Secret Sunni Project: will they finally ask for their own semi-autonomous region?


niqash | Mustafa Habib | Baghdad | 19.09.2013 – High ranking Sunni Muslim clerics and politicians are holding private meetings to come up with a new plan to achieve their sect’s demands, after months of fruitless protests. But they still seem divided on whether or not to ask for their own region. What do Iraq’s Sunnis really want? 

When it comes to oppressed sects, it’s a game of swings and roundabouts. While former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was in power, it was Iraq’s Shiite Muslims who were oppressed. Hussein’s policy included surrounding himself with, and promoting, members of his own sect, Sunni Muslim. Under Hussein, those of Kurdish ethnicity were also repressed with Hussein instituting  a brutal genocidal campaign against them. That was before 2003’s US-led invasion that saw Hussein toppled. And now that there has been a Shiite Muslim-headed government in power in Iraq for seven years, it is the Sunni Muslims who say they are being oppressed and marginalized.

And for a long time who was the oppressed and who was the oppressor was a big key to sectarian identity in Iraq. The Kurdish and the Shiite Muslims were underdogs and a lot of their political ambitions seemed to be about redressing those wrongs. This has left Iraq’s Sunni Muslims somewhat confused about their own identity – until recently, that is.

According to information obtained by NIQASH, the leaders of some of the popular mostly-Sunni Muslim protests in Iraq are now discussing a secret plan to halt what they see as the marginalization of Sunni Muslims under the current Shiite Muslim government. The first draft of this plan is all about “liberating” the Sunnis from the government, led by current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Another part of the plan involves forming a board Sunni front to compete in elections. 

The first draft is about preserving Sunni dignity and it also reveals to the Arab and international community the size of the injustices currently being suffered by the Sunnis, thanks to the Iraqi government,” Najeh al-Mizan, a spokesperson for Sunni Muslim protests in the central Iraqi city of Samarra, told NIQASH.

This project is about new steps to achieve the demonstrators’ demands,” added Mohammed Taha al-Hamdoun, spokesperson for protesters in Anbar, Salahaddin, Kirkuk, Baghdad, Diyala and Mosul. “Our demands focus on the release of innocent people from prison and an end to the political marginalization of the Sunni Muslims of Iraq.”

Other parts of the project involve the taking of a census to determine how many Sunni Muslims there are, in order to determine just how unfairly they are being treated, al-Mizan explained. The plan also involves asking the Arab and the international community for support for Sunni Muslim demands. Anti-government protests, mostly in Sunni Muslim areas, erupted late last year and quickly developed into ongoing sit-ins in mosques every Friday and in local squares. Protests were particularly staunch in the Salahaddin and Anbar provinces. The ongoing protests are due to the government’s behaviour toward Iraq’s Sunni Muslims, says Anbar’s MP, Ahmad al-Alwani, who has supported the protests since they began; he’s currently facing charges of terrorism. They arrest Sunni Muslim men and they wont give Sunni Muslims government jobs, al-Alwani complains – the government is one of the country’s biggest employers.

Nouri al-Maliki’s government doesn’t want to work with us,” al-Alwani adds. “They consider us strangers in Iraq.”

Now meetings are being held between high ranking Sunni Muslim clerics and Sunni Muslim politicians and they will come up with this new, united plan – so far, specific details have been kept confidential. However one thing that has become clear is that there are strong disagreements between various Sunni Muslims about whether they should be asking to form a semi-autonomous region such as that now being run so successfully by Iraq’s Kurdish in the north. During Friday prayers, when clerics will often make political speeches, they don’t hide their admiration for the relative stability and economic prosperity that Iraqi Kurdistan is experiencing. However it seems that, despite the fact that the Iraqi constitution does allow the formation of regions like Iraqi Kurdistan, opinions are still very divided as to whether this would be a good idea – especially a region based on sectarian differences.  For one thing, many fear it could be the beginning of the end for a united Iraq.

Sunni Muslim spiritual leader, Abdul Maliki al-Saadi, a prominent cleric who has been a particularly staunch supporter of the protests in Anbar, visiting them in his wheelchair, is against the idea. The respected leader has spoken against the formation of such a region many times but some of the other protest leaders, members of Islamic political parties, disagree with the cleric.

Unfortunately some of the demonstrations’ leaders are members of well-known Sunni Muslim political parties and they’re seeking to create a region to further their own interests. But we are very much against it,” says Mohammed al-Bajar, one of the leaders of protests in the city of Fallujah, 65 kilometres west of Baghdad. Throughout our history, the Sunnis have never supported division. We are strong advocates of unity and we want Iraq to stay united.”

Whatever happens with this Sunni Muslim plan, which is currently at the draft stage, one thing has been very interesting from a sociological point of view: many observers believe these Sunni Muslim protests may well be the first demonstrations where Sunni Muslims have demanded rights for their own sect. In the past, Sunni Muslims have mostly been supporters of Pan-Arabism and Iraqi nationalist concepts, such as that originally espoused by Hussein.Mohammed Taha al-Hamdoun, the spokesperson for protesters in six of the provinces where they are occurring, agrees. Our project will be a turning point in Iraq’s history,” al-Hamdoun says. “We can’t accept injustices anymore.”