Iraq's Sunni-Shiite divide: Does US experience show how it can be bridged?

The Sunni-Shiite divide has hardened as Shiites have consolidated power – creating the conditions for Islamic State to seize Ramadi earlier this month. A US strategy from 2006 might point to one way of narrowing the gap.

Newly-arrived Iraqi Shiite militiamen check their weapons in the predominately Sunni city of Nukhayb, southwest Iraq.

A tempest in Iraq over a military operation’s name might have been a small thing, but to some regional experts, it offers a measure of the deepening divide between the country’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities.

On Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi officially renamed the military offensive that was launched to retake Anbar province from Islamic State (IS) militants “Lubbayk ya Iraq,” or “At your service, Iraq.” The operation was originally dubbed “Lubbayk ya Hussein” – chosen by the Shiite militias leading the battle to honor a revered figure in Shiite Islam.

The switch to a less sectarian name was seen as a positive gesture toward Iraq’s marginalized Sunni population – something bestowing an air of nationalism and unity on the operation.

But much, much more than Wednesday’s name change will be needed if the alienation of Iraq’s Sunnis, which allowed Anbar to fall, is to be reversed and IS is to be pushed out of Iraq.

“The new name is much better. It tries to say this battle for al-Anbar is for the whole of Iraq, which is a good thing,” says Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Washington-based Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy. But in many ways, the damage was already done by the first name, which “sounded like a declaration of war against the Sunnis,” he adds.

“The whole thing suggests just how far the Iraqi government is from understanding what it’s really going to take to defeat ISIS,” says Mr. Masmoudi, using an alternative name for IS.

Two examples of what Iraq needs to address the Sunni-Shiite divide are genuine political power sharing and an equitable division of the country’s economic pie. To attain such goals, some Iraq experts say, other nations including the United States will have to put pressure on the Shiite-dominated government. Some also say the US may have to support Sunni tribes directly – perhaps harking back to a 2006 strategy that was instrumental in the near destruction of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the precursor to IS.

The Sunni-Shiite divide has hardened as Shiites have consolidated and monopolized power – creating the conditions for IS to seize earlier this month Ramadi, the capital of Anbar and of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland.

Calling the divide “a very old debate” that many Muslim scholars once thought was nearly forgotten, Masmoudi says sectarian tensions won’t abate until regional powers stop stoking them. Those regional powers are primarily Shiite Iran, he says, but also Iran’s rival, Sunni Arab Saudi Arabia.

The Syrian conflict will deepen the divide, Masmoudi adds, as long as the Shiite Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad continues to annihilate Syria’s Sunni-majority population.

As for Iraq, nothing short of genuine political inclusion and fair treatment for the country’s Sunnis – a leveling of the sectarian playing field – will make pushing IS out of Iraq possible, Iraq experts say.

“Iraq will not succeed in retaking most of its territory without a deal that cuts the Sunni Arabs and Sunni tribes into the national pie,” says Wayne White, a former State Department specialist on Iraq who is now a scholar at Washington’s Middle East Institute.

The problem that Mr. White sees is that Mr. Abadi, the prime minister, has so far offered only “bland promises” to Iraq’s Sunnis, when “hard guarantees that are put into law and practice” are needed.

As a result, he says, it’s up to external powers like the US and the coalition formed to defeat IS to pressure Abadi and his Shiite government to close the schism with Iraq’s Sunnis.

“The US can’t do it alone – it has already tried and failed – so now it’s something the whole anti-Daesh community needs to do,” he says, using the Arabic name for IS.

Neighboring Arab countries that have close links to Iraq’s Sunni tribes should press Baghdad for a genuine opening to the country’s Sunnis, White says, but he adds that America’s European partners in the anti-IS effort should also be involved.

Secretary of State John Kerry is to meet next week in Paris with the coalition formed to “degrade and destroy” IS, and some experts say a campaign to pressure Abadi to take concrete steps to bridge Iraq’s sectarian divide should be taken up there. A State Department statement on Secretary Kerry’s travel says the Paris meeting will affirm “our support for Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi campaign against ISIL,” the acronym the US government uses for IS.

The US should be exercising its influence in Baghdad to encourage “a dialogue that can lead to some solutions,” says Masmoudi. But, he adds, the US remains suspect in the eyes of many Sunnis because it was the US invasion that toppled the old Sunni-led political order.

“We can say that Iraq has to find a system that treats all Iraqis as equal citizens, but that’s not the system we put into place,” he says. “We turned over all the power to the Shias, and the Sunnis remember that.”

Moreover, in the eyes of some experts, the Abadi government is already a lost cause – Abadi being either unwilling or politically unable to offer real power sharing – so they say it is time for the US in particular to act alone.

“Rather than wait for Baghdad, the United States should begin supporting Sunni tribes directly, offering Baghdad the potential to run [US] support through the Iraqi government if and when the government makes supporting the Sunni tribes a priority,” says Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “America’s approach to defeating ISIS cannot be held hostage by Baghdad’s dysfunctional sectarian politics any longer.”

That prescription for US action mirrors the US strategy of empowering Iraq’s Sunni tribes that led to a Sunni Arab awakening in 2006. Between 2006 and 2008, the US provided weapons and money to Sunni tribes that delivered two key elements: about 100,000 fighters to help defeat Al Qaeda in Iraq, and Sunni buy-in to the new Iraq.

The Sunni awakening in Anbar province “offers the one clear historical example of what can happen if the Sunnis feel empowered instead of marginalized,” says the Middle East Institute’s White. The US, he continues, should seek to replicate the awakening through blunt pressure on the Abadi government.

“The power divide was narrowed once before,” he says, “so now we need to restart that narrowing by going to [Abadi] and saying, ‘This is again your option. Do it.’ ”

White says it will be “harder this time” to win over the Sunnis because of “lost trust” as a result of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s war on Sunni empowerment and Abadi’s inability to reverse that course and begin bridging the sectarian divide.

“The Sunni tribes can still be brought in to defeat ISIS and help keep it out, but it’s not going to happen without a sea change in Iraq’s nasty sectarian campaign and a genuine political and economic deal to the Sunni community,” White says. “Without that – and without presenting it to the Iraqi government just that starkly – we could end up with a sputtering war with static positions for years to come.”

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