Iraq 10 years on:

The Sunni rise again: Uprising in Syria emboldens Iraq's minority community

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The Legacy - Day 3. A nation divided - When Saddam fell, his people fell with him. But events in Syria have emboldened Iraq’s Sunni minority to fight for a greater share of power

“Iraq or Maliki! Iraq or Maliki!” shout Sunni Arab demonstrators as they block roads in western Iraq in protest against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and discrimination against their community.

Demonstrations by Sunni, in their tens of thousands, began with the arrest of the bodyguards of a Sunni politician on 20 December and are still continuing. For the first time since 2003 the Sunni – one fifth of the 33 million Iraqi population – are showing signs of unity and intelligent leadership as they try to escape political marginalisation in a country ruled since the fall of Saddam Hussein by the Shia majority in alliance with the Kurds.

In the first days of the protests, Sunni demonstrators held up pictures of Saddam Hussein and waved the old regime’s version of the Iraqi flag. This changed when a revered Sunni scholar, Abdul-Malik al-Saadi, taking a leadership role, instructed that these symbols of Sunni supremacy should be dropped and substituted with slogans acceptable to the Shia. Mr Saadi issued a fatwa condemning “regionalism”, which is the code for a semi-independent Sunni region, a demand which, if granted, would mean the break up of Iraq. He appealed instead for Sunni and Shia unity against the Maliki government. A Shia political observer noted that “they are aware that without winning over the Shia south of the country they face isolation and defeat.”

The new direction of Sunni opposition has met with a positive response. Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist populist Shia cleric, once dreaded by Sunni as the inspiration for the death squads of the Mehdi Army Shia militia, supported the protests, saying: “Iraq is not only composed of Shia, but Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians, Mandeans and Jews as well.” This cross-sectarian appeal by the Sunni makes it more difficult, but not impossible for Mr Maliki to play the sectarian card in upcoming local and parliamentary elections this year.

The Sunni have a lot to complain about. Anger is deep over an anti-terrorism law that allows detention without trial of a suspect on the word of an unidentified informer. Sheikh Qassim al-Kerbuli, a leader in the Sunni heartland province of Anbar, says: “I know a Sunni teacher in Baghdad who threw a Shia student out of an examination because he caught him cheating. The student told the security forces the teacher was a terrorist and he is now in prison.”

Worse things can and do happen in prison. Torture of detainees is habitual, leading to false confessions and long prison sentences. This is not confined to Sunni, but they are most frequently targeted for abuse. “When the security forces arrest someone they torture them with electricity,” says Nazar Abdel Hamid from Fallujah, who is helping organise the protests. “They are hung up by their hands or forced to sit on a broken bottle.”

The demonstrators are enraged over women being detained for long periods by the security forces because their male relatives are under suspicion, but cannot be found. Sheikh Kerbuli says “I know of one woman who has been held for six years because her husband was seen with a suspicious-looking black bag. Nobody knows what was in the bag but he escaped, so they took away his wife instead.”

Such stories are confirmed by human rights activists who have visited prisons. Pascale Warda, a former minister and one of the heads of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation, visited the women’s prison in Baghdad last year. She says “there were 414 inmates of whom 169 had been arrested but not sentenced. Our team saw traces of torture at the time of the investigation. Some women prisoners had been raped, usually when they were being moved from the place where they were  being investigated to the prison.”

The accusation of rape caused outrage when a government supporter claimed the women had been paid to make the allegation. William Warda, Pascale’s husband, who also belongs to the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation, says the authorities “always depend on confessions from those arrested under the anti-terrorism law so they always use torture on them.” He says that when he asked why prisoners had been detained without charge for so long they say “they are still looking for evidence against them after three or four years.”

