While the Iraqi military and its allies may be slowly retaking cities from the Islamic State in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, most Iraqi Sunnis fear and distrust the forces that are “liberating” them from those militants. But what do the majority of Iraqis want for their country’s future? A recent study sheds light on this, painting a picture of an Iraq deeply divided by sectarianism.
Iraqi polling firm IIACSS conducted a series of national and sub-national polls of Iraqis using scientific sampling techniques in all areas of Iraq, including areas controlled by the Islamic State, since June 2014. The results of these polls and more recent IIACSS national polls, carried out in the last few months, show that Sunni and Shiite Iraqis view the security situation in their country through very different lenses. These lenses are colored by sectarian identity.
How do Iraqis feel about security in Iraq?
Our data from February 2016 shows Sunni Arabs fear the forces meant to liberate them from the Islamic State. In Mosul — where a campaign to liberate Iraq’s second-biggest city from Islamic State control just started — 74 percent of Sunni survey respondents say they do not want to be liberated by the Iraqi army on its own.
But this distrust for the Iraqi army is surpassed by distrust for the Shiite militias and the Kurdish Peshmerga. Of the 120 Sunni respondents in Mosul, 100 percent do not want to be liberated by Shiite militias or the Kurds. There is a very deep distrust of forces that are meant to free Sunni Iraqis from the clutches of the Islamic State.
Does that mean Sunnis support the Islamic State?
No, it is not because most Sunnis support the Islamic State. In fact, an overwhelming majority of Iraqi Sunnis oppose the Islamic State. An IIACSS poll conducted in January 2016 showed that 99 percent of Shiite and 95 percent of Sunnis across Iraq oppose the Islamic State.
If so many Sunnis oppose the Islamic State, why are they so concerned about the Iraqi Army, Shiite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga working to liberating them? The answer lies in the collective identity that Sunni Iraqis hold — and the sense that their community is and will not be treated fairly by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and its allies.
How has sectarianism divided Iraq?
Public opinion data from Iraq shows that Iraqi Sunnis view their community as being treated unfairly by the Shiite-dominated government. In fact, in the February survey, 44 percent of Sunnis said they believe that the citizens of Sunni-majority Ramadi will not be treated fairly now that the city has been recaptured from Islamic State fighters. Compare that to 76 percent of Shiites who believe that the citizens of Ramadi will be treated fairly. The sectarian divide on expectations after liberation is clear.
According to an April 2016 IIACSS national survey of Iraqis, there is major gulf between Sunni and Shiite perceptions of the fairness of the Iraqi government in applying equal rights to all Iraqis. A vast majority, 91 percent, of Sunnis do not believe that Iraqis are treated equally in terms of their rights. On the other hand, nearly 60 percent of Shiite believe that the Iraqi government applies equal protection of rights to all Iraqis.
Shiite militias, a major part of the effort to defeat the Islamic State, are viewed with even deeper suspicion than the Iraq government by Sunni Iraqi Arabs. When asked in February if they were concerned about the Shiite militias in Sunni areas, 93 percent of the Sunni respondents said they were concerned, while seven percent of Shiite respondents said they were concerned about the Shiite militias in Sunni areas.
The top concern of Sunnis — mentioned by 42 percent of them — was that Shiite militias might take revenge on local civilians. This was followed by the concern — mentioned by 31 percent of Sunnis — that Shiite militias would allow Iranian influence in the area.
The primary Sunni concerns with the Kurdish Peshmerga were that the Kurds will not return the land they took from the Islamic State to the Iraqi government (46 percent) —and that the Peshmerga would abuse Arabs (41 percent).
How have the Shiite militias changed the dynamic?
The Shiite-dominated government and army of Iraq are viewed with deep suspicion by many Sunni Iraqis because of the brutal government crackdowns on Sunni protests against Sunni political marginalization and abuse in 2013. Sunni trust of Shiites has not recovered and has fallen even lower due to the prominent role played by Shiite militias (or Popular Mobilization Forces) in the battle to reclaim Sunni-majority land from the Islamic State.
Shiite militias have developed a reputation for abusiveness after their behavior in recaptured Sunni territory. But because the Iraqi army is too weak to retake Islamic State-controlled territory on its own, it is beholden to the militarily stronger Shiite militias to help expel the Islamic State from Iraq.
There is also an important political dimension to the Iraqi government’s dependence on Shiite militias. The militias — which are largely funded, supplied and advised by Iranian operatives —are an important way for Iran to exert influence on what happens in Iraq. Iran has pressured the Iraqi government to allow the militias to play a large role in the military campaign against the Islamic State.
Recently, Shiite militias demanded, and were allowed, to be part of the planned liberation of Mosul — despite initial Iraqi government plans to exclude them because of the fear and distrust they have generated among Mosul’s residents and Sunnis throughout Iraq. Shiite militia participation in the liberation of Mosul has also been supported by the U.S. government, which has reached out to the militias as part of the solution to defeating the Islamic State in Iraq.
The primary takeaway from this survey data is that Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiite perceive a very different process of defeating the Islamic State taking place. While both Sunnis and Shiites overwhelming oppose the Islamic State’s presence in Iraq, Shiites are largely not concerned about who is fighting — while Sunnis are concerned. Sunnis largely expect to be treated unfairly — and even abused — when the Islamic State is gone. Time will tell if this sense of threat to the Sunni Iraqis’ collective identity will dissipate. If this sense of Sunni distrust toward the Iraqi government and its allies does not wane, it will be very difficult to rebuild a unified, functioning Iraq.
Munqith al-Dagher is a director of the market research firm IIACSS in Iraq. Karl Kaltenthaler is a professor of political science at the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University.