Turkey Could Solve Maliki’s Sunni Dilemma Wladimir van Wilgenburg, ORSAM Middle East Advisor

11-1-2014 – ORSAM – Recently, the Iraqi army forcefully ended the Sunni protest camp in the province of Anbar, leading to several deaths, the arrest of a Sunni Iraqi MP and the resignation of 44 Sunni lawmakers [1]. Often, the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blames the Syrian civil war as the main reason for the resurgence of Sunni violence in Iraq, but the main reason are his policies that marginalize the Sunni community and this has increased calls for decentralization. Turkey should help Maliki to reach out to the Sunni community.

The basis of the disaffection of the Sunni community started after Shiite political parties asserted their dominance over the political scene in Baghdad after the fall of the Baath-regime in 2003, and a lack of cross-sectarian alternatives and professional Sunni parties that could catch the Sunni vote. This lead to sectarian violence and bloodshed and a boycott of the elections by the majority of the Sunni population of the 2005 provincial elections.

In March 2010, the Sunnis realized that the only way to end marginalization by a Shiite religious controlled government, was a vote for the secular Iraqiya list led by Ayad Allawi [2]. This, however, failed after PM Nouri al-Maliki formed the government with Iranian support [3]. As a result, the Iraqiya list of Alawi fall apart, and now the Sunni vote is fragmented. Moreover, there are increased calls for decentralization among Sunnis as a result of Baghdad’s failure.

That’s why Sunnis started to see the autonomous Iraqi Kurds as a model. This resulted in a new alliance between the president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani, and the Sunni governor of Mosul, Atheel al-Nujaifi, whose party Al-Hadba was created as an anti-Kurdish Iraqi nationalist movement in the 2009 provincial elections to prevent Kurdish expansion in Mosul. He is now seen as a major ally of Barzani and accused by rivals of selling out to the Kurds [4]. Turkey played a major role in the reconciliation between Barzani and Nujayfi. Moreover, both Nujayfi and Barzani have an interest for more decentralization.

When protests erupted in Iraq in February 2011, there were major problems between Sunni protestors and the Iraqi army in Mosul, and the governor of Mosul wants less involvement of the Iraqi army in their affairs. This is a similar demand of the Sunnis in Anbar.  The Iraqi Sunnis want to have control over their own security, just as the Kurds have.

When the US army withdraw in December 2011, there was nobody to stop Maliki from clamping down on the Sunnis. Immediately after the withdrawal, security forces tried to arrest the Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashemi on charges of terrorism, but he managed to flee [5].

Now, the violence is returning to 2007 and 2008 levels due to the lack of competence of the Iraqi army and Maliki’s policies [6].

Instead of reaching out and funding the Sunni tribal Awakening militias that almost finished off Al Qaida in Iraq with US support and money, Nouri al Maliki saw them as a huge threat and decided to cut their funding and support. This while these militias would have been dependent on Baghdad for financial support, and Maliki could have used them to prevent an insurgency from growing.

Maliki increasingly centralized power in his own hands at the expense of rival Kurdish, Sunni and also Shiite parties. A non-confidence vote against Maliki by a cross-sectarian coalition failed in 2012 as a result of Iran support for Maliki [7].

In 2012, the situation worsened when protests erupted in Anbar, after the security forces tried to arrest bodyguards of the Sunni Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi [8]. The ongoing protests in Anbar were ignored by the international media due a lack of interest in Iraq and the civil war in Syria. And Maliki wants an end to these protests since they are against his rule and because some of them support the Islamist insurgency.

Some Sunnis in Anbar are trying to reach out to Baghdad since they fear the resurgence of Al Qaida, but the problem is that not all Sunnis are willing to reach out to Baghdad and Maliki also has to deal with his Shiite supporters [5].

In April 2013, there was a massacre by the Iraqi army against Sunnis in Hawija in which dozens were killed that resulted in moree violence [9]. This although the Sunni Arab political movement started to ally with Maliki against the Kurds, since they realized Iraqiyya would never get in power. However, the local population sympathized with the Sunni protest in Anbar against the government and this resulted in a split among the Sunni Arabs in Kirkuk.

