Global Policy Forum

The Reshaping of Sunni Politics in Iraq


By Dr. Gareth Stansfield

March 18, 2004

To an observer of Iraq politics, the recent round of negotiations regarding the construction of the interim constitution was remarkable for many reasons. The attention given to the desires of the Shia religious establishment and the provisions made for Kurdish autonomy are but two striking examples. However, even more remarkable is the fact that the Sunni Arabs, historically Iraq's leading political community, are rarely mentioned in a positive sense in this chaotic interim period.

While Shia and Kurdish leaders have a certain amount of popular legitimacy and enjoy enhanced international recognition, the same cannot be said of the representatives of the Sunni Arabs on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). Indeed, the post-Saddam future of Iraq seems to be one where the political structure of the state is going to be fundamentally different to anything that has occurred in the past. Crucial questions to ask, therefore, are:

  • How will the Sunni Arabs be accommodated in the new state? and
  • How will already evident dynamics of unrest manifest themselves in the future?
  • Rooted in history

    Even before the formation of the Iraqi state, Sunni Arabs enjoyed positions of prominence in the administrative structures of the Ottoman provinces of Baghdad and Basra and, to a certain extent, in Mosul. Upon gaining control of these provinces in the aftermath of the first world war, the British proved particularly adept at copying tried and tested practices. Sunni hegemony in the nascent Iraqi state was enshrined in the establishment of the monarchy.

    Of course, lip service was paid to attempting to incorporate Shia Arabs and Kurds into the institutions of government. These institutions however remained exclusively under the control of small groups of Sunni Arabs throughout the 20th century. The association of Sunni Arabs with the state is therefore grounded in history and tradition, and their subsequent perceived disempowerment undoubtedly contributed significantly to the emergence of a well-armed and capable insurgency against occupying forces.

    De-Baathification of Iraq

    The removal of Saddam's regime was initially met with a considerable amount of popular support by Sunni Arabs. It should not be forgotten, after all, that if any threat to the continued survival of Saddam Hussein emerged in Iraq, it would have almost certainly come from within the Sunni Arabs themselves. For this reason, they were targeted just as viciously and perniciously as their Shia and Kurdish countrymen with bloody examples existing of particular Sunni tribes suffering the terrible wrath of Saddam's vengeance such as the Dulaimi and the Samarraai.

    The jubilant scenes transmitted from Baghdad as Saddam's statue was unceremoniously dragged to the pavement are ample proof of the level of antipathy Saddam had managed to create, even among the Sunni. But magnanimity is indeed an unusual characteristic of victorious occupying powers, and antipathy against the support base of the ancient regime is, unfortunately for the Sunnis, far more common. Rather than adopting a constructive, and realistic, approach to reconstructing the Iraqi state, the US Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) undertook a wide-ranging programme of de-Baathification, removing from positions of authority anyone associated with the Baath party.

    In addition, the army was demobilised, condemning perhaps as many as 350,000 ex-soldiers to the already swollen ranks of the unemployed. One could see the American point of de-Baathification - particularly if it is realised how influential the parties of the Iraqi opposition had been in encouraging the US to adopt such measures. However, what could have been a targeted policy of identifying those most associated with the deposed regime turned into a Sunni Arab witch-hunt of McCarthy-esque type proportions – or at least this is how it was perceived by the Sunnis themselves.

    Sectarianism and Tribal Influence

    If there are any indications as to what lies in store for Iraq in the forthcoming months and years, they are to be found in the formation of the IGC. The council, appointed by the head of the CPA, Paul Bremer, is constructed according to sectarian and ethnic identity, with the Shia Arabs holding 13 seats, the Sunni Arabs six, the Kurds four, and the Assyrians and Turkmen one each. To say the least, the Sunni Arabs are in a definite numerical minority.

    Furthermore, while IGC figures such as Sayyid Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim (Supreme Council) and Jalal Talabani (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) command a certain degree of popular support from their Shia and Kurdish constituents respectively, the same cannot be said for most of the Sunni Arab representatives. A Sunni and an extremely capable diplomat, Adnan Pachachi is still seen as an octogenarian exile, while erstwhile religious figures such as Muhsin Abd al-Hamid cannot hope to win over the more secular-minded segments of society.

    Other leaders represent particular tribal groupings, again meaning that they struggle to speak for the majority of the Sunni Arab population. Indeed, it is to the tribes that many Sunni Arabs now look toward for political organisation. Saddam himself had empowered key tribes in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war as he struggled to control more remote areas of the country and, in the chaos following the eradication of the Baath regime, it is the tribes which are now the pre-eminent power-holders in the Sunni Arab community.

    From being of monolithic character under Saddam, political life has now become fragmented, with localised tribal structures being all-powerful within their particular environments. At the highest level of the state, this fragmented structure is barely represented, with the often recalcitrant tribal leaders not being exactly what the US had in mind. Instead, known faces from the exiled community were often chosen over those who enjoyed a real popular mandate.


    Facing such emasculation in the interim institutions of state, with the US military undertaking pervasive military operations in the now-infamous Sunni Triangle, it should be of little surprise that the insurgency against occupying forces and associated domestic security institutions should have a predominantly Sunni colouring to it. Other groups are undoubtedly involved with the insurgency – after all, its emergence and development is quite simply the product of what happens when one country occupies another by force - but for many Sunni Arabs, it is the only means by which to influence the political life of the country. As such, resistance would seem to be dominated by Sunni Arab personnel.

    With the passing of the interim constitution at the beginning of March 2004, the situation remains dangerous and volatile. Again, the constitution looks to be dominated by the demands of the Shia, and the concerns of the Kurds, with the Sunni being conspicuous in the drafting of it only by their absence (apart from the involvement of Pachachi). But whether the Sunni representatives were heavily involved in the drafting of the constitution or not, the real danger is the perception in the Sunni Arab street that the future of Iraq is one where the Sunnis will not even be equal partners in the state.

    Instead, they will be an underclass, subservient to a Shia-dominated government and destined to be the scapegoats for Iraq's failures in the future by reference to the atrocities committed by successive Sunni Arab governments in the past. Faced with such concerns, the Sunni insurgency can only be expected to go from strength to strength, and ultimately target the institutions of government currently being constructed by the CPA and IGC.

    Sunni Factor

    If the history of Iraq is to be a guide, it has to be acknowledged that the Sunni Arabs have traditionally enjoyed greater cohesive strength than either the Shia or the Kurds, and will, in the final analysis, enjoy the support of regional powers who remain fearful of the spreading of political Shiaism and the emergence of Kurdish nationalism. If Iraq is to be maintained as a state and not divided into component parts as many fear, the Sunni factor in Iraqi politics is one which needs to be embraced and empowered in a truly representative sense in these formative days of the new Iraqi state. If this does not happen, the likelihood of a potentially devastating backlash occurring in the future should be considered great.

    Dr Gareth Stansfield is an Associate Fellow at The Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) and Leverhulme Special Research Fellow at the Institute of Arab & Islamic Studies, University of Exeter.

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