Anbar violence highlights Iraq’s sectarian divides

Iraq has never been as ready for the concept of “regions” as it is today

Hazem al-Amin

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“Regionalism” is all that Anbar’s politicians and tribal leaders came up with following the military campaign launched by premier Nouri al-Maliki against the province’s cities and towns.

The campaign included fighting with al-Qaeda members, this fighting was mixed with confronting tribes and the Awakening Council – a coalition of tribes in the area united to protect Anbar. This led to a reshuffling of the entire situation. During the recent clashes in Anbar, the Iraqi army fought al-Qaeda and local militias. The latter did the same as it had to help the army it was fighting in order to regain territory from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Thousands of fighters from tribes joined the ISIL which began to govern parts of cities by resorting to force. This reminded Anbar’s citizens of the bitter experiences they had been through with al-Qaeda over the last decade.

The expression “region” which most of Anbar’s citizens uttered in the wake of the government’s military campaign against their province would not have appealed to the sentiment of a single Iraqi Sunni when the era of “regions” was launched in Iraq following the 2003 War. The expression seemed more apt for the Kurdish population after the Iraqi Kurdistan Region was recognized in the new constitution.

The term later became Shiite when the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Ammar al-Hakim, suggested the concept of federalism in the south and center of the country. Back then, Arab Iraqi Sunnis objected to this idea. Their stance was then justified as they are a group that holds on to the concept of unity the most. Although they are a minority in Iraq, they are a mature group which fears division. For them, the myth of unity is part of a controlling system which back then they were not convinced they had lost.

Losing out

At the beginning, the Arab Sunnis in Iraq thought the concept of regions aimed to divide oil wealth and would not be beneficial to them as less as two thirds of the country’s oil is in Basra and a little less than one third is in Kirkuk. This would mean that if regions were to be split along sectarian lines, they – located in the country’s west, north and center – would not benefit from oil income. The concept of regionalism also failed to take into account the fact that most water resources are located in Sunni regions.

At the beginning, the Arab Sunnis in Iraq thought the concept of regions aimed to divide oil wealth and would not be beneficial to them

Hazem al-Amin

The sense of Iraqi Sunni federal awareness was woken up today. Most statements which condemned Maliki’s campaign against Iraq included calls to revive the concept of “regions.” The expression is a clear periphrasis of federalism in its Kurdish formula. Any Iraqi group’s feeling of seclusion in a region has always been based on security and military aims. It’s also been based on aspirations to flourish on the economic level. Most importantly, it’s also been based on aspirations for regional relations beyond Iraq. In the Kurdish case, relations with Turkey are a model. In the Shiite case, the Iranian security and political invasion represents a model that preceded legal federalism and launched “cultural” and sectarian federalism.

The current Sunni call to establish “regions” seems to be part of a move in which the entire region is restructured. The hypothetical Sunni regions - that is Anbar in the west and Mosul in the north - are geographically, socially and demographically connected to what’s happening in Syria - particularly in the north and east of Syria.

Ready for regions

Iraq has never been as ready for the concept of “regions” as it is today. It is true that the balance of power among Shiite parties does not lead to this conviction but the idea of “regions” has been implanted in the current political and social awareness. There are regional calls which are as enthusiastic as Iraqi groups and sects echoing these calls for “regions.” What is strange is that premier Nouri al-Maliki is pushing for the implementation of this idea - that is if we consider that he is aware of what it means for his forces to attack Sunni protests in the country’s north and center. What is left of these protests no longer pose a threat to his government, and al-Qaeda resides in the desert and it doesn’t have a direct influence on protesters.

Two substantial aims remain behind the campaign. The first one is Maliki’s aim to restore the unity of his Shiite leadership. The second one is baptizing his joining of the Iranian axis by pumping more Iraqi blood into the veins of this alliance. The Sunni response to this demand will not disappoint those who desire to see more bloodshed in the region.

This harmonizes with everything happening in the region on the level of dividing and connecting areas, borders and entities. Iraq’s Sunnis, who refrained from demanding federalism, may replace Baghdad with Aleppo just like Lebanon’s Tripoli may replace Beirut with Homs. When Muqtada al-Sadr says that Qassem Suleimani is the strongest man in Iraq and when Golani becomes the most prominent hero of the war in Syria, then there is no hope for Iraq. And the same goes for Lebanon and Syria.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on Jan. 5, 2014.


Hazem al-Amin is a Lebanese writer and journalist at al-Hayat. He was a field reporter for the newspaper, and covered wars in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and Gaza. He specialized in reporting on Islamists in Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, Kurdistan and Pakistan, and on Muslim affairs in Europe. He has been described by regional media outlets as one of Lebanon's most intelligent observers of Arab and Lebanese politics.

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