment run by prominent clergy.


Apart from the Hawza, all these political groupings are represented in the 25-member Governing Council established on July 13.


Sunni Arabs, who were privileged under the old regime, were left without leadership or any alternative reference point. Their leadership melted away with the regime, and there was nothing to replace it. One immediate - and worrying - consequence is that they are not adequately represented on the ruling council.


Since Saddam’s departure and the arrival of US forces on their home ground, the Sunnis have moved in several directions.


Some have turned to the mosques, others to their traditional tribal leaders. Both these institutions were allowed to operate openly under the Ba’ath regime, but their role was strictly confined to social and religious matters - they did not interfere in politics.


The infrastructure for Saddam’s loyalist network - the Ba’ath party and the key state institutions through which he exerted control - has remained untouched. The Americans did not dismantle it when they announced the end of the old regime. They just stopped paying salaries.


As a result, Saddam loyalists - many of them key Ba’athists or security service men - went underground and began plotting and launching attacks against “the occupying army”, using both the mosques and their tribal connections as cover.


In recent years, many mosques in the Sunni triangle had become heavily influenced by the radical Wahhabi trend of Islam, which stems from Saudi Arabia.


Members of al-Qaeda and related extremist groups are also reported to be present in some mosques. They began coming in during the run-up to the war, under the guise of “Arab volunteers”.


Governments in the region have turned a blind eye to such volunteers, since it was rather convenient if potential opponents of their own rule diverted their attention to Iraq.


In addition, critics of some of these governments argue that they have little interest in seeing political transition work in Iraq, as that might raise awkward questions about their own less than democratic regimes.


Some Sunni tribal leaders, who benefited from patronage under the old regime and feel they have been excluded by the Americans, also object to the US presence in Iraq.


It is this explosive combination of Saddam loyalists, disgruntled tribesmen and Islamic fundamentalists that now forms the core of what is today known as the “Iraqi resistance”. They lack a strong centralised leadership, and appear to attack random targets whenever the opportunity arises.


Some argue that the deteriorating economic situation and the heavy-handed behaviour of coalition soldiers have acted as catalyst for these attacks. However, the same conditions pertain in the two other parts of the country, but any opposition there remains political, not violent.


In an attempting to contain the triangle and offer it a legitimate channel of representation, some Sunni Arabs from the opposition in exile and a few low-level members of the old regime have been included into the Governing Council.


But neither group has managed to rally significant public support, because they are new on the political scene and have no public profile.


As the violence escalates, the only way forward seems to be to try again, and make a more serious attempt to engage prominent Sunni Arabs in the political process.


Like SCIRI, they may be people who have grave concerns about the US presence, but as long as they enjoy some legitimacy and do not advocate violence they have a role to play.


Such figures might include senior members of the old regime who were not involved in crimes, such as former defence minister Sultan Hashim, and leaders of the main Sunni Arab tribes, such as the numerous and important Dulaimi and Juburi.


Paradoxically, Iraq’s central zone might be given a boost by encouraging political decentralisation, perhaps towards a federal model. In the short term, it would contain the violence by preventing Sunni extremists from wreaking havoc in the north and south. In the longer term, by enabling the Kurdish and Shia regions to progress without being held back by events in the centre, they could set a an example of political and economic development for the Arab Sunni area to follow.


Finally, Islamic extremism needs to be tackled. Since this ultimately has roots external to Iraq, neighbouring states need to work harder to prevent the infiltration of more “Arab volunteers” or Islamic extremists - in the first instance by putting a stop to blatant recruitment campaigns for “Jihad in Iraq”.


Hiwa Osman is an editor/trainer with IWPR’s Iraq programme.


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