The fall of Saddam’s regime has thrown the Iraqi Arab Sunni into a representation void. ISIS has ably ridden this wave, leaving the legacy, today, of a young generation that has been “militarized” and “sectarianized”

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Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:45

The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime plunged the Iraqi Sunni Arabs into a void of representation. Although they cannot be considered a compact community, various political forces have tried to exploit electorally their resentment. However, it has been ISIS, first and foremost, that has ridden the wave of their malaise, offering the former Baathist officers the prospect of redemption. And now that the pseudo-Caliphate has been defeated, it is necessary to reckon with a young generation that has been “militarized” and “sectarianized.”


While this essay deals with the crisis of Arab Sunni Islam in Iraq preceding and after the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it will first provide a critique of the essentialist notion of such a politico-religious configuration. Rather, it will examine the difficulties Iraqis, who happen to be Arab Sunni by accident of birth and geography, have had developing religious and political institutions, as well as the security concerns that happen to disproportionately affect this demographic.


Iraq’s Arab Sunnis” is an identity label that presupposes cohesion amongst this community, when in fact its divisions explain why no political or religious institution can claim to represent their political and religious aspirations. With regards to political narratives, a vague notion of “Iraqi Arab Sunniness” has developed in terms of victimization, but narratives do not necessarily translate into viable political or religious institutions. Rather, it is religious and political elites amongst Arab Sunnis in Iraq who invoke these tropes for the secular objective of political mobilization. ISIS’ success, therefore, can be attributed to the fact that it entered an institutional vacuum to recruit amongst this demographic.


As argued by Fanar Haddad, while “sectarianism” as an analytical concept proves problematic,[1] it remains embedded amongst policy makers and mainstream media discourses, even internalized within Iraq. For example, in 2016 Kemal Kirkuki, a Kurdish politician said: 


“We hope Iraq becomes three independent countries; Kurdistan, Shiitestan and Sunnistan.”[2]


The notion of “Sunnistan” imagines a political community based on religious affiliation which can form a viable state.


This line of thinking assumes primordial sectarian difference as embedded in Iraq’s political landscape. Rather I conceptualize tensions in Iraq on a level of Shi‘a, Sunni, and Kurdish narratives of victimization and trauma, which are instrumentalized to mask actual rivalries within each community. Rather than attributing conflict in Iraq to mere extant sectarian or ethnic differences, it is worth recalling that contestation of votes, financial resources, and territory has resulted in intra-sectarian and intra-ethnic tension since 2003. Sectarianism seen as a causal variable to Iraq’s violence is superficial and reduces the complexity of this intra-communal conflict.


First, the crisis of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, in terms of political and religious institution building, is not a zero-sum game of having lost to Iraq’s Shi‘a majority after 2003, but within Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, divided amongst religious institutions or political parties.


Second, the label “Iraq’s Arab Sunnis” as a sectarian category does not account for Sunni Islamists among other ethnic groups, such as the Kurdish Islamist parties, like the Kurdistan Islamic Union, or Iraqi Turkmens who would rise through the ranks of ISIS.



The Collapse of a System

After the collapse of the primarily Arab Sunni-dominated Baath government, this segment of Iraq’s population fell into a social, religious, and political vacuum with no united leadership. Some aligned themselves with tribal leaders and some with the Islamist parties that slowly began to emerge, while others depended on Sunni Islamist insurgents. After 2003, a number of parties, associations, and coalitions developed, competing to serve as the united voice of Sunni aspirations, primarily Islamist parties. The Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) evolved from the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq, which Baath government forced underground, compelling its leaders to seek exile in London, including Muhsin ‘Abd al-Hamīd and Tāriq al-Hāshimī. The latter became one of Iraq’s two vice presidents after 2005, part of its fluctuations between partaking in postwar politics while boycotting the process at times to protest American military actions, particularly in Falluja in 2004.


The General Conference of Iraqi Sunnis (al-Mu’tamar al-‘āmm li-Ahl al-Sunna fī l-‘Irāq), led by ‘Adnān al-Dulaymī, was one of the first groups that adopted the term “Sunni” in its title, but later changed its name to the more inclusive General Dialogue Conference. The Association of Muslim Scholars, established by the brothers Muthannā and Hārith al-Dārī, represented a hybrid religious-political organization. Collectively, these factions formed al-Tawāfuq (the Accord Front) prior to the December 2005 elections, uniting around a platform of advancing the interest of Iraq’s Arab Sunnis.


