Reviving the ‘Sunni region’ project raises questions about timing, opportunity
BAGHDAD - Amid events in Iraq since protests began in October and their evolution from social demands to demonstrations against the Iranian presence in the country, plus events after the killing of al-Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, followed by demands for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, another controversy arose with Iraqi politicians reviving the scenario of the Sunni Arab region.
The Sunni region project calls for creating an autonomous region in northern and western Iraq under the Iraqi Constitution, which allows governorates to claim administrative autonomy within the Iraqi federal system, a setup similar to the Kurdistan region.
The proposal came as a reaction to the perceived threat of Iranian domination in Iraq through Iran-backed militias, which are hijacking decision-making in Baghdad. There were reports of meetings outside Iraq involving influential Iraqi Sunni figures to revive the project, which has been appearing and disappearing since the US occupation of Iraq.
Experts linked bringing up the Sunni region with what is happening in Iraq, especially the protests. They said attempting to mobilise the Sunnis is another manoeuvre by Iraqi officials to redirect protesters’ attention from focusing on the government, Iran and its supporters.
Some observers said the Sunni region controversy is no different from other attempts to weaken the ranks of the protesters, such as when Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for a million-person demonstration against the American presence in Iraq.
The controversy the project caused led some Sunni leaders to distance themselves from it by showing strong scepticism and even condemnation. However, observers said, this denial was a move to avoid embarrassment, especially when one of the names mentioned among attendees of the meeting was parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, known for his good relations with Tehran.
Khaled al-Mulla, president of the Iraqi Scholars Association, warned against promoting the project. Former parliamentarian Abdul Rahman al-Luizi said he considered the coincidence between the call for a Sunni region and one for removing US forces shows that the whole thing is a political manoeuvre aimed at keeping US forces in that region.
Halbousi ruled out the possibility of a proposal related to forming regions in Iraq. His statements were supported by Jamal al-Karboli, head of Al-Hal Movement, who posted n Twitter: “It is morally and patriotically inconceivable to discuss any proposals for regions.”
However, those reactions did not stop news analyses that considered the Sunni region project a political card driven by special interests.
The Sunni Salvation and Development Front, led by Osama al-Nujaifi, said the timing of the proposal was inappropriate. It said the establishment of a Sunni region is “a constitutional and legal right but the mechanisms that can facilitate its establishment are not available under these circumstances.”
Iraqi observers explained Nujaifi’s lukewarm position by the fact that the supposed project of a Sunni region is led by his opponents in the Sunni political milieu, including Halbousi.
The Salvation and Development Front was one of the most vocal advocates of the establishment of a Sunni Arab region, coinciding with the Kurdistan region’s call for a referendum on independence from Iraq in 2016. The bloc formed a leadership council for six Sunni provinces to coordinate positions regarding the Sunni region.
Some Sunni politicians had enthusiastically blessed the Kurdish independence referendum. Former Sunni parliamentarian Najeh al-Mizan described it as a “necessity to jump on the event and get out from under the cloak of the Baghdad government,” considering that the federal government that spoke in the name of the Sunnis represented the will of Iran’s velayat-e faqih while Kurdistan represented the will of a people.
At the time, Sunni forces said they had an opportunity to force Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to accept a Sunni region project that would achieve autonomy for their provinces and to alleviate the grumbling of the people of the provinces about government practices and those of the Popular Mobilisation Forces.
The move reflected the hopes of the Sunni community to see the dispute between the Kurds and the Shias lead to a new federal formula governing the power equation in Iraq in which the Sunnis would constitute one of the three big players. Those hopes faded away with the failure of the Kurdish referendum.
Feelings of Sunni Arabs in Iraq of being marginalised are linked to the dominance of Shia politicians since 2003. Some analysts, however, indicate this feeling turned into a pathological syndrome among Sunni Arab leaders.
Attempts to unite the Iraqi Sunnis around a single political or religious reference body have failed. In 2003, there were the short-lived Sunni Shura Council and the Association of Muslim Scholars, followed in 2005 by the Iraqi Accord Front, then, in the 2010 elections by the Iraqi List and in 2012 by the Sunni Popular Movement.
Some researchers said Iraqi Sunnis should be aware of the strategic changes and learn from the Kurdish experience.
Former parliamentarian Omar Abdul Sattar demanded that “this awareness be transformed into a will embodied intellectually and practically by not clashing with international reality first and second by linking identity with the land and not with any trans-border intellectual, national or religious factor and accepting the secular federal model and dealing with the constitution along the lines of the Kurdish model.”
Abdul Sattar called on Sunnis in Iraq to admit defeat and reshape their mentality and political systems, which would transform them from being unable to compete to a player capable of doing so in Iraq’s troubled political arena.
Omar al-Nidawi, analyst of Iraqi affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a study titled “The State of the Sunni Conflict in Iraq,” noted that Sunni Arabs in Iraq, unlike the Shias, lack a religious and political reference body and are distinguished by the multiplicity of regional sponsors.
He pointed out that the margin of opportunity was quickly shrinking before fragmented Arab Sunni leaderships can present a unified vision of their role and goals in Iraq and that it was time for them to prioritise issues related to governance and political settlement in the post-Islamic State period.
Nidawi said history shows that the Iraqi Arab Sunnis lack a central religious authority who can play the same role among them as the Najaf Shia authority does for Iraqi Shias.