Iraqi security forces have made great progress toward defeating the Islamic State in Iraq. Whether this military success will translate into enduring stability will depend in large part upon the attitudes of Iraqi Sunnis toward the postwar state. Since 2003, Iraqi Sunnis have viewed the political system as unfair and marginalizing their role in the nation’s politics. A recent public opinion survey we carried out reveals a startling and potentially significant shift in Sunni attitudes toward the Iraqi state.
A nationwide poll of Iraqis carried out by the Almustakilla for Research group in April 2017 found that for the first time since our surveys began in 2003, Sunni Arab public opinion in Iraq is very positive about the political situation in the country, while the Shiite Arab view of politics has grown more negative.
The April 2017 Almustakilla for Research poll found that Sunni Arabs are now more positive about the situation in the country than other major groups, most notably the Shiite Arabs who dominate the country politically. Fifty-one percent of Sunni Arabs said the country was going in the right direction as opposed to 36 percent of Shiite Arabs and 5 percent of Kurds. Fifty-three percent of those Sunni Arabs who had been liberated from the Islamic State control thought the country was moving in the right direction. In summer 2014, less than 10 percent of Sunni Arab Iraqis said the country was moving in the right direction in the areas that were just about to be taken by the Islamic State.
Now is the first time since 2003, according to the April Almustakilla for Research survey, that Sunni Arabs are more supportive of a Shiite prime minister than Shiite Arab Iraqis are. Support for Haider al-Abadi — the current prime minister and a Shiite — is highest among the Sunni Arab population, particularly among those who were once occupied by the Islamic State. Seventy-one percent of Sunni Arabs (74 percent of Sunnis liberated from the Islamic State) support Abadi, while 62 percent of Shiite share the same view. Three years ago, according to a nationwide survey carried out by Almustakilla for Research, just before the Islamic State captured large portions of northwestern Iraq, then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had 5 percent support among Sunni Arab Iraqis.
The answer lies in the policies that Abadi put in place to defeat the Islamic State and liberate Sunnis from the extremist group’s grasp. Rather than treat Sunni Arabs as a potential threat to Iraq, as Maliki had, Abadi sought to free Sunni Arabs from Islamic State control and treat them as victims of the group rather than accomplices.
He used the Iraqi military and police to combat the Islamic State and limited, as much as possible, the direct role of the highly sectarian Shiite militias in liberating Sunni Arab territory. Abadi tried to rely more on American military aid than Iran and its proxies as that would inflame Sunni anger and distrust.
There is tremendous good will and gratitude among Iraq’s Sunni Arab population that their government, although run by a Shiite politician, has seen fit to liberate them from the Islamic State and has tried to limit any potential backlash against the Sunni population that might have taken place.
Equally shocking is how fragile the Sunni Arab sense of security in the country is. There is a widespread fear among Sunni Arabs that the Islamic State will come back, either as it has been or in another form. Sixty-one percent of Sunni Arabs believe the Islamic State may come back in their city while only 38 percent of Shiite believe the same is true.
Why the difference in pessimism about the return of the Islamic State?
The key lies in how Sunni and Shiite Arab Iraqis view the likely behavior of the Iraqi government in the future. While 81 percent of Iraqi Arab Shiites believe that the Iraqi government will treat Sunni and Shiites in the same manner, only 53 percent of Sunni Arabs believe that to be true. Twenty-two percent of Sunni Arabs have no trust that the Iraqi government will treat Sunnis and Shiites the same way. That lack of trust in future equal treatment jumps to 28 percent among Arab Sunnis liberated from the Islamic State.
There also are concerns among Sunni Arabs about what their lives will look like in the coming year. In the April 2017 nationwide poll carried out by Almustakilla for Research, in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, only 50 percent believed that life would be better in a year.
The first is their experiences in the past. Political exclusion from 2003 to 2011 and then the very harsh treatment they endured at the hands of the highly Shiite sectarian Maliki government have made Sunni Arabs wary of their long-term status in the country.
The second factor is the rise and continued existence of al-Hashd al-Shaabi (popular mobilization units or PMUs). These are predominately Shiite militia, most with deep ties to Iran, that rose in the face of the Islamic State onslaught in 2014 to defeat the Sunni extremist organization. They have become an immensely powerful set of fighting forces that, while under the nominal control of the Iraqi prime minister, are really more controlled by Iran. They have a reputation for being very sectarian and anti-Sunni.
The PMUs are viewed differently by Sunni and Shiite Arab Iraqis. When asked about the future role PMUs should play, 45 percent of Sunni Arabs say they should be integrated into the Iraqi army and 35 percent believe they should be completely disbanded. Among Shiite Arabs, 42 percent believe the PMUs should be integrated into the Iraqi army and 40 percent believe they should be left the way they are. Only 5 percent of Shiites believe the units should be disbanded. Thus, the continued existence and power of the PMUs worry many Sunnis that they will once again become victims of Shiite Arab abuse.
The Iraqi government has a great deal of goodwill for having freed most Arab Sunnis from the Islamic State. But that goodwill is tenuous, at best, as Sunni Arabs fear for their future in the country.
Munqith M. Dagher is founder and chief executive of Almustakilla for Research, based in Baghdad.
Karl C. Kaltenthaler is a professor of political science at the University of Akron.