While Sunni Islamist parties formed relatively soon after the fall of the Baath, over the ensuing decade since 2003 the Accord Front was a misnomer since it suffered from discord and collapsed due to personal rivalries. Rather than uniting, these politicians became seen as a new class of career politicians obsessed with keeping power, unresponsive to their constituents’ needs, demonstrated by the protests of 2013.


Disaffected Arab Sunni Iraqis launched protests in January 2013 in the cities of Falluja and Ramadi, in the Anbar province, Mosul in the Ninawa province, and Hawija near Kirkuk. The protests were in response to the then prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s arrest of the bodyguards of an Iraqi Arab Sunni politician, Rafi‘ al-‘Īssāwī, the former finance minister in December 2012, on the back of another 2011 arrest warrant for Tāriq al-Hāshimī. Al-Maliki had accused both of having links to “terrorist groups,” a euphemism for the insurgents.[3]


Arab Sunnis protested not out of devotion to the Arab Sunni political class per se. When Arab Sunni politicians visited the camps, they were pelted by the protesters, who blamed them for failing to represent their interests. The protesters were lodging complaints against a Shi‘i-dominated executive, and its discrimination against these Arab Sunni politicians, which they perceived as part of a systemic disempowering of their community. Those arrests lead to greater calls for the reform of a political order that would address their grievances, allowing for their participation in governance and employment opportunities. By this juncture, Iraqi Arab Sunni protesters were emboldened by the Arab Sunni uprising against the Alawite Shi‘a government in Syria. One protester in Ramadi declared:


 ...we and the Syrians are part of the same struggle. Both our governments are very close to Tehran, and both of us oppose Iranian plans in the region. Iran wants to turn Baghdad and Damascus into its provinces and form a Shi‘ite axis stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.[4]


As the Syrian uprising of 2011 degenerated into a civil war, the Syrian state was no longer perceived as a truly Baathist state by Iraqi Sunnis, but a reimagined “Alawite” Shi‘i regime, on par with the Shi‘i regime in Iraq. Notwithstanding the doctrinal differences between Syrian Alawism and Ja‘farī Shi‘ism, the governments of Bashar al-Assad and Nuri al-Maliki were conflated by Iraqi Sunnis into an axis of repressive Shi‘i regimes.


Ahmad al-‘Alwānī, an IIP member, leveraged the protests, expressing grievances over the Iranian influence in the Iraqi state,[5] often invoking the pejorative term “Safavid” to describe al-Maliki’s government, a reference to the Turco-Persian dynasty that converted Iran to Shi‘ism wholescale in the sixteenth century and later contested the Ottoman Empire for control over Iraq.[6] Some protesters carried posters of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of Turkey.[7] Erdogan had been an early supporter of the Arab Spring protests in Egypt, Libya, and Syria. He also represented a Sunni leader with hegemonic potential to counter Iran in the region and in Iraq, a symbol for an Iraqi Arab pan-Sunnism, transcending the Arab-Turkish ethnic binary in the face of perceived Iraqi Arab Shi‘a-Persian threat.


A vague sense of Iraqi Sunni identity thus had developed by 2013, but had not been translated into political unity even within the sect. If anything, the Iraqi Arab Sunnism represents an illustrative case of what Marina Calculli calls the “securitization of identities”; that is a transnational social process utilized by political elites to mobilize constituencies that serves as a proxy to direct military confrontation.[8] This process reconciles discursively the dissonance between Sunni actors that invoke a pan-Sunni imaginary, such as Iraq’s Sunni Islamists, even if they pursue policies that undermine sectarian unity. In this regard, these politicians securitized a Sunni identity in the aftermath of the uprisings of 2013 to bolster their own domestic as well as transnational legitimacy. They did so, however, knowing that pan-Sunnism was not their principle driver of domestic policy choices, which remained dictated by real-political concerns and power-political rivalries.


