Policy debates related to Iraq, Syria and the problem of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have referenced the need for “Sunni inclusion” in the new Iraqi government. Ever since Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated Ba`ath regime was overthrown in 2003—thereby paving the way for democratic processes that have consistently produced Shi`a-dominated governments—a key transitional question has focused on how Sunnis would fare under the new political order. The significance of the “Sunni question” in Iraq has become accentuated, in particular following the advances of ISIL in Sunni-dominated parts of Iraq since 2013. Less attention has been paid to what the concept of “Sunni inclusion”[1] actually means, and how the question of “Sunni inclusion” has played out in previous Iraqi governments in the post-2003 era.

This article offers a historical overview of Sunni inclusion in past Iraqi governments with the goal of providing more clarity on how Iraqi Sunnis are likely to fare in the most recent government formed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in September 2014. It argues that “Sunni inclusion” cannot be properly understood through simply calculating the sectarian composition of the Iraqi government as a measure of representation. Rather, it is necessary to analyze policies on specific issues that are of particular concern to a majority of Iraqi Sunnis, including most prominently de-Ba`athification and the structure of the Iraqi security forces.

Sunnis in the First Maliki Government
Sunni inclusion has had different meanings at different stages in Iraq’s post-2003 politics. Following the Sunni boycott of the elections in January 2005, Sunni inclusion in the constitution-writing process was to some extent achieved through the co-option of selected Sunni representatives into the drafting committee. These representatives were primarily affiliated with a Sunni Islamist party known as the Islamic Iraqi Party (IIP). The extent to which this amounted to meaningful inclusion can be debated. During the course of the process, the IIP was reluctantly converted to a pro-constitutional party. It did achieve some last-minute concessions regarding options for future constitutional reform, but by and large its efforts were rejected by the community it claimed to represent: the overwhelming message of those who participated in the constitutional referendum in October 2005 in Sunni areas was a “No” to the new constitution, and a two-thirds majority rejection materialized in the heavily Sunni Arab provinces of Anbar and Salah al-Din.[2] With Kurds and Shi`a minorities participating in large numbers in the mixed (but Sunni Arab-dominated) Mosul, the criteria for a three-province, two-thirds rejection of the constitution as a basis for its non-approval did not emerge, and the draft constitution was adopted against the desire of Sunni public opinion.[3]

In the first Nuri al-Maliki government from 2006-2010, there was initial Sunni inclusion in terms of ministerial representation by IIP (as part of the Tawafuq coalition), as well as by other political parties elected by Sunni and secular voters. Yet few of these ministries were particularly prominent. With one exception, they did not belong to the category of positions Iraqi politicians refer to as particularly sought-after “sovereign ministries,” which include: security, oil and finance. Nevertheless, a Sunni general of the Iraqi army without any political connections eventually became defense minister, and Sunni parties also controlled the deputy premier position. Additionally, Tawafuq/IIP controlled one of the three presidency-council positions, which was significant as a (temporary) veto-wielding institution in the first parliamentary cycle from 2005-2010. During the peak of sectarian violence in 2007, however, ministers from IIP/Tawafuq withdrew from al-Maliki’s government in protest of its failure to stop sectarian killings.[4]

Tawafuq returned to government again in May 2008.[5] Still, some indication of the fragmented nature of “Sunni inclusion” in the first al-Maliki government was evident from the local election results in 2009, where the parties that were the established “Sunni” forces—in the sense that they were part of the al-Maliki government—by no means managed to secure the majority of the Sunni vote. Instead, local parties affiliated with the tribal Sahwa (Awakening) movement in Anbar and former Ba`athists in Mosul emerged to capture large slices of the Sunni vote.[6] For their part, instead of mending fences with al-Maliki, the IIP seemed more attracted to a role in the burgeoning opposition to the prime minister that emerged among various Iraqi parties even as they continued to be part of his government. Particularly interesting in this regard was the emergence of a Sunni speaker of parliament from the IIP in March 2009, Ayad al-Samarraie. He was clearly backed by al-Maliki’s opponents, including the ISCI and the Kurds.[7]

Sunnis in the Second Maliki Government
This situation prompted political reconfiguration ahead of the second parliamentary vote in March 2010. The Sunni governor of Mosul, Athil al-Nujayfi, emerged as a prominent force together with his brother, Usama. Tareq al-Hashemi, formerly an important figure in IIP, broke away to form the more secular Tajdid movement. They were joined in an alliance with other parties that were more secular in orientation and discourse, but that in practice were backed by a majority of nominally Sunni voters: the Iraqi National Accord of Ayyad Allawi and the Hiwar front of Saleh al-Mutlak. Altogether, they formed the massive Iraqiyya alliance, which was a Sunni-secular alliance. Many portrayed Iraqiyya as a “Sunni” coalition (its opponents were more clearly Shi`a Islamist), but this was not an accurate representation of the alliance.[8] Of course, some of the constituent parts were all-Sunni parties and to some extent spoke a sectarian language. Yet Iraqiyya’s leading figure, Ayyad Allawi, is a staunchly secular Shi`a who cannot be reduced to a “stooge” for Sunnis, in whose name he has never spoken.

