The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have continued to assume centre stage with more towns and borders crossings falling in dramatic fashion. However, the lines have been blurred between a Salafist-Jihadist and a Iraqi Sunni insurgency. It is no longer acts of terrorism on show. This is a powerful, motivated and determined force that will be hard to extinguish without major concessions to the long disenfranchised Sunni minority.
Influential Sunni tribes do not approve of the extremist ideology of ISIS but their disapproval with Shiite rule particularly under Nouri al-Maliki is much greater.
In the meantime Shiite militias parade the streets of Baghdad in a show of force with thousands more joining the battle against the Sunni insurgency pumped up by their spiritual leaders.
As Iraq slides into sectarian anarchy and inevitable partition, the future of Iraq as an integrated nation is looking increasing bleak.
Sunni insurgent revival
In 2008, the Islamic State of Iraq (as it was known at the time) in a leaked communication deemed itself as being in a state “extraordinary crisis”. So how did a diminishing Islamist movement regain such ascendancy in Iraq?
Although, the widely acclaimed surge strategy of US president George W. Bush is credited with largely defusing the sectarian civil war in Iraq, it was the establishment of the Sahwa or Awakening Council’s that really turned the tide.
Influential Sunni tribes, fed up with violence and al-Qaeda dominance, turned against the movement. This was not going to come cheap and the Sunnis expected a larger share of political cake, integration of the Sahwa militias into official forces and decentralisation of power. This was a unique opportunity for Baghdad to solidify gains but was missed.
Today, Sunni sentiment is hardly different to that of 2003 or at the height of the original Sunni insurgency. Long the rulers of Iraq, the Sunnis suddenly played second fiddle to the Shiites by virtue of the fact that Shiites had higher numbers.
The simple fact remains, just as the Kurds will never succumb to been ruled by Baghdad, the Sunnis will never accept rule under Shiites.
Even if the US and Iranians supported the Baghdad government and quelled the Sunni uprising. Another one will simply spring up. You can cut the branches of the Sunni resistant but without addressing the root it will never vanish.
This branch is ultimately the division of Iraq into 3 autonomous components.
Sectarianism in Iraq is hardly new and dates back many centuries. The public especially the youth, are particularly influenced by religious leaders such as Moqtada al-Sadr and influential cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Indeed, it isn’t an “Iraqi” fightback that is holding off ISIS on the doorsteps of Baghdad but a Shiite one.
The influence of spiritual leaders and Fatwas was clearly on display as truckloads of young Shiite volunteers heeded Sistani’s call to resist.
The fact that Iraqi security forces numbering in the hundreds of thousands needed to be rescued by militias tells its own story about sectarian allegiance.
Iraq vs. terrorism or Shiites vs. Sunnis?
The US has hesitated to intervene realising that as former US commander in Iraq, David Patreus, warned it is effectively the Shiites that they will be siding with, thus further adding fuel to the fire.
Sistani in a recent statement urged on the creation of “an effective government” and one “that enjoys broad national acceptance [and] that reverses past mistakes.” This was a thinly veiled reference to the failings of Maliki marginalisation policies.
From an initial Shiite call for resistance, a more cautious Sistani is now insisting on an Iraqi identity by putting “all Iraqis on the same level” to stand against the insurgency.
The danger is that after 11 years of bloodshed and marginalisation, can Baghdad muster the notion of a common “Iraqi”?
For that to happen, the real influence is in the hands of the Sunni tribes and the local Sunni population not in the guns of the Shiites.
The Sunnis drove out al-Qaeda once and conceivably can do to the same to ISIS, but why should they? A loose alliance of ISIS militiaman, armed local tribes and ex-Baathists has a common goal and at least for now can serve the goals of each other.
If the Sunni tribes ousted ISIS, what guarantee is there that this time Baghdad will take heed and implement their demands? At the same time, by losing ISIS, the Sunnis risk losing the spear to their arrow.
