Intra-group Fractures in Iraq Paper Series (I): The Sunni Arabs’ Political Crisis

Abstract: Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, U.S. State Department officials have often observed that Arab Sunnis do not have arepresentative leadership in the way the Shia in Iraq do. Almost all Arab Shia in Iraq answer to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest Shia religious authority in Iraq, who has played a vital role in preventing a Shia militant insurgency against U.S.-led occupying forces. Furthermore, al-Sistani has been supportive of the new democratic political process in Iraq. Arab Sunnis, however, have been divided into two camps: those who have cooperated with the Coalition to help create a post-Saddam political structure in Iraq (Participants) and those who have opposed the new political process (Rejectionists). This article argues that these Arab Sunni divisions have had detrimental impact on the stability of Iraq. The analysis of this article is placed in the context of the recently announced political settlement called ‘the Historical Settlement’ proposed by the ruling political parties and endorsed by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI). The analysis offered by this article recommends that intra-Sunni divisions should be taken into account by the drafters of the ‘the Historical Settlement’.


Analysts and commentators contend that stability in Iraq cannot be achieved by military victories alone. Iraq needs a political solution to achieve lasting peace.[1] The integration of Arab Sunnis into the new political process in Iraq has not been very successful.[2] In order to reintegrate Arab Sunnis into the new democratic political system in Iraq, their grievances first have to be addressed. In December 2016, I met with senior officials from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) in Amman/Jordan to discuss the latest initiative towards political reconciliation in Iraq codenamed ‘the Historical Settlement’ [Full original leaked Arabic text of the Historical Settlement in Appendix I]. I came to understand how both UNAMI and the Iraqi government are struggling to identify who represents Arab Sunnis in Iraq. Admittedly, the question of who represents the Arab Sunni community in Iraq opens up a Pandora’s box of complex questions: since Iraq already has an elected government in Baghdad – is it not representative of all citizens? Are Arab Sunni Members of Parliament and senior officials in the Iraqi government not representative of the Sunni community in Iraq? What are the short and long-term goals of the political settlement? The answers to these questions are vital to the success of any political settlement in Iraq.

What is the main problem Arab Sunnis are facing in Iraq today? This was a question I addressed to ex-Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, to which he responded: “Sunnis are divided. Their divisions are detrimental to Iraq’s stability. They need a state to help them find some sort of unity similar to that of rival Shia political groups. Shia political parties and religious entities would not have been united without Iran managing the inter-group rivalry among competing Shia political groups” (al-Hashemi, 2016).[3] Hashemi’s diagnosis of the Sunni main problem is shared by almost all other Sunni political currents in Iraq. In a recent interview with Dr. Rafi’ al-Issawi, he pointed out that “Sunnis do not have a sponsor state that can keep Sunni rival groups’ rhetoric in tune” (Issawi, 2016)[4]. In other words, a sponsor state powerful enough to help Sunni rival political groups stay together within a unified front. This view is also shared by the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI)[5]. The Secretary General of the AMSI, Dr. Muthana al-Dhari, recently told me that Sunnis do not have enough regional support to help them organise themselves into a united political entity. He also claims that Sunnis have been neglected by not only the US government but also by neighbouring Arab states. The ex-governor of Nineveh, Mr. Atheel al-Nujaifi, however, argues that “in addition to lacking a sponsoring state, it is very hard to unite Iraqi Arab Sunnis under one political umbrella…Sunnis are ideologically divided [into different schools of thought] – something less visible among the majority of Shia groups who follow Grand Ayatollah Sistani as their grand Marji’ [religious authority]”  (al-Nujaifi 2016).[6] It might be accurate to say that the Arab Sunni political elites in Iraq consider the Sunni-Sunni divide to be an existential threat – almost equivalent to the perceived threat Iran poses to Sunnis in Iraq.

