Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October 2014, 14:31 GMT

Assessment for Sunnis in Iraq

Publisher Minorities at Risk Project
Publication Date 31 December 2003
Cite as Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Sunnis in Iraq, 31 December 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/469f3a9e320.html [accessed 30 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Iraq Facts
Area:    437,072 sq. km.
Capital:    Baghdad
Total Population:    217,220,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

From 2001 until the first few months of 2003, the situation of the Sunni in Iraq remained basically unchanged: despite their numerical minority in Iraq, they had the political advantage under Saddam Hussein's regime and enjoyed cultural freedoms that the Shi'as, Kurds and other ethnic groups did not. However, since the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, the political process has been opened up to these previously excluded groups, and a plethora of religious and cultural rights have been reinstituted. The Sunni represent about 32 percent of the Iraqi population, and this is now reflected in the interim Governing Council for postwar Iraq (25 member total: 13 ministries for Shi'a Muslims, 5 to Sunni Muslims, 5 to Kurds, and 1 each to the Turkmen and Assyrian Christians). The U.S. occupation forces retain ultimate control until a functioning elected government is in place. While the current power-sharing model incorporating Shi'as, Sunnis, and Kurds may ultimately lead to a more stable and democratic Iraq if the groups learn to compromise with one another, the future of Iraq is extremely hard to predict right now. Security concerns are real for much of the population, Sunni and Shi'a alike. Law and order has broken down in Iraq, and U.S. forces are struggling to quell an insurgency that is carried out primarily by Sunnis. At the end of 2003, the future of the Iraqi Sunnis is very uncertain. Even if the insurgency ends, law and order returns, free and fair elections are held, and the U.S. leaves, whether or not a power-sharing government can function in Iraq remains to be seen. If it cannot, it is not clear what group might end up with the advantage, nor how they might rule; given the harsh treatment of Iraqi Shi'a and Kurds under Hussein, a certain level of retribution may arise against Sunnis, or they could become a decidedly disadvantaged minority.

Analytic Summary

Iraq's Sunni Arabs live primarily in Iraq's central and western regions (GROUPCON=1). Despite being a minority of about 32% of Iraq's population, Iraq's Sunni Arabs have historically controlled Iraqi politics, partially due to their dominance of Iraq's urban centers, their occupation of the important military and administrative posts under the Ottomans and British, and their control over Iraq's Ba'thist regime until its overthrow by American-led forces in 2003. Their position as an advantaged minority placed Iraq's Sunni Arabs in a position where Saddam Hussein found it necessary to repress the country's other major ethnic groups, the Shi'a and the Kurds. Conversely, Sunnis in Iraq had no need to protest or rebel against the Hussein government (PROT99-02=0 and REB99-02=0).

Ba'athism is first and foremost a pan-Arab movement with broad appeal to the diverse sectarian interests in Iraq. The party regards existing national borders as West-imposed artificial barriers that must one day be eliminated if Arab unity is to be achieved. During the 1970s this viewpoint led to poor relations with some conservative Arab states whose leaders were reluctant to relinquish their national identity for unity in an all Arab federation to be led, presumably, by Egypt or Iraq. The Ba'ath party maintains that ethnic and linguistic modes of identity should be suppressed. Socialism is upheld as the only way to destroy the traditional Arab aristocracy and extend economic benefits to the lower classes. Private ownership of homes, agriculture and businesses is permitted, but the renting of buildings and tenant farming is not. While in power in Iraq, Ba'ath party members were strategically placed at every level of government. There was no part of the government, bureaucracy or any embassies that did not have at least one Ba'ath member in a position of power. Party membership was selective and usually requires a long period of apprenticeship. Total party membership made up less than 0.2% of the population of Iraq. If the behavior of a member was in any way deemed to be disloyal or scandalous, that member was to be expelled from the party or even executed.