Now, the situation has worsened again after the Iraqi government suppressed the Sunni protest in Anbar. Forty-four Iraqi MPS have announced their resignation over violence in Anbar, after a deadly raid on the home of a Sunni lawmaker MP Ahmed al-Alwani in Ramadi [10].

It is most likely that a Shiite coalition either led by Nouri al-Maliki or Shiite rivals of Nouri al-Maliki will form the government after the Iraqi elections in April 2014. It would be difficult for both camps to reach out to the Sunnis, as a result of their Shiite support base that is unwilling to give concessions to the Sunnis. It is unlikely that a Sunni-backed party could form the government or get the same amount of votes as Iraqiya did in the March 2010 elections. Turkey’s new ties with the Iraqi government could give Turkey some room to advice the Maliki government or another future Shiite-dominated government not to further marginalize the Sunni community.

In the end, it’s not in the interest of the Iraqi government, Iran, Turkey, and the Kurdish government, to have a disenfranchised Sunni community that could help a resurgence of Al Qaida in Iraq.

Turkey already helped the Kurds and Baghdad to reach a deal over energy, and could now try to do the same with the Sunnis [11]. Turkey especially has influence over Sunnis in Kirkuk and Mosul, but their influence in Anbar is more limited. But with the upcoming elections scheduled for April 20, it is unlikely that Maliki would change his policies, although his party is rather more Iraqi nationalist than purely a sectarian Shiite party.

However, sectarian realities on the ground force his party to become more sectarian to get more votes, although from time to time, the Maliki government could also play the Iraqi nationalist card.


[1] “Dozens of Iraqi MPs quit over Anbar violence”, Al Jazeera, December 31, 2013, URL: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/iraq-anbar-violence-20131230222045598880.html

[2] Leila Fadel and Karen DeYoung, “Ayad Allawi’s bloc wins most seats in Iraqi parliamentary elections”, March 27, 2010, URL: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/26/AR2010032602196.html

[3] Suadad al-Salhy and Waleed Ibrahim, “Iraq breaks impasse as Maliki to form government”, November 11, 2010, URL: http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/11/11/us-iraq-idUSTRE6AA0Q320101111

[4] Adel Kamal, “interview with ninawa’s governor: they say we ‘sold’ mosul to kurds”, Niqash, June 28, 2012, URL: http://www.niqash.org/articles/?id=3078

[5] Robert Tollast, “Who can bring unity to Iraq in 2014? An interview with Joel Wing”, December 26, 2013, URL: http://www.global-politics.co.uk/blog/2013/12/26/Iraq_2014_Maliki/

[6] Max Boot, “The Tragedy of Maliki’s Iraq”, Dec 30, 2013, URL: http://www.commentarymagazine.com/2013/12/30/the-tragedy-of-malikis-iraq/

[7] Patrick Markey, “Foes of Iraq’s Maliki cannot force confidence vote”, Reuters, June 10, 2012, URL: http://in.reuters.com/article/2012/06/10/iraq-politics-idINDEE85907G20120610

[8] Stephen Wicken, “Demonstrations Against Maliki After Issawi Bodyguard Arrest, Dec 27, 2012,” URL: http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/iraq-update-52-demonstrations-against-maliki-after-issawi-bodyguard-arrest

[9] Wladimir van Wilgenburg, “Implications of the Hawija ‘massacre’ and Kirkuk protest movement”, May 12, 2013, URL: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-315156-implications-of-the-hawija-massacre-and-kirkuk-protest-movement.html

[10] Iraq PM to deploy more troops to Anbar, Al Jazeera, January 2, 2013, URL: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/01/iraq-mp-deploy-more-troops-anbar-2014125213392948.html

[11] Turkey resolves energy crisis with Baghdad, Al Monitor, December 4, 2013, URL: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/business/2013/12/turkey-solution-energy-crisis-baghdad-erbil.html