Oct 8th 2016
A PROMINENT Sunni preacher is describing how the demise of Islamic State could herald a new era of Sunni-Shia reconciliation, when a Shia soldier at the checkpoint outside his home town of Samara interrupts his musings. “Your people blew up our shrines,” he says, ordering the sheikh, Salah al-Taha, out of the car. Left to wait in the sun for a couple of hours while a commanding officer is roused from his rest, the sheikh’s resentment returns. Samarra, 125km (80 miles) north of Baghdad, is no longer his own, he says. Shia militias have taken over the old city, and chased out its Sunni inhabitants.
In place of Samarra’s past easy symbiosis—where Sunnis thrived from running hotels and restaurants for Shia pilgrims—the city is now divided in two. A seething outer new town of displaced Sunnis surrounds an inner pockmarked ghost-town manned by a conglomerate of Shia militias. Its centrepiece is the gold-plated dome over the shrine of the 10th and 11th Shia imams (rulers), which jihadists blew up in 2006. The shrine has been restored with even more glitter. The rare Sunni crossing its threshold still offers a prayer, but the Sunnis who once tended the shrine have been dismissed. Sunni couples no longer make the routine stop at its ornate inlaid doors on their wedding day. “We want freedom from military occupation,” says a Sunni local councillor.
Under militia protection, Shia pilgrims celebrate their liberation from 1,400 years of Sunni oppression and tyrants who killed their founding imams. Samarra’s Sunnis clamber up the helter-skelter of their malwiya, the towering minaret with which the Abbasid caliphs adorned their capital 1,200 years ago when they ruled the Islamic world from this little bend in the Tigris. Even that is now topped by a militia flag and would, if the soldier at the checkpoint had his way, be out of bounds. “Our saints are buried underneath,” he explains. “Don’t walk on their graves.”
The Long Decline
Over the past century Sunnis have lost most of the capitals from where the caliphs once ruled their vast empire. From the ruins of Palestine’s Ramla to Baghdad, colonial powers took the Fertile Crescent from the Ottomans, and divided it into what would become Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, each bar the last now under non-Sunni rule. Though Sunnis still make up a majority in Islam’s heartland, they live in many places as subject populations. Of the Middle East’s 26m refugees and displaced, over 85% are Sunni. Wars raging in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen mean the process of dispossession has not yet run its course.
Nowhere is the loss felt more keenly than in Iraq. Since the 16th century, Sunnis have looked to it as the bulwark against the westward push of Shia Iran. But America’s invasion in 2003 upturned the old order in favour of Iraq’s Shia majority. In the name of extirpating Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, their new leaders replaced the old army and its Sunni officer class with a new Shia-based one, and through de-Baathification purged the ruling party’s Sunni officials from government. Across the country, from the plinths where Saddam Hussein once smiled down, ayatollahs now beam. Not a Sunni face is to be seen. “The state of Hussein” (the third Shia imam) reads the ensign on an advancing army jeep.
The past ten years have been hard. In the name of fighting terror, Kurdish and Shia vigilantes chased former Sunni landlords off their lands, first in southern and northern Iraq and then in its centre. Checkpoints put Sunnis under a Shia siege, and in large parts prevent a mass Sunni return. “They displace Arabs from villages by calling them Daesh,” says a Kurdish intelligence officer, using the pejorative name for Islamic State (IS). The region’s former masters now inhabit tent camps. The numbers are uncertain, but of Iraq’s perhaps 7m Sunni Arabs, some 2.5m are displaced, many of them now in Iraqi Kurdistan where they have to renew permits every four months, as if in a foreign land. Some 1.5m have left Iraq altogether. A drive through the length of Iraq is like visiting the dead cities ancient Rome left behind in Syria. “I can’t go home,” complains Saleem Jabouri, who as speaker of parliament is Iraq’s most senior Sunni Arab official. The Shia militias ruling his home town in Diyala province, he says, won’t ive him a permit. Relatives languish in secret prisons. His local Sunni mosque has become a Shia one.
Population displacement is nothing new. Saddam Hussein, the Sunni ex-president, practiced it avidly against Shias and Kurds. But because they have fallen so far, Sunnis have found it harder to bear. Lieutenant-General Raad Hamdani, the last commander of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Corps, now exiled in Jordan’s capital Amman, entitled his published diary “Before History Forgot Us”. In their cafés in Erbil, lecturers from Anbar pass the days watching videos of wives and daughters in dusty deserts without latrines recounting the massacre of their kinsmen by Shia militias after the recapture of Falluja from IS. “Americans raised the Kurds, Iran raised the Shias, but we, Sunnis, are like abused children,” says a Sunni politician in Baghdad. “We’re the orphans of Iraq.”
Typically, Sunnis’ response has been violent. Force, as Ibn Khaldoun, a great Islamic historian, notes in his classical treatise “al-Muqadamma”, is one of four legitimate ways Sunnis gain power. In multiple manifestations—from al-Qaeda to IS— they have fought to get Iraq back. At least at the outset, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s caliphate won widespread Sunni support for retaking the lands from which the Kurds and Shias had pushed them. While IS purged its conquests of non-Sunnis, it largely avoided battling for Shia territory. One by one, recalls General Hamdani, his officers in Mosul called him to bid farewell before signing up. Ever since Rashid Rhidha, an early 20th-century Islamic reformer, Mosul had been identified as the seat of a potential modern caliphate. Perhaps Sunnis could regain their honour and grandeur again, he says.
