How Shia-Sunni Bridge-Building Worked In Face Of ISIS Threat

Successes against ISIS would have been impossible without a certain degree of national unity when the bloody civil war deepened Shia-Sunni fissures after the 2006 Shia Askari Mosque bombing

Successes against ISIS would have been impossible without a certain degree of national unity when the bloody civil war deepened Shia-Sunni fissures

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

When Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over ISIS on July 10, 2017, Mosul residents took to the streets chanting slogans for the Shia-Sunni brotherhood three years after Iraq’s armed forces capitulated in the city as the terror group threatened to march on Baghdad.

He flew to Mosul for the declaration. In his victory speech, Abadi underlined the country was now more united as airplanes dropped three million leaflets each showing a map of Mosul in Iraqi red, white, and black colours amid hopes for stronger national unity. 

‘Mosul has been returned to the bosom of Iraq,’ said the message on the leaflets that littered the city, where the fighting against ISIS left much of buildings flattened and tens of thousands displaced. Iraqi state television played patriotic songs all day long as Abadi declared a national holiday the next day as part of the victory celebration. 

Bridge-building following atrocities such as the June 2014 Camp Speicher massacre played a key role in the triumph over ISIS. About 1,700 air force cadets, mostly Shia, were killed at Camp Speicher as ISIS sought to deepen the sectarian divide. 

But the war on ISIS that followed, wrote journalist Jonathan Steele in July 2017, ‘created a national sense of urgency which overcame regional, ethnic and sectarian disputes. Steele noted most of Iraq’s leaders recognised the challenges with Abadi ‘showing himself to be more sensitive and inclusive than his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.’ 

Steele wrote statesmanlike noises also came from at least one of Iraq’s other Shia powerbrokers: Moqtada al-Sadr. He quoted Sadr as saying he was ‘very proud of Iraq’s diversity.’ Sadr proposed reciprocal visits by leaders to each other’s areas for a Shia-Sunni dialogue on reconstruction. He publicly warned members of anti-ISIS resistance forces that the abuse of Sunni civilians will be ruthlessly punished. 

Steele noted Sunni leaders, too, accepted a new status for their communities and worked with Abadi. He concluded with ISIS ‘out of the picture, Iraqi Arabs need to go back to the values of not so long ago when Sunni or Shia identities were politically irrelevant.’

The reconciliation even two years before ISIS’s defeat appeared easier said than done. Tensions ran high at a meeting of 16 tribal leaders called at Baghdad’s Babylon Hotel in March 2015 as part of United States Institute of Peace (USIP)-backed efforts since December 2014 to prevent a new cycle of killing.

A key leader threatened to walk out at one point as local tribes faced accusations of being complicit in the Camp Speicher massacre. The organisers persisted with conciliation efforts, and positive results followed. 

Iraqi facilitators, officials, peacebuilders, and NGOs led the talks to encourage engagements and counter calls for revenge. The USIP drew on earlier mediation experiences in Iraq, local cultural norms, and tribal traditions to facilitate the return of Sunnis, who had fled Tikrit fearing reprisals once the city was liberated from ISIS. 

Two tribes—al-Bu Ajeel and al-Bu Nasir—promised to turn over anyone found involved in the massacre. A resolute bridge-building limited the impulse for revenge and defused calls for retribution. 

The engagements provided a template for reconciliation and helped build an understanding that both sides had suffered from ISIS’s terror. It emerged Sunnis had protected many Shia cadets and shepherded them out of the terrorist-held territory. 

The two sides held ISIS responsible for the atrocity without stigmatising Sunnis as a whole and agreed to build a memorial to the massacre victims. ISIS sought to deepen the schism ‘by attempting to implicate Sunni tribes in massacres involving Shia individuals, thus pushing’ a cycle of revenge.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani’s fatwa in 2014 urging all able-bodied men to resist ISIS, meanwhile, swelled the ranks of anti-ISIS volunteer al-Hashd al-Shaabi (popular mobilisation) force. Hashd was raised when the Iraqi government desperately needed support in the face of the ISIS onslaught. 

Sistanii’s fatwa decreed a sort of conscription. Renad Mansour, a fellow at Malcolm H Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, wrote in July 2015 that the Hashd factions collectively were stronger than the official state-administered Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) widely ‘seen as weak, corrupt, and ineffective.’ 

He added the ISF struggled with recruitment and was plagued by its ‘poor public image’ while the Hashd groups ‘pursued a comprehensive and effective recruitment campaign.’ Their success, added Mansour, is ‘largely attributed to Sistani’s fatwa.’ He cited well-informed contacts in Baghdad and said they estimate that some 80 percent of ‘fighting-aged men from the Shia provinces have put their name down as recruits.’ 

Predominantly Shia al-Hashd al-Shabi and mostly Sunni groups al-Hashd al-Ashair (Tribal Mobilisation Forces) and al-Hashd al-Watani (National Mobilisation Forces) gathered under one umbrella when the Popular Mobilisation Commission was established to fight ISIS in 2014. 

The commission engaged an estimated 150,000 members and gave them legal status within the framework of the armed forces under the prime minister’s nominal command and subject to military discipline.

Successes against ISIS, argued Iraq’s clerical establishment, would have been impossible without a certain degree of national unity when the bloody civil war deepened societal fissures in the face of the 2006 Shia Askari Mosque bombing

The establishment believed it had worked hard to put up a unified front and appeared frustrated over the western projection of the anti-ISIS war in sectarian terms. It began inviting groups of journalists from across the world, including ours, to counter the projection as the war on ISIS was progressing well. 

The Shia-Sunni dispute essentially centres around Muslim leadership. The supporters of Caliph Ali, who argued he alone should be the Prophet’s successor, came to be known as the Shia or Shiat Ali (the party of Ali). Others, who insisted that bloodline should not be the sole criterion for selecting Muslim leaders, are known as Sunnis. 

There are theological differences between and among various Muslim and sub-sects. But the Shia-Sunni rivalry is particularly exaggerated in the Western discourse that tends to be the most dominant globally. The rivalry is, however, not cast in stone. The Western discourse assumes it is, ignoring the recent roots of sectarianism as well as its racial and geopolitical elements.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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