Fighting al Qaeda won’t solve the sectarianism that is tearing my country apart.
Jan. 14, 2014 12:41 a.m. ET
While Washington debates whether to sell Apache helicopters and other advanced weapons to the Iraqi government, my country is engulfed by violence that threatens to spread well beyond Anbar province, where the black flags of al Qaeda now fly. Since 2003, the Iraqi people have become increasingly skeptical of foreign intervention: Though the war toppled Saddam Hussein, it has also brought my country to the brink of civil war. That is why we need to forge a local solution based on the democratic principles—equality, the rule of law and representative government—that America told us would hold our country together.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki insists on an exclusively military solution to driving out foreign militants who have embedded themselves in Fallujah among the local population, having come across porous borders through the deserts that separate us from the raging war in Syria. While I am the deputy prime minister of Iraq, I respectfully disagree with the government’s approach—including targeting civilians and using the military in a way that turns the population against the political process.
Nearly a decade ago, U.S. Marines fought in Fallujah in order to bring it under the control of a then-nascent Iraqi government. After the battle of Fallujah in 2004, many Iraqis voted for a temporary government, while an appointed—and not wholly representative—committee appointed by the American occupying authority drafted a constitution that would serve as a blueprint for our government. Sunnis objected to this process and were subsequently excluded from the politics of present-day Iraq.
I, and other Sunni politicians, voted against the constitution in 2005 because we were deeply concerned that enshrining sectarianism in law would bring a disastrous result. Unfortunately, we were right. The policies of the Shiite-dominated government have left Sunnis feeling at best like second-class citizens and, more often, not like citizens at all.
Masked Sunni gunmen take up positions during a patrol in Fallujah, Jan. 12, 2014. stringer/iraq/Reuters
For Iraq to succeed, its political leaders must show they are unafraid to take unpopular positions for the sake of the country. Nearly four decades ago, I was expelled from the Baath Party because I insisted that five Shiite citizens accused of trying to overthrow the state deserved fair trials. Today, we need more figures willing to take risks by standing up against sectarianism. I know that by remaining in government I am losing some political points among my Sunni supporters, but by resigning in protest I would lose the ability to fight against sectarianism and thus try to avert a bloody civil war.
Al Qaeda and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps have deliberately turned Anbar into a war zone. Yet I fail to see how the U.S.’s arming of the Iraqi army with more sophisticated weapons will resolve this complicated situation. Instead, the Sunni tribes of Anbar must be given a reason to stand against foreign terrorists, as they were in advance of the U.S. military “surge” of 2007.
That means giving Sunnis, who make up nearly 40% of all Iraqis, a greater role in major Iraqi government institutions. (Current sectarian policies discriminate against Sunnis when it comes to government jobs, which account for more than two-thirds of all jobs in my country.) Iraqis admire Egypt for the professionalism of their military, which upholds a fragile state. But at home Sunnis fear the Iraqi military is used as a vehicle for settling scores and enforcing sectarian policies.
To restore balance, we need to address Sunnis’ smoldering grievances with empowerment—not with vengeance. We can start by fixing those parts of our constitution that make Sunnis feel marginalized, such as the preamble itself, which reads as an indictment against Sunnis for crimes of the past. The government also must create a stable environment ahead of the parliamentary election in April. That means taking greater measures to reduce the violence wracking the country today, and ensuring that the intimidation we saw in regional elections late last year isn’t repeated.
All Iraqis will willingly join an effort to push foreign terrorists from our land if they feel that they have a stake in rebuilding a once-great country. For this to occur, we need to strengthen our definition of citizenship and ensure that its protections include all Iraqis—particularly the disenfranchised Sunnis.
Equipping a professional army is an important goal, and ultimately Iraq will want to buy American weapons. But first, we need to fix the composition of the army: Today, Sunnis make up less than 5% of the officer corps.
Washington would be most helpful by urging Mr. Maliki to include Sunnis in resolving the current violence and, when the election occurs in four months, to respect the will of the people. That is the kind of strategy that can truly win hearts and minds in my long-suffering nation.
Dr. Mutlaq is deputy prime minister of Iraq.