An Iraqi soldier escorts civilians as they leave anti-government protests in Hawija, April 22. Photo: AP
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Iraq’s Sunni Muslims are united in their opposition to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, but divided over whether the large minority should be pushing for the type of autonomy enjoyed by the ethnic Kurds in the north.
A recent wave of protests against Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s government in the Sunni provinces – and a bloody government crackdown against demonstrators last month – has fueled calls for a federal Sunni Arab “triangle” in the densely populated regions of Iraq.
“Now Sunnis understand why the Kurds had insisted on having their own federal region,” said Zafir Alani, a leader of the powerful Sunni Iraqiya bloc. “They wanted to secure their rights and avoid finding themselves at the mercy of central authority,” he explained, saying “Maliki’s unfair and unjust rule” had driven the Sunnis to demand their own enclave.
Iraq’s ethnic Kurds gained autonomy following the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The Kurdistan Region has its own government, parliament, constitution and army.
But Alani conceded that, “Sunnis have not agreed on the mechanism for such a federal region, and its implementation is not possible at this time.”
Tariq Al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president who fled Baghdad in 2011 after facing terrorism and murder charges, said that federalism was the right answer for Iraq.
“From experience, I believe federalism is an optimal system for a multinational state. We are in the process of forming a Sunni federal region and there is enough support for the project. The announcement will be made at a proper time,” he said, painting perhaps an overly optimistic picture of events.
.“I am for a Sunni region and the region does not necessarily need to be called a Sunni region. Sunnis have long wanted to have their own region,” Hashimi said.
The idea of dividing Iraq into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish zones was first proposed by US Vice President Joseph Biden, when he was a senator. But Washington no longer backs that proposal.
All Sunni politicians do not back the idea of creating their own federal region, which constitutionally can be achieved through a referendum.
“The idea of a federal Sunni region is not acceptable,” said Haris Jenabi, spokesman of the Sunni Endowment Diwan. He refused to reply to a question by Rudaw about what would happen if the vast majority of Sunnis vote for federalism.
Qasim Kerbuli, a member of the organizing committee behind Sunni protests in Anbar province, said that the creation of a federal Sunni region is a last resort.
“We don’t demand such a region at this time. Our priority is that Mr Maliki has to step down,” he said. “We are not ready to live under Maliki’s oppression. Our options are very clear: change of prime minister or a federal region for Sunnis.