Iraqi pollster: ISIS benefits from Sunni dissatisfaction

WASHINGTON, June 27 (UPI) —Sunni dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government and fears of more civil war are much greater than among the rest of the Iraqi population, showing the Malaki administration has more challenges than just the conflict with the terrorist group known as ISIS, one of Iraq’s veteran pollsters said Thursday.

The Iraqi government is facing a general uprising of Sunni tribes, who experts say are fed up with government leadership that they see as depriving them of their rights and aligning too much with Iran, a Shia-led state.

Munqith al-Dagher, an experienced Iraq pollster, suggested that, based on his research, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — ISIS, is only controlling 10-20 percent of Iraq. He said ISIS is in fact benefitting from Sunni dissatisfaction with Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.

“Since 2011 when al-Qaida threat has been defeated between the cooperation of the Sunnis and the U.S. army — since that time things became worse,” Dagher said in a briefing at Freedom House.

In his 2014 nationwide survey in Iraq, Dagher found that 65 percent of Iraqis are worried about the potential of a civil war and 90 percent of Sunnis surveyed expressed concern over a civil war.

Charles Dunne, the director of Middle East and North Africa programs at the Freedom House, said the chaos in Syria, which created an ungoverned state, provided ISIS with a breeding ground for raising followers.

“I think the crux of the problem that we are witnessing right now in Iraq is the explosion of Sunni dissatisfaction with the Maliki government and in particular its security forces which are seen as oppressive occupiers in many places in the country, especially the Anbar province,” Dunne said.

A 2011 Pew Research survey of religious identity in Iraq found 42 percent of Iraqis identified as Sunni, 51 percent identified as Shia, 5 percent identified as just Muslim and 1 percent refused comment.

David Mack, a Middle East Institute Scholar and former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, said the history of religious leadership in Iraq points to why this tension exists despite the new democratic system.

“The Sunnis are trying to recover from the fact that the Sunni-Arabs had a dominant role in Iraqi politics for a couple of centuries,” Mack said.

Sunni regimes controlled the Iraqi government, including the Ba’ath Party, on and off until Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003.
Instead of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki‘s one-man-band governing style, Mack said, the Iraqi central government needs to provide meaningful roles for minorities like Sunni-Arabs and Kurdish political leaders.

“Minority populations do need to have their rights respected,” Mack said.

Neither ISIS nor armed groups can maintain stability in Sunni areas, Dagher said.

“The way (the government) has been used now, as an excuse to marginalize people or to prevent them from exercising their rights, this is not the right democracy,” he said.

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Richmond Action Dialogues: conflict within the group

Last week’s dialogue left nearly everyone with a heavy heart, wondering what could be done to mend some of the rifts within the group. At the previous Richmond Action Dialogue the students were asked to anonymously write their inner conflicts as well any group conflicts. When the conflicts within the group were revealed, the tension in the room was palpable. Some were feeling hurt because they felt judged by people they just met, while others felt there was a lack of concern for other people within the group.

IYLEP visited Peter Paul Development Center and taught the Children about Iraqi Culture

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We started the dialogue with a “wisdom circle,” where we all expressed our feelings about conflict. A person would step into the circle to say something about conflict and if other people in the group agreed with that statement, they too would step into the circle. Some mentioned they thrive on conflict or that conflict was the best way to move toward change. Others, however, were uncomfortable with conflict and expressed that within the circle.

When the group understood how different individuals felt about conflict, we moved on to talk about the conflict the students had mentioned on the cards. As a mentor, I have no idea who wrote each of the questions, but I could tell from the beginning which individuals were feeling hurt within the group. After each group discussed their topics, the groups were asked to share what they learned.

Now, only a week later, it is amazing to see the change taking place, not only within the group but with individuals. As a mentor I get the privilege of spending a good deal of time with all of the IYLEPers and this week in particular gave me hope. I witnessed individuals making an effort to mend broken relationships, people were loaning each other laptops for the midterm, the students were proofreading for one another and “enemies” from the start even shook hands.

I started noticing a change as the students presented about the different regions of Iraq at the Richmond Public Library. Although many of them come from different regions in Iraq and have different cultural experiences, they were answering questions from Richmonders as a united front.

Fatima working with a student at
Peter Paul Development Center

During our visit to Peter Paul Development Center, I noticed how much more united the group was as they demonstrated parts of their Iraqi culture. The group did a bit of dancing, where they joined hands with one another and the students at Peter Paul Development Center, jumping around the gym to Kurdish music.  There was something very powerful to me about people joining hands to dance. Dance to me is a joyful activity and joining hands is a symbol of unity. The whole experience made me see how much the dialogue on conflict helped the group put differences aside.

Just the Beginning

“Don’t look at people with one eye,” is a common phrase in Iraq that reminds us all to not judge someone on a mere first impression, but rather to look much deeper to see what’s on their hearts.

It’s amazing to see how a group of 24 Iraqi students and five American mentors bonded and have already formed friendships in less than a week. Before our group had even spent 24 hours together we were dancing to salsa music on the boardwalk in Virginia Beach, bonding over pizza and even singing some long lost Eminem songs.

At our first session with Richmond Action Dialogues, we discussed topics ranging from our dreams for our life, our country and the world to whether religion is an important factor in a relationship. All of the Iraqi students picked the topic they were most interested in discussing. I was in a group that discussed dreams. Dreams can be our vision for the future, or as I learned, in Iraqi culture an actual dream could be telling the dreamer something that is to come in the future.

Our dialogue about dreams really opened my eyes when one person in my group said she had stopped dreaming a long time ago because she knew her big dreams could never become a reality. This absolutely broke my heart. From the time I was a little girl my mom has always encouraged me to follow my heart and chase after my dreams. I’ve never considered that many people can’t have some dreams because of certain situations in their country. For me a big dream is becoming an international journalist, but for many Iraqi women simply going to lunch with girlfriends without being accompanied by a male is a dream come true.

I love that my group was able to express their dreams because it really gave me some insight on each and every person. My hope is that through this program at least one dream comes true and we are able to learn more from each other. When we express our dreams one dream seems to always be the same: for the world to be at peace. This program could very well be a small building block towards achieving that dream.

For more updates about the Iraqi Young Leader Exchange Program at VCU, Follow Alix on Twitter.