Sunnis seek greater say in post-IS Iraq

A girl with a shaved head and her father cry as the family flees the al-Refai neighborhood while Iraqi special forces battle Islamic State militants in western Mosul, Iraq, Wednesday, May 17, 2017.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

BAGHDAD– Iraq’s Sunni minority is pushing for a greater say in power once the Islamic State group is defeated, reflecting growing sentiment that the country’s government must be more inclusive to prevent extremism from gaining ground once again.

But so far, there’s little momentum. Many Shiite politicians are wary, and the Sunni leadership is divided and disorganized.

On the ground, tensions are further stoked because Shiite militias and Kurdish fighters control some mainly Sunni areas recaptured from IS militants and are resistant to withdrawing.

The danger is that Iraq will miss the chance to break the sectarian cycle that has fueled extremism for more than a decade.

Sunni resentment over disenfranchisement and the rise of Shiite power after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein fueled an insurgency and gave a foothold to al-Qaida. The U.S. military, backed by Sunni tribal fighters, largely crushed al-Qaida. But Sunni bitterness over continued discrimination by Shiites helped in the subsequent rise of the Islamic State group. Each time, the rise of militants only deepened Shiite suspicions that the Sunnis cannot be trusted.

U.S. officials backing Baghdad in the fight against IS have warned repeatedly that the same could happen again now unless the government is made more inclusive.

A prominent Sunni lawmaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, said Iraq could fall apart unless a “historic compromise” is reached.

“Such compromise is a must, otherwise Iraq will be gone,” the former parliament speaker told The Associated Press.

He and some Sunni factions put together a working paper outlining their stance for talks on a new system, calling for negotiations over dramatic changes to the constitution.

Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called repeatedly for unity after the defeat of IS, and Shiite politicians say they recognize the need for more inclusiveness.

“We have big concerns for the post-Daesh period,” said Shiite lawmaker Ali al-Alaq, using an Arabic acronym for IS. He says proper distribution of resources and rebuilding of state institutions are key to keeping the country together.

He pointed to a referendum on independence that the Kurdish autonomous region aims to hold later this year. “We are concerned that Sunnis could demand the same,” he said.

But any real talks are on hold while fighting still rages over the Islamic State group’s last main urban bastion, Mosul.

And already there are fault lines over numerous issues.

The Sunni working paper calls for steps to address their complaints that crackdowns on militants have unfairly hurt their community. It demands a halt to “random arrests,” the freeing of detainees not convicted of crimes and eventually a review of anti-terrorism laws.