As the Iraqi government wages war against the Islamic State, it is severely underestimating the extent to which continued, deep-seated mistrust among Iraq’s ethnosectarian communities is undermining its effort. Iraqi Shia have largely failed to understand the fears that are keeping Iraqi Sunnis away from the fight against the radical jihadist group; Iraqi Sunnis have long miscalculated their leverage in the country’s politics and have backed themselves into a fatal corner with the Islamic State; and Iraqi Kurds are single-mindedly pursuing a vision of independence, which is standing in the way of cooperation in the war against the Islamic State.

In many of the Sunni-dominated areas in which the self-proclaimed Islamic State has entrenched itself, locals have been unwilling to fight against the Sunni extremist group. Not only do they fear extreme reprisals from the Islamic State, but they also worry that, even if they succeed, they stand to have their areas returned to the control of what they see as an oppressive Iranian-influenced Shia government in Baghdad. This sense has been reinforced by the inability of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government to deliver on security and civil protection reforms that it has long promised the Sunni community.

The pockets of Sunnis who are motivated to fight the Islamic State, often because of existing relationships with the Iraqi government or an unwillingness to cede their own local power, have in many circumstances failed to receive the weapons and military support they need to effectively defend themselves.

Meanwhile, many of Iraq’s predominantly Shia military officers are left to wonder why young Shia should be sacrificing their lives to defend Sunni lands when so many Sunnis appear to be unwilling to do so for themselves.

The suspicion, misapprehension, and anger nursed by Iraq’s Sunni and Shia sects are grounded in memories of victimhood, activated by incendiary political narratives, and exacerbated by the daily atrocities of the Islamic State. And a mutual incomprehension of the fear and suffering faced by each sect is preventing the country from formulating an effective strategy to defeat the Islamic State.

Iraqi Kurdistan, in turn, has its own priorities. After a century of suffering under the authority of centralist governments, the Kurds’ pursuit of independence has become central to their politics. Kurdish political leaders are frank about their desire to secede from Iraq and often admit their intention to remain a part of the country as long as they can extract material and political benefits from it—and not a moment longer.

Although such an approach to the Iraqi central government is rooted in tragic historical experiences, it is viewed as excessively cynical by many non-Kurdish Iraqi politicians. Skepticism of Kurdish intentions has been reinforced by the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG’s) moves to take disputed territories during the fight against the Islamic State. And the pursuit of independence has exacerbated mistrust between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government and undermined cooperation between two key participants in the war against the Islamic State. 

The fall of the central Iraqi city of Ramadi to the Islamic State in May 2015, after an eighteen-month-long defense mounted by Sunni tribal fighters in conjunction with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), marks another humiliating failure of the Iraqi state. At a time when many had forecast a battle to retake Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that fell to the Islamic State in June 2014, instead more territory is being lost.

The Iraqi government and the global coalition against the Islamic State must prioritize a thorough assessment of the deficiencies in their strategy to defeat the militant group. If they fail to make necessary adjustments, they risk seeing the Islamic State further entrench itself in communities that it controls.

The Need for Realistic Sunni Leadership

Iraq’s Sunni community had legitimate grievances when it came to the domineering rule of former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia who was widely seen as marginalizing Sunnis when he led the country from 2006 to 2014. But Iraq’s Sunni leadership has significantly overestimated the leverage that it has in an Iraq after Saddam Hussein, where its community is no longer disproportionately empowered by the government.

In interviews with scores of influential financiers, businessmen, and political leaders in the community, it has often been striking to hear the breadth of their demands on the Iraqi government and their failure to understand the perceptions of the country’s majority Shia community.

During widespread protests that took place across Sunni regions of Iraq in 2013, Sunni leaders called for the mass release of prisoners and the repeal of antiterror laws—without public consideration of how the government could go about combating the campaign of terror that al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor, was mounting against the Shia community.

By failing to recognize the real impact of terrorism on the daily lives of Iraq’s Shia community, the Sunni protest movement missed an opportunity to build bridges and articulate its demands in cross-sectarian terms. Rather than focusing on the many shared complaints about governance issues and service delivery, the Sunni protests focused almost exclusively on Sunni concerns. And, when the protests failed to elicit results, some Sunnis resorted to calling for the use of force rather than attempting to appeal to the wider Iraqi population for support.

