IRAQ

Are Baghdad’s Sunnis ready to fight ISIS?

 With most of northern Iraq in the hands of Sunni jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Iraqi army has called on the Iraqi civilian population to join them and take up arms against the insurgents. And although Shiite Iraqis have reacted positively to the call, the Sunni community's response has been rather mixed.

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Iraqi volunteers enrolled in the army in Baghdad. 

 

With most of northern Iraq in the hands of Sunni jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Iraqi army has called on the Iraqi civilian population to join them and take up arms against the insurgents. And although Shiite Iraqis have reacted positively to the call, the Sunni community's response has been rather mixed.

 

This call to arms started with Ayatollah al-Sistani, a senior Shiite Iraqi cleric, who on June 13 asked “all Iraqis” to take up arms to fight the ISIS “terrorists”. Meanwhile, roughly 5,000 Iranian fighters have reportedly volunteered to defend Shiite sites that are threatened by ISIS’s advance.

 

Although some Sunni Iraqi clerics have supported this call for national mobilisation, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (a Doha-based Sunni religious authority), chose to play the sectarian card by describing the Jihadist advances in Iraq as a “popular revolution”.

 

The pronouncements of Iraqi authorities haven’t always been inclusive. Last December, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki slipped up when he described the Iraqi army’s fight against ISIS in al-Anbar province as a war between the Sunni assassins of Hussein (a Shiite martyr) and his descendents.

 

Video filmed by the Iraqi defense minitry, showing volunteers enrolling in the army. 

“Why would Sunnis go fight alongside those that discriminate against them?”

Abdallah is a Sunni merchant in Baghdad.

 

Most Sunnis in the capital refuse to take up arms. They are neither for the jihadists nor against them. They are staying out of the fray because, for now, they have been the first victims of the jihadists’ advance. The Iraqi media and politicians are lumping ISIS and the entire Sunni Iraqi community together. Of course, the jihadists are Sunni, and they resent the Shiites’ hold on power. But, up until now, ISIS has only taken Sunni cities in the North. The civilians that have fled are primarily Sunni. They are the ones now taking refuge in Kurdistan.

We Sunnis are between a rock and a hard place, or, more precisely, between Shiite propaganda and jihadist threats. So, no, we don’t want ISIS, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to go fight alongside those that discriminate against us.

 

“It is mostly those Sunnis living in Shiite neighbourhoods that have responded to the call to arms”

Haydar Eloui runs a clothing store in Baghdad.

 

I do not think that Sistani’s call to arms is for Shiites only. Christian Iraqi officials have supported this call. After all, if ISIS reaches Baghdad, the bloodbath will spare no one.

As for Sunnis, they have been mobilising as well, but to a lesser extent. Most of them that have signed up live in primarily Shiite neighbourhoods in eastern Baghdad. But I didn’t see much of this in the Sunni neighbourhoods. But, after all, Baghdad is primarily Shiite, so it makes sense that Shiites would be on the front line.

“My best friend is a Sunni who fought Al Qaeda”

Ali al-Moussawi is a journalist for the local channel al-Baghdadiya.

 

One of my best friends is Sunni. He has volunteered to go fight ISIS; he previously fought al Qaeda from 2006 to 2008. He was part of an al-Sahwa group [groups of fighters from Sunni tribes that were created in Baghdad and al-Anbar province and funded by the US army to fight al Qaeda]. He signed up to help prevent the devastation that these extremists might cause. He said that they at first come as friends, but then quickly imposed their fanaticism onto the population, including Sunnis.

The Iraqi army is quite big, but its soldiers lack knowledge of urban guerrilla warfare, which is ISIS’s preferred mode of operation. By opening up to volunteers of all stripes, the army can more easily get the population to accept the use of primarily Shiite militias that understands guerrilla warfare, without it looking like sectarian recruiting.

 

Eleven years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, which had long persecuted the Shiite community (51% of the population), today’s Iraqi government is primarily Shiite. The government stands accused of ruling in a sectarian manner, and discriminating against Sunnis (46% of the population). According to certain analysts, sectarian policies have led to alliances between various Sunni insurgent groups in northern Iraq (including former officers in Saddam Hussein’s army) and ISIS.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalistSarra Grira (@SarraGrira).