Since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the “Sunni community” has been imprisoned within a cycle of upheaval and violence. In its latest iteration, the Islamic State (ISIS) monopolized a Sunni rebellion that emerged in 2013-2014 to resist a domineering and repressive central government in Baghdad led by Shiite elites of the ruling Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In short order, the militant organization rapidly expanded in summer 2014, through Sunni-populated territories in central and northern Iraq and central and southeastern Syria. At its peak, the Islamic State had displaced the modern borders drawn after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and administered and extracted resources from a vast territory the size of Britain, governing the lives of up to 12 million people.
While categorized as an abrupt “event,” the emergence of the Islamic State was much more of a longrunning evolutionary process, intertwined with Sunni grievances and fractures within society—furnishing opportunities to exploit them. The rise of ISIS was not only the result of the government’s sectarian behavior toward the Sunni population, but also the result of a more local dynamic of settling-scores between Sunnis, both within and between tribes and across the rural-urban divide. With over a year since the liberation of Iraq was concluded, the war has left behind enduring legacies and newfound grievances that are likely to cause the next conflagration. Today, division, destruction, and despair mark Sunni society like never before, and the cycle of reconstruction and deconstruction of the community has led to an ever-fragmented Sunni polity.
This chapter focuses on the current state of turmoil of the Sunni community. It impinges on important questions related to Sunni identity, organization, and participation vis-à-vis the Iraqi state. Despite the rise of great power politics, regional security competition, and growing uncertainty of the American role in the Middle East, intra-Sunni dynamics within Iraq have demonstrated before to hold an oversized impact on the country’s stability, and even to regional and international security. It is important, therefore, for Western policymakers to remain engaged and informed about the issues confronting the post-ISIS Sunni landscape. Even as it appears that the group is physically defeated, conditions within the community are likely to determine the potential and parameters of future insurgency in Iraq.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
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