Sunni women fleeing the violence in Ramadi carry bags as they walk on the outskirts of Baghdad in May 2015. Iraqi forces had recaptured territory from advancing Islamic State militants near Ramadi, which had fallen recently to the jihadists.

How Sunnis' post-ISIS crisis is leading some to a new Iraqi nationalism

As Iraq celebrates the defeat of ISIS, the Sunni Arab community is confronting an identity crisis in the aftermath of the occupation. For some, accommodation with the Shiite-led government offers a new Iraqi nationalism.

While unbridled joy has greeted the defeat of the so-called Islamic State across Iraq, the wreckage left behind includes severe trauma to Iraq’s Arab Sunnis – leaving the minority community facing what some say is an existential crisis.

One metric by which to assess this is the numbers: Most of the 5 million displaced persons in Iraq are Sunnis. And most of the tens of thousands of Iraqis who were killed, raped, or kidnapped by ISIS jihadists are Sunnis. Nearly every city left in ruins by the fight to expel ISIS – from Fallujah and Ramadi to Mosul – is predominantly Sunni.

Another metric is psychological: The community’s failure has been so acute – succumbing to nearly four years of brutal ISIS rule, and even sometimes welcoming ISIS, at first – that Iraq’s Sunnis are reeling like they haven’t for a century.

“You have to go back to the Ottoman period, to see the level of damage that has been caused to the Sunni people in the last four years,” says an analyst in Baghdad who has worked for the Defense Ministry and asked not to be named.

The impact has been equivalent to a “Sunni Holocaust,” he says, and it has begun to galvanize part of a community that ruled Iraq for decades until the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The result is a reckoning by some Sunnis and their politicians – but not all – that is helping create a fragile new Iraqi nationalism and yielding lessons about accommodation with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

“So the realization now among the Sunnis is that, wait a second, who died to liberate us?” says the analyst. “It wasn’t our [Sunni] politicians. It wasn’t their sons. It was some kid in Diwaniyeh, who’s never seen Mosul, will never see Mosul ever again – it’s not like he’s going to come up for vacation – who is Shiite.

“So the idea of Iraqi nationalism, unfortunately, had to go through this process, this bloodshed, in order to strengthen.”

Still, there is no shortage of Arab Sunni politicians who continue to play the Sunni-victim card, and portray their collective calamity as the doing of everyone else, except the Sunnis themselves.

Some suggest that ISIS inflicted only 1 percent of the damage to the Sunni community, while Shiite rule in Baghdad accounts for 99 percent; others that of thousands of “kidnappings,” all of them are of civilians who are “innocent” of ISIS sympathies.

Ali Abdul Hassan/AP
Volunteer Sunni tribal fighters parade during a January 2016 Police Day ceremony in Amiriyat al-Fallujah, a town south of Fallujah, in Iraq's Anbar province. Sunni tribal fighters supported Iraqi security forces in liberating the city of Ramadi from Islamic State group militants.

Sunnis' painful history

Iraq’s Arab Sunnis have traveled a long and painful trajectory, starting with the overthrow of the iron-fisted Mr. Hussein. Almost immediately came the disbanding of the Sunni-led Iraqi Army; then years of ethnic cleansing of Baghdad’s mixed neighborhoods in which Baathists and Sunnis were a key target; then the Sunni militants of Al Qaeda in Iraq – the progenitor of ISIS – led an anti-Shiite suicide bombing campaign and anti-American insurgency.

Finally, a widespread Sunni uprising in 2013 against the Shiite-first rule of then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki meant many Sunnis initially welcomed ISIS in 2014 as a tool to take on Baghdad.

The subsequent carnage inflicted by ISIS – and the widespread belief among Iraq’s Arab Shiites and Sunni Kurds, for whom ethnic identity tends to trump sectarian affiliation, that all Arab Sunnis are jihadi extremists – are only the latest blows to the Sunni social fabric.

“Everyone says all Sunnis are ISIS, but the destruction that’s happened against Sunnis by ISIS never happened at the hands of any army or occupation before,” says Sheikh Fares al-Dulaimi, a Sunni leader who plays a role in government reconciliation efforts.

“In any invasion, where ISIS enters a country that is suffering injustice by the government, they will find a lot of supporters,” says Mr. Dulaimi. “So anyone is lying if they say ISIS was not welcome in places they controlled, especially at the beginning.”