One important Sunni political financier said in an interview at the height of the 2013 protests that if Maliki would not give up power, “even we moderates will have to take up arms against him.”1 Many others I interviewed agreed with the need for some kind of violent action against the Maliki government, based on a faulty analysis of the Sunni community’s strength in Iraq. Some Sunni leaders, for instance, continue to cling to the notion that Sunnis make up a majority of Iraq’s population. 

The rhetoric coming from the Sunni leadership at this time mimicked that of the Sunni resistance movement of 2003 and 2004, which fought against U.S. forces even though it had little chance of success and suffered bloody consequences.

Despite the violence and the suffering that has overtaken Iraq in the years since then, one Sunni tribal leader told me that he had absolutely no regrets about supporting the armed resistance of that time.2 Instead, ten years later, elements of the Sunni leadership were issuing a new call to arms, demonstrating their abject failure to learn from the consequences of the Iraqi civil war of 2005–2007. That conflict was taken over by al-Qaeda in Iraq, and by any measure, was thoroughly lost by Iraqi Sunnis, with innocent civilians paying the highest price.

Once Maliki crushed the 2013 Sunni protest movement—using a mixture of threats, violence, and intimidation—unrest spread quickly. After the final major protest camp, near Ramadi, was forcibly shut down by the Iraqi Security Forces in December 2013, violence swept across Anbar Province, eventually leading to the expulsion of the ISF from Fallujah, the largest city in the province. In the early months of 2014, attacks against the Iraqi Security Forces were led by a coalition of Sunni forces, including the Islamic State; Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia, a group with ties to the former ruling Baath Party; and assorted tribal groups and other militant organizations. A collection of similar groups aided the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul, and parts of the wider Sunni community supported the move, apparently convinced that they could use the Islamic State to bring down the Maliki government and achieve the political reforms that they had been demanding.

Even after evidence of the atrocities perpetrated by the Islamic State began to mount, some Sunni leaders defended their decision to either actively or passively enable the group’s advance. As one tribal leader put it, Sunni leaders had simply formed a military council to “defend their areas,” while it was Maliki who had allowed terrorists to overrun the “legitimate Sunni resistance.”3 

Once again, parts of the Iraqi Sunni leadership had ushered the country’s Sunni community into an era of tragedy from which it is unlikely to meaningfully recover. Sunni political leaders who have tried to adopt a discourse more inclined to compromise in Baghdad are often derided by their Sunni constituencies as sellouts, making it very difficult for moderate politicians to both maintain their credibility among their communities and work effectively with Shia partners in Baghdad.

Sunnis Suffer the Brunt

A year after the fall of Mosul, it is Iraq’s Sunnis who have suffered the most from the Islamic State’s advances. Their community has been decimated by the Islamic State’s conquest. And, if a long war of attrition with the group continues, Iraqi Sunnis will have little to look forward to beyond a return to areas ravaged by conflict, heavily garrisoned with troops, and deprived of the resources and investment needed to restore dignity and opportunity.

The vast majority of the 3 million Iraqis displaced from areas under Islamic State control are Sunni. Where Sunnis have sought refuge, they have at times been treated with derision and suspicion, blamed for the advent of the Islamic State, and feared as possible terrorists. Baghdad, parts of southern Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan, which is hosting almost half of those forced from their homes, have all issued restrictions on the movement of internally displaced people, leaving thousands in limbo.

The United Nations is running out of funds designated for the crisis. It has already cut rations, and it warned in June 2015 that it will have to cut its operations in Iraq in half if it does not receive further support from the international community in the coming months.

A number of the areas that have been liberated from the Islamic State—such as Jurf al-Sakhar, in the center of the country, and Tikrit and Zumar, in the north—are now garrisoned with Shia militias that make up the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which was formed to fight the militants, or with Kurdish peshmerga fighters. In some cases, both the PMF and the peshmerga are refusing to allow Sunni residents to return to their homes, fearing that Islamic State elements could embed with returning refugees and infiltrate these areas.

