Sunni figures in Iraq have recently reported a positive change of course in America’s policies towards the country’s battered minority. However, the Sunni political establishment appears adamantly stuck in the same approach and mindset they held before the rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. The absence of a new approach to Sunni participation in Iraqi national politics creates another internal dilemma. Mainstream Sunni political figures continue to cling to identity politics, leaving those who favor rapprochement and reconciliation with little alternative but aligning with Shi’a blocs that cannot promise addressing cross-sectarian concerns.

The reality is that the challenges facing Sunni populations have never been more severe than they are today, with millions of civilians displaced, cities and towns destructed, and a deteriorating infrastructure. The political class faces critical long-term obstacles such as Kurdish land grabbing and normalization of Iranian-backed militias. These require serious, realistic approaches that do not drag the Sunni community into further chaos. In other words, the Sunni predicament has morphed into an existential crisis for Sunnis. Though victimhood narratives are vivid, leaders and significant segments of the Sunni community refuse to acknowledge that resolutions will require politicking, reflecting on past errors, and many concessions.

The event itself, its backlash in Baghdad, and the reaction to that backlash summarize Sunni Iraq’s political approach: unrealistic expectations, and the inability to comprehend why many of their choices are deemed offensive, and in some cases, treacherous.

Figures from across the Sunni political spectrum convened in Ankara on March 8 to lay out what they described as a new Sunni consensus for post-ISIS Iraq. The conference, backed by regional actors, hosted established names like Vice President Osama Al Nujaifi, Sunni members of parliament (MPs), and other controversial ones, such as former Governor of Ninewa Atheel Al Nujaifi, former Finance Minister Rafi’ Al Eisawi, businessman Khamis Al Khanjar, and head of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Muthana Al-Dhari. Those last three have had, at some point, arrest warrants issued against them. In fact, Atheel Al Nujaifi’s warrant for espionage is still in force. The two-day meetings were described by those attending as “useful discussions” with the help of Sunni neighbors. Baghdad declared the conference a violation of national sovereignty. Sunnis, in return, accused Baghdad of an insincere attitude towards reconciliation. The event itself, its backlash in Baghdad, and the reaction to that backlash summarize Sunni Iraq’s political approach: unrealistic expectations, and the inability to comprehend why many of their choices are deemed offensive, and in some cases, treacherous. From the Sunni perspective, bringing together influential Sunni figures from inside and outside the political process is necessary to reach mutual points of interest.

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Meeting in Iraq was not an option given the precarious legal status of several invited guests; hence Turkey hosting was a necessity rather than an agenda setter. Other sponsors, such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates share a stake in the stability of Sunni areas and played a role in pressuring the more controversial characters in joining an initiative that is said to be part of the political process. Former MP Dhafir Al-Ani expressed his confusion at the outrage in Baghdad over the conference, claiming that the “Shi’a side failed to show its seriousness  toward adapting a political settlement at the first opportunity.” Al-Ani lamented that the absence of a united Sunni front was often considered a crippling flaw by Shiite counterparts, yet “the moment Sunnis met to decide on a future, they were considered traitors.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s criticism of the conference not only reflected Baghdad’s rejection, but conveyed what most of mainstream Iraq—Sunni and Shiite—thought: “Have we learned nothing?” If the Ankara conference is any indication, al-Abadi is right—Iraqi leaders have not learned the lessons of the recent past, setting up their country for another cycle of the same problems.

Throwing Out the Broken Record of “Sunni Marginalization” Narrative

Sunni marginalization” has become a staple in political discussions involving Iraq. The phrase itself is misleading; Sunnis have full representation in the Iraqi Parliament and government based on a functional, if non-ideal, democracy that did not deny Sunnis their voting rights. The “lack” of political representation has never been a grievance of the Sunni population. In a sense, it appears “marginalization” reflects an underlying lack of a coherent Sunni political identity. The failure to mobilize a form of unity, or unique set of characteristics, ideals, and goals that distinguish Sunnis from other ethnic groups in the aftermath of regime change in Iraq created a feeling of isolation. From a Sunni perspective, the “marji’ya” (the leading Shi’a clerics, or “references,” who possess widespread persuasive power and serve as a central clearinghouse for religious, and often political, questions) united Shi’a—albeit nominally—under a historically recognized and revered institution, offering the religious majority a single voice.

The Kurds rallied behind Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, both figures with decades of struggle against Saddam for a greater Kurdish purpose. The two rivals were able to cooperate on matters of wider Kurdish importance after 2003. Sunnis, however, lacked the compelling leadership and a clear vision of how to engage with eager, proud emerging identities. Some fourteen years later, this has not changed. Another important aspect Sunnis did not comprehend back in 2003, and many still do not today, is that divisions do exist among other groups. The Kurdish and Shi’a political leadership took shape during decades of resistance to Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime; in the process they forged considerable common ground in political opposition, enabling them to cooperate on many matters after Saddam’s fall.

