Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State

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Middle East Report N°144

In its latest report, Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, the International Crisis Group examines the question of Sunni Arab participation in the political order that has beleaguered the transition since its inception. Quickly marginalised by an ethno-sectarian apportionment that confined them to minority status in a system dominated by Arab Shiites and Kurds, community members first shunned the new dispensation then fought it. The past few years of participation have produced few dividends and again convinced many Sunni Arabs that their only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms. In the absence of a dramatic shift in approach, Iraq’s fragile polity risks breaking down, a victim of the combustible mix of its longstanding flaws and growing regional tensions.

The report’s major findings and recommendations are:

  • The question of Sunni Arab representation in Iraq’s political order is more acute than ever; since late December, Sunni protesters have mobilised in peaceful demonstration against the government and found no answer to their grievances; the crackdown on the sit-in in Hawija empowered the most radical voices among them, mutating the political crisis into an armed conflict.
  • After Hawija, Iraq is on the brink of a relapse into generalised conflict, confronted with a resurgence of Sunni militant operations, the strengthening of al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq and waves of attacks fuelling sectarian tensions. The government has tightened security measures even further, exacerbating the divide between Sunni constituents and central authorities.
  • The government should find ways to integrate Sunni Arabs in the political process, negotiate local ceasefires with Sunni officials and cooperate with local actors to build an effective security strategy within their provinces and along the Iraq-Syria frontier.
  • In the run-up to the 2014 provincial elections, both Sunni national leaders and the government should focus efforts on restoring Sunni constituents’ confidence in the political process. -“Deploying additional troops and special forces, arresting more people and attempting to subdue whole swathes of society through intimidation produces the opposite of the desired effect: it consolidates the split between Sunni Arabs and Baghdad’s central authorities”, says Maria Fantappie, Crisis Group Middle East Analyst. “Maliki, who partly owes his power to the U.S., ought to know this best, insofar as Washington pursued this approach before concluding that it would not succeed”.

“This time around, U.S. firepower would not be available, and Iraq’s volatile strategic environment would present far greater challenges than a weak state could hope to overcome”, says Peter Harling, Crisis Group Middle East Senior Adviser. “Maliki’s strength typically has resided in his ability to present himself as a national leader. He would be well advised to do so again”.