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By Alexander Dawoody
The Sunni-Shiite conflict is more than 1300 years old, dating back to 661 AD and the assassination of Islam’s Fourth Caliph, Ali which mobilized his followers in continuous campaign for political power. Although the conflict presents itself in religious platform over rituals and interpretations of Islamic jurisprudence, the underlining paradigm, however, lays in the attempt for seeking political power. Each group wants power and is not willing to sharing it with the other. This had marred most of Islam’s political history, from 661 AD to date.
With the exception of few episodes whereby the Shiites took hold of power at certain regions in the Middle East, such as the Fatimid in Egypt from 909-1117 and the Safavid in Iran from 1501-1736 (during which they had converting Iran from Sunnism to shi’ism), most of Islamic history has been dominated by the Sunnis. Such domination was translated in many political entities, or empires, such as the Umayyad (661-750), the Abbasid (750-1258), and the Ottoman (1299-1923). Western powers were interjected into Sunni-Shiite conflict when Great Britain and France overthrew the Ottoman Empire after World War I and carved the modern Middle East out of Ottoman territories by putting together mismatched pieces that we see today as countries such as Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Kuwait, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen. These new entities made no sense except for the colonial logic that had created them. Inherently, the emerging nation-states were foreign to their inhabitants who had very little in common with one another. The main reason for these nation-states continue is either using force or mandating citizenry by submission or subsidies. Sunnis were selected by the colonial powers to head of these new states because of their long administrative expertise and because of the colonial powers’ mistrust of the Shiites and other ethnic minorities (such as the Kurds).
In Iraq, this formula was changed in 2003 when the United States overthrew the regime of Saddam Hussein militarily, allowing for the first time in Iraq’s modern history for the Shiites (which are majority in Iraq) to control political power and for the ethnic Kurds to have their own autonomous region in the north. The Sunnis suddenly found themselves out of power for the first time since Iraq’s inception in 1920.Therefore, they resorted to violence in order to either regain control of political power or have some sort of access to it proportionate with their population. Foreign Sunni Jihadist seized the opportunity in order to engage the new Shiite government of Iraq and its U.S. military supports in arm conflict that caused nearly thousands of Iraqis and nearly 500 American soldiers. It took a genuine effort by U.S. military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus to end the civil war and chase the foreign Jihadist out of Iraq when he started arming the Iraqi Sunni tribes and allowed them access to governance.
Unfortunately, this changed once Nuri Al-Maliki became Prime Minster of Iraq in 2006 and he began pushing the Sunnis out of any access to governance and answering even their simplest demands with force and militarization. Within eight years of Maliki’s rule, the Sunnis were systemically secluded from any political participation. In addition, Maliki’s relationship with the Kurds worsened because of his authoritarian policies, which many in Iraq start calling him the Shiite Saddam. Civic infrastructure and public service rapidly declined because of Maliki’s squandering of Iraq’s oil revenue to buy loyalty for himself and his cronies.
On June 10, 2014, the Syrian civil war (another sectarian conflict between the Syrian Sunnis majority and their Shiite-Alawites minority rulers) spilled into Iraq, catching Maliki by surprise. Some 800 Sunni fighters of one of the Jihadist groups fighting in Syria, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), slipped on pickups through the Iraqi-Syrian northwestern border into Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, capturing it with ease and without resistance from Maliki’s forces. Three divisions of Maliki’s army melted, leaving their American-supplied arms and equipments for ISIS fighters. Within 48 hours, ISIS advanced south taking one city after another, including Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, and Bayji, which contains Iraq’s largest oil refinery. The Kurds took advantage of the situation by moving into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and adding it under their control, increasing their chance for full independence from Iraq. ISIS is also in control of Anbar province in western Iraq, and closing-in to Baghdad, a notion that alerted the Shiites top clergy, Ayatollah Sistani, to issue a decree, asking all Shiites to take arm and fight ISIS, a prospect for another sectarian war of large proportion that can engulf the entire region.
The Sunni tribes in Iraq, although not fond of ISIS, but due to Maliki’s sectarian policies, are now siding with and fighting along with ISIS. It appears that Iraq is rapidly devolving toward three political entities: a Kurdish region in the north, a Sunni region in the west and a Shiite region in the south. Perhaps this may correct the error in Great Britain’s 1920 ill design of the state of Iraq and allow each segment in Iraq to have its own form of governance and region. With three groups (the Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites) are incapable of sharing power and form a unity government through consensus, then perhaps partition is the best solution.
In order to save his failure, Maliki asked for the United States to interfere and bail him out. The United States must not engage militarily in Iraq and make up for Maliki’s incompetence, arrogance and authoritarianism. Nor should it get involved in a sectarian conflict that has been broiling since 661 AD.
We did not interfere in Syria (although an earlier intervention might have eliminated the possibility for groups, such as ISIS, to emerge). So why should we interfere in Iraq? Didn’t the debacle of the 2003 Iraq War teach us anything? Let the Iraqis deal with their problems on their own. The fate of Maliki, Iraq or the entire Sunni-Shiite struggle for power is not our issues.
Author: Alexander Dawoody, Ph.D is an associate professor of administrative studies at Marywood University and serves as president of the Association for Middle Eastern Public Policy and Administration. He can be reached at [email protected]