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Sunni leader: Politics driving sectarian divisions in Iraq

A Sunni religious leader has said that Baghdad must trust his community and arm them so the Islamic State group can be defeated in Iraq
Muneer Hashim al-Obaidi is a Sunni religious and society leader from the Iraqi capital Baghdad (MEE)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Muneer Hashim al-Obaidi strides into the hotel lobby of a plush Istanbul hotel to discuss the crisis affecting his home country of Iraq. He is a tall, physically imposing figure, but has the friendly smile and demeanour of someone who naturally carries with him the respect of his peers.

Muneer is a professor of law at the Iraqiya University in Baghdad. He is also a religious leader for Sunni Iraqis and is well known for his role organising protests against the government in 2012 and 2013, which raised issues of perceived sectarian discrimination by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Iraq is in the midst of a crippling civil conflict, with government forces and Shiite militiamen battling to seize back territory under the control of the Islamic State group (IS).

The war has often been portrayed as a sectarian one due to, in part, the Baghdad government being backed by Shiite Iran and IS having exploited grievances among the Sunni community.

However, Muneer, a self-declared Sunni Islamist, refutes this narrative and says the conflict is being driven by political issues and has little to do with religious differences.

“The war in Iraq is about politics, the Sunni and Shiite divide is just cover for this,” he says.

“Iran is using Iraq’s Shiites to achieve the political goal of increasing their power in the region. IS is using the cover of protecting Sunnis to achieve their political goals of establishing control over lands in Iraq and Syria.”

“Iraq is part of a regional war – it could even be described as a world war. We can see the West – by which I mean the US and Europe – fighting against Russia and China. The Russians and Chinese are supporting Iran while the Americans and Europeans back Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.”

Although he emphasises the political drivers of the conflict, Muneer speaks passionately about how he believes the Shiite dominated authorities of Baghdad have abused Sunni Iraqis. This, he says, has contributed to a complete disintegration of trust between the two communities, allowing sectarian divisions to flourish as the country becomes increasingly fractured.

The current crises consuming Iraq have their roots in the American-led war of 2003, Muneer says, as many Sunni Iraqis did not take part in the governments that followed the ousting of the late Saddam Hussein.

Many of Muneer’s friends joined militant groups that resisted the American occupation, which ran from 2003 to 2011, although he himself did not fight, choosing instead to call for Sunni Iraqis to join the police and military forces.

“I disagreed with other leaders who objected to Sunni Arabs joining up – I knew we must take part in the running of the country or we would be marginalised,” he says.

Muneer’s strident stance saw him targeted for assassination by the Iraqi franchise of al-Qaeda, which was established in 2004. Between 2005 and 2006 the militant group tried to kill him on five occasions.

The first four attempts on his life saw militants try to shoot him in Baghdad, but each time they missed. The fifth time, in late 2006, would be assassins planted a bomb outside Muneer’s home, with the religious leader and his young family inside, but the explosive device malfunctioned and did not go off.

“After failing to blow up my house they [al-Qaeda] spoke to my eldest brother and told him frankly: ‘If he doesn’t stop calling for the Sunnis to join the army he will not get away next time’.”

Muneer knew the threat was serious so agreed to be quiet, and in his subsequent silence he watched community divisions expand in Iraq, as lawlessness increased across the country.

Some six years later, in 2012, Muneer became politically active again. He accuses Maliki’s security forces of having arrested, tortured, and imprisoned tens of thousands of Sunni Iraqis – this was something he says could not be ignored.

Muneer says when authorities targeted high profile Sunni politicians – former Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and former deputy Prime Minister Rafi al-Issawi – it sparked huge protests in Sunni governorates during December 2012 that he helped organise.

As the protest movement grew, with tens of thousands taking part in demonstrations from Diyala in the east to Anbar in the west, authorities used force to try and shut demonstrations down.

The notorious killing of 42 people at Hawija on the outskirts of Kirkuk in March 2013 contributed to an urgent period of mediation between protesters and the government.

Muneer was part of the Sunni leadership group that laid down a list of demands that, he says, remain unmet until now by the Baghdad government.

“We wanted the innocent prisoners released from the jails – more than 50,000 prisoners, 95 percent Sunni, and most of them innocent. They were held in prison for years without trials.”

