Inclusion of Sunnis a must to stop ISIL

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By : Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The advance of the forces of the self-ascribed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) at lightning speed from eastern Syria to the outskirts of Baghdad caught many by surprise. But for any student of the region, none of this was that amazing. After all, for so many years the majority Shiite regime in Baghdad has refused to share power with the Sunnis and Kurds. And this Wednesday, the biggest culprit of this intransigence, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, again rejected the American proposal to form an emergency government that would give positions and more power to the Sunnis.

Al-Maliki is using the excuse of democracy to reject a government of reconciliation, something that Iraq needs now more than ever. “The request for the establishment of a national emergency government is a coup against the Constitution and the political process,” he said. The truth is that he and his allies have used sectarian language that makes it clear they do not want to allow the Sunnis to have a voice in the governance of the country. British Defense Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC that the current Iraqi government had a deficit of inclusion.

So the question is, if the Shiites, who are in the majority, do not want to share power with the Sunnis and Kurds on a national level, couldn’t they at least devolve some of the power in the form of local rule?
The 2005 Constitution has mechanisms for greater autonomy and federalization of the regions that have never been implemented. Until today, the only region that got its autonomy was Kurdish one, but this only after a bloody struggle against the forces of Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War and the imposition of an aerial exclusion area over Iraqi Kurdistan by the US and British for 10 years. Today the Iraqi Kurds have their own president, Parliament and local flag. However, there are still large differences with Baghdad in the division of income from oil sales in the region and national security issues related to the army. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani told CNN this week that he offered military aid to Al-Maliki several times, but that Al-Maliki refused his help. He also said he thinks the state of Iraq is splitting apart and so wants to rush full independence forward, something that Al-Maliki and Turkey — who also have their own Kurdish population — certainly will not let happen.

With the advancement of the Sunni insurgents, reportedly so extreme that even Al-Qaeda has broken off with them, some reports said they were only 5,000 extremists against some 70,000 Iraqi Army soldiers. What does this say about the estimated $70 billion spent on the Iraqi Army in military equipment and training during the American occupation from 2003 to 2011, when at the first sign of trouble the Iraqi soldiers deserted their posts and fled? That’s a good question for the Iraqi and US governments to consider. I do not think that Iraq is about to split into three pieces: The area occupied by Sunni extremists, which is the northwest of the country; the Kurdish region in north and the Shiite stronghold in the south. The fast ISIL advance was scary, but it can be explained by the fact that this is a Sunni majority area; by the transnational ties of the nomadic tribes living on both sides of the border between Iraq and Syria, and the general dissatisfaction of the Sunnis with the Al-Maliki government. This made them easy allies of ISIL, at least initially. But I don’t think that the honeymoon between the Sunni population and the ISIL fighters will last long.

But let me be clear that Al-Maliki is not the only culprit in all of this. The bloody civil war in Syria has been an incredible incubator for extremist groups. And the United States, with the neo-isolationist posture of President Barack Obama, now has to cope with this threat that could destabilize not only Iraq but also the entire region. Al-Maliki will begin to organize a new governing coalition on July 1. The new government will be announced only at the end of July, after the holy month of Ramadan. The US should press Al-Maliki to step down, since he is such a polarizing figure. A new reconciliation government should also be announced with new appointments of Sunni politicians to important positions.

Washington has sent 300 military advisers to Iraq to support Iraqis in their offensive against ISIL. This is a good start. But Americans should also be ready to use their military strength to strike the positions of ISIL to help the Iraqi Army push the extremists out of the country. All this could be done without having to send thousands of US troops back to Iraq.

Finally, Americans have to press foreign elements to stop the river of money in donations to ISIL and other extremist groups.

The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.

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