The Rise of Sunni Identity in Iraq

How entrepreneurial politicians helped make sectarian affiliation a big deal.

Maliki formed a new regional military command in the ethnically mixed, disputed areas to appeal to the Sunni population living in those areas. He wanted to emerge as an Arab leader who is willing to stop Kurdish encroachment. Barzani, by his side, supported demands by Sunni leaders and protesters and on several occasions stressed that Kurds and Sunni Arabs have a common cause against the increasing authoritarianism of the prime minister. While Maliki was trying to revive Arab solidarity under his leadership, regional Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar were urging the Kurds (who are predominantly Sunni Muslims) and the Sunni Arabs to join forces against the Shia-dominated government.

In fact, Sunni Arabs in Iraq were exposed to two conflicting forces that sought to separate their “Arabism” from their “Sunnism.” Yet the current dynamic appears to affirm their distinctiveness from the coethnic Shias and cosectarian Kurds. Anti-Maliki slogans escalated to a point where it becomes unlikely for him to win over any serious portion of the Sunni constituency. In fact, anti-Malikism has become a significant element in the process shaping Sunni discourse.

At the same time, disputes over land and a legacy of mutual suspicions will make any potential alliance with the Kurds a tactical one (as was the case with the Shia-Kurdish alliance which was undermined despite the absence of any legacy of hostility). In Iraq, identity politics is an instrument used by political actors as they engage in the more fundamental conflicts over power, status and resources.

What is coming?

Sunni political, religious and tribal leaders use sectarian mobilization to revive their support base and prevent Maliki from making inroads to their constituencies. Similarly, Maliki is using this confrontation to appear as the strong Shia leader who is defending Shia community and the “rule of majority,” which is targeted by regional Sunni powers and their local proxies. With the deepening sectarian divide, the previously rejected idea of turning Iraq into a confederation of three ethno-sectarian groups seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, the future might prove to be gloomier if the confrontation turns into a new civil war.

The exploitation of ethnic and sectarian identities by political entrepreneurs is a way to manage the conflict over power and resources. To a large extent, this conflict in Iraq is taking place between centripetal and centrifugal forces. On one level, the conflict is manifested through the clash between Maliki’s emphasis on state building and rule of law, and his opponents’ complaints about authoritarian and exclusionary policies. In fact, this reflects a dilemma Iraq has always faced: how to consolidate state power without excluding disloyal social forces.

Maliki appears to be confusing state authority with governmental power, and governmental structure with his own personal authority. His project of state building is based on maximizing his authority and monopolizing “legitimate” violence without creating the proper conditions to legitimize his authority.

State building is also about creating frameworks that persuasively organize the state-society relationship and induce the necessary sense of inclusion. The political process in Iraq was built on a conceptually confusing formula. While the constitution has mentioned concepts such as the “Iraqi Nation” and “Iraqi people,” there was stress on seeing Iraqi society as one composed of ethnic, religious and sectarian components. This resulted in more perplexity about where politics is supposed to go: toward more integration or more disintegration? In practice, the whole process seemed to have lacked a clear vision, paving the way for the current conflict.

Sunni Arab leaders were historically in favor of central rule when they controlled the government. Even after 2003, the ideas of decentralization and federalism did not appeal because of the then undisputed influence of the skeptical attitude that viewed as the political process generated by the U.S. invasion as illegitimate. Today this attitude seems to be changing. Maliki and his Shia allies have strengthened their control over central-government bodies. They led a massive process of sectarian replacement inside those bodies, through de-Baathification and clientelism, leaving Sunni Arabs with a feeling of being excluded and targeted. There is no way to know if state jobs are proportionally distributed between the two communities, but the Sunni feeling of alienation is unquestionable.

This feeling made it easier for the current mobilization to start, with the Arab Spring playing an inspiring role. The comparison with Syria is inescapable: both the Shia-dominated government and the Sunni protesters look at Syria as a connected front.

The two conflicts are interconnected, but they are not identical. The Alawite-dominated regime of Bashar al-Assad is facing a Sunni-dominated uprising in a country where Sunni Arabs are the dominating demographic majority (around 70 percent). This is not the case in Iraq. A violent confrontation between Sunni groups and the Iraqi government would be very destructive. But it would hardly lead to anything other than more sectarianism—and probably a de facto partition.

To avoid that scenario, the Iraqi government has to give moderate forces more incentives to stand up to radicalization. Maliki will not do this if he perceives that his posture of the “strong Shia” is his only choice to appeal to his electoral constituency. But as a rational leader, he realizes that avoiding civil war should be a priority. If mainstream Sunni leaders and popular clerics manage to find a formula that maintains the mobilization and simultaneously isolates its radical representatives, there will be a better opportunity to negotiate a new pact after the next general election.