Sunni grievances are much more extensive than false imprisonment and mistreatment. They feel they have been reduced to the status of second class citizens, discriminated against when it comes to getting a fair share of jobs and projects to provide electricity, water and healthcare. They see anti-Ba’athist legislation, supposedly directed against leading members of the Ba’ath Party that ruled Iraq from 1968 to 2003, as a sectarian weapon used to take away the jobs and pensions of Sunni teachers and minor civil servants. Ghassan al-Atiyyah, a political scientist and activist, says he visited a teacher in the Sunni district of Abu Ghraib in Baghdad who “after 30 years as a school teacher is out of a job and a pension. They just sent him a message written on a scrap of paper saying “Go home”. He is penniless. If he was younger he would get a gun.”

Many Shia express sympathy for cases like this, but they add that Sunni in Anbar, Salahudin, Nineveh and Sunni districts of Baghdad are frequently unemployed because they used to have plum jobs under Saddam Hussein as army, police or intelligence officers. In the 1980s it was said that 80 per cent of army officers were Sunni and 20 per cent Shia, while the proportions were the reverse in the lower ranks. A retired Shia general says “it is hypocritical of Sunni to demand back security jobs that they only held in the past because of sectarian bias in their favour.”

The Sunni demonstrations, now entering their third month, raise a question crucial to the future of Iraq: how far will the Sunni, once dominant, accept a lower status? Members of the government fear the real agenda of the Sunni is not reform but regime change, a counter-revolution reversing the post-Saddam Hussein political settlement. “Shia leaders believe they have been elected, are legitimate and any change should come through an election,” said one senior official. “If there should be any attempt to take power from them by force, they will fight.”

There is no doubt that in 2003, with the fall of Saddam Hussein and again in the sectarian civil war of 2006-8, the Sunni of Iraq suffered historic defeats. Baghdad became a largely Shia city with few mixed districts and remains so to this day.

“More than half of all Baghdad neighbourhoods now contain a clear Shia majority,” reads a US embassy cable on the changed sectarian balance in the capital dating from the end of 2007 and published by Wikileaks. “Sunni have largely fled to outlying areas or have been concentrated into small enclaves surrounded by Shia neighbourhoods.” A sub-heading in the cable about these enclaves reads “islands of stability in a sea of fear”. This generally remains the situation to this day. Shia and Sunni do not necessarily hate each other, but they do fear each other and that fear will take long to dissipate.

Much of Iraq has been cantonised into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish areas in a way that was not true before 2003. In places, burnt out Sunni mosques, or mosques taken over by Shia, underline the extent of Sunni defeat. Abdul-Karim Ali, a real estate broker, says Sunni may want to return, but they are frightened by rumours of action against them, even when these are not true. “I was just with a Sunni family in Doura, who want me to sell a good house in Bayaa in another part of Baghdad, where they used to live, but they think it is now too dangerous for them to go there even to visit.” 

Sunni hopes and Shia fears are being heightened by the struggle for power in Syria with the Sunni majority there likely to emerge the winners. This emboldens the Sunni of Iraq who no longer feel isolated and sense that they benefit from a region-wide Sunni counter-attack against the Shia led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. “Extreme Sunni and Shia both feel a sense of power,” says Dr Atiyyah, “The Sunni say we have the whole Arab world behind us. The Shia leadership says we are the majority in Iraq.” He fears these beliefs are a recipe for mutual destruction. A strong sign that the civil war in Syria is spreading into western Iraq came this week when 48 unarmed Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards were killed probably by al-Qa’ida in an ambush on Iraqi territory to which they had fled.  

Al-Qa’ida in Iraq is using the protests to issue a call for Sunni to take up arms against the government. There has been an increase in suicide bomb attacks on Shia targets and harassment of government forces, mostly in areas where al-Qa’ida has traditionally been strong north of Baghad, There is no doubt these attacks fuel sectarian animosities, particularly as the government suspects Sunni politicians and religious leaders of giving a green light to these actions as a form of leverage against the state. “There are those who will close their eyes to what al-Qa’ida is doing,” says a leading politician. “Maybe al-Sahwa, the Sons of Iraq [the government paid Sunni militia], will not be so interested in fighting al-Qa’ida.”

