Home / The Sunni Revolution and the Outburst of Community Divisions in Iraq

The Sunni Revolution and the Outburst of Community Divisions in Iraq

Noria Research

This analysis is based on fieldwork conducted in Northern Iraq ovef the course of Fall 2014, with the support of the WAFAW program of the European Research Council.

Beyond the Islamic State’s (IS) territorial conquests, the real turning point in the Iraq crisis took place with the explosion of community rivalries. The latter radicalised an increasingly isolated movement of Sunni Arab protest facing the repression of Shiite and Kurdish militias supported by Iran and the international Coalition. In this setting, the Sunni revolutionary project of the IS has become the only way to protest for a large section of the Sunni Arab population searching for a political alternative.

Confronted with the intensity of violence, the first preoccupation of the civilian population is its own survival. It is hence difficult to qualify precisely the adhesion of the Sunni Arabs to the modes of governance imposed by the IS. All of the interviewed displaced Sunni Arabs declared that they had primarily fled the war against the Sunni Arab territories conquered by the organisation since June 2014. Recently arrived in a refugee camp, a Sunni Arab from Tikrit described the turn that happened in the conflict: “There was no fighting when the IS took the town, the population was not harassed by the organisation and we were expecting a negotiated solution. However the Iraqi government classified our town as a “terrorist” zone and the bombings by the Iraqi army and the United States began. With my family, I first attempted to seek refuge near Baghdad but the Shiite militias are in charge there and treat the Sunni ruthlessly. We had to flee again until we reached this camp held by the Kurdish forces”[mfn]Interview in the Ali Hawa camp, near the town of Khanaqin, October 2014.[/mfn].

For the inhabitants of the Sunni Arab territories, whether or not they are occupied by the IS, the conclusion remained the same: the central Iraqi State had decided to rule them out. Joining the ranks of the insurgency or the IS, fighting to impose a balance of forces and hoping for a fair share of the power has been perceived as the unique alternative, in which the IS was the only military ally. However, the recurrent fighting between the different groups of the Iraqi insurgency, and the brutality used by the organisation to impose itself, have demonstrated that the authoritarian domination of the IS and its transnational project were not enjoying widespread support. But the war declared by the central State waters down the divisions: for the political and military groups of the Sunni insurgency, uniting has been considered as the only way to survive. In August 2014, a point of no return was reached when the new government in Baghdad, in charge of reconciling the Iraqis and prevent civil war at all costs, chose the military option as the only solution for the crisis, thus repeating the mistakes of its predecessor. Hence it is necessary to reflect upon the period of the peaceful protest movements of 2012-2013 to understand the origins of the current conflict and the nature of the community dynamics that feed into it.

From a peaceful protest movement to a generalised armed insurgency

In December 2011, the retreat of the American forces opened a window of opportunity for a normalisation of the situation in Iraq. On the military level, the groups linked to al-Qaeda were militarily defeated while the rest of the insurgency no longer had any foreign occupation to fight. On the political level, the Sunni Arab organisations participated more and more in the institutions, and even won the parliamentary elections of 2010. Finally, the negotiations between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad seemed to pave the way for other Iraqi regions to find an agreement on the splitting of oil resources and for a possible model of decentralisation of power. However, the failure of the oil negotiations with the KRG, the centralising will of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the pressure from the Shiite political organisations to monopolise political power led in 2011 to the exclusion of the Sunni Arab political representatives from the political game and to recurring institutional blocking[mfn]In 2010, against any hope of political normalisation, Maliki refused to withdraw after the victory of the Sunni al-Iraqiyya list. Supported by the Iraqi security forces, he came forward with his own interpretation of constitutional law and remained in power through an alliance with the Kurdish parties.[/mfn].