Starting in 1990, the situation in Iraq began to destabalize. Amid allegations that Iraq was trying to build a "super gun" the UN launched an investigation. After finding that several pieces of hardware and technology that could be used in an Iraqi effort to build the gun had in fact reached Iraq, U.N. sanctions were placed on Iraq. On August 2, 1990, following a dispute over oil reserves, Iraq invaded, occupied and annexed Kuwait. They would eventually shift the bulk of their forces to the border of Saudi Arabia. In an effort to prevent an Iraqi attack on Saudi Arabia and to push the Iraqi army out of Kuwait, an international coalition of allied forces, under the auspices of the U.N., and under the military command of the United States, launched an air strike against Iraq's military communication structure and air defenses on January 16, 1991. On February 23, 1991, the allies launched a ground invasion and within a week they had pushed the Iraqi army back into Iraq at which point the offensive against Iraq was halted. Once a cease-fire was in place, the Iraqi Kurds in the north and the Iraqi Shi'a in the south launched an armed revolt against the regime of Saddam Hussein. Amid allegations that the Iraqi army used chemical and biological weapons in their efforts, the revolts were to a certain extent quelled. The Shi'a revolt was suppressed while the Kurdish revolt ended in the granting of political autonomy to the Kurds.

In March 2003, after months of war build-up, American led coalition forces invaded Iraq. Lawlessness quickly erupted, affecting much of the Iraqi population. Within a few months, Ba'ath party members were on the run, Hussein's regime had collapsed, and Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. Since the start of the invasion and occupation, most of the violent insurgency has been comprised of Sunnis, including Sunni Muslim radicals, people still loyal to Saddam, and former soldiers. The insurgency has continued to grow, employing large-scale guerilla warfare against coalition forces, international relief organizations, and members of the new Iraqi government. So far no nationwide front against American forces has been organized, and most of the insurgency has been conducted by regional leaders. The U.S. continues to employ its military in suppressing the Sunni rebellion, from destroying suspected rebel hide outs to carrying out massive attacks on rebel-controlled areas (REP02-0503 = 3; REP19-2103 = 3). There have been mass arrests of suspected members of the insurgency. The use of torture has been widely reported on. The Ba'ath Party has become illegal. Intergroup violence between Shi'as and former Ba'ath party members has increased. Shi'as have been responsible for revenge attacks, particularly in the predominantly Shi'a districts in Baghdad and southern areas of the country. Sunni radicals have carried out violent attacks and car bombings that target Shi'a leaders and communities.

References

Congressional Quarterly Inc 1990, "The Middle East Seventh Ed" Congressional Quarterly, Washington D.C.

Dgenhardt, Henry W. (ed.) Revolutionary and Dissident Movements: An International Guide, A Keesing's Reference Publication, London: Longman, 1987.

Nassar, Munir M. "Iraq: Ethnic Minorities and their Impact on Politics" Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, 8(4), Spring 1985, pp. 22-37.

Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Reports 1993: Events of 1992, 1993, New York: Human Rights Watch.

Keesing's Contemporary Archive, Keesing's Record of World Events, 1990-1994.

Lexis/Nexis, Reuters News and others 1990-2003.

The Washington Post, 1990-1994.

U.S Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, Iraq 2001- 2003.

Amnesty International. Iraq Report 2001 - 2004. http://web.amnesty.org Date accessed 9/16/2004.

The Associated Press, December 21, 2003, "Insurgents Target Iraq's Oil Infrastructure, Coalition Forces Raid Homes." http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, December 24, 2003, "Helicopter gunships and artillery bombard area of southwest Baghdad," http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, June 19, 2003, "Regional coordination, but no nationwide front, behind attacks on American soldiers." http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, April 9, 2003, "Kurds rejoice, but northern fighting continues, after U.S. troops take Baghdad," http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, December 17, 2003, "U.S. troops smash into homes, shops in major raid to hunt for guerrillas in turbulent city." http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ Date accessed: 9/20/2004

The Associated Press, December 24, 2003, "Helicopter gunships and artillery bombard area of southwest Baghdad." http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

The Associated Press, December 26, 2003, Friday, BC cycle, International News, 852 words, Four American soldiers die in Iraq violence, bringing U.S. toll to 10 this week. http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/ Date accessed: 9/20/2004.

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