There are two main camps in the Sunni-Sunni political divide: those who participated in the political process after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq [Participant Sunnis] and those who refused to participate [Rejectionist Sunnis]. Participant Sunnis accuse Rejectionists of undermining Sunni public engagement in the initial voting on the new post-2003 Iraqi Constitution, which has set the parameters of the current political process. The Rejectionists accuse Participants of treason for approving an unjust Iraqi Constitution dictated by invaders and collaborators.[7] The conflict between Participants and Rejectionists has opened the door for extremist groups to preach division among Arab Sunni communities. A series of ill-advised decisions taken by the post-invasion Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) helped extremists spread the narrative that the main objective of the new political process was to humiliate Iraqi Arab Sunnis. The most notoriously bad decision was that taken by the former head of the CPA, Paul Bremer, to disband the Iraqi Army and other security services. This decision was followed by the infamous de-Baathification law, which was almost exclusively applied to Arab Sunnis. These decisions sent a clear message to Sunnis that they were no longer in power and that there was no place for them in Iraq’s new political structure. Sunnis viewed CPA decisions after 2003 as pro-Shia and pro-Kurdish – deliberately marginalising Arab Sunnis.[8] The post-2003 invasion atmosphere in Iraq was a fertile ground for a Sunni militant insurgency.

Although Sunni political elites agree that the Sunni-Sunni divide might have facilitated the rise of extremist groups, they argue that the main reason for the rise of extremist groups in Sunni areas was sectarian marginalisation by the Iraqi government. The post-2003 Governing Council was formed along ethno-sectarian lines: Shia, Kurds, Sunnis, and other minorities. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) allocated seats in the Governing Council on the presumption that the Shia were the majority in Iraq by a large margin.[9] Sunni leaders, both Participants and Rejectionists, believe that the ‘US-imposed’ distribution of ethno-sectarian seats on the Governing Council is the most obvious example of the deliberate marginalization of Sunnis by the U.S. This shows that both Participant and Rejectionist Sunnis have the impression that the U.S. government played a role in marginalising Sunnis in Iraq.[10] If Participants and Rejectionists agree that they have been politically marginalized in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, why are they divided? What makes it impossible for them to unite politically? There are several reasons behind these intra-Sunni divisions, of which the main two reasons are the absence of a sponsor state and rivalry for faction leadership.

The Sunni Political Divide

The Sunni-Sunni divide is not a phenomenon that began with the 2003 invasion. It is deeply rooted in the tribal, ideological, and ethno-sectarian historical fabric of Iraqi society. These divisions became more visible in the political arena, where the interests of Islamist, tribal, and secular groups clashed. The CPA-created Governing Council included Sunni secular, tribal, and Islamist figures who agreed to cooperate with the invading forces to help build a new political structure in Iraq. Those who chose to take higher moral, religious, and nationalist ground refused to cooperate with the ‘invaders’. Rejectionists not only refused to participate in the political process but also demonised Participants, calling them ‘traitors’ and ‘infidels’.[11] In this environment, where Arab Sunni tribes were divided and scores of thousands of security officers were jobless, a militant insurgency and extremist groups found fertile ground in which to grow.


Iraq: Governorates [Provinces] and Districts[12]

Disagreement over how to react to the invasion and whether to participate in the new political process, coupled with the sudden Sunni loss of power in Iraq deepened the divide between Sunni factions. The US-led invasion of Iraq has officially ended; however, Arab Sunnis in Iraq are still divided today, blaming one another for their situation.

In 2012, both Arab Sunni Rejectionists and Participants staged massive demonstrations using protest camps across Anbar, Saladin, and Nineveh provinces against the sectarian policies of the Iraqi government, political discrimination against Arab Sunnis, and abuses of power by then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The peaceful protests lasted for almost two years up to June 2014: however, the Iraqi government did not address the major demands of the demonstrators. Instead, Maliki ordered security forces to attack protest camps in Nineveh, Saladin, and Anbar, killing hundreds of Arab Sunni civilians.[13] Mounting anger in Sunni areas paved the way for the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) to gain a second wind.