The Sunni Arab population has been the hardest hit by this political crisis. Marginalised during the American occupation, the Sunni Arab regions have only slightly benefited from the re-growth of the Iraqi economy. The unemployment rate has been at its national high, the economic crisis, notably in the agricultural sector, has challenged the social balance and lowered the status of the traditional elites[mfn]According to a UN report, in January 2009, the official unemployment rate was around 18% of the active population. However the surveys were not rigorous in the rural zones.[/mfn]. The population disposed of fewer and fewer social bonds to ensure a mediation with the central power in order to find alternatives to the economic downfall. In this sensitive context, Maliki decided in 2011 to make the most of the American retreat to weaken the Sunni Arab organisations. As a consequence, Baghdad was deprived of credible links with the Sunni territories. On the military level, he decided to dissolve the Sahwa militias in charge of fighting the insurgency. “In 2011 we were 600 men in charge of security in Hawija, Maliki cancelled 2/3 of our unit”, explained a former member of the Sahwa interviewed in 2012 in Kirkuk. “After fighting a war for several years, most of us found ourselves without a job and the Iraqi army was incapable of taking over our zone”. The Iraqi army was also sieved out. “In Tikrit, a large majority of commanders were Shiite”, explained a former Kurdish officer of the Iraqi army. “No one trusted the Sunni. This did not facilitate the relations with the population because Tikrit is a Sunni town. None of our patrols could venture there for too long”. On the political level, Maliki directly attacked the Sunni Arab political elites[mfn]The Sunni vice-President, Tareq Al-Hachemi, fled to Turkey in 2010 after Maliki attempted to arrest him ; the same happened to Rafi‘ Al-Issawi, the Finance minister, in December 2012.[/mfn].

The dismissal of the latter, although they had very little legitimacy for the population,  reduced the credibility of the national institutions. The Sunni Arab populations, deprived of political representation, hit the streets to defend their rights, demand work and a fair share of the State resources. This movement of Sunni Arab protest was then far from revolutionary. Spontaneously, the Sunni Arabs mobilised around local claims and did not seek to foster the fall of the regime. After nine years of American occupation, secure jobs, government subsidies and the respect of political rights were at first considered within a framework of peaceful means of action. The armed struggle has only been considered as a viable option in the long term, and no one could foresee then that Iraq could fall back into civil war. The knee-jerk reaction of Iraqis was to ask the State to answer their social and economic problems. However, Maliki refused the negotiation and intensified the exclusion of the Sunni political class. On the ground, he sent the army to crush the protests. In April 2013, the Iraqi security forces opened fire on a sit-in in Hawija, causing the death of dozens. Many voluntaries then joined the ranks of the Iraqi insurgency to fight against the increasingly violent assaults of the Iraqi army.  At the start of 2014, these upheavals led groups of the Iraqi insurgency supported by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, future IS) to take the town of Falluja and a part of Ramadi. Baghdad then chose the military solution to punish the entire population.

Helicopters were sent to bomb the insurgent towns with barrels of TNT. At the same time, as the Iraqi army was judged inefficient, Maliki ordered the return of a part of the Iraqi Shiite militias and the Badr brigades sent to support Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Facing new recruitment campaigns and the accelerated creation of Shiite defence militias with the help of Iranian consultants present in Iraq, the Sunni Arab populations felt cornered. “We are very strongly opposed to the practices of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, future IS), explained a person responsible for the armed movement Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN) interviewed before the fall of Mosul in April 2014. “But the current situation is untenable and all the Sunni Arab groups must unite”. In the end, it was the sectarian policies of Baghdad that encouraged the unification and the alliance with the ISIL of an extremely divided Iraqi insurgency.

The Sunni revolution: half-way between an Arab nationalist project and transnational jihad

The conquest of Sunni Arab territories must be analysed in the national Iraqi context presented above. In a world of generalised corruption, the insurgency already held the towns, notably through taxing the population. “To open a shop in Mosul, you have to pay a percentage of your earnings to the insurgency, and then a second one to the police”, explained a shopkeeper in Mosul in March 2014. “The price depends on your personal relationships with the insurgency and with the political class but in the end, it is the insurgency that protects the business against other rival groups and most of all against the corrupted police”. In a large majority of cases, the insurgent groups are made of inhabitants from the neighbourhood. In a context of economic crisis, joining a group to carry out a single act is a banalised activity: “Dropping a bomb is paid $50”, explained a police officer in Kirkuk in October 2012. “The group drops the bomb off in a bag with a $50 envelope. A random executioner, recruited for the occasion, picks the bag up and is in charge of placing the explosive at the desired spot”. However, these groups have in general possessed few weapons and have been incapable of leading frontal operations against the Iraqi army.