ISIS, Symptom of a Failure

ISIS is a symptom of the failure of Iraqi Arab Sunni politics institutional development. In this vacuum it recruited disaffected Iraqi Arab Sunnis, including its leaders, many of whom were former career military and intelligence officers under Saddam Hussein. They are all relatively obscure figures, as is Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī, the self-declared caliph of ISIS.


Al-Baghdādī, was born in 1971 in Samarra, as his original name indicates, Ibrāhīm ‘Awwād Ibrāhīm ‘Alī al-Badrī al-Sāmarrā’ī. His father was an imam at the Ahmad Ibn Hanbal mosque in the city. During the years of Saddam’s faith campaign, a period where the state promoted a greater visible role for Islam in the public domain after the 1991 Gulf War, al-Baghdādī enrolled in the Islamic University of Iraq, in Baghdad, an institution established during this period. During his studies, he had been introduced to writings of the Muslim Brotherhood, but by 2003 gravitated towards Salafism during Iraq’s insurgency. He had apparently finished his master’s degree in Islamic studies from the same University and contemplated continuing with his doctorate when he was arrested in 2004 while visiting a friend, who was affiliated with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).[9]


At that point, al-Baghdādī was not a member of the organization but was still incarcerated at Camp Bucca, a detention facility in the desert near the Kuwaiti border. There he led prayers and gave Friday sermons and came into contact with Hajjī Bakr, the nom de guerre of Samīr al-Khalīfāwī, and Abū Muhannad al-Suwaydāwī, and Abū Ahmad al-‘Alwānī, all former Saddam-era officers who joined AQI. It was this period in that al-Baghdādī apparently adopted the ideology of AQI and expanded the groups networks in prison. He was released in December 2004, having been incarcerated for less than a year, and then completed his doctorate in sharia at the Islamic University after his release, according to his biography released by the ISIS.[10]


After the leader of AQI, Abū Mus‘ab al-Zarqāwī, was killed in a strike in June 2006, he was succeeded by Abū Ayyūb al-Masrī, an Egyptian bombmaker. Realizing that an Iraqi should have a leadership role, he promoted Abū ‘Umar al-Baghdādī as the leader of the newly-declared Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), ostensibly designed to be an umbrella group of Iraqi insurgent groups. Abū Bakr gained the trust of Abū ‘Umar al-Baghdādī and rose through the ranks to reach the nine-man Mujāhidīn Shūra Council, the highest executive decision-making body of the group. Both Al-Masrī and Abū ‘Umar were killed in April 2010 during a joint raid between US and Iraqi forces near Tikrit.[11] Hajjī Bakr, the former Saddam-era officer who had since been released from Camp Bucca, backed Abū Bakr as the next emir of AQI, apparently seeking someone with religious credentials to take over the group as a spiritual leader.


By the time Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī became the leader of AQI/ISI, a group established by non-Iraqis and foreign fighters, it had been transformed by its predecessor Abū ‘Umar and Hajjī Bakr. Both men came from the old guard of the Saddam Hussein government, and launched a gradual takeover of the leadership. The command structure of ISIS as of 2014 featured a preponderance of Iraqis in leadership positions, including veteran officers under the Baath rule.[12] Based on their last names, most of ISIS’ leaders were Iraqi Arab and Turkmen Sunnis with military or security-related careers.[13] Most had reached the rank of colonel, and served in Air Force or Military Intelligence. For example, one member of the Mujāhidīn Shūra Council, Abū Muslim al-‘Afarī al-Turkmānī, was incarcerated in Camp Bucca, and served in the Baath-era Military Intelligence and Special Forces. Another member of the Council, Abū Ayman al-‘Irāqī, also held at the same camp, served in one of Saddam’s numerous intelligence agencies. Apart from al-Baghdādī none of ISIS’ leaders had religious careers. If in the fifties and sixties, an amorphous and divisive group of colonels known as the Free Officers launched a coup in Baghdad in 1958 in the name of secular Arab and/or Iraqi nationalism, it was “ex-officers” reaching the rank of colonel in the security forces that reconfigured Iraq and the region when resurrecting the Caliphate in 2014.



