Arabs in the town of Rabia on the Kurdistan-Syria border voting in the September 25 referendum. Photo: Rudaw TV
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – There is a growing political movement among Sunni Arabs, feeling marginalized in today’s Iraq and inspired by Kurdistan’s independence referendum, to hold their own similar vote or create a federal state with Kurdistan.
Iraq’s Sunni Arab population feels increasingly marginalized, starting with the end of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Sunnis boycotted the political process in Iraq in 2005. They returned to politics in 2009, but quickly faced problems with the predominantly Shiite authority. This led to demonstrations in Sunni areas, which the government curbed through the use of force.
In the war against ISIS, the Shiite Hashd al-Shaabi forces have been accused of carrying abuses against Sunni populations and Sunni areas have seen high levels of destruction.
Now some are hoping Kurdistan’s September referendum will breathe new life into Sunni Arabs who want to regain power.
“After Kurdistan’s referendum, we will be more determined to create a region which we think is our constitutional right. We want to declare a confederation with the Kurdistan Region. We have a big military and economic force and border ports with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. We will reconstruct our areas through investment. We want to copy the experience of Kurdistan, and the best mechanism is to reach an agreement with the Kurdistan Region,” said Fahran Hawas al-Sadid, president of the Shamar tribe in Nineveh and Salahaddin provinces.
Nearly 400 villages and townships of west Tigris are currently under the control of the Peshmerga. Some 25,000 Arabs live here and participated in Kurdistan Region’s referendum. According to Nineveh tribal leaders, the overwhelming majority voted yes.
“The Peshmerga shed their blood to liberate our areas and the cities in Kurdistan have opened their doors to the refugees. We now think we have the same fate as the Kurds and feel closer to them than ever. Nearly 98 percent of our people voted yes for Kurdistan’s independence. We will not return to the failed and tribal government of Baghdad,” Sheikh Mizahim Ahmed al-Uwet, spokesperson for the Arab tribe leaders of Nineveh, told Rudaw.
The independence referendum held in the Kurdistan Region has given new energy to Sunni demands, which have suffered from the lack of a strong, united political front to lead the Sunni population in negotiations with Baghdad.
“We have become part of Kurdistan’s defense system. Many Arabs in the Dijla brigade are protecting the Nineveh plains, Makhmour, and their other places along side our Kurdish brothers from the Ministry of Peshmerga. Now we have nearly 20,000 Peshmerga fighters,” said the Nineveh tribal leader.
Misal Alusi, leader of Iraq’s Umma party who is from Anbar province, thinks the success of Kurdistan’s referendum is important to not only Sunni Arabs, but to all freedom lovers in Iraq and the region.
“The lack of national identity and the failure of the Muslims in running Iraq pushed Kurdistan to hold a referendum, and this inspired the freedom lovers of Iraq and the region and puts before Baghdad two choices: either democracy or dictatorship,” Alusi told Rudaw.
“The perceptions of Sunni Arabs changed toward Kurdistan following the conquests of ISIS. Sunni Arabs didn't know the Kurds well. Baghdad considers itself the capital of Islam and democracy, yet didn't allow people from Fallujah and Anbar to go to Baghdad. But Kurdistan opened its doors to them. This had an impact on Sunni Arabs changing their perceptions,” he explained.
From opposition to federalism to seeking it
Sunni Arabs vehemently opposed enshrining a federal system in the Iraqi constitution while it was being drafted. After marginalization and a sectarian war, however, some began pushing for the creation of a federal region in Sunni provinces. Negative responses from former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki left a door open for ISIS, who some Sunnis initially welcomed as a force liberating them from Baghdad.
Yahya Sunbil, secretary of the Iraqi council of tribes, thinks the Kurdistan Region’s referendum will push Sunni Arabs towards seeking their rights.
“The Iraqi nation will rise if sectarian pressures and violations of the Hashd al-Shaabi persist because people will not accept being dishonored. Peoples’ properties in the areas of the Sunni Arabs have been confiscated. They arrest people indiscriminately. People will rise if Baghdad doesn't give up on this policy,” Sunbil told Rudaw.
The Sunni Arabs don't all share the same position. Deep political divisions exist. Some of them support al-Maliki. These people are known as ‘the Sunnis of al-Maliki’. Others don't have a clear political project.
Sheikh Raad Suliman, president of the Iraqi tribes union, thinks that the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum is a good encouragement for Sunni Arabs.
“We call for a referendum to be held in all the six Sunni provinces of Iraq because the government partnership with Baghdad has ended. They are practicing the politics of sidelining the Sunni Arabs. That is why the best solution is to form a federal region for the Sunni provinces,” Suliman said.
The six Sunni provinces are Nineveh, Salahaddin, Anbar, Diyala, Baghdad, and Kirkuk. Kirkuk and portions of Nineveh and Diyala provinces took part in Kurdistan’s referendum.