“We wanted the government to cancel article four of the terrorism law because it was being used to unfairly target Sunnis. We called it article four for Sunnis, because the way it was being used it felt like being a Sunni meant you were a terrorist.”

Human rights groups including Amnesty International have documented abuses by government backed Shiite militias in Iraq, including the mistreatment of prisoners held by security forces, although Iraqi authorities have denied these allegations.

Muneer himself was eventually arrested in Baghdad by the security forces during December 2013, but was only held in prison for one day as he was helped out by his high level political connections. He fled to the Kurdish city of Erbil, in north Iraq, after being released and has lived there ever since.

He says he hopes to return to Baghdad but that he fears being arrested, mistreated or even killed by authorities if he were to travel there now.

Almost immediately after his abrupt exit from the Iraqi capital in January 2014, the anti-government protest movement was sidelined when the IS group seized control of much of Anbar. IS declared an Islamic state in the western province, six months before they took control of the country’s second city, Mosul.

Muneer describes the IS takeover of Mosul in June 2014 as being “very suspicious,” pointing to thousands of Iraqi soldiers having fled in the face of just a few hundred militants. He is steadfast in his view that the former government led by Maliki is to blame for the current malaise.

“We have said we do not support IS and have denounced them as the criminals they are. But we are also firm in our belief that the major crime remains with the government,” he says.

“Those who told the army to withdraw from Mosul are more criminal than IS. Al-Maliki is a war criminal.”

Muneer says that when Maliki was replaced by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in August 2014 he, along with other Sunni leaders, approved the new government – but only if the demands of the community were met.

The demands remained much the same as during the protest movement: leaders said they wanted political prisoners to be released, article four of the terrorism law cancelled, and de-Baathifcation ended as it had unfairly targeted Sunni Iraqis.

Another key demand was that a locally run National Guard be established, reminiscent of the force that was formed to defeat al-Qaeda between 2006 and 2009.  Then, Sunni tribesmen were armed to successfully fight al-Qaeda, and Muneer says that after having agreed to replicate this approach in the fight against IS, Abadi has failed to deliver.

And this failure is proving to be a grave mistake, Muneer says, as recent IS gains in Anbar have prompted government forces and Shiite militias backed by Iran to engage in a war that has seen some 90,000 civilians flee the Sunni province.

“Sunni Iraqis are once again being caught in the middle between IS and Shiite militias. We don’t want people who live in Najaf  (a Shiite city in south Iraq) to fight and die in Anbar."

“The clans of Anbar do not want the Shia militias to come. They have 10,000 fighters to drive IS away but Baghdad will not allow Sunnis to have weapons and fight," he says, adding that the authorities are wrong not to trust the Sunni tribesmen with being armed. 

"That’s why IS were able to gain ground in Anbar in recent weeks.”

Muneer says he is fearful that Shiite militias could ransack Sunni areas in Anbar, pointing to reports of militiamen looting and burning homes in Tikrit when they successfully liberated the city from IS in March.

While Muneer consistently accuses Iran of controlling the Baghdad government, and explains that this is reflective of the political rather than religious reason behind the conflict, he does warn that the impact on the ground in Iraq has sectarian implications.

He says Iranian backed Shiite militiamen are refusing to allow Sunni Iraqis to return home after having liberated areas including Tikrit from the control of IS.

This, he claims, is evidence of ethnic cleansing in the country.

“It’s a deliberate tactic of demographic change. They say they won’t let the Sunnis come home because they are IS – but they just want to claim more territory to be under the de facto control of Iran.”

“In Baghdad, for instance, before Saddam’s removal it was split 50-50 between Sunni and Shiite. Now it is one third Sunni and two thirds Shiite – many of the Sunnis have been locked up or simply killed – this is ethnic cleansing.”

Although Muneer describes at length the sectarian divisions in Iraq, he maintains that there is no intrinsic problem between the Sunni and Shiite communities. He explains that in the midst of the conflict there is still solidarity among the civilian populations, as evidenced by some displaced Sunnis from Anbar having been given refuge in Shiite areas.

And while the immediate future looks bleak, Muneer maintains the route out of this conflict is to be found in the country’s constitution.

“We want properly implemented federalism, as stated in the constitution, with Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish areas,” he says.

“There can’t be a unified singular government for Iraq, there must be regional autonomy, and this is the only way the nation as a whole can make it into the future.”