IRAQ: Sunnis, the Elections, and the Insurgency

December 20, 2005 12:49 pm (EST)

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The December 15 parliamentary elections in Iraq were the first since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in which Sunnis actively participated. Their cooperation and the high turnout—about 70 percent of registered voters—raised hopes that Sunnis would finally join with Kurds and Shiites to build a new country and diminish the Sunni-led insurgency. The main Shiite party won 59 percent of votes in preliminary results, while the main Sunni party took 19 percent and the secular, non-sectarian party of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won 14 percent.

What impact, if any, will the election of Sunni politicians have on the insurgency?

"The best news of the election was the participation in the political process by Sunnis," says Major General William Nash, director of CFR’s Center for Preventive Action. Experts say these elections are critical for both the future of the insurgency and Iraq’s Sunnis. "We’re hoping Sunni participation in the elections will reduce violence across the country," says Paul Hughes, an Iraq program officer for the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace. "This is really the last chance for Sunnis to get some power," says Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

But many experts question whether the newly elected Sunni politicians can stop the violence. "I don’t think those who participated in the election as candidates have much influence over the insurgency," Katzman says. Only the conservative Sunni religious group, the Muslim Clerics Association, has influence over the insurgency, he says, and they chose not to run any candidates in the December poll. "If the United States pulled out now, Sunni politicians couldn’t control the insurgency," he says.

What kind of links do Sunni politicians have to the insurgency?

Experts say they are strong. The views of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Sunni party that won the most votes, "are fairly representative of those of the mainstream insurgency," says Jeffrey White, an Iraq security expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Another party, the National Dialogue Front, has strong ties to Baathist former regime elements. The hard-core terrorists linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi have condemned the political process and did not participate. The clear ties between insurgency groups and Sunni parties lead some experts to question the dedication of Sunni politicians to the political process. "Are these candidates a replacement for the insurgency or a front for it?" asks Nibras Kazimi, a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute.

In addition, experts say it’s not entirely clear who leads the Sunnis. "The people who are going to represent the Sunnis in Parliament speak for the Sunni community, but they don’t decide for them," says Kazimi. The Iraqi Accordance Front had called for Sunnis to approve the constitution in October’s referendum; instead, Sunni voters overwhelmingly rejected it. That raises the question of whether this party really represents the Sunni community, Kazimi says. "At this point, there’s a lot of muddle as to who’s in the Sunni leadership," he says.

The clear ties between insurgency groups and Sunni parties lead some experts to question the dedication of Sunni politicians to the political process. "Are these candidates a replacement for the insurgency or a front for it?" asks Nibras Kazimi, a visiting scholar at the Hudson Institute.

Would Sunni insurgents respond to political gains?

Possibly, experts say. It depends what the politicians are able to achieve. "If Sunni politicians can’t get substantial movement [on major issues], most Sunnis will think the political process is a waste of time," Katzman says. Sunnis still harbor significant grievances about the change of regime, which they are not likely to forget. "Sunnis controlled Iraq [under Saddam Hussein]," Kazimi says. "All the money, all the cushy jobs. At what point will a Sunni government say they should stop the insurgency? Violence works. It’s been successful for them." In addition, "elections do not equal a government," Nash says. "It took a long time to form a government the last time around [after the January 2005 elections for an interim government] and there’s still a lot of work to be done."

What do Sunnis want?

A few issues are critically important to Sunnis, who mostly voted for sectarian parties because they "they feel threatened in the new Iraq," Kazimi says. Their major concerns are:

  • Revising the constitution. The constitution was drafted by Shiite and Kurdish members of the interim government, with limited Sunni involvement, after Sunnis boycotted the January elections. The document has strong provisions for federalism that Sunnis oppose. Beginning in January, there is a four-month constitutional review period in which Sunni politicians will push hard to revise the constitution, Katzman says.
  • Ending the occupation. Experts say getting the U.S. and other foreign troops out of Iraq is another major demand of many Sunnis.
  • Reversing de-Baathification. Many Sunnis feel unfairly shut out of major jobs in the military and government because of their former membership in Saddam Hussein’s party. This policy is already being partially reversed in many areas, including the new Iraqi military.
  • Gaining significant leadership posts in the new government. Sunnis will seek to head major ministries like Finance or Oil—or even the presidency, experts say. There’s a good chance they could get the Defense Ministry, White says, although he points out that this would set up a potential conflict with the Shiite-led Interior Ministry.
  • Strengthening the central government. Sunnis oppose federalism, which they see as encouraging regions of the country to separate or declare independence. Instead, they want to centralize power in Baghdad, as in Saddam Hussein’s time.
  • Guaranteeing that oil revenue is shared. Sunnis are very nervous that Iraq’s major oil reserves, which are predominantly located in the Kurdish north and Shiite south, will be claimed by those groups, leaving them without a share of the country’s most lucrative resource.
  • Opposing widespread counterinsurgency operations. Massive military operations that target urban areas—which have been predominantly Sunni areas that see major insurgent activity—and affect civilians, like the anti-insurgent campaigns in Fallujah, will be much harder to stage with Sunnis in government, experts say.

Will Sunnis keep the option of armed resistance?

