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After the United States deposed longtime dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Sunnis were divided over the political process. Some participated, whereas others refused to do so; some supported the notion of building Iraq under the US occupation, whereas others opted for ‘resistance’ to the de facto rule of the Shiite majority and Kurds.
Iraq suffered further upheaval during the civil war between 2006 and 2008, which erupted after Sunni extremists bombed the Golden Mosque in the city of Samarra on 22 February 2006. The mosque is one of the country’s most revered Shiite shrines, and its destruction ignited nationwide rage and sectarian violence.
Militant groups affiliated with the Shiite Peace Brigades (formerly al-Mahdi Army) and backed by Iran were accused of committing the majority of the violence. However, the Badr Organization, a Shiite political party and paramilitary force, also formed death squads that carried out operations and attacks targeting Sunnis. At the same time, certain actors in the Ministry of Interior began introducing exclusionary measures against the ministry’s Sunni personnel and Sunni members of the Iraqi security forces. In other words, demographic changes were taking place in the capital Baghdad that favoured the Shiites.
The forced displacement of ethnic minorities that had started during the civil war entered a new phase in 2013, after anti-government demonstrations were staged in Sunni-dominated governorates in 2012 and shortly before the emergence of the Sunni extremist group Islamic State (IS) in 2015. In the largely Sunni Diyala governorate, on the Iranian border, demographic change had become a reality as a result of widespread displacement of Sunni families, said Rad al-Dahlaki, the chairman of the Displacement and Migration Committee. Sunnis were also the target of ethnic cleansing in Shiite-dominated governorates in the south, particularly Basra, according to the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI),Ján Kubiš.
IS, as al-Qaeda did before it, has played a major role in fomenting sectarian divisions and civil war in Iraq through a series of attacks. In addition to the bomb attack on the shrine in Samarra, one of the most notorious is the Camp Speicher massacre in June 2014, in which more than 1,500 mostly Shiite military cadets were executed.
Moreover, the policies of the Shiite-dominated government have prevented Sunnis from contributing effectively to building the Iraqi state and running its affairs. In recent years, the government has enacted several new laws, among them the DeBaathification Law, the Accountability and Justice Law, and Counterterrorism Law No. 4, and allegedly used them to marginalize and exclude Sunnis from political decision-making. In 2012, Tariq al-Hashimi, former vice president and a prominent Sunni leader, was convicted under the Counterterrorism Law of running death squads by a court whose fairness was questionable, raising concerns that the charges against him were politically motivated.
Despite these tensions, an agreement was reached in September 2014 between the major political blocs to form a unity government under Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi. It was agreed that some of the contentious laws would be amended, such as the Counterterrorism Law, and other laws would be introduced including the National Guard Law. Under this law, a National Guard would be created that included Sunni communities in the country’s security framework.
Three years on, however, many elements of the agreement have not been implemented. For example, the National Guard Law has yet to be enforced, and in November 2016, the parliament passed a bill, despite objections from Sunni politicians, recognizing the existing Popular Mobilization Units, a mostly Shiite coalition of militias, as an official security body operating alongside the military.
This has served to reignite tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites and revive old fears of exclusion and discrimination. Moreover, the Sunnis continue to have little influence over military decision-making as a result of the imbalance in the makeup of the Iraqi army and security forces.
At the same time, Sunni leaders have been unable to present a united political or social front to the Shiite or Kurdish blocs. Sunni politicians with different visions for running the affairs of state have traded accusations both with Sunnis inside Iraq and Sunnis abroad. Sunni politicians who are part of the political process have lost much of their popularity inside Iraq, while Sunni oppositionists living abroad have not presented realistic visions that can win over the Sunni public. In addition, Sunni tribes and parties disagree about which party should control Sunni governorates and assume leadership positions there.
As political infighting has continued in Baghdad, Sunni civilians have been the target of IS atrocities in areas and cities controlled by the extremist group. In October 2014, the bodies of more than 150 members of the Albu Nimr tribe killed by IS militants were found in a ditch in Anbar province. It was the latest in a series of mass executions of tribal figures who opposed the group. In March 2017, a report released by Human Rights Watch alleged that IS had executed and dumped the bodies of possibly hundreds of detainees in a mass grave near the city of Mosul. One resident was quoted as saying that “they were witness to several mass executions and the deceased were thrown into a hole that was 35 metres wide”.
The launch of military operations last October 2016 to liberate Mosul and other major cities from IS has seen civilians caught in the crossfire. Amnesty International interviewed civilians who had escaped the fighting. They reported that IS militants had deliberately prevented them from fleeing areas of conflict and, in some cases, had forced them to move to areas under their control, using them as human shields. Mosul is IS’ last major Iraqi stronghold, but the operation to liberate it is taking longer than expected, and the suffering of trapped civilians, who face chronic water and food shortages, is only increasing.