Full circle, for some

Ten years ago, Iraq’s Sunni provinces came within a few thousand votes of defeating the referendum that approved the new constitution, negotiated in the summer of 2005 with little Sunni participation. Today, according to former deputy prime minister Rafe Eissawi and governor of Ninewa Atheel Nujaifi (who spoke this morning at Brookings), Iraq’s Sunnis want nothing more (or less) than full implementation of that constitution, in particular its provisions for forming regions.

There is deep irony in this turnaround. The 2005 constitution was written to suit Iraq’s Shia, who are the majority in the country as a whole and can reasonably expect to command the biggest block in parliament and name the prime minister, as well as its Kurds, who wanted an autonomous region with their own parliament, laws, budget, and control over newly discovered hydrocarbon resources. A decade ago and until fairly recently, many of Iraq’s Sunnis were still plugging a centralized state, one they hoped to control, though the demographic reality made that impossible unless Iraq returned to dictatorship.

Now things have changed. With the Islamic State (ISIS) in control of most of Ninewa, Anbar and Salaheddin–three unequivocally Sunni-majority provinces–Eissawi and Nujaifi are in Washington looking for its support to arm Sunnis to take back their own provinces. Eissawi underlined that the Shia militias are as bad as ISIS in their treatment of civilians. Allowing the reinvigorated Shia militias to try to retake Mosul would be a disaster, both believe. Instead they want Sunni police and voluteers armed to do the job, preferably as a legally constituted National Guard (though the legislation creating that institution is stalled in the Iraqi parliament).

Once Ninewa is taken back from ISIS, Nujaifi envisages elections and a referendum on making the province a region, with powers modelled on those of Iraqi Kurdistan, the only existing region in today’s Iraq. The other Sunni-majority provinces would likely follow suit. Whether they would combine into a single region, or remain as separate regions, is not yet clear.

Both Nujaifi and Eissawi envisage a need to rebuild and professionalize the Iraq security forces, an effort Eissawi wants overseen by joint committees in which the Americans would be important players. This too is a turnaround: Sunnis were once upon a time main opponents of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq, which many Kurds and Shia welcomed because it rid the country of a Sunni-dominated dictatorship.

Eissawi and Nujaifi had kind things to say about Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi, but they are looking for him to do more than he has done so far. His government program says all the right things, they thought. But he is having trouble overcoming Shia resistance to fulfilling its promises. The Sunnis suffered much abuse under Nouri al Maliki, who arrested many of those who participated in the political process, assassinated many who rose up to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, crushed those who demonstrated against him and filled Iraq’s prisons with illegal detainees. Now the Sunnis need more than a government program and the constitution. They need concrete action to open the way for return of displaced Sunnis to their homes, compensation and reconciliation.

The Sunnis may have come full circle, but the Americans and Baghdad have not. The Obama Administration is trying hard to limit its commitments in Iraq to the minimum necessary to roll back ISIS. It wants in particular to avoid putting Americans into combat roles. It may be willing to try to help both Kurds and Sunnis get from the Baghdad government what they say they need to defeat ISIS. But that will require more of a Shia turnaround than we have seen so far.

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