In June 2014, although the Sunni Arab regions were easily mobilised, the success of the uprising remains mainly in the downfall of the Iraqi army, due to its internal divisions and the lack of coherence in its chains of command. On the military level, the fighting was sparse; indeed, the ISIL fighters only had very little heavy artillery. The conquest phase between June and July 2014 exclusively took place in the Sunni Arab regions, where the army retreated, and stopped at the largely Shiite or Kurdish zones.

The true stake was thus not the military potential of the insurgency but rather the political aims and the strategy of its different actors. However, facing a Sunni Arab insurgency well implanted locally, but divided and uncoordinated at the national level[mfn]Among the most influential groups of the Iraqi insurgency, there are the General Military Council of the Iraqi Revolutionaries (which notably includes the Naqshbandi army), Ansar al-Islam and Jaysh al-Mujahidin.[/mfn], the ISIL presented itself as a dynamic and coherent movement, leading a transnational political project that it sought to impose through the implementation of the caliphate, on 29 June 2014. The IS was far from having a majority but its discourse travelled far, while its authoritarian practices enabled it to define more precisely its military strategies, to administer and to manage public actions. Its revolutionary project enabled it to carry out large recruitment campaigns but ran into the nationalists projects of certain groups of the insurgency with which the tensions were evident. Locally, many armed encounters took place between the latter and the IS, notably on the question of the effective management of the territory. After a phase of military conquest, the IS carried out in July 2014 an aggressive policy that led to the murder of numerous fighters from other groups. “In July, we had good relationships with some members of the Sunni insurgency”, explained a Kurdish official from the KDP.“We made sure to respect a ceasefire in order to protect the civilian populations. However, the IS rapidly ousted the other Arab nationalist groups which were dominant in Mosul and with which we had contacts. After ensuring its domination, it started in August a large offensive against the Kurdish regions”. This attack on the Kurdish populations enabled the IS to strengthen its hold on the other groups and forced them to fight where negotiations were taking place. Faced with the Arab nationalist project for which the armed uprising was a means to negotiate with the central State, the IS offensive aimed at cornering the Sunni population and force it to support a transnational Sunni revolution. “The matter is no longer to know if the Sunni Arabs support the IS or not”, explained a Sunni Arab from Hawija in October 2014. “Now, the emergency is to defend ourselves and take up arms against the Shiite and Kurdish militias that attack us and the IS is our only ally in the region”.

Community strategies of territorial control

The fall of the Sunni Arab territories has shown the obsolescence of the State institutions and has amplified the process of community fold back that has been characteristic of the Iraqi political system since 2003. The collapse of the Iraqi army, consisting of over 260 000 men, which was formerly presented as the pillar of modern Iraq, has convinced the different political actors that they could only count on their own forces. Hence, the bulk of their efforts since June 2014 have been focused on the reinforcement of their community militias. In August, after difficult negotiations, the new head of government Haïdar al-Abadi appointed one of the leaders of the Badr militias (a Shiite military organisation supported by Iran) as Interior minister, Mohammed Ghaban. This nomination followed Iran’s strategy to institutionalise the Shiite militias in order to gain influence while supporting these regimes. For the new Iraqi Prime minister it was a way of placing the armed forces directly under his control and to reinforce his political authority. The same phenomenon can be observed in Iraqi Kurdistan where the two main political parties, the KDP and PUK, refuse to collaborate on military matters through the KRG institutions and fold back on their own militias. Each followed its own strategy vis-a-vis the IS.

