Canada and its international partners will not push the Islamic State group out of Iraq without first appeasing Sunni concerns, the head of Iraq’s first polling agency says.
As long as the political and social grievances of Iraq’s Sunni community go unaddressed, Canadian air strikes against the Islamic State will not defeat the group, a leading Iraqi researcher says.
Munqith al-Dagher said that persisting security concerns, distrust of the central government in Baghdad, and perceived inequality among Sunnis helped the Islamic State group cement its control in the country.
And without giving Sunnis hope for the future, the international coalition fighting the extremist group will not be successful.
“ISIL is not the disease; (it) is just the symptom. If we want to (push Islamic State) out of Iraq and the region, we should deal with the real reasons behind this disease,” he said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State group.
“Unless they realize that this is the deep roots behind ISIL – it is not a religious thing, nor economic, and cannot be defeated by air strikes or battles – then nothing will change. And there will be more and more of these extremists,” said al-Dagher, who heads the Baghdad-based IIACSS public opinion research group, the country’s first polling agency
Al-Dagher said his group conducted four nationwide surveys, and interviewed several Sunni tribal and community leaders about their views on the Islamic State since the group overran Mosul, the country’s second largest city, in June last year.
The Islamic State group has since expanded its control to several major cities in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces, home to large Sunni-majority communities, and in neighbouring Syria.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Canada would extend its mission in Iraq for another year, and expand air strikes against the Islamic State group to Syria.
“Our goal here is to deal with the threat to this country. We will deal with it as long as it is there,” Harper said.
“(Canada’s) prime minister, like U.S. politicians and other politicians in the world. . . all they think about is sending troops and aircrafts. This is not the way to have a victory over ISIL,” he said.
“No matter how strong the army is. . . there will not be any victory without a full cooperation from the people who are living there.”
In Iraq, the Islamic State’s rapid ascension has reportedly divided Iraq’s Sunni tribes, with some seen as supporting the group and others fighting against it. On March 1, IraqiPrime Minister Haider al-Abbadi offered a “last chance” to Sunni fighters to abandon the group.
But al-Dagher said that his research showed overwhelming opposition among Sunnis to the Islamic State group, with 90 per cent of residents in Sunni-majority areas viewing the group as a terrorist organization and 80 per cent supporting international forces’ fight against it.
The extremist group has benefited from Sunnis’ grievances against the central government and long-standing sectarian tensions, he said. About 60 per cent of Iraqis are Shiite Muslims, while 30 per cent are Sunni Muslims.
One week before Islamic State fighters took over Mosul, the public opinion research group found that 80 per cent of Sunnis reported feeling unsafe in their own neighbourhoods, and 60 per cent distrusted the Iraqi judicial system.
The percentage of Sunnis who said they were “Iraqi above all” also dropped from 80 per cent in 2008 to 40 per cent in 2014, the group found.
A reliance on Iran-backed Shiite militias – who have been accused of widespread abuses and possible war crimes – in the fight against the Islamic State group has added to this feeling of marginalization, al-Dagher said.
“In one of my interviews with one of the biggest (Sunni) tribal leaders in Mosul, I asked him: How do you perceive (the Islamic State group)? He said that they are the worst people in the world. When I told him, ‘Then, why don’t you fight them?’ he said, ‘If I fight them, what will come next?’”
In 2006, tens of thousands of Sunni fighters were given training and support from the U.S. army to push al-Qaeda in Iraq out of Anbar province.
But once al-Qaeda was defeated, many Sunnis felt cheated by Baghdad, accusing then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of pursuing pro-Shiite, sectarian policies and abandoning them.
History now seems to be repeating itself, al-Dagher said.