Thinking Aloud: Why Iraq Isn’t Arming the Sunnis

May 30, 2015 by Darius 

The word is that the United States is getting impatient with Iraq over the fight against ISIS.  Specifically, the US is unhappy that Iraq is taking baby steps, at best, towards creating a strong Sunni fighting force to go against ISIS.  But the question remains: why on Earth would the Iraqi government do such a thing?

Despite periodic rhetoric to the contrary, Iraq’s government remains dedicated first and foremost to maintaining the dominant position of the country’s Shia majority.  Although Iraq’s Shias have long been numerically dominant, the country has been ruled by the Sunni minority for centuries.  Made-in-USA democracy brought the Shias to power in 2005.  Ever since, the Shias have been intent on consolidating their hold on power, and the Sunnis have been both ticked off and often downright oppressed.  It is interesting to compare the map of the 2005 Iraqi parliamentary elections with the map of territory held, uncontested, by the Iraqi government.

control of iraq

iraq parliament elections

The crux of the problem is this: if the Iraqi government takes the development of a Sunni fighting force seriously and, somehow, the Sunni tribal force scores major victories against ISIS, pushing it out of Iraq entirely, does anyone really expect the Sunnis will simply lay down their arms and stop there?  The Sunni community’s grievances in Iraq go back well before the emergence of ISIS:  they did not get what they were promised when they helped with the American “surge” and over the last half dozen years their leaders have been hunted down and killed or imprisoned by the Iraqi government.  What reason does the Shia government have to believe that in the event of victory over ISIS, this Sunni force would not immediately turn its guns on the government?  The Kurds, in the north of Iraq, have already made autonomy from the rest of Iraq a fait accompli, largely thanks to the independence and power of the peshmerga militias.  The government in Baghdad certainly does not want to see a similarly defiant Sunni region.

Although ISIS threatens Iraq as a whole, Shia militias have proven highly effective at halting ISIS’s advance on Shia populations, like Baghdad.  There are even indications that these militias, partnering with the Iraqi army, can take back territory from ISIS.  Why would the government mess with a winning strategy?  Why would it take the risk of creating a strong Sunni fighting force that could later become a major headache for the Shia government?

The Iraqi government has no interest in militarizing Sunni groups in Anbar, ISIS or no ISIS.  No amount of badgering by the US is going to change the political or demographic facts on the ground in Iraq.  US efforts would be better directed towards helping the Iraqi government figure out how to share political power with regional authorities – be they Sunni or Kurd or something else – if Iraq is to continue as a state within its present borders.

Sometimes, when Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall, it is better to figure out how to best enjoy scrambled eggs than spend time trying to put Humpty together again.

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