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Islamic State campaign hurts Sunni ambitions for self-rule

Iraq's Shiite prime minister might be loathed by most Sunnis, but the onslaught by Islamist militants appears to be making their situation worse, writes Youssef Hamza
An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014 by Al Furqan Media allegedly shows the leader of the Islamic State (IS)  group, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, aka Caliph Ibrahim, adressing Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul. AFP Photo
An image grab taken from a propaganda video released on July 5, 2014 by Al Furqan Media allegedly shows the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, aka Caliph Ibrahim, adressing Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul. AFP Photo

Many Iraqi Sunnis were initially heartened by an insurgent blitz through the north and west of the country last month: they thought it might be a blow so severe that it would be tough, if not impossible, for Shiite prime minister Nouri Al Maliki to secure a third term in office.

But the stunning battlefield successes by militants from the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are hardly what Sunnis had in mind when they wished for an end to the perceived bias and discrimination by Mr Al Maliki.

In fact, the success of the Islamic State has ominously fed tensions in Baghdad and elsewhere between Sunnis, who were powerful when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, and Shiites, the country’s largest community. Tit-for-tat killings now occur on a near daily basis.

Moreover, it has created an undesired association between Sunnis and militants from the brutal Islamic State, who last week declared the creation of a self-styled “caliphate” in areas under their control in Iraq and across the border in neighbouring Syria.

For their part, Mr Al Maliki and his government have gone to great lengths to portray the ongoing crisis as a fight against terrorism and not the culmination of years of Sunni persecution that may have contributed to creating a favourable climate for the militants.

By using this tactic, Mr Al Maliki is hoping to gain the support of Sunni tribes in areas captured by the Islamic State. His aim is to persuade them to rise up against the militants and drive them out as they did with Al Qaeda in 2007 and 2008.

Mr Al Maliki has also insisted that Sunnis are volunteering to join the government security forces to fight the Islamic State. Yet the claim has yet to be substantiated and is widely seen as an attempt by the prime minister to show that the fight against the Sunni militants transcends sectarianism.

It is unlikely that Mr Al Maliki has the credibility to succeed with this. Over the past month, it has become clear that the Islamic State has allies inside Iraq’s Sunni community who don’t necessarily agree with the brutal tactics of the militants, but find them to be useful allies for the foreseeable future.

Among the Islamic State’s allies are Saddam Hussein loyalists, fighters from smaller Islamist groups, along with some disgruntled members of local tribes.

According to Iraqi officials, most Sunni tribes remain unconvinced that they should join the efforts against the Islamic State and its allies, instead demanding that Mr Al Maliki step down before they lift a finger to help the government.

The response appears justified on several levels. Despite statements to the contrary, Mr Al Maliki has given the campaign to mobilise against the Islamic State a sectarian bent.

For example, he has given his implicit blessing to Shiite militias to join the fight and turned a blind eye to their shows of force on the streets of Baghdad. This included a two-hour parade by the Mahdi Army, which like other Shiite armed groups, played a significant role in the killing of Sunnis during the peak of Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting in 2006 and 2007.

He has also sought aid from non-Arab, Shiite Iran and even invited Qassem Suleimani, the country’s most powerful general, to Iraq, and allowed Iranian drones to fly reconnaissance missions.

For many Sunnis, these decisions confirmed longtime suspicions about Mr Al Maliki’s proximity to the Iranian regime.

Beyond Mr Al Maliki, Shiite leaders themselves have portrayed the fight as one that is focused on the defence of the sect’s revered shrines in the cities of Baghdad, Samarra, Najaf and Karbala. The Islamic State has vowed to march on all four cities and a representative of Ali Al Sistani, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, cited this as a reason for an urgent call to arms on June 13.

The group’s successes, and, equally, the humiliating defeat of government forces, have also fuelled sectarian tensions. In recent days, Shiite militants have enjoyed a degree of acquiescence by the government, readopting past tactics of intimidation and scaremongering in Baghdad with the aim of frightening Sunnis and heading off a possible uprising by the community in the capital. Shiites themselves have been victims of an unrelenting campaign of car and suicide bombings carried out by Sunnis.

At another level, many Sunnis feel that the crisis created by the Islamic State’s onslaught into the north and west of Iraq may offer them their best opportunity yet when it comes to pushing for a self-ruled region. The right to create such regions is enshrined in Iraq’s constitution, but Mr Al Maliki, widely seen as an authoritarian ruler at heart, has worked tirelessly to derail any such attempt.

Now, with the West speaking out about Mr Al Maliki’s failure to hold the country together, and urging him to accommodate the aspirations of Iraq’s minorities, many believe the moment to demand greater self-rule has arrived.

Still, the greatest fear among moderate Sunnis is that their campaign for equal rights or a self-ruled region will be associated with the Islamic State, whose propaganda speaks of delivering Sunis from the tyranny of “heretic” Shiites.

This may mean that their aspirations are put on hold until the militants are defeated.

Published: July 5, 2014 04:00 AM

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