The rise of ISIL in Sunni majority areas has been catastrophic for Sunni communities. Millions of Sunni civilians have been internally displaced and millions have had to live under ISIL for over two years now. Furthermore, the rise of ISIL has signalled the resurrection of sectarian Shia militias which have recently been made official[14] by the Iraqi government under a new name, the ‘Popular Mobilization Units’ (PMUs). Sectarian death squads which targeted Sunnis during the sectarian violence of 2005-2007 now have legal cover.[15]

Iraq is still fighting ISIL to regain control of cities occupied by this terrorist group since 2014 – most notably Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province. The fight against ISIL has many stakeholders, with regional and international dimensions. Mosul is the second largest city in Iraq and bears geopolitical significance not only for Iraq but also for Turkey and Iran.[16] The defeat of ISIL is inevitable but stabilizing Iraq requires a new political formula. The Iraqi government, in cooperation with the UN office in Iraq and the help of prominent Sunni politicians, has drafted a document for national reconciliation called “the Historical Settlement”. The settlement document has not been released yet. However, the main points of the first draft have been leaked to local media outlets.[17] It has attracted news media and political debates all over Iraq.[18]

The Political Settlement in Iraq

Arab Sunni political disenfranchisement in Iraq has been identified by both U.S. and Iraqi officials from early 2004 onwards.[19] However, Sunni discontent has been construed as merely Sunni anger over losing power or else Baathist attempts to destabilize Iraq after being ousted from the government.[20] The post-2003 militant and extremist violence in Iraq made it difficult for analysts to fully understand the real and perceived disenfranchisement of Arab Sunnis.

Since 2005, the US government has helped initiate programs to help integrate Iraqi Arab Sunnis into the new democratic political process in Iraq.[21] However, these reconciliation initiatives have assumed that Sunni disenfranchisement is mainly caused by the loss of power. There have been several unsuccessful attempts by both the US and Iraqi governments to launch reconciliation programs to address Sunnis’ grievances, such as aiming for fair participation in the Iraqi army, the release of tens of thousands of detainees under counterterrorism law, a review of the de-Baathification law [Full text of the law][22], and other grievances.

In April 2016, the Iraqi government, encouraged by the US government and UNAMI, tasked several Iraqi politicians to draft a reconciliation project with the aim of addressing Iraqi Arab Sunnis’ grievances.[23] The document reportedly took into account the major demands of the Arab Sunnis who had staged the widespread protests of 2012-2014.[24] These demands included a general amnesty, the release of female Sunni prisoners detained under the infamous Counter Terrorism Law,[25] fair participation for Sunnis in the army and security apparatus, and devolution of power to the provincial level. The historical settlement initiative is currently under consideration by both Shia and Sunni political stakeholders. It is expected that the political settlement initiative will gain traction after ISIL is driven out of Mosul. The main goal of the historical settlement is to stabilise Iraq politically in order to prevent the return of extremist groups like ISIL.

The rise of ISIL in Iraq has irreversibly changed the social and political landscape of Iraq. The semi-collapse of the central government’s sovereignty over one third of Iraq, the re-rise of Shia militias, the Kurds’ expansion over areas in Nineveh and Kirkuk provinces, and the destruction of Sunni areas have all imposed a new status quo. On the one hand, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has announced its intention to initiate talks with Baghdad for peaceful seccession from Iraq[26]. On the other hand, Arab Sunnis are demanding more province-level powers for provinces with a demographic Sunni majority.[27] Whether Arab Sunnis have the capacity to run decentralised provinces, manage their resources, and maintain balanced relations with the central government in Baghdad is debatable. Furthermore, the Iraqi political system might not be mature enough yet to manage decentralised units of governance. The relationship between the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq (the KRG) and the central government in Baghdad since 2003 has not always been straightforward.[28] This relationship is an example of the political immaturity and lack of constitutional tools to address issues related to resources, finances, disputed territory, and sovereignty.

