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Unity through division: The Sunni plan to save themselves and Iraq

Using the Iraqi constitution as a basis, prominent Sunnis have proposed creating an autonomous region as an effort to stabilise the country
Many residents fleeing Ramadi and Fallujah now live in Al-Wattan Camp in southern Baghdad (MEE/Hadeer al-Sayeed)

BAGHDAD - Iraq's Sunni politicians have a plan to bring unity back to their country - and are arguing that the only way to stop Iraq's political and security crisis is to create an autonomous region for Sunnis.

"This would grant stability and unity to Iraq, the continuation of the current political system, and would remedy the problems and mistakes [committed by the Shia-dominated government]," Osama al-Nujaifi, the head of the Higher Coordination Committee (HCC) and a former Iraqi vice president, told Middle East Eye in Baghdad.

The HCC is a Sunni political body consisting of 13 prominent Iraqi Sunni parliamentary blocs and parties.

"Forming the regions from provinces within its administrative borders is a very normal and legal issue. It would organise the relationship between Baghdad and the regions, and distribute the authority," he said.

Sunni Muslims, who traditionally governed Iraq for centuries until the fall of Saddam Hussein, complain of marginalisation, exclusion and discrimination by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, which assumed control following the 2003 US-led invasion.

Osama al-Nujaifi, the head of the Higher Coordination Committee and a former Iraqi vice president (MEE/Hadeer Al-Sayeed)
Sunnis were the biggest loser when the Islamic State (IS) group seized vast areas of territory in the northern and western parts of the country in June 2014. They lost control of their towns and cities, and Kurdish and Shia forces have since recaptured many.

Sunnis blamed the Iraqi government and the federal security forces for the lightning advances of IS, while Baghdad has accused Sunnis in the northern and western provinces of being collaborators and sympathisers with IS fighters.

"Baghdad was violating the rules... it was interfering in people's business. Interfering even in the running of Mosul province... imposing a curfew, blocking roads and markets, and randomly arresting people," Nujaifi told MEE.

"This created an atmosphere of division and tension between people and Iraqi forces and the results were the fall of cities," he added.

According to Khalid al-Mafraji, a spokesman for the HCC, “Arab Sunnis will not be able to solve their problems with Baghdad without getting autonomy in their areas, without being independent and governing themselves”.

The Sunni answer is to use the country's 2005 constitution to turn their provincial heartlands into semi-autonomous regions.

The constitution states that every province of Iraq has a right to do so if it supported by a majority in an referendum. 

Any motion to hold such a vote must either have the backing of one third of the provincial council or a tenth of registered voters. 

If successful, the new cantons would remain a part of federal Iraq but have devolved powers similar to, but not as wide, as those enjoyed by the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region. 

"The first step is to turn every Sunni province into a region, and when the people see the benefits of this very important administrative system, then for sure the reactions will be positive," Mafraji said.

Discussions have not formally reached the Iraqi parliament, and no new requests have been forwarded to the central government by any of the Sunni provinces, Iraqi officials and politicians told MEE.

According to the Iraqi constitution, the new regions would assume control over health, education, housing, finance, municipalities and tourism. Also the regions would be allowed to form and control the regional guard forces, local police and other local security agencies - the main goal that most Sunnis have been hoping to achieve, in order to drive the Shia-dominated security forces out of their areas.

The proposed “Sunni region,” published by Adnan al-Dulaimi, a prominent Sunni politician and the head of the former Tawafiq parliamentary bloc, would include five provinces: Nineveh, Anbar, Salaheddin, Diyala and Baghdad. 

Many sources said that geographically vast Anbar would be the first to take this route.

"What we need now, is a foundation stone (to form the region) and Anbar is the best province to be this stone," a prominent Sunni politician told MEE on condition of anonymity.

"By the end of this year, we hope that Anbar will be the first Sunni region in Iraq and Nineveh will be the second one," he said.

Drive for international recognition 

Most Sunni parliamentary blocs and political parties have been pushing to get the required domestic and international support to establish their regions.

Political conferences were held in Turkey, Doha, Jordan and Erbil late last year to unify the Iraqi Sunni factions and encourage them to support the proposed regions as "a fundamental way" to end Sunni marginalisation from "systematic violations" committed by the Baghdad government and the federal Iraqi security forces, Nujaifi said.

Mafriji and Nujaifi said the proposal on the table now is "regionalising the provinces" but what has been circulating on social media and press conferences by Nujaifi and Mafraji's allies suggests something else.

Rafie al-Essawie, the fugitive former Iraqi finance minister and one of Nujaifi's prominent allies, has called and mobilised the international and Arab communities to support the formation of the "Sunni region".

Essawie and Nujaifi's brother, Athil al-Nujaifi, last week founded an informal "representation for Arab Sunnis" group in Washington, seeking the support of the international community to get Sunni Iraqis "legal, constitutional and humanitarian rights," a statement issued by Nujaifi read.

However, with many areas still in control of IS, Sunnis need the help of the central government's army and its Shia militia allies to retake what Sunnis see as theirs.

Ahmed, who lives in IS-controlled Fallujah in the Anbar province, told MEE that anything is preferable to being ruled over by the Islamic State group.

"The situation is very bad and cannot be tolerated. We want salvation, and will not oppose the entry of any Iraqi government forces into Fallujah," said Ahmed, who did not want to give his full name.

"We know that the army will arrest us and insult us, but at least we will ensure that our families will be safe and will find something to eat."

Ahmed believes that the armed forces that participate in the recapture of Fallujah "will burn everything, and this will not be a problem as long as our sons run it later".

Kurds who have enjoyed a defacto autonomy since 1991, and Iraq's Shia, who wrote the federal constitution, said they had no problem with the proposed regions "as long as they will be in line with the Iraqi constitution".

However, they cautioned that there was much to discuss on the issue of where these cantons might be. 

"We are not against the formation of the regions. It is constitutional…but what about the disputed areas?" Araize Abdullah, a prominent Kurdish lawmaker, told MEE.

Abass al-Biyati, a prominent Shia MP, told MEE that agreeing on borders and economic responsibilities would be the main stumbling blocks. 

"The confirmed thing is that the Sunni region will not include Baghdad. Baghdad is for everyone," Biyati said.

He warned that Sunnis would have to reconsider how disputed parts of Salaheddin, Anbar and Mosul would be incorporated into the new region. "They have to resolve the problem of the disputed areas with Kurds and Shia in these provinces before everything," he added. 

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