Sunni Arabs’ Grievances in Post-ISIS Iraq
Abdul Khaliq Al-Azzawi is a member of the Defense Committee in the Iraqi parliament and was one of the local Arab Sunni leaders who played a crucial role in defeating the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in Diyala Province.
Al-Azzawi was a member of the Diyala Provincial Council when ISIS took over one third of Iraq’s territories, including northern Diyala, home of Azzawi and his tribe. In response to ISIS threats to Mansurya, his home-town, Azzawi gathered hundreds of armed men to fight ISIS in mid-2014. They managed to stop the militants’ advance at a time when the Iraqi army and security forces could not stop them in the neighboring towns of Jalaula and Sadyah.
To confront ISIS’ constant security threats, Azzawi formed five battalions of government-backed Arab Sunni militia, Hashd Al-Ashayari, armed by Iraq’s defense ministry. That militia, along with other Iraqi security forces, played a key role in securing Northern Diyala.
In an interview with ICPAR, Azzawi discussed Iraq’s current security and political challenges, Diyala’s security, and the Arab Sunni community’s grievances in the face of wars, instability, and political marginalization.
Dana Naqi: How is the current security situation in Diyala?
Abdul Khaliq Al-Azzawi: In 2016, it was announced that Diyala was free from Daish [ISIS], but actually the governorate is still not free of Daish insurgents. You know Diyala borders the unstable areas of Salahadin, and it is affected by it. It also borders Baghdad and Iran, so we are always expecting militants to target it due to its strategic location. It is quite a sensitive situation for everyone.
DN: Where exactly are the insurgents operating nowadays?
AA: They are operating in some rural areas like Nada Plain (south of Khanaqin), Zore (between Al-Miqdadya and the Hmarin Mountains), the Hamrin Mountains and Auzem.
DN: Do you see ISIS militants as the only source of instability in Diyala?
AA: Honestly, no: there are some organized criminal mafias who hurt people more than Daish. They kill and kidnap people and have mortared villages for criminal and sectarian reasons.
DN: How are your Hashd Al-Ashayari forces cooperating with the Iraqi army and security forces in Diyala?
AA: The cooperation is good. We fought Daish with them and sacrificed many brave men’s lives. They armed us, but so far they have not paid a salary to any man in our forces even though we are armed by the Iraqi defense ministry. Some groups of Hashd Al-Shabi invited our battalion leaders to join them so that they could be included in the list of Iraqi security forces that get salaries and equipment from the government, but we rejected that offer since we are part of the defense ministry. Why should we join Hashd Al-Shabi?
DN: Is there any real political partnership between representatives of Arab Sunnis and the ruling elite that represents the Shia community in Iraq?
AA: There is no real partnership. What we have is a nominal partnership, a mutual understanding. There is clear power consolidation in key government institutions by Shia parties and forces. For instance, in the government formation process, when the Shia blocks nominated their candidates in the parliament, neither Kurds nor Arab Sunnis objected to any of their candidates. However, when Arab Sunni and Kurdish blocks presented their candidates, the Shia blocks objected to some of them. They want to have their say in appointing our candidates but do not accept the same from us and Kurds. This is not a real partnership.
We are even experiencing this marginalization at local levels. For instance, the Arab Sunni community makes up about 70% of Diyala’s population. Even after the Daish war and so many of them were displaced, they are still between 50-60% of the whole Diyala population. And yet, there are only two Arab Sunni directors in Diyala government institutions. The Shia filled dozens of administrative positions without consulting us.
DN: After defeating ISIS, is there any Arab Sunni military force to keep order in the post-ISIS areas alongside the formal security forces?
AA: If you are talking about examples of Hashd Al-Ashayari, yes, we are protecting and securing our areas. Plus, most of the people serving in the formal Iraqi security forces and arming the Arab Sunni areas and towns are from the local community.
DN: How do you see the role of Hashd Al-Ashayari in other areas of Iraq?
AA: In Kirkuk, Salahadin, and Al-Anbar, the Hashd Al-Ashayari forces are stronger and more organized. The number of their militants in Ramadi is 18,000 and in Mosul 17,000. They all get salaries from the federal government, whereas we have only 3500 armed men serving without pay.
DN: Given Diyala’s geopolitical importance and sensitivity, how are Iranians cooperating with Iraqi forces to secure the governorate?
AA: I do not see the Iranians intervening in Diyala’s security arrangement as much as I see them intervening in the governing issues in Baghdad. They affect all the issues and things going on in Iraq, not just security arrangements in Diyala.
DN: Do you see any cooperation between Iraqi federal leaders and officials in the post-ISIS devastated cities and areas?
AA: There is actually good cooperation. For instance, last week, I arranged a meeting between the directorates of several sub-districts in the post-ISIS areas with the federal officials and representatives of IMF in Baghdad, trying to bring some of the money dedicated to reconstructing these areas. So yes, we have this kind of cooperation, and we really need it to rebuild these areas.
DN: Many people in Iraq question the leaders and representatives of the Arab Sunni community and criticize them for not representing them well. They also criticize them for being allies of dominant parties rather than representing them. How do you see this critique?
AA: I would agree with this critique. It is actually true.
DN: You represent some of the people in Diyala as a political and tribal leader and as an MP. Do you have any plans to deal with the common problems in the governorate, especially issues related to poor public services?
AA: In the 2019 national budget draft, we allocated money for the liberated areas, and we focused on the areas that were destroyed or damaged in the Daish war. Now our military operations against Daish are over. Look, I am wearing civilian clothes, not the military uniforms I wore when I was fighting before 2016. Now our battle is to provide public services. Our main concern is how to provide services and security.
DN: How you assess the level of satisfaction of Arab Sunni people with their representatives in the current Iraqi parliament and government?
AA: I totally understand why our people are not satisfied with their political representatives since they have not been satisfied with the new political process, let’s say since 2006. Some areas have never seen stability. For example, areas like Jalaula and Auzem have always faced Al-Qaida-linked groups and suffered Daish and terrorist attacks. They are not satisfied because they lack basic services. We still have many clay-made school buildings in Diyala. How can you expect someone to be satisfied with their political leaders while their children study in clay-made school buildings?
DN: Now some people talk about Iraq’s unity under threats of regionalization, what some politicians called decentralization of power. Do you see any serious effort to create more regions in Iraq, and does such an effort pose a real threat to Iraq’s unity?
AA: The issue started with the Iraqi central government’s pressure on the Arab Sunni governorates. That pressure pushed people to welcome Daish. The federal government marginalized them and put them in disadvantaged positions, and it created reactions. Many of them reached the conclusion that creating their own region could protect them from the federal government’s discrimination. The idea of a Kurdistan Region is not new. The reasons that made some Kurds and Arab Sunnis ask for their own regions are also the reasons that many people in the southern governorates are asking for their own regions. The southern governorates are quite safe, but they are being marginalized and deprived of adequate public services as the federal government is preoccupied with wars and instability.
DN: How optimistic you are about the Adil Abdul-Mahdi cabinet? Do you think this government is going to address Arab Sunnis’ grievances?
AA: Absolutely not. I have no hope with this government. It is weak, and it can’t do much.
DN: How do you see Barham Salah’s performance as Iraq’s President?
AA: Barham Salah is good, and he represents Iraq better than previous presidents, although his position is ceremonial and does not have much authority. But he has activated the position.