For any political settlement in Iraq to succeed, there are three main conditions that must first be met. Firstly, relevant Sunni stakeholders should be included. The Iraqi government has already excluded a wide range of opposition figures and forces, accusing them of extremism and Baathism. Those excluded accuse the Iraqi government of discrimination and the abuse of executive and judicial systems. If the Iraqi government intends to reconcile with Participants alone, the political settlement will not achieve its goals. Secondly, there must be a well-defined mechanism of accountability to make sure that parties to the political settlement make good on their promises. Arab Sunnis claim that one of the main reasons behind the collapse of previous political settlements in Iraq was the failure of the Iraqi government to meet its commitments.[29] Thirdly, there should be a powerful third-party guarantor approved by most parties to the political settlement. A prominent Iraqi politician told me: “Without a powerful trusted guarantor, there will be no political settlement. The backbone of any political settlement is a guarantor who is powerful enough to effectively monitor the application of the political settlement.”[30]

In order for the currently proposed historical settlement to succeed, it is imperative that a sponsoring state helps both Rejectionist and Participant Iraqi Arab Sunnis form a “Joint Committee” to negotiate the terms of the settlement with the Shia political parties. Otherwise, the fate of the historical settlement will be no different from the previous initiatives – inevitable failure.

There is another aspect to this that cannot be ignored and is at present often neglected by analysts on this topic. It must be appreciated that there is a group of Arab Sunnis who do not see themselves as being represented by either the Participant or the Rejectionist Sunnis. There are Sunnis who do not identify with either Rejectionists like the Baath Party, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI), Salafi groups, ultra-nationalists, and other rejectionist groups; or with Participants like the Islamic Party (Muslim Brotherhood), Sunni opposition exiled during Saddam’s time, and other participants. This politically silent Sunni community[31] is waiting for an alternative beyond ethno-sectarian fault-lines.

The Green Zone political process has been practically an exclusive club for those who had the chance to join the political process in 2003. It might be about time to open the door for new Sunni and Shia political players to compete with the current ‘exclusive members’. One way to restructure the political impotence within Iraq is by reviewing the current elections law.[32] The system is often accused by aspiring new political contenders to be favouring a few ‘big sharks’: the major political parties in Iraq. [33]

The introduction of new political contenders is further hindered by corruption in the current system. After the Saddam regime was toppled, corruption in Iraq became a major problem. Scandals of corruption in Iraq often involve senior officials, their family members, and associates, together totalling billions of U.S. dollars.[34] Political activists and commentators often accuse the ruling political parties of using corruption money to make sure they stay in power.[35] Corruption and abuse of public funds make it hard for new political players to challenge the ruling parties including the Dawa Party, Islamic Party, and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI).

The Iraqi political scene is multi-layered, complex, and fraught with generational issues. The historical settlement is not expected to solve Iraq’s problems. However, it could prepare the ground for structural political changes with the aim of bringing lasting peace in Iraq. The Arab Sunni disenfranchisement, both real and perceived, has been a major impediment to peace in Iraq. It is about time the Iraqi government and international stakeholders take serious steps to address Sunni Arab grievances.

The Future of Sunnis in Iraq

The future engagement of Arab Sunnis in Iraq depends on the Sunnis’ will to politically unite themselves and on the will of the Shia political parties to democratically share power with Arab Sunnis, who make up the second largest community in Iraq. Sunni political disenfranchisement and intra-Sunni divisions are among the main impediments to peace and stability in Iraq. The historical settlement provides a framework under which reconciliation may be possible. This article argues that a national reconciliation between sects and within sects is required to achieve peace and stability.

The historical settlement might be the last chance for Iraqis, both Shia and Sunni, to reconcile under a united Iraq. Post-ISIL Iraq needs a representative government in Baghdad committed to reconciliation which can accommodate and address the fears of traumatised Iraqi communities. Such a government cannot be formed without a framework under which restorative politics are possible – a real political settlement.