At the heart of the problem of creating an acceptable consensus and balance of power between Shia, Sunni and Kurd in Iraq is that they have all been traumatised by atrocities inflicted on them by other Iraqi communities in the recent past. In the case of the Shia and Sunni the memory of the sectarian slaughter of 2006-7 is still fresh and it takes little to revive past terrors. For instance, in the largely Shia Jihad district of south-west Baghdad in recent days menacing notes have been turning up at Sunni homes. They read “the zero hour has come. So leave along with you families... you are the enemy.” They are signed by the Mukhtar army, a newly formed Shia sectarian group though their spokesman denies the flyers come from them. Even so, many Sunni residents are panicking, packing up and fleeing to Sunni enclaves in other parts of the city. 

It is easy to see why they go. Before 2006 Jihad was a mixed middle class neighbourhood. I had driver called Bassim Abdul Rahman, a Sunni who had built a house for himself there with a sitting room and two bedrooms in 2001. “I didn’t complete it because I didn’t have enough money,” he says. “But we were so happy to have our own home.” In the summer of 2006 Shia militiamen of the Mehdi Army took over Jihad, and Bassim fled with his wife and three children to Syria. When he came back three months later he found that a Shia family was occupying his house and neighbours told him to leave immediately or the militiamen would kill him. He and his family were forced to squat in a single damp room in his brother-in-law’s house in a Sunni district.

He tried to work as a taxi driver but most of Baghdad was too dangerous for him to drive in. In his old neighbourhood he was denounced as “being a high ranking officer in the former intelligence service.” He discovered that all his possessions had been looted. Desperate, he sold his car and his wife’s jewellery and used the money to try to get to Sweden illegally via Malaysia using a Lithuanian passport. His plan failed and he returned miserably to Baghdad. He is driving a taxi again, but the streets of Baghdad are so full of yellow taxis, and traffic is so bad, that he cannot earn more than $25 on a good day.

Iraq has many people with similarly ruined lives. Many Sunni have seen their lives torn apart by occupation and sectarian violence over the last decade and are fearful of it happening again. Another Sunni friend has done better and has a middle ranking post in a ministry where he says most jobs are going to members of the ruling Dawa party of Mr Maliki. “They run it like a tribe,” he says. “Every appointee is one of their relatives.” He speaks fearfully of civil war but adds that “if the Sunni could just get jobs and pensions all this fury would ebb away.”

Where are they now? Paul Wolfowitz

Four days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, Paul Wolfowitz, then Deputy Defence Secretary, privately broached the idea of toppling Saddam Hussein with President George Bush at Camp David. Bush  encouraged him to bring it up again in a later meeting. Wolfowitz was dubbed the “intellectual godfather” of the Iraq war by US media. 

The son of a renowned mathematician, Wolfowitz began his career in public policy by marshalling arguments, in 1969, on behalf of a US anti-ballistic-missile defence system. By 2001, he had served in the administrations of six presidents and had built a reputation as a clever but heavy-handed politician and “war hawk”.

Alongside Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary at the time, he was a key proponent of the invasion in 2003. When US public opinion turned against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wolfowitz was deemed too controversial a figure to take the post of Defence Secretary. With Bush’s backing, he became president of the World Bank in 2005. But he resigned in 2007, after he was accused of awarding a high-paying promotion to a friend. 

He is now a visiting scholar for the American Enterprise Institute.

Tomorrow: Day 4 - how Iraq’s new rulers are clinging to their empire

Further reading:

Ten years on from the war, how the world forgot about Iraq  - The Legacy - Day 1:  A nation in crises

How Baghdad became a city of corruption  - Iraq - The Legacy - Day 2:  Money talks

How the Shia are in office but not in power - Iraq - The Legacy - Day 4:  The Shia

From death to dollars: How Iraq’s Kurds struck it rich - Iraq - The Legacy - Day 5:  The Kurds

A disaster waiting to repeat itself - Iraq - The Legacy - Day 6: The mistakes

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