In Their Own Words: Sunnis on Their Treatment in Maliki’s Iraq


October 28, 2014

Much of the world was shocked when militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, in June. One of the many factors that allowed the group of Sunni extremists to take the city so quickly was a Sunni population disillusioned with Iraq’s central government and unable or unwilling to fight against the militants.

Politicians who served under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government, and were targeted for arrest by his security forces, were not surprised. Here, they describe the many grievances of Iraq’s Sunni population while Maliki was in power, which they say led to the resurrection of the Sunni insurgency — once again providing a safe haven for extremists.

Tariq al-Hashemi served as vice president in Maliki’s government from 2006 until 2011, when a warrant was issued for his arrest for alleged links to terrorism. While former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey conceded that there were “a lot of problems” with Hashemi, the arrest of his bodyguards in 2011 was the first major indication of Maliki’s emerging sectarian politics. Hashemi, who fled Iraq, was later tried in absentia and sentenced to death.

Rafi al-Essawi was the minister of finance in Maliki’s cabinet, a figure who was “greatly respected” by many Iraqis, according to journalist Dexter Filkins. Almost exactly a year after Hashemi’s bodyguards were rounded up, Maliki’s security forces arrested Essawi’s bodyguards on similar allegations of ties to terrorism. The move triggered huge protests in Sunni parts of Iraq, because as Filkins said, “everybody knows Rafi al-Essawi is a peaceful man.” Fearing he would be arrested like Hashemi, Essawi fled to the Sunni-dominated city of Ramadi.

Hoshyar Zebari served as minister of foreign affairs from 2003 to 2014, and now holds the position of finance* minister in Iraq’s government. Zebari is a Sunni from the Kurdish region of Iraq.

Khamis al-Khanjar is a Sunni Arab businessman who provided financial support to the anti-government demonstrations in many parts of Iraq, and also backed Sunni political candidates in Iraq’s last elections. 

On Maliki’s PoliticsFailing SecurityDiscrimination Against SunnisProtests and CrackdownsViews on ISIS


Nouri al-Maliki was a relative unknown when he became Iraq’s prime minister with U.S. backing in 2006. Maliki initially promised to reach out to Iraq’s minority Sunni and Kurdish populations, and both groups were represented in his cabinet. As U.S. troops prepared to withdraw, however, Maliki moved to centralize power and go after his political rivals, especially Sunni political leaders.

RAFI AL-ESSAWI: I think in 2011, everyone in Iraq thought that after the American withdrawal everything would be built [around] a national unity Iraqi government.

Unfortunately very rapidly, just soon after the American withdrawal, everything started to collapse. All the commitments that Maliki gave to the politicians in what’s called the Erbil Agreement — that’s the agreement that formed the government at that time — nothing from that agreement was fulfilled or implemented.

Maliki — he had to get rid of all Sunni politicians who were capable of saying no to him, his policies or his behavior. So it’s the story of attacking, intimidating, marginalizing, whatever you want, of Sunni politicians.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: You see, this is the argument we made to Maliki: Look, all these people, all the Sunnis whom we’ve brought into the political process, they were in the resistance. They were with the terrorists. They were in league or in bed with Al Qaeda, with the Salafis, with the Baathists. But with the Americans, we brought them all, let’s say, to have an inclusive government. So now to come and accuse them again, you are undermining the very process that we have started.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: In 2011, I was scared about the future. Because I was expecting that since 2006 when Nouri al-Maliki became prime minister and chief in command, in fact, I observed a systematic drifting from building a real democracy in my country to some sort of tyrannical regime. Despotic regime. So I warned the Americans.

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Before Maliki’s sectarian politics emerged, he partnered with the U.S. in 2007 and 2008 to bring former Sunni insurgents into the fold by paying them to turn their guns against Al Qaeda in Iraq. The initiative — dubbed the Sunni Awakening or the Sons of Iraq — formed a key part of the surge strategy, and nearly decimated Al Qaeda in Iraq. 

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: One of the key issues that came up after the Americans left was the issue of the Sons of Iraq, the [Sunni tribal] forces who were the main force to defeat Al Qaeda in Anbar and elsewhere — over their payment, over their enrollment, over their inclusion in the security forces and in the military, in the administration.

I held the view that we should keep this force. The threat of Al Qaeda was not over. Temporarily, it’s been pushed back, but they could come back. Maliki and his advisers felt there was no need for them to be sustained now that the threat is gone.

I think that [Maliki] was suspicious of them really, of this force. He considered them as a militia. They could be susceptible to be exploited by his opponents, by the Baathists, by the Salafis, by others. And that’s why he wanted to disband this force, or integrate them to some extent. … But he made a whole number of restrictions, for instance on the payment, on the recruitment and the distribution and so on. So it created a bad feeling, really.