The main problem now is the settling of scores within the Arab Sunni community, Dulaimi says. “A lot of [Sunnis] lost their sons to ISIS,” he says, “and they want revenge.”

Tribal leaders have been holding conferences in villages and cities, he says, to differentiate between “real” ISIS supporters, and those who may have been forced to act on their behalf, whether at gunpoint or out of economic necessity. More than 100 influential men from one large tribe, for example, signed an agreement that certain families should not be punished by others because of ISIS ties.

'People changed their minds'

As Arab Sunnis try to resolve their own differences, they often face skepticism from their fellow Iraqis. Yet the ability to change minds has been demonstrated before, when the “Sunni Awakening” in 2007 marshaled Sunni anger at excessive Al Qaeda violence. With American military support and cash, Sunni militias called sahwa (“awakening”) subdued the extremists.

“Many people then thought all Sunnis were Al Qaeda, and many people changed their minds,” says Dulaimi.

He notes that today the army and security forces have committees for recruiting Sunnis, and even former officers if they don’t have blood on their hands. And in late October, the sheikhs of Anbar met with Prime Minister Abadi to arrange for 3,150 Sunni policemen to rejoin the national force, after being fired when ISIS came in 2014.

“There is a serious change in the way of thinking in the central government; everyone believes now that Iraq could not be ruled by one sect,” says Dulaimi. “People start to understand now, but they need time.”

But not everyone has had that change of view, and as elections loom next year, some Sunni tribal leaders still push the sectarian angle hard, reminding Sunnis of more than a decade of suffering and disenfranchisement.

ISIS “did 1 percent of all the killing and destruction [to Sunnis], compared with the government,” contends Talal al-Zobaie, a professor and Sunni former lawmaker in Baghdad. Collective punishment for Arab Sunnis, he says, dates back to the Sunni failure to rebel against Hussein in 1991 – while Iraq’s Kurds and Shiites did, in the north and south – and to their forming a “natural resistance” against occupying American forces and pro-US Shiite governments from 2003 onwards.

“Each area that has been liberated [from ISIS], they find mass graves,” says Mr. Zobaie. Shiite militias and Iraqi security forces, he asserts, “kill these people and later say ISIS killed them, burned and destroyed their houses. This shows why Sunnis are more afraid.”

Sectarian atrocities

Some of Iraq’s Shiite militias – a force 150,000-strong, which has now been brought under the official umbrella of Iraqi security forces – have been accused of sectarian atrocities, kidnapping, torture, and the extrajudicial executions of ISIS suspects. Accurate reports of such abuses have fed complaints by Sunni leaders, who often inject further fear into their community by embellishing the results.

In northern Iraq, for example, Sunni tribal leader Najih al-Mizan from Samarra says the thousands of Sunnis who went missing as areas were liberated from ISIS are just one problem, which include “settling scores” from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and “acts of revenge” that date back to the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam 14 centuries ago.

“We all know that ISIS members don’t surrender, they die fighting. All the civilians who have been taken are innocent, whether they were grabbed at checkpoints or off the streets,” says Mr. Mizan.

He argues that one result of the perception of victimhood may be a backlash by Arab Sunnis, especially against Shiites, that could be worse than ISIS.

“I think a new movement will emerge that is even scarier than ISIS, those who are seeking revenge will have no mission but bloodshed,” he adds. “All those who were innocent yet had their homes destroyed, relatives kidnapped and killed, they will want revenge.”

Limit to sectarianism

Such claims are not unexpected for a Sunni community so devastated by their recent history, says the Baghdad analyst, himself a Shiite who worked under a Sunni defense minister, among a mix of Shiite and Sunni officials.

But there is also a limit, he suggests, to how far most Arab Sunnis may follow their politicians once again toward any sectarian confrontation.

Recalling the 2013 protests against Shiite rule in Baghdad, he asks rhetorically: “What did that lead to other than me, as a Sunni, losing my house, my family is in a camp, my youngest probably died of dehydration or diarrhea, and my siblings killed in bombings? Now I’ve got no home, no city, no running water, no electricity … and winter is coming, literally.”

The lesson is that an inclusive government is better than ISIS, says the analyst.

“One thing that you don’t hear when you are speaking with average Iraqis is sectarianism,” he says. “The only people that talk about it are politicians. And I hope they realize that, should they try that in the upcoming elections, they are going to suffer greatly, because people are fed up with that.”

Monitor correspondent Dominique Soguel contributed reporting from Erbil, in northern Iraq.

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