Conflict & Justice

Sunni Muslims in Iraq are caught between violent militants and violent government troops

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Credit: REUTERS/Ahmad Mousa

Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a military-style training in the holy city of Najaf, June 16, 2014. The United States said it could launch air strikes and act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has scrambled alliances in the Middle East.

Many fear that Iraq is dangerously close to an all-out sectarian civil war.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

That's because the militants from the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, are Sunni Muslims, while the Iraqi army and government are dominated by Shiite Muslims. The ISIS militants have successfully taken large areas of northern and western Iraq, where the population is predominantly Sunni like them. 

So far, the ISIS jihadists have focused most of their violence against Iraqi Shiites. And that puts Iraq's minority Sunni Muslims in a difficult position, says Fareed Sabri of the London-based Cordoba Foundation. “Many people are very afraid and apprehensive.”

Sunnis in Iraq fear reprisals against them by the Iraqi government and army, says Sabri, who is himself a member of the Sunni-dominated Iraqi Islamic Party. The Sunni community, he says, has been politically marginalized by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“This is a real irony — when people see ISIS as less harmful than the government,” he notes.

“Nobody supports ISIS, because people know it's a murderous organization,” Sabri says, but Sunnis do compare ISIS to the government in Baghdad. “And they see that the government has [perpetrated] heinous crimes.”

ISIS is boasting about executing hundreds of mainly Shiite members of Iraq's security forces captured in recent days. Many Sunnis find it difficult to conjure up much sympathy for the government forces, says Sabri, because of the way those same security forces have conducted themselves in Sunni areas over the last several years.

Sabri claims the government of Prime Minister al-Maliki is guilty of arbitrary detentions and abuse of Sunni prisoners. Independent reports from human rights groups like Amnesty Interational back up some of those claims.

If the international community wants to help pull Iraq back from the brink of sectarian civil war, Sabri says, the US and European governments need to open a direct dialogue with political leaders on the ground in Iraq. “Not ISIS,” Sabri says, "but tribal groups who have a lot of grievances with ISIS itself. There is a kind of truce between ISIS and other groups on the ground, but this will not continue.”

If outside powers don't bring all of the country's factions into the process, Sabri says, Iraq could head down the road of becoming a failed state, much like Syria next door.

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