The Americans were consistently and persistently urging the government that the Sons of Iraq should be paid. This force should be integrated properly into the military, the security. “We have checked them. We have vetted them. They are good people, let’s say, with honorable tribes and backgrounds and so on.” But really, that advice was not followed.

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Under the late dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Sunnis dominated the country’s government and security apparatuses. Maliki, a Shia who suffered at the hands of Baathists in Saddam’s regime, remained deeply suspicious of Iraq’s Sunni population. Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said Maliki “sees basically in almost every Sunni a nascent Baathi.”

RAFI AL-ESSAWI: Thousands of Sunnis were arrested after the Americans left the country, tens of thousands in fact. They come to any district with a car bombing, for example. They’re collecting 200, 300 people and they stay in [prison] for years without a trial.

This was discrimination, in fact. People started to talk about first and second-degree citizenship. And we agreed more than one time to go to the parliament to legislate an amnesty law for people in order to start a new era of reconciliation.

And I used to ask Maliki — I was very close to him. I used to ask him if all these tens of thousands are criminal, why the amount of violence, the car bombings, were increasing? If you are capturing the criminals, it should decrease.

It is either you are arresting innocent people, not the criminals, this is one possibility, or these people you are arresting, their families and the tribes became sympathetic with the killers to get revenge on the government.

And many of the Shia politicians talked to Maliki, that this is not the way of dealing with the security fight, arresting tens of thousands.

Hundreds of thousands of people were very upset because they felt that this was a story of dignity. No Sunni was exempt. Maliki and the gangs of the militias of Maliki could arrest anyone.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: The Sunni communities had been treated in an unjust way, discriminated. And I could tell you for hours, in fact, what sort of tragedy we faced.

We accepted the offer [to take part in government]. We participated in the political process. We made our people angry.

We paid a high cost, at the end of the day, in 2011. … It was not only those insurgents who fought the Americans, who fought the militias. Even those who participated in the political process were not immune and were accused [of taking] part in terrorism. This is the tragedy we saw.

To be an Arab Sunni in Iraq, you’re a terrorist. Simple as that.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Well, their grievances are many, actually. And they were magnified by the sermons, that they are being alienated, discriminated against, marginalized, they have not been represented, are underrepresented in government, in the military, in the security [forces]. …

Whenever there was an incident in a Sunni neighborhood and so on, the army would go in. And it has its own modus operandi to start arresting people, and keep them in detention for months without trial. Or there are cases of torture.

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The first reports of anti-government protests in Sunni-dominated cities emerged after Essawi’s bodyguards were arrested in December 2012. By January 2013, the protests had swelled to “tens of thousands” of Sunnis gathering in the Iraqi cities of Ramadi, Fallujah, Samarra, Mosul, and Kirkuk.

As the demonstrations grew in size, so did the central government’s worries. A raid on a protest camp in Hawijah on April 23, 2013, killed 44 civilians, according to a parliamentary committee’s report. Iraq’s defense ministry said 23 people had been killed, three of them Iraqi forces and the rest “militants who were using the demonstration as a safe haven.”

A year after the protests first erupted, at least 10 people were killed in clashes at a protest camp in Ramadi.

HOSHYAR ZEBARI: Many of those organizers were the Islamist scholars, the mullahs, the religious leader of the mosque of Najaf, of Anbar, of Mosul and so on. They were at the forefront, actually. The politicians were behind them. So that was not a positive image. It enhanced the sectarian feeling, and fed the minds of the Shia and the others that really this is not clean. It has infiltrators and other people trying to benefit [from the protests].

KHAMIS AL-KHANJAR: Everybody got disappointed. There were no respect for the voting — ballots and boxes. There was no respect for anything. There was disappointment at the whole political process. And, you know, killing and displacing kept going. The biggest supporter of terrorism is oppression.

So I encouraged the six Sunni provinces to try something new and peaceful: Protest. And we did that.

RAFI AL-ESSAWI: The environment was really very, very poisoned because of the behavior of Maliki and the government. And everyone, Shiites and politicians, advised Maliki that this is not the way of dealing with Sunnis.

There was no direct relationship at all between the demonstrations and tribes from outside and Al Qaeda on the outside. People got very upset, very angry about the government’s behavior and the Iraqi army’s behavior. … The people started to look at the army as an enemy rather than as a national army.

Everyone participated in the demonstrations, every Sunni. I can say every Sunni, not as a person, but as groups, because everyone felt that they were either not represented in the new Iraq or felt that they didn’t receive a just trial.

No one thought that the Iraqi army could attack demonstrators in Hawija. They were demonstrating for months at a time, peaceful, calling for their rights.