For any political settlement in Iraq to achieve its goals, Sunnis’ perceived and real disenfranchisement must be addressed. Iraqi Arab Sunnis, like Shias and Kurds, are not a homogenous group. There are different forces and ideologies driving the political agenda of Arab Sunnis in Iraq. Crucially, the historical settlement should not focus solely on reconciling with Sunni political figures but also with the Sunni community. As part of the historical settlement, it is argued here, a general amnesty in Iraq should be focused on the release of political prisoners detained under counterterrorism laws instead of focusing solely on the pardoning of prominent Sunni figures supposedly unjustly persecuted by the Shia-led Iraqi government. Another important issue is the existence of Shia militias in Iraq. The Iraqi government has recently institutionalized Shia militias under a new entity called the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). The PMUs will run parallel to the Iraqi Army and security services.

Shia militias represent a major obstacle to peace in Iraq because of their sectarian character and cross-border sectarian ambitions. The institutionalisation of Shia militias under the PMUs means further disfranchisement of Sunnis because Iraqi Arab Sunnis and several international organizations[36] accuse Shia militias of committing sectarian crimes against Sunnis.  In addition, Shia militias are destabilizing the Middle East in general. Several Shia militias, reportedly financed and trained by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), are already engaged in defending the Assad regime within the civil war in Syria.[37]

Post-ISIL Iraq will be shaped by the type of governance Iraqis choose to adopt. Iraq, constitutionally,[38] is a federal state. The only federal region in Iraq, however, is the Kurdish region. The majority of active Sunni political players are calling for decentralization of powers in Iraq. They argue that decentralization of power would help stabilize provinces with a Sunni demographic majority.[39] Are Sunni political and community leaders ready to reconcile with one another? In the absence of a sponsor state, would different Sunni political currents be able to cooperate for the common good of their sect? Do Sunnis have a plan for post-ISIL Iraq? The answers to these questions will determine the fate of Sunnis in Iraq.

At present the Sunni political scene appears static. Sunni political and community leaders are divided. There are no known intra-Sunni initiatives towards reconciliation. At the same time, no state in the region has made any serious effort to help unite Sunni political groups. Currently, Arab Sunni political and community leaders do not seem to have a well-defined plan for post-ISIL Iraq. These are all considerations that those drafting the historical settlement must appreciate.


[1] Al-Ali, Zaid (2016): The Only Way to Solve Iraq’s Political Crisis.

  Mansour, Renad (2016): The Sunni Predicament in Iraq.

  Savellos, Zoe (2016): Military Action Against ISIS is Only a Fraction of the Solution.

[2] Dodge, Toby (2013) Iraq – from war to a new authoritarianism. Adelphi series. Routledge Taylor & Francis group,   London, UK

[3] Face-to-face interview with H.E. ex-Vice President of Iraq Mr. Tariq al-Hashemi in January 2016 [voice recorded].

[4] Ex-Iraqi Finance Minister and a prominent Sunni figure.

[5] A Sunni religious organisation

[6] Ex-Governor of Mosul whose older brother is the current Vice President of Iraq

[7] Empirical data [4 interviews December 2015 – December 2016] supports this argument.

[8] Interviews with Sunni prominent politicians and community leaders (2016): Dr. Rafi’ al-Issawi, Dr. Muthana al- Dhari, H.E. Tariq al-Hashemi, Mr. Atheel al-Nujaifi, and others who chose to stay anonymous.

[9] Iraqi Arab Sunnis dispute this presumption.

[10] Empirical data [4 interviews with Sunni prominent leaders 2015 – December 2016] supports this deduction.

[11] Nationalists would call Participants “traitors” while Islamists call Participants “infidels” or Arabic “Murtadeen”.