Scholar and analyst Fanar Haddad thoroughly explains the dilemma of the Sunni identity, or lack thereof, in a paper published after the fall of Mosul. Haddad rightly points to the underlying reasons that compelled Iraqi Shiite and Kurds to form, and hang on to, sub-identities from the very establishment of the Iraqi state. The most important competing trends within the Sunni community after the fall of Saddam pitted Arab nationalists against Islamists. Prior to the removal of Saddam, Sunni Arab Iraqis were part of a larger regional Arab Nationalist identity that was in sync with both the concept of the “Arab homeland” as well as sentiments of nominally secular nationalism; they thus lacked the need of a sect-based identity. Sunni Arabs who placed more relevance on religion were the minority that subscribed to the Muslim Brotherhood leaning ideas of pan-Islamism. It should come as no surprise that the latter group, aided by the infamous Faith Campaign of the 1990s, was well prepared when Saddam’s regime collapsed, and was the most notorious among Sunnis in demanding a sect-based identity.

Haddad draws an interesting parallel between the identities of Sunni Arabs and “white” people in the West:

It has been argued that previously white identity was “raceless” in that white people did not see themselves as having a race but, rather, they were “simply people.” They believed that their viewpoint was not a white one but a “universally valid one—‘the truth’—what everyone knows.” As such, white becomes the standard, the norm so to speak, against which all others are differentiated.

In Iraq, Sunni Arabs reject the idea that they enjoyed privileges under Saddam’s rule or previous governments—a claim often made by Shi’a and Kurds. In Saddam’s Iraq, privileges went to relatives and tribal affiliates of the ruling family. However, Sunnis enjoyed a certain amount of religious and social freedom as long as their practices and rituals mirrored what the regime had set as the norm—a privilege Shiites were undoubtedly denied for decades and Sunnis struggle to acknowledge. On the other hand, Sunnis suffered under Saddam, as did all Iraqis. All Iraqis were subjected to Saddam’s self-centric rule. Economic sanctions were certainly not distributed based on race or sect. The perception of privilege, much in like rural America, is based on financial comfort and social status; aspects that were not exclusive to Sunni communities in Iraq. Media hardly made references to Shi’a and religious education avoided mentioning sects. Sunnis believe these policies spared the country sectarian divisions without comprehending that empowering the sectarian minority was the only outcome. “There was no Sunni or Shi’a affiliations before 2003” is a common phrase. When stated by a Sunni, it is to some extent the equivalent to “All lives matter” in the United States. Like in the West, framing the inability to acknowledge privileges as “supremacy” is often met with hostile reactions.

Identity Crisis

Sunni Iraq is not monolithic. Geography, social status, and tribal affairs determine the Sunni character more than religious affiliation. Attitudes of Sunnis in Basrah, for example, correlate to the milieu of southern Iraq. In Mosul, a complex and diverse city, class division and the urban/rural divide shape the city’s struggle in coexistence. A Sunni from Fallujah has a unique set of cultural practices different from a Sunni born and raised in A’adhamiya’ Baghdad. The inability to create a nationwide Sunni identity that would correspond to the existing and widely instrumentalized Shi’a and Kurdish ones left Sunnis unsure of how to assume a role in the new Iraq, rather than reject a new order led by the Shia majority. The sole focus of Sunni actors on creating an urgent identity left little room for strategic thinking and political management of Iraq’s new reality. At the same time, political, social, and religious figures made no efforts to calm public anxieties as rumors—and at times facts—of swift assassinations targeting Sunnis spread through the country. Legitimate concerns such as unlawful arrests were exploited to feed a victimhood narrative many Sunnis leaders felt necessary to conceive this new identity.

The granular analysis presented by Fanar Haddad does not necessarily equate the Sunni identity crisis to a “myth,” neither does the author blur the lines between discontent with a new reality and complete rejection of a Shiite-led government, which led in turn to embracing, overtly or passively, the Islamic State, as others have suggested. Many Shia leaders successfully balanced their role in politics against their role in militias. But Sunni politicians who tried to follow suit and leverage armed groups found themselves in a bind. Their numbers were smaller, and the Sunni politicians failed to control jihadi trends within the insurgency.

The absence of a sect-based identity for Sunni Iraqis should be utilized as an asset rather than a liability.

The absence of a sect-based identity for Sunni Iraqis should be utilized as an asset rather than a liability. Since mainstream Sunnis only related to their sect after 2003, what stops them today from reconnecting to pure Iraqi nationalism, removed from sect-affiliation? While Sunni vulnerability has created an opening for extremists, it also creates an opportunity to emphasize a new non-sectarian, nationalist identity which just a few decades ago played a central role for Iraqis of all backgrounds. In a post-ISIS Iraqi setting where the liberators mostly hailed from the south, nationalism can been redefined, and the perception of subjugation, which many Sunnis felt during the Maliki era can be replaced with successful management of ethnic and religious diversities. The Sunni political establishment appears oblivious to the fact that the Iraqi Special Operational Forces have by far more legitimacy in the eyes of civilians who were left to suffer in the lands claimed by the Caliphate. In Mosul, civilians in the liberated East Side erected a massive billboard of General Abdul Wahab Al-Saedi, a tribute never paid to any Sunni figure.