The Return of the Ex-Officers

If the ex-officers had risen in the ranks during Saddam’s rule, they would have professed the secularism of the Baath Party. Indeed, some of the ex-officers who joined and rose through the ranks of ISIS were genuine “reborn Sunni Muslims,” becoming more religious during Saddam’s faith campaign of the 1990s.[14] However, other leaders might have become more faithful during their post-2003 incarceration in Camp Bucca, and genuinely believed in the religious outlook of ISIS.[15] Yet others, perhaps, cynically sought to manipulate the power of faith.[16] From the perspective of rational raison d’état objectives, the ex-officers apparently harnessed the Salafi religious veneer of ISIS to take advantage of a devoted religious following amongst Syrian and Iraqi fighters, in addition to foreign fighters from Europe and the Middle East.


After 2003 these security officers might have coordinated their activities by joining some of the other Iraqi insurgent groups, become organized during periods of incarceration, or might have been simply isolated individuals who eventually joined ISIS. Regardless of their practical choices, the post-2003 environment offered few options for joining a political organization that could mobilize followers and enable their political comeback. The Baathism of the deposed Iraqi old guard had no promise of raising a mass-mobilization army to reassert power. In order to regain their power, the Iraqi ex-officers of ISIS mobilized the Arab Sunni population who either lost their jobs and prospects for the future after Iraq’s armed forces were disbanded by the Coalition Provisional Authority, or were denied employment due to the subsequent de-Baathification policies.


ISIS and its professed Salafi-jihadism would be the rational choice as a religious ideology to regain power, in that it could rally Sunni fighters in both Iraq and Syria against Shi‘a-dominated states. The anti-Shi‘ism embedded in ISIS’ Salafism served as a potent mobilizer for both local communities and Sunnis living beyond Iraq and Syria, in the name of combatting Shi‘i governments of al-Assad in Damascus and al-Maliki in Baghdad. These religious volunteers in turn served the agenda of these ex-officers, enabling the Iraqi leadership to seize territory and forming an anti-state against the Iraqi and Syrian governments. ISIS and its Iraqi commanders had successfully harnessed the energies and devotion of local Sunnis and a transnational Sunni wing, which bore the brunt of the heavy fighting and was willing to die in combat suicide operations.For the ex-officers, individually, or as a group, they most likely calculated that restoring their former control of all of Iraq, as they enjoyed prior to 2003, was impossible given that Shi‘a and Kurds political elites had succeeded in entrenching their power over the respective governments in Baghdad and Irbil. While most insurgent groups collapsed after the 2008 “surge,” including those fighting in the name of the former regime or Iraqi nationalism, ISIS survived,[17] even after the death of its founder, al-Zarqāwī.


In the post-2008 landscape ISIS served as the most viable vehicle for these ex-officers to reassert their power in areas in which they had originated from in Iraq such as Mosul, Ramadi, Falluja, Rawa, Hit, Tal ‘Afar, and Tikrit.[18] Former military officers had joined another insurgent group Jaysh rijāl al-tarīqa al-naqshbandiyya (The Men of the Naqshbandi Order), led by the last remaining high ranking official from the Saddam-era, ‘Izzat al-Dūrī, but this group did not offer the potential that ISIS did. Al-Dūrī’s insurgency, fusing Sufism with an Iraqi Sunni nationalism, could not mobilize the numbers of fighters like ISIS.


Through ISIS the ex-officers of the former Iraqi elite captured and ruled a larger Arab Sunni heartland in between the two rivers ‒ the upper Euphrates and Tigris – which fan out in separate directions north of Baghdad, creating a landmass referred to historically as the al-Jazīra, a quasi-island enveloped by these water arteries. While they had lost control of the area that corresponds to the lower Fertile Crescent, they created a new state on the upper Fertile Crescent that lasted until the end of 2017, when it was expelled from most major urban centers in Iraq and Syria.


While ISIS has been destroyed militarily, the lack of institutional alternatives for Iraq’s Arab Sunnis persists. This dilemma has been further compounded by the fact that many Iraqi youth, particularly those with less education, were often recruited by ISIS. As a result, a substantial portion of this generation was not only “militarized” but also “sectarianized.” ISIS offered them salaries but also more intangible benefits such as a sense of empowerment and belonging, a substitute for frayed family and other social ties. This development has not only heightened sectarian identity but will set up the problem of future demobilization and reintegration. Furthermore, in the immediate post-ISIS environment, reprisal attacks have already occurred from Arab Sunni tribes using vigilante justice to punish other Arab Sunnis who collaborated with ISIS.[19]



