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Iraq’s Sunnis adopt alternate stances on Kurdish referendum

Peshmerga forces cast their ballots in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)'s non binding independence referendum on 25 September 2017. [Yunus Keleş /Anadolu Agency]
Peshmerga forces cast their ballots in the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)'s non binding independence referendum on 25 September 2017. [Yunus Keleş /Anadolu Agency]

Much of the furore surrounding Kurdistan’s leap towards independence has died down since last week. The results, similar to the reactionary positions adopted by Kurdistan’s neighbours, were as the crowds anticipated. They voted “yes” to independence but the victory has cost the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) control over its airspace and borders.

News coverage has been plentiful, but the voice of one particular political camp is noticeable by its absence: Iraq’s Sunni community.

The Association of Muslims Scholars in Iraq (AMSI) – the country’s highest ranking religious Sunni leadership – set out its position in an official press release published on 30 September, yet it has yet to feature on the news agenda of any English-speaking publication. The Sunni organisation is distinguishable from all other political camps domestically for its long articulated anti-occupation stance and espousal of resistance against foreign forces. These twin precepts also inform AMSI’s position on the Kurdish referendum, its motivations and results.

In staunch opposition to the federalisation and codification of sectarian difference in Iraq, the network of scholars reject not the results, but the scheme that the referendum advances. Criticism was also directed at Baghdad and Washington for the lack of effective solutions they have presented.

“Partners of the political process” is the key bone of contention for AMSI, which stresses that a policy of collective punishment adopted by Baghdad in response to the poll will harm the Kurdish people. No sympathy was expressed for Iraq’s parties, condemned by AMSI for pursuing their own interests. “The political process and its partners are the basis of the problem and a constitution formulated on a sectarian and ethnic basis,” said the scholars’ group.

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Fourteen years ago, when the US occupation administration unveiled the “new Iraq” to the world, KRG leader Masoud Barzani and the late Jalal Talabani, as well as Iraq’s Shia Islamist parties, were there to cut the ribbon. Lest it is forgotten, both of Iraq’s Kurdish parties rode into power on the coattails of the US invasion. Their decisions, as AMSI has articulated, have held the population ransom to a sectarian polity fuelled by duplicitous alliances and grave injustices against the people. Kurdish collusion with the occupation powers, despite having received scant attention in the West, locates the source of AMSI’s disapproval.


The Sahwa camp – members of Iraq’s Awakening Councils – has also been vocal in the wider referendum debate, offering a far less nuanced stance. The movement, funded and armed by America in 2007, was formed to flush out Al-Qaeda elements from the deserts of Anbar province. The helping hand extended to America cost the councils any credibility they had once earned.

A conference titled “Sunni Arabs support Kurdistan” last week saw tribal figures and remnants of the Sahwa movement come together to express their solidarity and commend the KRG for its efforts. The Erbil-bound conference was covered by Rudaw media network, which made sure to suppress the Sahwa component to sustain the veneer of credibility. According to an article published by the London-based Foreign Relations Bureau (Iraq), the gathering was funded by former Sahwa operator and general secretary of the Arab Project, Khamis Khanjar. His close aid, Najih Mizan, was the face of the conference, and called for Kurdish-Sunni unity in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. “It’s time we documented our demands, and engaged with the Kurds to determine what is ours,” Mizan told the audience clad in tribal robes.

Read: Kurdish Nationalism and Western double standards

Unlike AMSI, the Sahwa camp appears motivated by its interest in securing its own enclave; beyond that, there seems to be no clear-sighted political position. AMSI regards this scenario as the very plot intended by the referendum; to corner Iraq’s Sunnis to the point where they have no choice other than to accept America’s political process.

Acceptance of these schemes changes very little but ensures a painful and permanent struggle over resources between partners of Iraq’s political process. The Kurdish referendum certainly does highlight a clear divide between opposing Sunni camps

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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