The Islamic State found fertile ground in Iraq due to a hybrid set of factors. Sunni “rejection” of a Shiite order was hardly as instrumental as corruption, mistrust in local and central politics, and radical ideology. Mistreatment and abuse of Sunnis during Nouri Al Maliki’s disastrous second term, however, is not a politically exploited myth. Exaggerated and overhyped at times, the behavior of Iraq’s security apparatus, in general, was inappropriate for a nascent democracy. Still, presuming Maliki’s ill policies were the sole driver of the Islamic State is a broken record that further plays into the Sunni rejection theory, and one recently repeated in a new paper published by the Institute for the Study of War. While the paper at least offers an alternative to normalizing IRGC-backed militias and over-reliance on Kurdish forces openly fighting to expand Kurdish territories, it restricts Sunni Iraq to the pre-ISIS era. Heedlessly returning to the notion of arming Sunni tribes will have future consequences that include undermining state rule and a potential tribal rivalry that could escalate an already dire situation in Sunni areas.

An Alternative to Iran-Promoted Shia Sectarianism

Another possible outcome of backing certain Sunni actors could be supporting a form of autonomy over some areas. Given the scarcity of resources in Sunni areas and the financial crisis in Iraq, regional actors are presumed to have a role in reconstructing the destroyed infrastructure and facility. The Sunni establishment’s answer to Iranian influence in Iraq is justifying interference of other regional actors, namely Turkey and Qatar; states with a record in backing Jihadist groups in Syria. Support from leading Sunni states should be welcomed openly, like the local saying goes, “from the front door, not the window.” Sunni leaders recognize that interests and priorities of these “allies” may differ from those of Iraq. Turkey’s enmity with rogue Kurdish groups and the Gulf’s showdown with Iran should not be played out in Iraq. Saudi Arabia’s new approach to Baghdad looks promising, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi must be credited for extending a hand to Riyadh despite political and popular pressure.

Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which backs some Shia militias fighting in Iraq. Source:

Leveraging Iraqi victories against ISIS, with the help of the Sistani-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) can strengthen political centrists and mainstream cross-sectarian sentiments—a recipe to roll back Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) ambitions. However, the approach should be carefully mastered to reconcile with the reality of the PMU. As Renad Mansour illustrates, the PMU is now an influential and highly popular institution. Engaging the PMU creates a lifeline for cross-sectarian policies, and leaves little room for others to define who “the good Sunni” are. The IRGC ambitions are fairly overt, but so are Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani’s. It would be wise to consolidate the national sentiments through Iraq’s most influential religious authority, and deny the IRGC the route to cultivating ties with marginal opportunistic Sunni tribal elements.

The Iraqi Special Operational Forces successfully bridged the gaps between Sunni Iraqis and their Shiite counterparts. The tens of Shiite caravans from Iraq’s south that have been for weeks serving West Mosul’s displaced families have captured the hearts of a population that once associated those very caravans with death, destruction, and hatred. Mosul alone has gone through countless micro level changes that can be easily derived from interacting with locals in newly liberated areas. Utilizing these new sentiments to reintegrate should be the priority for the Sunni establishment. Whether Mosul, Anbar, or Tikrit, Iraq’s Sunni heartland is in shambles. Reconstruction will take years. Rehabilitation of land and people might consume a generation. Repeating the political road maps of the 2010–2014 era will only empower hardliners on both ends. A policy that recognizes the survival of Sunni Iraq relies on Baghdad should be forefront in the next phase. This does not necessarily translate to concessions, but an acknowledgement of the southern provinces’ sacrifices. Trust in the established politicians has all but vanished, and new faces have yet to emerge. Will the current Sunni establishment confine its politics to the interest of its constituencies and not foreign state agendas? One can only hope.

The elite class of Sunni intellectuals rejected the U.S. invasion; their choice of protest was abstinence from politics and civil society. But arguing for or against the U.S. invasion is irrelevant at this point—a fact Sunnis have only began grasping. In today’s post-ISIS setting civil society groups in recently liberated areas are struggling to mobilize, but the silent elite appears to be reengaging. The ideas vary, but the consensus is that the Sunni establishment can no longer continue its self-destructive path of defiance. Betting on anti-corruption civil movements to project change in Iraq has not often brought favorable results: the protest movement in Baghdad being one example. However, the religious establishment in Sunni areas is declining without a constituency that buys into sectarian-driven messages. Prospects of cross-sectarian political blocs and movements remain good, but an ideal context would be Sunni figures, activists, and politicians uniting efforts in a bloc that promotes cross-sectarian policies. The upcoming elections are still a year away, and in Iraq one year can bring unpredictable changes.

Cover Photo: A member of the Iraqi National Army poses for a photo with a young resident of Mosul.
Twitter/Iraqi National Army @Defense_Iraq