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The necessity of Iraqi Sunni independence

By Alon Ben-Meir - posted Friday, 12 June 2015


U.S. President Barack Obama holds a news conference at the conclusion of the G7 Summit in Kruen, Germany. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

One of the main prerequisites to defeating ISIS in Iraq is to determine the political future of Sunni Iraqis. As long as they do not know what the future has in store for them, they have no reason to put their mind and soul into the fight against ISIS. The Sunnis are not prepared to make all the needed sacrifices only to benefit the Shiite government in Baghdad, which they reject and despise even more than ISIS. The Obama administration must begin, concurrently with the fight against ISIS, to negotiate the future status of the Sunni Iraqis.

For the White House to believe that Iraq will somehow be stitched together following the defeat of ISIS is a gross illusion, as Iraq's partition into three states was de facto established immediately following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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Having lost their dominance of Iraq to the Shiites in 2003 after 81 years of continuous rule, the Sunnis still refuse to accept what they consider to be a historic travesty. This was further aggravated by eight years of the Shiite government led by Nouri al-Maliki, who abused his power and marginalized, mistreated, and victimized the Sunni community.

The fact that the coalition of more than a dozen countries, led by the US, to battle ISIS from the air and ground has thus far failed is due to a lack of a comprehensive strategy to defeat ISIS, as well as the absence of the Iraqi Sunnis' commitment to fight it, which occupies much of their three provinces.

The Sunnis find themselves inadvertently and often voluntarily supporting ISIS as they are more religiously aligned with ISIS than with the Shiite majority, who are determined to maintain exclusive governance over all of Iraq.

The presumed unity government in Iraq that the US sought is a farce. There is no unity; Prime Minister Abadi is weak and has done little to pacify the Sunni community. Iran continues to exert significant political influence in Baghdad by actively participating in the fight against ISIS through its militia, to which the Sunnis object but the US has quietly acquiesced.

The Sunni Iraqis do not view Iran's involvement as transient, and learning from their past experience, they will under no circumstances surrender their future to the whims of Tehran, which they consider a staunch enemy.

The Saudis, who are alarmed by Iran's regional ambitions and its systematic violent meddling in the Arab states' domestic affairs-in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and many other countries-strongly feel that only by allowing the Sunni Iraqis to establish their own autonomy can they prevent Iran from totally controlling Iraq.

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Moreover, given the fact (which the US recognizes) that the Iraqi Kurds are on their way to complete independence, it will be impossible to keep the Sunnis at bay. In a recent meeting in DC, President Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan publicly declared his intention to move toward independence, which was later confirmed by a top US official as being inevitable.

Although the Kurds suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime, they now see eye-to-eye with the Sunnis as both consider the Shiite government as hostile and reject the idea of federalism, regardless of how loosely connected it will be to the central government in Baghdad.

The US must now begin a dialogue with the Iraqi government and the Sunni leadership to establish a framework for Iraqi Sunni political autonomy along the Iraqi Kurdish model, which will eventually lead to complete independence.

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About the Author

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.

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