Meanwhile, many Sunni families consider returning to places that have been cleared of the Islamic State too risky, fearing that Shia forces will commit revenge attacks against them in retaliation for Islamic State crimes. As in the 2005–2007 civil war, many Iraqi Sunnis are once again afraid that they are considered guilty by association, and they fear retribution.

The Islamic State has had the most success in occupying Sunni areas, and the destruction caused by its attacks and by U.S. bombardment of those areas will take a generation to repair. With the collapse of oil prices that began in late 2014, Baghdad has already been struggling to cope with the financial burdens of its counterinsurgency, and it is unlikely to be able to meet the costs of reconstruction for many years to come.

It is crucial that Iraq’s Sunni leaders realize the dire straits that their community is in and that they adopt a realistic approach to dealing with the Iraqi government in order to bring about the fastest possible defeat of the Islamic State. Sunni leaders must also seek the authority to work on compromises with Baghdad by persuading their constituencies that, as a matter of survival, Iraqi Sunnis should support the fight against the Islamic State as unequivocally as possible.

Adjusting the Shia Approach

The belief among many in the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces is that Sunnis are overwhelmingly supporters of the Islamic State and that the fight against the militant group can and must be won without significant Sunni support. This Shia-centric strategy fails to recognize that the Islamic State cannot be definitively cleared from Iraq without the support of Iraq’s Sunni population.

The approach of the Popular Mobilization Forces has been to heavily defend Shia areas, invest in clearing territory from which the Islamic State could attack Shia areas, eject Islamic State forces from mixed sectarian locations, and indirectly cleanse these areas of Sunnis—and to avenge their fallen comrades in areas where the Islamic State has committed anti-Shia atrocities, such as the massacre of several hundred captured Iraqi soldiers in the summer of 2014 in Tikrit.

If these Shia forces play a leading role in retaking Sunni-majority areas from the Islamic State, recent experience suggests that large numbers of Sunni men are likely to be imprisoned for unproven associations with the group, the heavy-handed garrisoning of Sunni towns with Shia troops is likely to continue, and little investment in reconstructing damaged areas or generating new economic opportunities will be forthcoming. Although these are understandable approaches to areas that have been used as launchpads for anti-Shia terror, they are also exactly the conditions in which extremism flourishes. Using the Shia militias to clear and hold Sunni territory may be the fastest way to remove the Islamic State from Iraq, but it is likely to sow the seeds for the further radicalization of Iraq’s Sunni community and generate even greater conflict in the future.

A smart, long-term strategy for defeating the Islamic State must be Sunni-centric, not because the Sunni community deserves special treatment, but because fixing Iraq’s extremism problem requires acknowledging and addressing the Sunni alienation from the new Iraqi nation and from its governance structures that is the source of Sunnis’ vulnerability to extremism. Dealing with the grievances that have led some in the Sunni community to accept the Islamic State does not in any way justify or excuse their actions, but it is the only way to decisively end violent extremism in Iraq.

An effective strategy must also take into account the dilemma faced by Sunnis trapped under the vicious rule of the Islamic State who fear that any attempt to organize a resistance would place them, and their families, at enormous risk.

The messaging of the Iraqi government, the Popular Mobilization Forces, and the Iraqi Security Forces is absolutely crucial. Until now, for example, the PMF has largely reinforced sectarian divisions. Instead, Sunni fighters should be integrated into leadership positions in the PMF to the greatest extent possible, and religious symbolism should be removed from the flags, uniforms, and equipment of PMF battalions. In addition, a transparent process of transitional justice should be established to fairly distinguish Islamic State fighters from ordinary Iraqi civilians. These moves will go a long way to convincing Sunni civilians that the anti–Islamic State fight is not a sectarian effort, that the post–Islamic State Iraq will treat them justly, and that they stand to benefit from expelling the Islamic State from their areas.

The Iraqi government has made some efforts to do this. The “We Are at Your Service, Hussein” military campaign in Anbar Province, which referred to a highly revered Shia imam, was renamed “We Are at Your Service, Iraq” in mid-2015, and some PMF units have started flying the Iraqi flag. But much more needs to be done to persuade the Shia militias of the merits of a Sunni-centric strategy.

