Iraq's Sunnis in Crisis

by Stephen Wicken

Executive Summary

The political participation of the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq is critical to the security and stability of the state. At present, they are functionally excluded from government, with those that do participate coopted by the increasingly authoritarian Shi‘a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Without effective political representation, the Sunni in Iraq are left with few alternatives to address their grievances against the Maliki government. The important decisions lie ahead on whether to pursue their goals via political compromise, federalism, or insurgency.
The cross-sectarian Iraqi National Movement (Iraqiyya) coalition provided a vehicle for the representation of Sunni Arabs in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Since that time, Iraqiyya has declined as a political force. Maliki has abandoned the non-sectarian nationalist platform that he adopted in 2009 and has systematically marginalized the senior cadre of Sunni national politicians. This began in earnest with the withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011, when Maliki targeted Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who is now in exile.
The aggregate effect of Maliki’s maneuvers and those of other Shi‘a political parties against Iraqiyya from 2010 to 2012 was the identification of Iraqiyya as a sectarian Sunni coalition, which ensured its terminal marginalization. Frustrated and divided, Iraqiyya leaders, including Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, failed repeatedly to mount an effective political opposition to Maliki. As a result, the U.S. and international community can no longer lean on Iraqiyya as a cohesive stabilizing political entity with regard to Iraqi Sunnis.
In December 2012, Maliki arrested bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, a native of Anbar province. This wave of maneuvers targeting Issawi sparked an anti-government protest movement across majority-Sunni Arab areas of Iraq that has persisted into May 2013. Protestors have articulated specific demands of the Maliki government that include de-Baathification reform and constraints upon the provincial disposition of Maliki’s operational commands. The specific demands enumerate opportunities for U.S. and international involvement to mitigate Iraq’s political crisis.
The anti-government protest movement and the establishment of organized demands signify the return of Sunni sectarian politics in Iraq. However, the protestors, as well as Sunni national political figures, are divided over whether to enter into negotiations with Maliki. A gulf of influence separates most national political figures from the protestors at this time, and a cadre of provincial, tribal, and clerical figures has entered into the debate. This cadre includes senior Sunni cleric Abd al-Malik al-Saadi, the key advocate of negotiations between protesters and the government. 
The protests largely have been peaceful, but several exceptions, most notably a clash with Iraqi security forces in Hawija on April 23, 2013, demonstrate the potential for violence that may result from the protracted anti-government movement. Both AQI and the neo-Baathist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshabandia (JRTN) are attempting to hijack the movement and advocate for violent uprising. The majority of Iraqi Sunni Arabs do not support terrorism, having rejected AQI in 2008. Nevertheless, the discontent among Sunnis in Iraq creates opportunities for AQI to expand its presence in Iraq and to target the government of Iraq directly.
Terrorism is not the only security concern caused by Iraq’s current political crisis. The anti-government protest movement also threatens to incite another Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The Syrian civil war provides a compelling example of an armed uprising against authoritarian leadership by a Sunni Arab population. As witnessed in Syria, once an uprising gains momentum, the requirement to succeed in battle supports unprincipled alliances, such as with al-Qaeda affiliates, in the name of tactical victory. Syrian spillover heightens the threat of escalation in Iraq and underscores the requirement for a careful political solution.
Maliki’s dogged pursuit of Sunni politicians is a worst-case scenario for regional stability and U.S. national security. Targeting Hashemi, Issawi, and other prominent Iraqi Sunni leaders is purely self-interested behavior, and it does nothing to counter the threat of AQI. In fact, it fans the flame of Sunni discontent and generates a security threat by way of anti-government violence and insurgency. The U.S. would do well to acknowledge this about Maliki and to consider implementing conditions on assistance to Maliki’s counter-terrorism and defense programs.
Cutting off Maliki completely is not a viable option. Maliki is not yet compelled by Iran, but the less influence the U.S. and the international community exerts in Iraq, the more Iranian influence will dominate. How the U.S. engages Maliki during this political crisis is a critical component of how the U.S. addresses regional threats emanating from Syria and Iran as well as transnational threats. Failing to engage with the political crisis at this time threatens to relinquish regional influence to Iran. This in turn risks the prospect of sectarian conflict in Iraq, to the detriment of the region as a whole.
The U.S. must engage to ensure July 2013 provincial elections in Anbar and Ninewa take place freely and fairly. Additionally, legitimate demands by protestors must be recognized and addressed in order to prevent the withdrawal of Iraqi Sunnis from politics. The longer Iraqi Sunnis are left without an avenue for political expression, the more vulnerable they may become to advocacy for violent alternatives. Particularly if protesters continue to encounter real or perceived threats by Iraqi Security Forces, this may cease to be a political movement. It could develop into an insurgency that, in tandem with the civil war in Syria, would have devastating effects on regional security.