Iraq’s Sunnis: Paying a heavy toll
UTICA (Michigan) - Almost since the toppling of the Sunni regime of Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein, many Sunnis have been engaged in a bloody insurgency against Baghdad governments led by members of the majority Shia sect.
Sunni areas have sustained the heaviest damage since the 2003 US-led invasion. The community itself was the biggest loser in every endeavour it undertook to restore the dominance it lost 13 years ago.
Perhaps its worst loss is in Falluja, which the Shia-dominated Iraqi Army recently recaptured from the militant Sunni Islamic State (ISIS).
“Falluja is totally destroyed. Its people are poor and desperate. The city suffered under ISIS rule from January 2014, the longest in Iraq, and also an army siege for several months this year,” said Ziad al- Duleimi, a Sunni tribesman from neighbouring Ramadi.
“There’s a humanitarian catastrophe awaiting us in Falluja. It will be visible to everyone when the army pulls out of the city.”
Duleimi said Falluja “will pay a heavy price for years to come for having been one of the most tenacious ISIS strongholds in Iraq”.
“Neither the Iraqi army, government and people, nor the pro-Iranian Shia militias will forgive and forget Falluja any time soon,” he added.
He warned that settling scores began as residents fled Falluja and the army worked its way into the city. Militias reportedly killed scores of people suspected to have links to ISIS.
Although Iraq’s Shias are a majority, Sunnis dominated the country for decades, backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab countries concerned that a change would allow Iran, the Middle East’s largest Shia country, more sway in the region.
Top army commanders and senior government officials were traditionally Sunni and kept the Shias in check. That came to a sudden change with the invasion in 2003. Washington, angered by the violent and autocratic rule of Saddam, kept the community at arm’s length. This allowed anti-Saddam Shia clerics and political parties to take power.
Iraq’s new rulers immediately dismantled the army and the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party, two pillars of Sunni power. Ostracised Sunnis launched a bloody insurgency.
Lacking religious and political leadership, the Sunnis made a grave mistake by largely boycotting January 2005 parliamentary elections that created the National Assembly that was given the mandate to write the new constitution. The Shias’ political alliance and a coalition of Kurdish parties won the majority of seats in the National Assembly, leaving the Sunnis with almost no say in politics.
The most painful chapter for Sunnis was violence waged by insurgents and jihadists against the Americans and the Iraqi security forces, including the battles for Falluja beginning in 2004.
The city suffered extensive damage to houses, mosques, city services and businesses. Residents were only allowed to return after undergoing biometric identification, provided they carried identification cards at all times. Falluja residents had to wait at security checkpoints for hours before they could enter the city, which remained mostly off-limits to other Iraqis.
In February 2006, gunmen believed to be with al-Qaida, which was responsible for many attacks on Shia population, bombed al-Askri shrine, one of Iraq’s most revered Shia places. The incident ignited revenge attacks against Sunnis.
Shia death squads were unleashed and Sunni men would vanish at security checkpoints manned by police and soldiers loyal to Shia militias. This prompted a Sunni exodus from Baghdad to Sunni provinces in the Iraqi north and west. The new reality enhanced Shia dominance in Baghdad as more Shias moved into the capital.
Baghdad analyst Saif al-Izzawi said the Sunni rebellion against the central government since 2003 has led to mistrust of the Sunni minority by many Iraqis.
“Arab Sunnis have been the main losers through the destructive struggles hitting Iraq. It seems that all are in agreement to usurp their land and rights,” Izzawi said.
Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq said Sunnis have paid “a high price” because they rejected the US occupation and sought to maintain Iraq as a united Arab country.
“For these reasons, many people, inside and outside Iraq, wanted and worked hard to destroy the Sunni community in Iraq,” Mutlaq said.
Mutlaq emphasised that, in contrast to the Kurds and Shias, Sunnis lack a religious or political leadership that has a clear vision on what should be done to preserve the rights of Sunnis in Iraq.
“I see no bright future for Sunnis in Iraq,” he said. “Our cities are being destroyed. Our men are being killed. Our lands are taken. For many of us, an autonomous Sunni region could be the only way to survive this genocide”.