The Inevitability of Kurdish Secession

The crisis presented by the Islamic State has reduced tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad to some extent. But the underlying points of disagreement remain unresolved, and they must begin to be tackled now in an effort to prevent war from breaking out between the Kurdish peshmerga and the Shia PMF in the aftermath of an Islamic State defeat.

Kurdistan’s regional leadership has no intention of relinquishing the disputed territories it has seized in the course of the war against the Islamic State, it continues to be locked in bitter disputes with Baghdad over budget payments and oil revenue transfers, and it makes no secret of its intention to declare independence at some point in the future. 

There is an enormous trust deficit between Baghdad and Erbil; Iraqi Kurds fear that Baghdad’s centrist tendencies will eventually lead to a renewal of the repression they have long faced at the hands of Iraqi governments, while Iraqi Arabs see the Kurds as cynical, self-interested maximalists out to steal as much from Iraq as they can before they declare independence.

Iraqi Kurdish independence indeed appears to be an inevitability. During a May 2015 trip to Washington, DC, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said that “certainly an independent Kurdistan is coming” and declared that the unity of Iraq was “voluntary and not compulsory.” Given such oft-repeated refrains, it is difficult to disentangle any of the disputes between Erbil and Baghdad from the wider negotiation over the terms of Kurdish secession.

For its part, the international community should be realistic about the prospect of the breakup of Iraq in the aftermath of the war on the Islamic State and should begin facilitating discussions between KRG and Iraqi central government representatives in order to prevent the process of separation from becoming violent.

In order to effectively defeat the Islamic State, the Iraqi government needs the full cooperation of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters—who have been reluctant to become entangled in the conflict beyond their border zones—and a deal on secession could stipulate such involvement. One senior Kurdish politician told me that, had the Islamic State not attacked Erbil, the KRG would have been happy to stay out of the war entirely. “This was not our fight, we had no interest in fighting it,” he said bluntly, adding that the KRG strategy was to secure a buffer zone around its territory and then build a metaphorical wall “between us and the mess that is Iraq.”4  

There is also a great deal of anxiety in Iraqi Kurdistan about the fate of displaced Iraqis. A plan of action to overcome existing hurdles and reintegrate internally displaced Sunnis back into Arab Iraq could also form an important part of negotiations between Baghdad and the KRG.

Working Together to Fight the Islamic State

At the most fundamental level, almost all Iraqis want the same thing regardless of their ethnic or sectarian affiliation. They want a functional government that provides them with security, regular electricity, clean water, sewage, and access to healthcare, education, and employment. But a history of interethnic and religious violence and a legacy of mistrust means that Iraqis often interpret the needs of another community as threatening to their own.

As it confronts the Islamic State, the Iraqi government must generate a compelling vision for the future of Sunni Iraq that does not involve being heavily policed, arbitrarily imprisoned, and forced to live in impoverished and half-destroyed areas. Such a vision should involve a significant measure of local autonomy, a share of Iraqi oil revenues, investments in repairing damaged infrastructure, and an effort to rebuild the local economy. At the same time, Iraq’s Shia elite must be persuaded that such measures are not a reward for terrorism, but are in fact the only ways to rid Iraq of extremism for the long term. And, while Kurdish secession appears inevitable, steps can be taken now to avoid violence and garner the KRG’s support in the fight against the Islamic State. 

The international community has a role to play. Beyond simply deliberating over weapons shipments, calculating the numbers of advisers to be embedded with Iraqi units, and searching for targets for air strikes, Iraq’s allies must push the country’s politicians to make common ground beyond their own ethnic and sectarian affiliations.

In order to build a stable and secure future for Iraq, it is critical that Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds fight the fight against the Islamic State together, with a mutually agreed understanding of the post–Islamic State Iraq for which they are each fighting.

Nussaibah Younis is senior research associate at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, DC.


1 Author interview with Sunni financier, March 1, 2013.

2 Author interview with Iraqi tribal leader, March 3, 2015.

3 Ibid.

4 Author interview with senior Kurdish politician, March 9, 2015.