The Issues on the Table

Parliamentary elections, held in May 2018, have served as the first national referendum since defeating ISIS, and yet Sunni Arab divisions persist. The largest Arab Sunni bloc entering the election, the al-Muttahidūn will compete against smaller parties running separately. The only platform they agreed on was to delay to the elections to allow Iraq’s internally displaced peoples sufficient time to return to their homes. Estimates indicated that at the end of 2017 2.6 million people were still displaced within the country, most of them happen to be Arab Sunni constituents.[20] The delay had been rebuffed by the Supreme Court and the incumbent prime minister, Haydar al-Abadi, as Iraq’s election had already been rescheduled from September 2017 due to the fighting with ISIS. Regardless of how the Iraq’s Arab Sunnis parties will fare during the election, the problems facing this demographic are dire.


The real and pressing crises facing those Iraqis who happen to be Sunni are finding religious and political leaders who can deal with the “hard security concerns,” how to maintain security in their urban centers from ISIS remnants, and “human security concerns,” that is preserving the well-being of those displaced after the war. In this regard, the most reliable hope for Iraq’s Arab Sunnis in the near future are the more decentralized civil society groups in this post-conflict scenario, including Arab Sunni tribes, that can help this demographic recover.

[1] Fanar Haddad, Sectarianism in Iraq: Antagonistic Visions of Unity (Hurst & Co., New York & London, 2011).

[2] Paul Iddon, “Peshmerga Commander: We are planning for future operations against ISIS,” Rudaw, 2 April 2016,

[3] Harith Hasan Al‐Qarawee, “Sectarian Relations and Socio‐Political Conflict in Iraq,” ISPI Analysis 200, September 2013, p. 13.

[4] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Syria’s Metastasizing Conflicts,” Middle East Report 143, 27 June 2013, p. 12.

[5] Ali Abel Sadah, “Ahmad Al-‘Alwānī: Za‘īm rādīkālī li-sunnat al-Anbār,” [Ahmed Al-‘Alwani: Radical leader of the Sunnis of al-Anbar], 1 October 2013,

[6] Ali Mamouri, “Don Quixote mā zāl yuhārib tawāhin al-hawā’…fī l-‘Irāq,” [Don Quixote continues to attack windmills in Iraq], Al-Monitor, 26 January 2014,

[7] Ranj Alaaldin, “Iraq’s Sunni Spring,” 8 January 2013,

[8] Marina Calculli, “Middle East Security: Conflict and Securitization of Identities,” in Louisa Fawcett (ed), International Relations of the Middle East (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2016), pp. 219-235.

[9] Ali Hashim, “Al-asmā’ al-muta‘addida allatī yahmiluhā Abū Bakr al-Baghdādī,” [The Many Names that Abū Bakr Al-Baghdādī Carries], 23 March 2015,

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sarah Childress, “Who Runs the Islamic State?” PBS, 28 October 2014.

[13] “Most of Islamic State’s Leaders Were Officers in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq,” Washington Post, 4 April 2015.

[14] Liz Sly, “The Hidden Hand behind the Islamic State Militants? Saddam Hussein’s,” Washington Post, 4 April 2015. 

[15] Terrence McCoy, “Camp Bucca: The US Prison that Became the Birthplace of Isis: Nine Members of the Islamic State’s Top Command Did Time at Bucca,” The Independent, 4 November 2014.

[16] For a debate on the religiosity of ISIS see Samuel Helfont and Michael Brill, “Saddam’s ISIS? The Terrorist Group's Real Origin Story,” Foreign Affairs, 12 January 2016, and Amatzia Baram, “Saddam’s ISIS: Tracing the Roots of the Caliphate,” Foreign Affairs, 8 April 2016.

[17] “Islamic State,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, 4 April 2016,

[18] See Ibrahim Al-Marashi and Sammy Salama, Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History (Routledge, London and New York, 2008).

[19] Vera Mironova and Mohammed Hussein, “Iraq after ISIS: Why More Fighting May Be in Store,” Foreign Affairs, 3 November 2016

[20] Ibrahim Al-Marashi, “Iraq Elections: A Very Divided Political Landscape,” Middle East Eye, 5 February 2018,