Yes, experts say. "They’ll play the traditional Middle Eastern game of talk and shoot," White says. Zarqawi and the most extreme former Baathists will "stay out of the political realm and continue a strategy of pure violence," he says, while the nationalist Sunnis will likely experiment with the political process and see how far it gets them before turning again to the insurgency. "We might see a situation like [that] in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein took part in the political arena while the Irish Republican Army remained in case they couldn’t achieve their objectives through politics," Hughes says. Since the Sunnis "want back everything they had," the U.S.-led coalition and the new Iraqi government will have to convince them to compromise on their demands, he says.

This may not be easy, some experts say. "The Sunnis have been fundamentally humiliated and want to overturn their humiliation," Katzman says. "They’re just waiting for us to leave so they can grab a greater share of power." Kazimi is equally doubtful. "I think this was a census in Iraq, not an election," he says. "The people who are talking about Iraqi identity are losing ground. Everyone is still voting for their own interests. Voting was an allegory for civil war—maybe even a prelude," he says. But other experts see progress. "The Sunnis still have many options, but the fact that the political process is one of them is a good thing," Nash says.

"The Shiites have been fundamentally humiliated and want to overturn their humiliation," Katzman says. "They’re just waiting for us to leave so they can grab a greater share of power."

Will Sunnis join the legitimate Iraqi security forces?

One source of tension in Sunni areas has been the presence of Shiite-dominated police and army units, some of which are accused of torturing Sunni prisoners and conducting revenge killings. Sunnis are generally not represented in the security forces because most of them have been fighting in the insurgency. And the most prominent experiment of incorporating Sunni militias into the Iraqi security forces failed. After taking the city of Fallujah, U.S. forces turned it over to Sunni militias, known as the "Fallujah Brigade," in the summer of 2004, only to see the city overrun with insurgent activity. "The bad example of a Sunni division is the Fallujah Brigade," White says. "It failed miserably," Hughes agrees. "It was effectively putting the militia into new shirts."

However, the U.S.-led coalition has recently lifted the 2003 ban on former officers from Saddam’s army joining the new Iraq National Army, a move experts say has had little practical impact. "Some have joined, but it doesn’t look like it’s happened in any large numbers," White says. Experts say the Sunni fighters who do join must be co-opted into a new Iraqi army and police force, which will take time. Sunnis have pushed for their own division to patrol Sunni areas. "Undoubtedly, some insurgents will come into the fold after a Sunni brigade is created," White says. Then the challenge will be to train the new recruits to develop an Iraqi frame of mind instead of the traditional tribal, sectarian one.

Will Sunni politicians be willing to compromise?

"There’s a mix of Sunni politicians," Hughes says. "Some recognize the art of compromise, some don’t." White says, however, many Sunni leaders are realizing they must participate in the political process in order to keep from being shut out of decision-making in the new Iraq. When considering the role of a central government, "the current Sunni leaders buy into a unified Iraq because the pie is a lot bigger that way, and they don’t want to be reduced to a rump state with no significant economic resources," he says. The Sunni areas in central Iraq, unlike the Shiite south and Kurdish north, have few significant natural resources. Many Sunnis are also wary of cooperating with Shiites because they accuse them of being unduly influenced by Iran. "The thing that drives the nationalist Sunnis nuts is the perception that Shia politicians are selling Baghdad to Tehran," Hughes says.

Will the Kurds and Shiites be willing to compromise with Sunnis?

"Kurds and Shias won’t be happy [working with Sunnis], but they’ll have to live with it," White says. "They’re now dealing with the legitimately elected representatives of the Sunni people." The Americans are working hard to convince Kurds and Shiites that bringing Sunnis into the government is the only way to stem the insurgency and move the country forward. Shiites and Kurds are wary of a strong Sunni political role after decades of abuse by Saddam’s Baathists, nearly all of whom were Sunni. "I think the Shias and Kurds are going to give ground reluctantly, if at all," Katzman says. But he points out that Iraqi politicians follow the internal political debates in the United States very closely, and are starting to realize that domestic pressure could make Americans pull out of Iraq. That would result in a very difficult situation for Kurds and Shiites if a unified government capable of keeping security is not in place in the event of a Sunni-led civil war after a U.S. military withdrawal, he says.

What does the Bush administration want to happen?

The administration has said that increasing Sunni political participation will lessen the insurgency, lead to a decrease in violence, and allow Iraqis to build up their own security capacity, allowing U.S. troops to gradually draw down. "The more [security operations] take on an Iraqi face, the greater the chances it will lessen the violence," Nash says. "Or, at least, reduce peoples’ willingness to allow violence to take place in front of them."

Is there any way to stop the insurgency?

"I don’t think anyone has control over the insurgency per se, so the politicians don’t necessarily hold any great sway" over the fighters, Nash says. Experts say Iraqis needs to build strong security institutions—particularly the army and police—that are independent, well-resourced, and sustainable. "A well-organized police force and reestablishment of the rule of law is what’s going to stop the insurgency," Hughes says.

How do Iraqis view the recent elections?

"The Iraqis are optimistic," says Hughes, who was last there in the summer. "They really think they can make things work better for their children and grandchildren." Some 11 million Iraqis out of 15 million eligible voters cast their ballots, for a turnout estimated at 70 percent. International observers praised the poll as free and fair, but experts warn real progress will take time. "We have to think in generations here, because that’s what it’s going to take to turn this thing around," Hughes says.

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