Only a few months ago, Mohamed Al-Halbousi, a wealthy businessman in Iraq’s western Anbar province, was a rising star on the country’s Sunni Arab stage. He was re-elected as speaker of the Iraqi parliament and seemed to be heading to be a key power broker in the country’s politics.
A tribal member born and raised in the Garmma district of Anbar, the 42-year-old Al-Halbousi entered politics in 2014 when he was elected to represent the province. Anbar was later captured by the Islamic State (IS) terror group, along with several other Sunni-populated provinces in Iraq.
After Anbar was liberated in 2017, Al-Halbousi left parliament to become the governor of the province, supported by local tribesmen who were angered by the broken promises of both traditional Sunni parties and the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
Two years later, Al-Halbousi took another key step forward on Iraq’s uncertain political scene when he was chosen to head the national parliament propelled by a coalition of Sunni politicians and Shia groups aligned with Iran.
When Al-Halbousi was re-elected to the post of speaker after national elections last October, the young engineer-turned-politician was seen as a politician armed with plenty of self-confidence in the up-and-coming post-IS Sunni generation.
However, many believe that Al-Halbousi may have been a political shooting star who flashed brilliantly across the sky, but may now be coming crashing down to earth all too quickly, a victim of his own ambition, Sunni Arab divisions, and Iraq’s fragile politics.
Al-Halbousi is steadily falling out of favour with his old backers, and that could underscore the larger dilemma of the Iraqi Sunni leadership in the recovery in post-IS Iraq and undermine its ability to achieve its goals.
Sunni Arabs ruled Iraq until the 2003 US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and handed power to the country’s Shia majority backed by ethnic Kurds. This was a drastic shift that was at the heart of much of the unrest that followed.
Ever since the invasion, Sunni-dominated provinces, feeling marginalised and excluded, have been the setting for rebellion, first against the US occupation and then against the new Shia-led governments in Iraq.
Over the years, several factors were behind an emerging Sunni discourse that reflected the community’s broader tactics with a view to achieving their goals by emphasising the civilian and non-sectarian nature of the state.
In 2010, moderate Iraqi Sunnis participated in elections as part of the cross-sectarian Iraqiya Coalition with Shia politician Ayad Allawi at its head in an attempt to find a vehicle for forming a government if they won a majority of the seats in parliament.
The tactic backfired despite a strong electoral posture after it was confronted by a Shia majority in the parliament in collaboration with Kurdish political parties that feared the coalition could be a cover for Saddam supporters to make a comeback and pose an existential threat to their empowerment.
Even without much success in drastically changing the Shia-Kurdish dominated political landscape in Iraq, the country’s Sunni groups continued to run in successive elections and join governments in the hope that their community would have a better chance of advancing its agenda.
Nearly two decades later, Iraq’s Sunnis seem to have gained more confidence in their ability to use the political process to change their fortunes and turn their diminishing political power into an opportunity.
A major U-turn in the Sunni strategy came with the parliamentary elections in Iraq last October, when Sunni political groups emerged as a more cohesive force building on disarray within the Shia camp following mass protests against the country’s Shia-led establishment.
Al-Halbousi’s group and another faction led by Sunni businessman Khamis Al-Khanjar won 51 seats in the 329-member parliament, suggesting a notable shift away from their weak performance in other post-Saddam elections and opening a new window of opportunity to improve their community’s capacity to influence politics.
The two groups later agreed to form the Sovereignty Alliance, which was joined by a few more Sunni MPs and succeeded in pushing Al-Halbousi’s candidacy for a second term as speaker of parliament.
The new bloc also joined a governing coalition that powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, whose Sadrist Movement had won the most seats in parliament, proposed with the Sunnis and the Kurds.
Al-Sadr vowed that a “national majority” government would break with the consensus-based quota system that has guided the country’s political process for years.
This was so far, so good for Al-Halbousi, but the real test for Iraq’s Sunnis to make headway with their efforts to approach a turning point lies ahead.
First, there have been major blow-ups in Al-Sadr’s bid to build a multi-sect coalition with the Sunnis and the Kurds. More than seven months after the elections, the alliance has not been able to gather enough seats to elect a new president and name a new prime minister, steps required by the constitution to form a new government.
The deadlock has allowed Al-Sadr’s Shia rivals to try to divide the Sunni political and tribal elites by courting Al-Halbousi’s foes and tempt them into an alliance that so far has successfully been able to block the parliament from holding a session to elect a new president.
However, most importantly, Al-Sadr’s Shia opponents are resorting to fierce tactics to foment antagonism among the country’s Sunni leaders in a classic divide-and-rule strategy designed to break the cleric’s alliance.
Last month, the Iraqi judiciary, believed to have been infiltrated or influenced by Nuri Al-Maliki, a former prime minister and a key leader in Iraq’s pro-Iran Coordination Framework, dropped all the legal charges against former finance minister Rafia Al-Issawi.
Al-Issawi was released on bail and returned to his tribal stronghold in Anbar.
The security authorities also allowed Ali Hatim Al-Suleiman, a powerful tribal leader in Anbar who was also wanted on terrorism charges, to return to Anbar from exile.
Both Al-Issawi and Al-Suleiman have been accused of leading Sunni protests against Al-Maliki’s government in 2014, which Shia politicians say paved the way for IS subsequently to capture large swathes of territory in Iraq.
Reports suggest that Al-Issawi’s and Al-Suleiman’s return is part of a political deal that could pave the way for the return of other Sunni leaders wanted on similar charges, including former vice-president Tariq Al-Hashemi and ex-governor of Mosul Atheel Al-Nujaifi.
If these leaders and many other figures return to active politics, the Iraqi Sunni political stage will likely witness dramatic changes and Al-Halbousi’s and his partner Al-Khanjar’s ascent will be in jeopardy.
In a statement on 4 May, the Coordination Framework suggested that any deal on forming a new government should include the re-election of the parliament’s speaker as part of a package, a message to Al-Halbousi to either toe the line or lose his post.
Twenty years after Saddam’s ouster, Iraq’s Sunnis are still facing serious problems in fulfilling their ambitions, but the centre of all their challenges remains their poor leadership and their inability to maintain sustainable empowerment and dynamic representation in national politics.
Efforts by the country’s Sunni elites to bring about a power shift in Iraq through increasing the Shia divide and breaking up the current pattern of the Shia majority-led system have proved futile and have potentially created fault lines that the country’s Shia groups can continue to exploit.
Whatever the purpose behind allying with the Shia groups or trying to play them off one against another, there are tremendous doubts that these tactics will push forward the Sunni goal of being equal partners with the Shias.
Instead, the Sunni elites may risk stoking further internecine divisions and a backlash from competing Shia factions.
What the Iraqi Sunnis need is a strategic vision that can set the compass in the right direction and set out specific priority actions to pursue. One essential aspect of this is that this direction should be non-sectarian, constructive, and forward-looking.
The Iraqi Sunnis’ main objective should be breaking up the ethno-sectarian political system in Iraq and the creation of a truly democratic country whose political system is based on equal citizenship and a civil state.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.