When the Sunni jihadists of the so-called Islamic State swept into northern Iraq in June 2014, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called for a national mobilization to defend Baghdad and Shiite shrines.
Tens of thousands of Iraq’s majority Shiites volunteered to fight.
But Yazan al-Jiboury, a young Sunni militiaman, wanted to fight IS as well. He had no idea how difficult it would be to break Iraq’s sectarian taboos.
When Mr. Jiboury, the first Sunni commander to join Iraq’s Shiite-dominated Public Mobilization Forces (PMF), signed up with an initial band of 90 anti-IS Sunnis, it proved a monumental task of overcoming distrust and fear. And it nearly failed.
Today, Iraq’s array of Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish military forces are locked in battle against IS in Mosul, seeking to dislodge the jihadists from their last stronghold in Iraq. But despite that show of unity against a common enemy, Iraqi politicians remain far from overcoming the sectarian fear-mongering that has blighted Iraq for decades, leading analysts to warn of further bloodletting, even after IS is defeated.
In their bid to fight IS with the PMF, Jiboury and his men initially were given just a handful of assault rifles and no bullets. Right away, 20 of his fighters ran away.
“They gave us nine AK-47s without magazines. That’s it,” recalls Jiboury, who wears a thick beard and camouflage in a Baghdad interview. “Back then, they didn’t sleep with us at the same place. They didn’t trust us.”
Smiling at the memory, Jiboury recounts that the Shiite commanders told their fighters that the Sunnis were just like IS and warned them: “These guys will cut off your heads while you are sleeping.”
What made the difference, he says, was “when you bleed with them in battles, when you fight with them on the same frontlines, when you have your people dying with them.”
“We understood it,” adds Jiboury. “You can never ask for trust. You gain trust. And we gained it, with our blood, with genuinely wanting to fight IS, and believing in the government and the law.”
Today Jiboury commands some 5,000 Sunni militiamen who have played key roles in Tikrit and elsewhere in Nineveh province. They have fought IS while also reassuring Sunni areas freed from IS control that they will not be harmed by the PMF, which has a reputation for human rights abuses and anti-Sunni atrocities elsewhere in Iraq.
While Jibouri’s glimmer of non-sectarian unity is an example of what is possible in Iraq, it still is an exception in a country that has, in a single generation, witnessed multiple episodes of industrial-scale sectarian killing and power struggles between Shiites, Sunnis, and ethnic Kurds.
Despite the example of military cooperation against a common enemy and the lip-service paid to unity by politicians, that curse of sectarianism is plaguing Iraq’s leaders, now Shiites, just as it has since the 1980s, when Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein targeted rebellious Kurds, and later Shiites, too.
Ethnic cleansing and sectarian strife also marred the years after the US invasion in 2003, during which Sunni minority rule was overturned in favor of the Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Few lessons learned
Despite those decades of painful experiences, and examples like Jiboury’s that demonstrate the benefits of working together, analysts say few lessons have been learned that are being applied today.
“They never listen to each other,” says Hisham alHashimi, a security analyst in Baghdad who advises the government.
“The Shiites feel they have their victims, and are proud of them. And the Sunnis feel they are defeated and suffer injustice,” says Mr. alHashimi. “Both will rise: Sunni disappointment will go up, and the Shiite sense of victimhood will go up. Both of them are ready to go back to conflict.”
Such a cynical view echoes repeatedly in Iraq, even among those working to bridge divides who are hopeful for the future. The Iraqi Army, which has rebuilt itself since its collapse in 2014, and the PMF, some of whose factions receive direct support and training from Iran, together have recaptured one city after another from IS.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has couched each offensive in terms of national unity and has vowed to rein in PMF abuses, said in the past week he had received a file from the Iraqi judiciary detailing prison terms and death sentences prepared for some PMF fighters.
Yet problems are not limited to Shiite vs. Sunni. Human Rights Watch last month published satellite images that showed systematic and “significant destruction” of Arab homes by Kurdish forces in 62 villages and towns in disputed areas. Kurdish officials deny that the demolitions represent ethnic cleansing.
And even the nature of the IS defeat, which was quick in some cities but is now dragging into its third month in Mosul, with rising casualties, could further inflame the sectarian balance.
Violence has taken a toll
Omar al-Shahar, a Sunni journalist in Baghdad who specializes in Iraq’s Sunni Anbar province, says the problem is ingrained with key Sunni politicians.
He cites, for example, former Mosul governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, whose “interest is to have a sectarian fear of Shiites, because his political future depends on ‘protecting’ Sunnis.’”
Likewise, says Mr. Shahar, “nobody can criticize Shiites because the Shiites believe they have given a lot of blood for Sunni areas – and of this there is no doubt.” Because the Army and PMF are mostly Shiite, he says, “any criticism means you are insulting their sacrifice.”
The years of violence have taken a toll on Sunni leadership, as well as on several million Sunnis who are displaced by conflict and/or living under IS control, many of whom have seen their houses and cities destroyed.
“The priority of Sunnis changed a lot,” from an obsession in the past about their relationship with Shiite rulers in Baghdad, to just survival today, says Shahar. “The Sunni community is completely destroyed.”
Aware of post-IS sectarian dangers, Shiite cleric and politician Ammar al-Hakim began work in September on a “historic settlement” proposal that would include a general amnesty and help resolve sectarian differences, with support of the UN.
But Mr. Hakim’s proposal has come under fire from critics who call it a “media solution” that is lacking in the necessary details to make it work.
“All the political sides in the country don’t have real solutions, only media solutions,” says Zaid al-Talaqani, chairman of the Al-Rafidain Center for Dialogue.
“In this situation, no one will learn the lessons of their experience.”
Finding the right balance
But aiming for such a settlement may be a good place to start, to apply the lessons of so many decades of sectarian bitterness in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Sistani has repeatedly called for national unity and declared Iraq’s Sunnis to be “part of ourselves.”
“So we have to live with Sunnis. We can’t throw them into the sea,” says Ali Hamoodi, a senior official with Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq party. But he notes also that some Shiite groups “use radical acts against Sunnis for political reasons.”
Finding the right balance of accommodation and acceptance will be critical, if Iraq is to end its sectarian cycle. The “settlement” proposal is designed to bridge those gaps, says Mr. Hamoodi.
The wild card remains the PMF militia, despite the presence of some Sunnis in their own ranks. Parliament recently voted to absorb the PMF’s tens of thousands of militiamen into the regular Iraqi armed forces.
“Some [PMF] see Sunnis as partners, and are very open-minded. Others think they should be defeated,” says Hamoodi, who warns of revenge killings to come. “For sure we will have a problem in Mosul after we finish the war.”