In the first pluralist elections held in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, not many Sunni Muslims dared to show themselves at polling stations – as Shia Muslims did. That was January 2005. Sunni leaders had called for a boycott, largely aimed at the American forces occupying Iraq.
Civil war followed. From 2006 to 2007, each month some 3,000 Iraqis were killed. When an American withdrawal came in earnest, in December 2011, it left a vacuum. Sectarian scores were settled.
The increasingly isolated Sunni community radicalised. In Anbar province where they form the majority, they regularly protest against Nouri Al-Maliki, now in his second term as Prime Minister. The Sunnis see him as an American-installed traitor, though they also say he is under the thumb of the Iranians.
The Sunni minority in Iraq as a whole held power under Saddam – had done since Ottoman rule. That’s over. Their geographic distribution does little to guarantee their place in Iraqi society today. They are more divided than ever from the country’s Shiites.
They feel they are second-class citizens, stigmatised and repressed. This has added fuel to the Sunni insurgence, invoking the spectre of al Qaeda extremism.
Maliki raises the threat of terrorism and condemns foreign infiltration: ‘‘The return of those people is an investment in political instability that has led to an unstable society, due to sectarianism linked with agendas beyond our borders.’‘
The tensions are sustained by violence committed on both sides. The Shiite militias have not been disarmed; attacks against towns or Sunni mosques are frequent. Twenty-nine mosques were targeted in April and May this year.
Radical Shiite leader Muqtada Al-Sadr and other politicians are preparing for fresh elections which will be scheduled for next year. He has been taking tentative steps towards reconciliation with the Sunnis.