Eighty-seven percent of respondents to Al-Jazeera presenter Faisal al-Kasim’s late May Twitter poll agreed that “the battle of Fallujah is an Iranian battle against the Sunnis of Iraq.” Such a sectarian perspective on the Iraqi military’s ongoing campaign to wrest the strategic city in Anbar province from the self-proclaimed Islamic State is but one salvo in a barrage of sectarian responses from Arab media across the region. Even as the Iraqi military moves into the heart of Fallujah, this rampant sectarianism threatens to derail the political challenge to the Islamic State. .
A narrative of Sunni victimization at the hands of Shias and Iran has dominated much of the Arab media and social media. Al-Jazeera has taken the lead in crafting this highly sectarian narrative about the Fallujah operation as an Iranian and Shia-militia campaign to exterminate Sunnis. Kasim has inflamed his significant public with a barrage of these incendiary Twitter polls. Those polls, for all their lack of scientific validity, tell a frightening story: 72 percent of respondents said they supported the Islamic State over the Shia militias in the battle of Fallujah; 84 percent said that the Iranian occupation posed a greater threat than the Islamic State; and 86 percent said the goal of the Fallujah campaign was to consolidate Iranian occupation of Iraq rather than to fight terrorism.
While Al-Jazeera’s coverage has been notably inflammatory, it is not alone. This highly sectarian coverage appears to resonate with widely spread attitudes across Sunni populations in the Gulf. Indeed, other Arab media outlets which have taken a less inflammatory line have been subjected to withering critique by prominent public figures demanding ever hotter sectarianism. Their outrage has even turned against the official Saudi media when the coverage seems insufficiently sectarian. For instance, when the Saudi daily al-Sharq al-Awsat led with the headline “International Coalition Cuts the Path Before the Hashd to Fallujah,” the Saudi academic Ahmed bin Rashed bin Sa’id, denounced it to his large Twitter following as “propaganda designed to conceal the sectarian massacre in Fallujah.”
This sectarian rhetoric is not only coming from the Sunni side. Iran and Shia political actors have contributed to this sectarianization both through propaganda and deeds. Iranian General Qassem Suleimani being ostentatiously photographed coordinating the offensive with Shia militia leaders could not have been more perfectly framed to trigger Sunni outrage and feed their conspiracy theories. Shia militias have prominently flown their flags as they advanced despite the clear implications of such a display. The prominent role for these militias, along with the sectarian composition of the Iraqi Army units being deployed, further fed the sectarian narratives.
Concern for the fate of Sunni civilians in Fallujah at the hands of Shia militias makes good sense, given the heated rhetoric of many Shia fighters and Iraq’s painful recent history of sectarian massacres. Reports of torture and killing of Sunni civilians by the advancing militias have appropriately triggered widespread concern. It is widely recognized that military gains will not likely translate into political stability if sectarian killings are the result. Recognizing this perception, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has publicly called for sparing Sunni civilians in Fallujah, an appeal which could potentially restrain the Popular Mobilization Forces. Sunni politicians have spoken out in support of the campaign, while the Iraqi government has publicized efforts to facilitate the exit of civilians from the city, and has been fed social media with images of Sunni participation in the government forces. The example of Tikrit, where a widely anticipated permanent sectarian dislocation at the hands of Shia militias did not materialize, as Sunnis eventually returned to the shattered city, offers grounds for some optimism.
These efforts at restraint have had seemingly little effect. The overpowering sectarian framing of the Fallujah campaign demonstrates the considerable dangers of the pervasive sectarianism which has dominated regional public discourse over the last few years. The sectarian mobilization around the Fallujah campaign draws not only on intensely felt local Iraqi politics, but also on the broader regional sectarian narratives and passions which have been energetically cultivated across the Arab public sphere over the last decade. The brutality of Iraq’s sectarian civil war in the mid-2000s left deep scars across the region. Heightening anti-Shiism has been strategically useful to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf regimes both at home and in its regional cold war with Iran. Since 2012, Gulf Islamist mobilization in support of Syria’s insurgency and the sectarian framing of the Saudi-led war in Yemen has taken this sectarianism to new extremes.
The focus on Iran over ISIS in Fallujah is therefore just one especially revealing moment in a much deeper sectarian framing of the region. That the current Iraqi government, in which the United States has invested such great support, is a barely veiled Iranian protectorate is an article of faith among many Sunnis, while the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces are increasingly portrayed in Sunni Arab social media as even worse than the Islamic State. Those social media feeds have been swamped with conspiracy theories linking President Barack Obama to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic State in a complicated conspiracy designed to consolidate Iranian domination of Iraq and permanently subordinate or expel its Sunnis. The relentless barrage of anti-Shia cartoons, video clips, tweets and inflammatory statements by influential figures has mattered more than any appeals for calm.
Sunni voices have naturally responded angrily when accused of sectarianism, usually by pointing the finger at Shias as the true sectarians. The criticism of the Fallujah campaign is portrayed as a reasonable response to the leading role for Iran and the Shia militias against a Sunni city. A widely circulated cartoon, for instance, portrayed a hulking, monstrous Shia militia fighter threatening a weak and bloodied Sunni who plaintively warned “shhh, don’t call it sectarian, that’s forbidden for Sunnis.” This too is telling. In the politics of sectarian resentment, it is always the other side which is to blame.
Confronting these sectarian narratives is essential if the Iraqi military campaign against ISIS is to produce lasting political results. The Iraqi government needs to forcefully claim its military advances in Fallujah as a national and not a Shia victory, and Sunni civilians must be very publicly protected from reprisals by Shia militias. This will not be easy. Narratives of Sunni victimization, antipathy towards Iran and Shia militias, and suspicions of American intentions run deep. Anti-Shia sectarianism may be too deeply entrenched now, and too useful politically, for even well-crafted policies to overcome. Political entrepreneurs across the region have done too well by mobilizing sectarian hatreds to easily ratchet them down.