The jihadists’ rule, however, has been a rude awakening. “We discovered too late that Sunnis were the first victims of the caliphate,” says a Sunni exile from Mosul. For two years, the city’s children have attended public executions and learnt to count by enumerating apostates killed by suicide-bombers. Universities have shut. The industrial base has been destroyed. Towns have been devastated by coalition bombing, militia artillery and the booby-traps of retreating jihadists. But once IS loses Mosul, its biggest holding, where will angry, dispossessed Sunnis turn?
Many might yet cling to IS, fearful of revenge attacks at the hands of Shia or Yazidi militias. Indeed, based on precedent, some will opt for more violent nihilism. Each stage of the erosion of Sunni territory has unleashed a fresh bout of jihadism, condemning the region (and much of the world beyond) to decades of mayhem. IS is already preparing for the day after Mosul falls. Anticipating its transition from territorial to metaphysical caliphate, Mr Baghdadi has designated a successor. Drawing on financial investments, expertise and diehards in sleeping cells, loyalists chatter on social media about resurrecting al-Qaeda’s strategy of tawahush, the unleashing of wildness and chaos.
A New Hope
More pragmatic jihadists speak of reverting to membership of al-Qaeda, or rather its offshoots which in Syria have evolved into less vicious movements. Cheeringly, a far larger number now question the utility of jihad altogether. Jihadist projects to win back Sunni heartlands with barbaric levels of violence have consistently ended in failure, precipitating more retreats. Among many Sunni tribal and religious figures, grandiose plans for a comeback are losing their lure. “They thought they could contain Iran, and it’s backfired,” says a Kurdish intelligence officer. “Sunnis are displaced all over the world.”
Out of such grievances, militant movements were repeatedly born in the past. This time, Sunnis are pausing for thought. Mr Jabouri insists Sunnis have “learnt the hard way the costs of extremism.” Like others, he speaks of the limitations imposed by Sunnis’ weakness and the need for greater pragmatism. Recent changes inside Iraq encourage those who previously damned the post-2003 government to ask whether it might be possible to find accommodation with it. Some diehards insist the system is too corrupt, too Iranian and too broken to fix, but fewer are listening.
Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, seems more even-handed than his predecessors. He has promised to constrain the Shia militias. Other Shia leaders, too, seem to recognise the danger of leaving the conditions that spawn jihadism untreated. In 2008 the American and Iraqi forces booted al-Qaeda out of Mosul, only for it to morph into something worse. Parliament in Baghdad has signalled willingness, recently tinkering with new laws on de-Baathification. “If you end punitive de-Baathification as the Kurds have done in the north, the majority would go back,” says a sheikh whose council claims to represent 70,000 tribesmen exiled in Amman.
Indicative of a post-IS hope, Sunni communities buzz with a host of proposals for ways forward. Most revolve around some form of devolution and self-rule, which might offer a haven for millions of displaced Sunnis. “We were always the most ardent proponents of a united Iraq,” says Ali Samir, the sheikh of Falluja’s Mhammada tribe. “Now we just want our own iqlim [region].” His relocation to Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan’s autonomous regional government, appears to have provided him with a model. Independent-minded Kurdish officials, anxious to win support for their vision of a United States of Iraq, talk up the advantages of a Sunni state, linked to Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
That notion has many detractors. Nationalists denounce it as a slippery slope to partition, and a recipe for intensified battles between Sunnis and Shias grappling over boundaries. Other critics view it as economically unworkable. Kurdistan’s descent into insolvency is a lesson in how unviable little states are, even with oil (which the Sunni Arab areas lack). Above all, Sunnis lack any semblance of collective leadership. “If you put Mosul, Tikrit and Falluja together, they would fight each other for pre-eminence,” says a tribal leader from Anbar. A more popular model is to devolve more power to smaller units (ie, existing provinces). Local elections scheduled for next spring might yet encourage Sunnis to take part more fully in the political system.
Such a reconstitution of Iraq is fraught with difficulties. While Shia politicians accept devolution of services, like health and electricity, they bridle at provincial governors being allowed to raise their own security forces which might challenge the militias’ presence. “It will spur another sectarian civil war until Iraq falls apart,” says a militia leader. Still, led by Italy’s Carabinieri, the coalition is training 900 policemen every three months. After a local police force took shape in Tikrit, 95% of the population has returned. A tribal sheikh in Anbar is negotiating deployment of a force which could reopen the Baghdad highway to Jordan, part-funded by tolls.
But ultimately, for the periphery to function, Sunnis will need to find faith in the centre. Yahya Kubeisi, who runs an Iraqi think-tank in Amman, advocates a distribution of senior posts by sect, as was done in Lebanon at the end of its long civil war. Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, will also need to work with Iraq and treat it as a fellow Arab state, not an Iranian satellite, supporting reconstruction of shattered Sunni provinces. “Since Salman became king we’ve had not a penny from the Saudis,” complains a senior UN official. Critical to all of the above will be an enduring American presence. “The West handed Iraq to Iran,” says the Falluja sheikh. “We want those who brought this tragedy on us—the Americans and Britain—to come back. To save Anbar from becoming an Iranian bridge to the Mediterranean we need an iqlim under US protection.”
Attempts at reconciliation feel tortured, but at least the sects are again talking, not boycotting. “In the past each sect used to sit in separate corners of the parliamentary canteen,” says a Sunni MP from Mosul. “Now we argue at the same tables.” Quenching the schismatic flames depends on countries beyond Iraq’s control, like Iran and Saudi Arabia. But restoring Sunnis’ place in a post-IS Iraq would be a good place to start reducing the heat.
Iraq’s control, like Iran and Saudi Arabia. But restoring Sunnis’ place in a post-IS Iraq would be a good place to start reducing the heat.