As an ally of Iran and close to Baghdad, the PUK was engaged against the IS as early as June 2014. Its Pershmerga fighters actively participated to the battles of Jalula and Amerli by coordinating with the Badr militias and the Iranian forces. This enabled many counter-attacks in the Shiite Turkmen regions between Khanaqin and Kirkuk[mfn]On 1 September 2014, the IS was chased away from the surroundings of the town of Amerli which it kept under siege since June.[/mfn]. On the other hand, the KDP, which depends on Turkey’s support, maintained a more moderate policy towards the IS. Instead of counter-attacking to secure its territory, it sought to negotiate with the groups of the Sunni insurgency with which it has many contacts[mfn]In June 2014, several heads of the Sunni insurgency were still allowed by the authorities to visit Erbil. On 21 June 2014, Ali Hatem al-Suleyman thus declared from Erbil the victory of the “revolutionaries” in Mosul against the Iraqi army.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qB4_6_eKxMA, consulted on 15 November 2014.[/mfn]. This strategy turned out to be a failure when the IS entered a phase of repression of the other insurgency groups and decided to launch a general offensive against the Kurdish in August. Ill-prepared for such an attack, the heads of the KDP suddenly took their troops out of all the mixed territories that were deemed too dear to defend. The towns of Gwer, Makhmour and Sinjar, North of Mosul, were abandoned almost without fight which enabled the IS to move within 30 kilometres of Erbil. “I was fighting with my unit near the town of Gwer”, explains a Peshmerga fighter of the KDP. “The military pressure from the IS was not excessive and we managed to push them back but after three days, we still had not received neither back-ups nor food or ammunition. Without knowing why, we were ordered to retreat, thus opening the way for the IS”. The lack of competence of the KDP’s chain of command and its refusal to collaborate with the PUK units and the Iraqi army enabled the IS to move swiftly into Northern Iraq. Three months after this demise, the KDP and the PUK have still refused to end their rivalry and have struggled to reconquer their lost territories. Each party maintains a strong wariness against the project of building a KRG army, which, in coordination with Baghdad, would be the only way to regain the military advantage and to avoid the sub-contracting of warfare to uncontrollable militias.

Moreover, this militianisation of the Iraqi actors favoured the reinforcement of marginal military groups. Thus the Badr brigades, but also the PKK, benefited from the crumbling of the Iraqi authority to reinforce their presence in Iraq. In these conditions, a global military response against the IS was difficult to implement, as each militia followed its own political agenda influenced by foreign support (Iran, Turkey and the West). In addition, the actors found themselves cornered in exclusively military strategies and short term interests that have forced them to keep repressing the Sunni Arab population.

Ethnic and denominational focus

The peaceful protest movement of 2012 took place mainly in the Sunni zones, but was not necessarily a denominational movement. This focus was imposed by the different actors as the only variable of conflict. The ethnic and denominational militianisation of all the Iraqi political groups benefited the IS which conquest strategy was based on the Islamisation of Sunni Arabs and the liquidation of nationalist groups of the Iraqi and Syrian insurgency. “Few people support my town against the IS”, explained a former resident of Sadiva who took refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Sunni insurgency groups regularly fight against them. But each time, an offensive of the Iraqi army or the American bombings force them to make an agreement to reschedule the attack. For us, the repression from Baghdad is worse than the one from the IS”. The stories about Shiite and Kurdish counter-attacks against Sunni Arab villages under the control of the IS match: the population was forced to flee the attack in fear of seeing the men arrested, tortured or even executed.

It was notably the case when faced with the Shiite and Badr militias sub-contracted for the conflict by the government and Iran. The Shiite towns have thus become strongholds in the struggle against the IS. In the North of Iraq, many Shiite Turkmen were enrolled to hold the front and attack the Arab villages. The most famous example was the Saraya Al-Khorasany units, led by the Badr brigades and sent to fight in Syria around the Shiite mausoleum of Sayyida Zaynab. They have participated in Iraq to all the offensives since June 2014 (reconquest of Amerli, Ishaqi and Jourf al-Sakhar) and have been famous for their efficiency in “cleansing” the Sunni Arab populations. The former Arab/Kurdish and Sunni/Shiite mixed territories have been homogenised, notably between Makhmour and Gwer, where the breakthrough of the IS took place. On the other hand, the IS follows the same strategy; denominational violence has been used to impose its ideological model. In addition to the attacks against the Sunni insurgent groups and the systematic execution of Sunni Arab public servants and policemen of Baghdad, there have been serial attacks against the other Shiite, Yazidi, Shabak and Christian communities.

Perspectives from an over-worn war

It is not certain that the Iraqi and Syrian borders have been durably questioned, as Baghdad and Damascus remain the principal actors of the crisis. However the dynamic of community fragmentation of power, of ethno-denominational cleansing and of militianisation of these two conflicts seem to demonstrate an over-worn war on the long-term.  Given the magnitude of the crisis, a negotiated solution is hardly an option in Iraq. In only five months of war, the denominational strategies of the IS and Baghdad have created as many community divisions as thethree years of war in Syria. A proper front line now redefines the ethnic and denominational borders, drawing out the different Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni territories where the actors who push the hardest for denominational polarisation take over the political game.