Exactly a decade after the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, sectarian tensions are again threatening to turn back the clock in Iraq. The trigger this time was the storming of a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija by government forces that left 23 dead.
The pretext was that wanted militants were hiding among the protesters—a charge the protest leaders deny, although there is a history of militant activity in the area. Subsequent unrest killed dozens more and brought the death toll to 215 by Saturday, April 27. With Sunnis enraged, one prominent tribal leader from Anbar province, Ali Al-Hatem, vowed a full-scale armed uprising against the government, daring Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki “to finish what he started.”
Not without some justification, Sunni resentment at the perceived discriminatory policies of the Shi'a-led government has been bubbling away for some time. This led to the launch of a Tahrir Square-type sit-in movement that demanded the release of female prisoners and the repeal of the country's anti-terror law. But as in Syria, what began as a largely peaceful protest threatens to spiral into a violent and overtly sectarian conflict. Already, the talk is of “toppling” Maliki and creating a tribal army, the so-called Army of Pride and Dignity, to protect Sunni areas.
This threatens to resurrect the insurgency that was supported by the same tribal leaders who are now challenging the Iraqi prime minister. Peaking around 2006, the insurgency did not achieve its stated goal of forcing the US out (or its less-stated goal of recapturing the Iraqi state from the Shi'as), but it did succeed in traumatizing a generation of young Iraqis and turning large swaths of central and western Iraq into the badlands that Al-Qaeda calls home.
It also managed to exacerbate Sunni feelings of marginalization by precluding the emergence of an effective political leadership that could advocate for the Sunni interest in the new Iraq. The April 20 provincial elections are a case in point. Excluding the Kurdistan region, the elections were held in all of Iraq’s provinces except two: Sunni-majority Anbar and Nineveh.
During the election campaign at least fourteen candidates were assassinated and numerous car bombs exploded in what appear to have been coordinated attacks designed to disrupt the vote. Having been denied the right to elect their own representatives, the citizens of Anbar and Nineveh have little recourse but to fall back on the self-appointed tribal leaders whose lack of political judgment has embroiled them in one unwinnable war already.
The Shi'a hold on power in Iraq is now formidable, but with Iran’s proxy in Syria weakening and a shift in the regional balance of power appearing imminent, Sunni leaders sense an opportunity for another showdown with the Shi'as. But while some brag about humbling the “Safavids,” others call for more modest goals: self-governing rights not unlike those of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Under the constitution drawn up after the US-led invasion, each province or group of provinces is entitled to create a federal region if it wins enough votes in a referendum. Predominantly Sunni Salahuddin province is currently pursuing regional status. “Sunnism is our slogan and a region is our goal,” senior cleric Taha Hamed Al-Dulaimi told demonstrators in Anbar in a video on his website. “Do not scatter your demands,” he instructed.
But scatter they shall. All of the candidates assassinated in the lead up to the elections were Sunnis, a number of whom were from the Al-Iraqiya coalition headed by Iyad Allawi, the secular former prime minister. He, more than any other political figure, represents the Sunnis’ most likely prospect of winning a real stake in government. His campaign for next year’s parliamentary elections has been weakened not only by intimidation from militant factions, but by high-level defections to rival coalitions of a more sectarian hue.
For too many Sunni politicians, playing the victimization card has become the only political program they know. It may win them votes, but once in power they lack the competence and collective will to do anything about it. And while some have been chased out of the country for standing up to the prime minister, others have quietly been co-opted with ministerial portfolios and generous government stipends. Many of these individuals will seize on the current troubles not to guide their own community out of danger, but to negotiate better terms for themselves with Maliki.
Even away from the Green Zone bubble, Sunni group solidarity appears shaky. The Awakening Council’s militia—composed of anti-Al-Qaeda Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province—has sided with Maliki and has ordered its co-religionists to “do what it did in 2006.” In other words, to take on and defeat another insurgency.
Regardless of the scope of Sunni goals or the methods they employ to achieve them, the absence of a united and democratically mandated leadership limits the chances for success of a Sunni revolt against the Shi'a order in Iraq. The fear is that it will be a rerun of the 2004–2007 rebellion that ended so disastrously, and this time there will be no US military to blame or to cushion the blow. Defeat will be total and abject, and the stakes could not be any higher.