Due to the combination of Sunni and secular interests in Iraqiyya, it is difficult to dissect the question of Sunni inclusion in the second al-Maliki government, which came into existence with Iraqiyya’s reluctant backing in December 2010. As part of the government formation deal, Iraqiyya had demanded control of an extra-constitutional national policy council that was supposed to be created as a check on prime ministerial power (it was never implemented). This particular demand may have been more of a personal goal of Allawi than a meaningful “Sunni demand.” On the other hand, there was strong Sunni representation in the new government in terms of heavyweight positions held by individuals with solid Sunni support. Saleh al-Mutlak of the Hiwar bloc was deputy premier and Rafe al-Isawi, a prominent Anbar politician, was minister of finance. Tareq al-Hashemi was vice president, now with only ceremonial powers but still seen as symbolically important. Other Sunni Iraqiyya figures held portfolios of industry, agriculture, education and technology. On paper, at least, there was an adequate level of Sunni representation in terms of key Sunni politicians receiving key ministerial portfolios.

One exception to the general participation of Sunnis in the second al-Maliki government, however, concerned security. It is worth noting that al-Maliki kept these positions away not only from Sunnis, but from everyone with an independent power base (e.g., other Shi`a parties). Instead, he kept control of the security ministries for himself as acting minister, and eventually delegated defense to a Sunni who he, rather than the Iraqi parliament, had selected: Sadun al-Dulaymi. Al-Dulaymi’s role as defense minister under al-Maliki soon came to highlight the concept of the “unrepresentative Sunni”: portrayed as marionettes with little or no popular backing, figures like al-Dulaymi were criticized for being tools of al-Maliki that provided him with easy goodwill in certain Western circles who did not go far beyond counting the number of ministers of each sect, quite regardless of the question of their representativeness.

During the years of the second al-Maliki government, it became increasingly clear that al-Maliki attempted to eliminate several Sunni leaders he perceived as threatening. By using the judiciary in what seemed to be politically motivated prosecutions, he first targeted Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi in December 2011 (days after the last U.S. forces had left Iraq) and then Finance Minister Rafe al-Isawi in December 2012, forcing both men out of their positions, and, eventually, out of the country.[9]

At the same time, however, other Sunnis continued to work with al-Maliki in government, including some who held substantial popular mandates based on their personal votes in the March 2010 elections. A problem in evaluating their support for al-Maliki, however, was the tendency of some Sunni ministers to hold on to their positions even in cases where they clearly (and outspokenly) differed with the general direction of cabinet policy. It is not clear whether they supported the government, as they continued to serve as al-Maliki’s ministers even though they criticized him publicly. A case in point is Saleh al-Mutlak who attained the curious distinction of declaring his premier a dictator only to continue to work with him.[10]

Sunnis in the Abadi Government
As Iraq went to parliamentary elections in May 2014, the political climate had hardened in a sectarian direction nationally and regionally because of the conflict in Syria and the growing manifestation of military activities by ISIL in Iraqi territory. This turn had prompted protests against the al-Maliki government in many Sunni areas, such as in Falluja and Ramadi, beginning in December 2012. But the protests did not translate into new parties that participated within the established framework of parliamentary politics in Iraq. Instead, the Sunni parties that contested the elections in 2014 were largely the old elites who had dominated Sunni Iraqi politics during the entire post-2003 period. Even many of the ministers of the second al-Maliki government were reaffirmed as MPs despite having done nothing more than hold on to their prestigious offices without achieving any policy influence under al-Maliki’s rule. This suggests that the Sunni grievances that were articulated in protest movements in the year before the elections did not produce representative MPs who would participate within the framework of the elected Iraqi parliament.

