Sunnis in Iraq Often See Their Government as the Bigger Threat

By KAREEM FAHIM, AZAM AHMED and KIRK SEMPLESEPT. 10, 2014 – New York Times – BAGHDAD — Overcoming that mistrust is a fundamental challenge facing the new Iraqi government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, as it tries to win Sunni Iraqis over to its side in a fight against the Sunni extremists. And it is a prerequisite of President Obama’s new plan to fight the militant group. Mr. Abadi’s admirers, including American officials, have insisted that he is an intrinsically more inclusive leader than his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whom many Sunnis accused of using the government, the security forces and the cover of law to serve narrow Shiite interests and subjugate the Sunni minority.

Many Sunni political leaders have begun responding positively to Mr. Abadi’s outreach, including plans to bring Sunni Arabs into new national guard military units, fighting ISIS under the direction of their provincial governors and with paychecks and pensions from the Iraqi government. But the prime minister faces a far more daunting challenge outside the halls of power, in Sunni neighborhoods and provinces pummeled by years of war and shaped by a legacy of mistrust that stretches back to the sectarian political order that rose during the American occupation of Iraq.

It will be a “mammoth task” to stitch the country back together and assuage Sunni fears, said Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute, a think tank in Erbil in Kurdistan.

“Sunnis are deeply fragmented, and winning the trust of those in Baghdad is not enough to win the hearts and minds of those under ISIS occupation,” he said.“With the violations of the constitution, with the burning of all these bridges, with the lack of focus on nation building, it finally made Iraq fail,” he continued. “To repair a failed state is a near-impossible task.” As the price of their support, Sunni leaders have demanded that the government curb the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that have been deployed to Sunni areas, and seek the release of Sunni men imprisoned by the hundreds under vague charges during the previous government. They also claim that Sunni areas do not receive their fair share of the country’s wealth, and demand more autonomy, as the Kurds have. “We are looking for a measure of good will,” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Shauki, a former army commander during Saddam Hussein’s rule and now a representative of the Independence Armed Group, a Sunni insurgent movement based in Anbar Province.

“We hope the government doesn’t ignore us, because it will tear Iraq apart.”

But in its war against ISIS, the conduct of the government seems to have only cauterized the divisions.

As ISIS seized vast sections of territory this summer, as Iraqi soldiers fled or were routed, the government increasingly turned to Shiite militias to counter the threat. Iraq’s Sunnis vividly recall how militias linked to the governing Shiite parties staged attacks against Sunnis during the worst years of the sectarian conflict last decade, often in cooperation with Iraq’s military and police forces, or while wearing their uniforms. Mr. Maliki was criticized for his inability or unwillingness to dismantle the groups, hardening Sunni mistrust of the government.