So when they brought their tanks, heavy army vehicles, and SWAT teams, the security forces of the ministry of interior attacked. They killed the people in a very criminal model. This added to the upset of the people. This was not their government. And the people who killed them, these were not Iraqi army personnel. These were militias who were killing them.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: When you treat a prime component, the Arab Sunni communities in an unjust way, with inhuman conditions, you should expect anything. There was a golden opportunity to stabilize Iraq, which has been started in 2008, and I was one of the many players when I tried to convince the insurgents to lay down guns and try to join me, join the political process.

They said, “Why, Mr. Hashemi?” I said, “There is hope in that. Try to think seriously about that. I could guarantee to you that the Americans are leaving my country. No need to fight. Try to join the political process. And I can assure you it’s a better future for you, better future for Iraq, and better future for the Sunni communities.”

And they came back to me in 2011, and asked me, “Mr. Hashemi, you remember in 2008 when you convinced us to join you in the political process? This is the result? Now you are not able to protect yourself? [There’s] no way that we are going to participate in the political process.”

I said, “Please, don’t commit yourself in a grave mistake. Try to be patient of this.” They said, “No, sir, we lost hope in the political process. We lost hope in the international communities.”

Al Qaeda, the extremists, enjoyed this changing of identity of the youngest of the Sunni communities. They tried to recruit more of them. All of them were angry, frustrated, and lost hope in the political process, in democratic peace.

What do you expect? What do you expect? The bomb just exploded, simple as that. So it was a golden opportunity for extremism. Because all my communities welcome any sort of extremism as [salvation] from the inhuman conditions in which they are living.

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The earliest signs of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) taking over territory in Iraq came when its black flag was hoisted in the Sunni-dominated city of Fallujah. By June, ISIS had seized Mosul from a weakened and fleeing Iraqi army. While Sunni politicians concede that some disgruntled Sunnis may be sympathetic toward ISIS or even fighting alongside the group, they say a majority of Sunnis only tolerate the militants because of years of abuse under Maliki’s Shia-dominated security forces, and the failure of the political process. 

KHAMIS AL-KHANJAR: We are against terrorism. I am against terrorism and every terrorism organization. There are 28 different Shia militias in Iraq. There are ministers in Iraq who are letting Shia militias kill people in Iraq.

Let’s first agree on what terrorism is. Not listening to the protestors, arresting a parliament member, killing his brother in the square, that is terrorism. That’s what started terrorism and blood in Iraq. That’s what started it. I think it’s a pure Arab tribal revolution. I’m proud of it. I support it.

Some of the Sunnis, they joined terrorism organizations. We are completely against it. We don’t want, but we don’t want to repeat what happened in 2007 with us fighting terrorism, then later getting punished for it, instead of being rewarded.

TARIQ AL-HASHEMI: [In Mosul] they said things are better than they used to be in the past, but we don’t like the [Sharia law] of the Islamic State, because either we go for baya [a pledge of allegiance], they call it, or they kill us.

I mean, this is a very, very awkward situation and nobody’s going to accept it. And last Friday prayer, in fact, hundreds of the [worshippers] in the mosque refused to sign, or pledge loyalty to ISIS. They just refused. And that’s very good.

And this is an indication that ISIS’s policy, and agenda, in no way could reflect the attitude, the desire, the aspirations of the Sunni community.

RAFI AL-ESSAWI: [For Sunni people] participation in the political process ended in nothing. Demonstration ended in nothing. Asking the government constitutionally to change their province into region was not accepted. They started to be convinced that there is no benefit of constitutional solutions.

So the government pushed and squeezed people towards supporting the terrorists. And I can’t say that it is — again, it is not direct support. It is only creating an environment — and this was a very fatal mistake of the government.

When ISIS came as defenders of Sunnis, we knew that they were criminals, that they were not Sunni defenders. When they presented themselves, people said, “Well, it may be possible to save us from the government, from the army which is not a professional national army, but one that killed and arrested Sunnis.” That is why people in these provinces stayed silent. They are not supporting ISIS. They are not opposing ISIS.

No one wants to fight against ISIS now, [because they would] appear to be pro-Maliki or supporting the militia that is killing Sunnis in Baghdad. You see, when [Sunnis] fight ISIS, people would blame them for fighting Sunnis who are protecting you, while no one is fighting Shia militias that are killing our brothers, Sunnis in Diyala.

If the government came to the Sunnis now to fulfill their requirements, the rights of the Sunnis, no one would accept ISIS. By the way, even now, despite being very upset against the government, Sunnis are not accepting ISIS.

To me, at the end of the day, it is the Sunnis who will defeat ISIS, exactly like in 2007 and ’08 when the Sunnis made the decision of fighting Al Qaeda.

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* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article referred to Hoshyar Zebari as one of Iraq’s current deputy prime ministers. While Zebari was initially voted in to this position, he was subsequently named finance minister.

Priyanka Boghani

Priyanka Boghani, Digital Editor, FRONTLINE



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