Sunni tribal influences
The Sunnis are composed of a number of influential tribes including Dulaim, Shamma, al-Jaburi, the Ubaydis, the ‘Azza and the al-Bu Nasir.
The founder of the Islamic Army of Iraq, Sheikh Ahmed al-Dabash, and influential imam from the Batawi family and for many years a thorn in the side of US, acknowledged in a recent interview that thousands of his men are participating in the ISIS-led insurgency.
al-Dabash, whose demands like many other tribal leaders will not stop short of an autonomous Sunni region, stated “Is it possible that a few hundred Isis jihadists can take the whole of Mosul?…No. All the Sunni tribes have come out against Maliki. And there are parts of the military, Baathists from the time of Saddam Hussein, clerics, everyone came out for the oppression that we have been suffering.”
Other tribal leaders have joined the fray in outlining their position.
The leader of the political wing of the Tribal Revolutionary Council, Sheikh Zaydan al Jabiri, in a similar vain to al-Dabash doesn’t endorse ISIS ideology but highlighted their common enemy, the Shiite dominated government
Ali Hatim Al-Suleiman, an emir of the Dulaim tribe echoed the sentiment of other tribal leaders, “It is the tribal rebels who are in control of the situation in Mosul. It is not reasonable to say that a group like ISIS, which has a small number of men and vehicles, could be in control of a large city like Mosul. Therefore, it is clear that this is a tribal revolution, but the government is trying to force us all to wear the robe of the terrorists and ISIS.”
Sheikh Khamis Al Dulaimi, a tribal leader in the Anbar Military Council of Tribal Revolutionaries, exclaimed “This is a revolution against the unfairness and marginalization of the past 11 years.”
A common them among these tribal leaders is their fear of ISIS and Sheikh Bashar al-Faidhi, Association of Muslim Scholars, was no different, “We’re terrified of them. They are a problem. But we have to have priorities.”
The tribal leaders were the key to recent snow-balling of ISIS influence and they are the key to any move to oust ISIS.
Growing sectarian divide since 2003
Animosity, hatred, fanaticism and revenge are a vicious cycle that is hard to break. The sectarian bloodshed since 2003 will be hard to ever heal let alone the deep history that entrenches the divide.
Passions are so high that even the slightest damage to any Shiite shrine will see the battle morph into all-out war (not to mention thousands of enraged Iranians joining any bloodbath). Just look at the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in 2006 to see the 2 years of sectarian mayhem it unleashed.
Many of the youth, who are in now in their teens, grew up in a cycle of sectarian terror. It is these youth than joined the ranks of Shiite militias such as that of the Mehdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr and vehemently opposed US occupation.
Indeed, the sectarian landscape has changed immensely since 2003.
One look at makeup of the neighbourhood of Baghdad tells its own story. The city has segregated greatly along religious and to a lesser extent ethnic divisions.
The continuous demarcation of ethnic and sectarian divisions across Iraq put into focus the only real solution – Iraq’s breakup. Even then, sectarian and ethnic cleansing in such a scenario will run rife.
Shiite insurgencies in the past
The Sunni insurgencies against Baghdad are in some ways not too dissimilar to Shiite insurgencies against Sunni ruled Baghdad. Al-Da’wa al-Islamiyah (the Islamic Call), was established in 1967 by Shia clergy and activists against the Baathist rule.
The Da’wa was a revolutionary movement with the goal of creating an Islamic state in Iraq and fought through its al-Badr Brigade. Grand ayatollah Muahhamd Sadeq al-Sadr and his two sons including Muqtada al Sadr’s father and elder brothers were killed in 1999. It’s no secret which events Moqtada drew his anger.
However, in a similar way to how Sunnis were originally appeased to fight al-Qaeda, sometimes the bonds of tribal affiliation are older and stronger than religious affiliation, and Shiite tribes were affectively influenced to protect border regions in the Iran-Iraq war.
Ultimately, religious passions do not rule the head or heart of every Sunni or Shiites. But with lack of jobs, inclusion in society and government and a bleak future, a lot of Iraqis have little to hold onto.