[12] Khatab Shakan (accessed 2017):

[13] Sowell, Kirk (2014): Maliki’s Anbar Blunder.

[14] al-Assam, Zaineb (2016): Law legalising Iraq’s Hashd al-Shaabi assures militias’ funding and facilitates political engagement but hinders country’s reconciliation project

[15] News24 (2016): Iraq adopts law legalising Shi’ite militias.

[16] Seloom, Muhanad (2016): Turkish and Iranian Interests Cross Paths in Mosul

[17] AHF (2016), al-Mada Presss: text of the Historical Settlementالمدى-تنفرد-بنشر-نص-مبادرة-التسوية-

[18] Stratfor (2016): A Historical Settlement of Iraq’s Differences.

   al-Jazeerah (2016): Iraq Political Settlement Project – No progress.مشروع-التسوية-السياسية-بالعراق-يراوح-مكانه

   Rawabet Centre (2016): Iraq and the Initiative of “Historical Settlement”.

[19] Howard, Michael (2004): Main Sunni Party Pulls out of Iraqi Election.

   Jabar, Faleh (2004): Post-Conflict Iraq: A race for Stability, Reconstruction, and Legitimacy.

[20] Cordesman, A. H., Davies, E. R., & Georgetown University. Center for Strategic and International Studies. (2007). Iraq’s insurgency and the road to civil conflict. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.

Nora Bensahel, Olga Oliker, Keith Crane, Richard R. Brennan, Jr., Heather S. Gregg, Thomas Sullivan, Andrew Rathmell (2008): After Saddam Pre-war Planning and the Occupation of Iraq

[21] Allawi, Ayad (2008): Reconciliation in Iraq.

[22] Supreme National Commission for Accountability and Justice (2016):

[23] al-Mashhadani, Mahmoud (2016): Historical Settlement in Iraq

[24] al-Rashed, Souad (2014): Iraq’s Peaceful Protests.

[25] Amnesty International (2015/2016): Annual report – Iraq.

[26] Zaman, Amberin (2016): KRG PM: Talk of Iraqi Kurdish independence red line for Iran, but not for Turkey.

[27] Middle East Eye (2015): Iraq Sunni Group calls for autonomy in decentralised Iraq.

[28] Stansfield and Anderson (2009): Kurds in Iraq: The Struggle Between Baghdad and Erbil.

Financial Times (2015): Turkey Finds a Gateway to Iraq.

[29] Interviews with Sunni prominent politicians and community leaders (2015-2016): Dr. Rafi’ al-Issawi, Dr. Muthana al-Dhari, H.E. Tariq al-Hashemi, Mr. Atheel al-Nujaifi, and others who chose to stay anonymous.

[30] Phone interview [recorded] with prominent Iraqi politician who chose keep his identity anonymous in this research paper.

[31] Al-Zaidi, Muntdhar (2011):ديمقراطية-العراق-المزيفة-والأغلبية-الصامتة

Silent Majority in Iraq: Political and Field research (Accessed 2017):

[32] Abbas, Mushreq (2013), al-Monitor:

[33] TV Interview by al-Tagheer channel with Dr. Dhafer al-Ani (2013): Debate in the Iraqi Street on Elections Law.

[34] Cockburn, Patrick (2009): Iraq Faces the mother of all Corruption Scandals.

[35] Al Jazeera (2012): Where did Iraq’s money go during Maliki time (as Prime Minister)?أين-ذهبت-أموال-العراق-في-عهد-نوري-المالكي

[36] Amnesty International (2014):

   Human Rights Watch (2016):

[37] Abi-Habib, Maria (2016): Iraqi Militias Complicate Aleppo Battle.

[38] Full Text of Iraqi Constitution (2005), published by the Washington Post.

[39] Parker, Ned (2016): Could a millionaire businessman save Iraq’s Sunnis?

[40] al-Mada Press (2016):المدى-تنفرد-بنشر-نص-مبادرة-التسوية-


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