Soon after the elections in May 2014, a new coalition of mostly Sunni parties that had won seats in parliament coalesced, this time without the secular Allawi, and therefore with a more clear-cut Sunni sectarian profile. Shortly after the new parliament had convened, these parties won a major victory by having Sallim al-Jibburi, a former IIP politician who in 2014 was elected to parliament on a local list of Sunni politicians in Diyala, elected as parliament speaker.[11] In the government formation itself in September 2014, the Sunnis had less leverage since al-Abadi probably enjoyed sufficient support to get confirmed without their votes. Still, they opted to take part in his government and achieved a very respectable number of ministries—around seven—although this time service ministries only. The absolute number of Sunni ministers was slightly lower than in the second al-Maliki government, but the overall size of the cabinet was also somewhat smaller. No security ministers from any party were approved in the main parliamentary vote on the new cabinet on September 8, 2014.

In sum, it is hard to initially see a meaningful difference from al-Maliki to al-Abadi as far as inclusion of Sunnis is concerned. For the question of representativeness, though, more important than numbers are political affiliations. The Sunni ministers in al-Abadi’s new government are mostly individuals who have been in the political process since 2003. Of course, they have been mostly closer to Sunni sectarian leaders like Nujayfi than to the Shi`a Islamist al-Maliki (the exception being Qutayba al-Jibburi), but they were never irreconcilable with al-Maliki. Conversely, Sunnis who are in open revolt and are considering aligning themselves with ISIL are not represented. Additionally, the tribal and local Sunni politicians with whom al-Maliki sought to improve ties in Anbar and Salah al-Din are poorly represented in the al-Abadi government and it remains to be seen how they will respond to the emergence of a new prime minister.

A key conclusion from the experience of past Iraqi governments in the post-2003 era is that Sunni representation through the inclusion of names with a bit of Sunni constituency is in itself no guarantee for a meaningful inclusion of Sunnis—in the sense of policies that take into consideration demands that are common among Iraqi Sunni voters. There are imbalances with regard to which Sunni MPs become cabinet members, and there are further imbalances with regard to which Sunnis take part in elections and elect their representatives at all.

Accordingly, the key to understanding the viability of the new al-Abadi government is not so much to study its personnel in isolation, but to look for direction of policy. That is admittedly a challenge, due to the fact that the attempt by Iraqi politicians to stay on time with the government formation this year (after much urging by the higher Shi`a clergy in particular) has meant that it is precisely discussion about ministerial positions, rather than policy as a whole, which has accounted for most of the political negotiations between the participating blocs. Sunni inclusion will require addressing the Iraqi security forces (including army and police deployments in Sunni-majority areas), de-Ba`athification (a revised law that attempts to satisfy common Sunni demands is underway but needs to get passed), the option of federalism (initiatives for transforming some Sunni provinces to regions were unceremoniously and illegally shelved by the al-Maliki government), and developments on the federal supreme court bill (and in particular the authority that will be granted to Shi`a clerics).

There is, however, one appointment issue that remains relevant to Sunnis: the security ministries. These portfolios were left unfilled after the first vote on the al-Abadi government. There is an expectation that a Shi`a official will be appointed to lead the Interior Ministry and a Sunni official to lead the Defense Ministry. The most realistic hope for Iraqi Sunnis will be to have a Sunni professional military officer without any political ties (but capable of keeping al-Abadi at arm’s length) appointed as defense minister, and an interior minister without close ties to Shi`a militias. In choosing how to deal with these vacancies, al-Abadi will be sending perhaps his most important signal about whether he intends to be more serious about “Sunni inclusion” than al-Maliki ever was.

Reidar Visser is a historian of Iraq. He has written three books on Iraqi politics: Basra, the Failed Gulf State (2005), An Iraq of Its Regions (2007) and A Responsible End? (2010).

[1] Sunni inclusion refers to the level of participation by Sunni Arabs in the Iraqi government.

[2]Al-Dustur, October 27, 2005.

[3] On the question of Sunni representation in the Iraqi constitutional drafting process, see Jonathan Morrow, “Iraq’s Constitutional Process II: An Opportunity Lost,” United States Institute of Peace, 2005.

[4] “The Iraqi Accord Front’s Return to Government,” Institute for the Study of War, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Radio Sawa, February 15, 2009.

[7] Reidar Visser, A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005–2010 (Charlottesville, VA: Just World Books, 2010), pp. 104-108.

[8] For an example of Western commentators labeling Iraqiyya as “Sunni,” see “Biden Makes Surprise Iraq Visit,” Associated Press, September 2, 2010.

[9] For a good overview of Sunni grievances against al-Maliki during his second term, see Zaid al-Ali, The Struggle for Iraq’s Future: How Corruption, Incompetence and Sectarianism Have Undermined Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014).

[10] “Interview with Saleh al-Mutlak,” al-Jazira, December 28, 2011.

[11] Simeon Kerr, “Iraq’s Parliament Elects Speaker as Army Claims Success in Tikrit,” Financial Times, July 15, 2014.

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