Analysis: Iraqi Shia divide fuels Sunni ambitions

Salah Nasrawi , Saturday 12 Feb 2022

Once marginalised and excluded, Iraq’s Sunnis are now flexing their political muscle amid a sharp Shia split.


In the early years of the US occupation of Iraq, which escalated Shia empowerment, the country’s Sunni Muslims who were once its dominant political elite felt disenfranchised.   

The community challenged the newly emerging Shia-controlled system and largely abstained from politics. Many of its members at times resisted the post-invasion government by force. 

Nearly two decades later, Iraq’s Sunnis seem to have developed the experience, ability, confidence, and motivation to change their fortunes and turn their declining political power into an opportunity. 

Multiple factors are giving Sunnis hope to reverse their losing streak and make a political U-turn, but one key factor is the division and poor performance that have dealt the country’s Shia ruling class a punch that has knocked the wind out of its sails.  

Two main Sunni political groups won 51 seats in the 329-member parliament in Iraq’s national elections in October, making considerable gains in the assembly and suggesting a tectonic shift away from their weak performance in the country’s past four elections. 

But the mandate seems to be about much more than just the number of seats won by Sunnis. It could also be about the future of the Iraqi political order, crafted after the US toppled former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime, leading to the rise of the majority Shia to power. 

Iraq’s Sunni Arabs have tried many tactics before to achieve their goals, including an armed insurgency. But they failed to make a significant political breakthrough that could pose an existential threat to successive Shia-led governments. 

In the 2010 elections, Iraqi Sunnis ran under the cross-sectarian Iraqiya Coalition with Shia politician Ayad Allawi at its head in order to provide a vehicle for forming a government if they won a majority of seats.  

That highly ambitious approach ended in tatters when Iraq’s high court ruled that a bloc of parties formed after the elections with most of the seats should form the new government, forcing the Sunnis to join a partnership administration under Shia and Kurdish leadership. 

Having seen their hopes dashed further by measures taken by the then Shia prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki that consolidated his government’s control over wealth and power, Iraq’s Sunni political leaders had little option but to run in the next elections on an avowedly sectarian platform. 

Over a decade, the Sunnis paid a terrible price during the struggle to overturn the situation when extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda resorted to brutal methods including attacking civilians to advance the Sunni cause.  

At a certain juncture when frustration from the failure to force Al-Maliki’s government to adopt policies to end their exclusion intensified, many Sunnis started seeking autonomy from Baghdad by promoting a federal Sunni region. 

A further blow to Sunni efforts to achieve sufficient representation came with the conflict between the two communities that led to massive violence in Iraq and the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group and its seizure of one third of Iraq’s territory in 2014. 

In the end, when their policy of keeping on fighting in the hope of eventually eroding the Shia resolve ended without success, Iraq’s Sunnis shifted their position and accepted the status quo.  

The defeat of IS in 2017 gave new weight to Sunni options, encouraging them to drop a confrontational approach and draw closer to the ruling Shia groups. Sunni groups even joined the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) in the war on the IS terror group. 

This dramatic shift was manifested in the 2018 elections, when Sunni factions entered into alliances with the main Shia blocs on declared cross-sectarian tickets. Several Sunni groups joined the PMF’s parliamentary bloc the Fatah Alliance, which came second in the elections with some 46 seats in parliament. 

In further signs of realpolitik, Sunni politicians began making contacts with Iranian officials, and prominent Iraqi Sunni clerics even travelled to Tehran to pay homage to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

In many respects, the new dynamics in the shift in the Iraqi Sunnis’ power-game reflected historical reality by facing up to the challenges of the country’s transition in the post- Saddam era. 

Slowly, the Sunnis began to realise that by coming to terms with the political process initiated by the US they could address their woes.  

Another major adjustment to the Sunnis’ strategy came with the elections last October, when Sunni groups emerged as a more cohesive political force. The Taqadom (Progress) Party led by former speaker Mohamed Al-Halbousi and the Azem Party led by Khamis Al-Kanjar controlled as many as 51 of the seats in the new parliament as a result. 

The two groups later agreed to form the united Sovereignty Alliance, which was joined by a few more Sunni MPs and succeeded in pushing Al-Halbousi’s candidacy for a second term as head of the assembly. 

But the Sunnis’ strong electoral posture seems to be about more than just the number of seats they won in the new parliament and include a broader vision of the Iraqi state’s identity, legitimacy, and ownership, all long at the centre of the sectarian conflict in post-invasion Iraq. 

To put things into perspective, the new Sunni strategy comes at an important juncture in Iraq’s political process when the Shia political groups are witnessing a decline in their popularity and a downsizing of their electoral support from their earlier vantage point. 

The new Sunni confidence is not unfounded, as the Iraqi Shia political factions have taken a political and electoral bow due to the poor functioning of the successive governments they have controlled since the US-led invasion. 

The popular uprising that swept across Baghdad and most of Iraq’s southern Shia-populated provinces in 2019-2020, protesting against widespread corruption and government inefficiency, neatly showed that the Shias are not united and that their political groups are no longer a preponderant force in the country. 

One of the demands of the protesters was also to overthrow sectarianism and to cement Iraqi nationalism, which echoed the Sunnis’ grievances at Iraq’s power-sharing sectarian system and Iran’s increasing political influence in the country. 

The early general elections held in October proved this argument right, as the Shia political factions, besieged by internal dissensions, factionalism, and dwindling popularity, left the “Shia House” that had once been united in purpose in disarray. 

Iraq’s Sunnis have found a new opening in the ability of Muqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist Movement that won most of the Shia seats in parliament, to form a consensus government. 

Under Al-Sadr, a comfortable parliamentary alliance with Sunni and Kurdish forces will allow his group to lead a “national majority” government that puts it at the helm of the political system without his Shia rivals. 

Another window of opportunity has been opened for Iraqi Sunnis with the Arab Gulf states launching an offensive to contain Iran’s influence in the region. The showdown includes diplomatic engagement with Tehran and attempts to drive Iran out of spheres of influence such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. 

Iraq’s Sunnis will hope that the Arabs’ endeavours will reduce Iran and its proxies’ influence in the country and help to reset Iraq’s politics in a way that could minimise their exclusion and give them a bigger say in national decision-making. 

Transitional periods are often shaped by the dynamics of power and influence, but it remains difficult to fathom the long-term ambitions of the Iraqi Sunnis and whether they entertain hopes of tipping over the tottering Shia-led political structure and making a comeback to power in Iraq. 

There has been no public debate among the Sunni leadership about the breakup of the current pattern of the Shia majority-led system, but many among the frustrated, discontented, and impatient within the Sunni community would like to see this happen as a result of the increasing Shia divide. 

From a realistic perspective, nothing is more important than reading the dynamics behind the power shift in Iraq correctly. Ignoring or exploiting the Shia divide could further strain the society and increase the incapacity of Iraq’s communities coming together to repair their torn nation. 

As a result, the Iraqi Sunnis’ endeavours to fulfil their ambitions could be a national marathon rather than a fast track towards their finding their own interests in the confining limits of the Iraqi political system.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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