By David Bender
Earlier this week, just as Iraq seemed to be finally settling on a new prime minister -- the incumbent, Nouri al-Maliki -- the Washington Post reported a largely overlooked but telling development: the Ministry of Interior had stripped hundreds of police officers in Anbar province of their rank. The problem is that these weren't just any cops: they are Sunnis and former members of the Awakening Councils, paramilitary forces once backed by the United States that had helped turn the tide of the insurgency in 2007 when they turned their guns on al Qaeda.
Now would seem a very strange time for the Iraqi government to be abandoning the Awakening, given that al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has lately shown some signs of reconstituting itself. But the dismissals are not about security. Rather, they're indicative of the current (and likely next) government's inability to envision a place for Sunnis in Iraq's future. And they're a sign of the fundamental sectarian dysfunction that is likely to define Iraqi politics and society for years to come.
When Sunnis in western Iraq agreed to stop shooting at U.S. Marines and start fighting AQI in 2007, the United States was more than happy to welcome them with money and weapons. Using the Awakening Councils to help combat al Qaeda was a critical element of General David Petraeus's strategy ending Iraq's civil war by making the Sunnis part of the solution rather than problem. The gambit was a big success in reversing the tide of the war, but it gradually raised fears among the Shia. Decades of repression under Sunni-dominated governments and the military had helped convince many of the newly empowered Shia leaders that the well-armed and battle-tested Awakening Councils might eventually become a base for a Sunni renaissance. These Shia leaders went along with an American plan to start integrating the Awakening Councils into the Iraqi police and military starting in 2008, but only grudgingly; and few of the government jobs that were promised to Sunni fighters in recent years have materialized.
Having boycotted the 2005 elections, Sunnis participated fully in last March's vote, turning out en masse for Iraqiyya, a nonsectarian political alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shia (who, once upon a time, was also a Baathist, although he turned against the party in the 1970s and Saddam Hussein tried to have him killed with an axe). Iraqiyya won more seats in the election that either Maliki's (nominally nonsectarian but actually largely Shia) State of Law or the Shia sectarian Iraqi National Alliance (INA). But Sunnis saw their preferences ignored when the two Shia coalitions formally merged and declared themselves the largest political bloc in parliament. Now Allawi and the Sunnis are trapped on the sidelines and forced to watch as Shia kingmakers decide who will lead the next government.
That person -- and it seems extremely likely to be Maliki -- will have to choose how to handle the Sunnis. On the one hand, there's no question it would help stabilize Iraq if he made a genuine effort to reach out to the Sunnis and give that disenfranchised community meaningful political influence and a role in the next government. But a combination of an almost implacable Shia fear of a Sunni resurgence and a sense that, after centuries of repression, this is the Shia's moment means that bold outreach is unlikely. Instead, some Sunni groups may be bought off in order to give the next government a veneer of sectarian diversity but little more.
The big question is how will the Sunnis respond? Should they decide they have no stake in the success of the next government, what will be their next move? Sunnis could cease their security cooperation with Baghdad, but a return to the sort of civil war we saw between 2005 and 2007 is unlikely. The Iraqi government of today, for all its problems, is significantly more stable than it was in 2005, and Iraqi security forces are dramatically more capable. Still, parallel efforts -- not cooperation but a sharing of similar goals -- by disaffected Sunnis and an AQI looking to reconstitute -- could keep Baghdad and Iraq's west violent and unstable for years to come.
David Bender is a Middle East Analyst at Eurasia Group.