Joining Iraqi Kurdistan? Getting the US to fund Sunni militias? In the central province of Salahaddin, an insight into some of the more extreme wishful thinking going on after the extremists have left.
A flag belonging to one of the Shiite volunteer militias hangs over a sign that used to mark that this was IS territory near Tikrit, the administrative centre of Salahaddin province. (photo: يونس البيياتي)
In the province of Salahaddin, security problems and a lack of state services has seen locals angry and exasperated. And in terms of how to resolve the various issues, some very extreme opinions are being expressed.
Some of the more radical local politicians say they would like to form a closer union with the nearby, semi-autonomous province of Iraqi Kurdistan. And others say they want the US to step in and back a new militia, possibly meant to oppose Shiite Muslim militias already in the province.
The government in Baghdad treats me as though I am some sort criminal and that’s why I would rather belong to Kurdistan.
Local politician Mishaan al-Jibouri, a Sunni Muslim, posted a video to his Facebook page that said that during his visit to recently secured areas – that the extremist group known as the Islamic State had been pushed out of – he found that many of the people he met wanted to form a new federation with the country’s Kurds, rather than be led by a Shiite Muslim government in Baghdad. In the past, al-Jibouri has made controversial remarks expressing support for former Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein; under Hussein, the country’s Sunni Muslims were in power and critics say that he is simply expressing his own wishes, and that of his political allies, rather than the people’s.
Another local politician, Najeh al-Mizan, who has stirred up similar controversies, believes it’s a great idea. “There are no problems between the Sunni Muslim Arabs here and the Kurds. Both are Sunnis. The Kurds are our best allies, not the government in Baghdad.”
These kinds of Sunni Muslim politicians have been talking about this project for some time now. They complain that Baghdad is not helping them with reconstruction and that Sunni-majority areas are all but destroyed thanks to the security crisis caused by the extremist Islamic State, or IS, group.
In some ways, the idea has come a little closer to reality because of the thousands of locals who were displaced by the security crisis and who found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Many of them remain in the northern region, which has its own borders, legal system, government and military, and acts more like a state within a state in Iraq. However that is far from seeing the two provinces unite, one Kurdish journalist notes. It’s just wishful thinking, he says.
Still one might hear opinions like Shihab Ahmad al-Janabi’s in Salahaddin. The 38-year-old says that he hasn’t felt like he had a real homeland for the past decade. “The government in Baghdad treats me as though I am some sort criminal and that’s why I would rather belong to Kurdistan,” he told NIQASH.
And then there are – some say, equally unrealistic - plans to form new Sunni Muslim, provincial militias and try to get the US to fund them.
“Our governments are thieves and we have no confidence in them,” argues Mustafa Abbas, a 27-year-old local. “That’s why we are waiting for the US to bring change. If new troops are formed by them, I would personally volunteer.”
“There is a secret plan to mobilize fighters in the provinces, to form a provincial guard,” Ismail Mohammed, a 52-year-old army officer who had previously worked with US forces, explains the rumours. “The aim is to have around 15,000 volunteers, armed, trained and equipped by the US.”
The new provincial militaries would replace the Shite Muslim militias when they eventually withdraw, protect provincial borders and maintain provincial independence from Baghdad in certain areas, Mohammed continued.
Potential volunteers’ names have been being collected, he says, but only through personal contacts. Former leaders of the so-called Awakening movement, a US project that paid local Sunnis to fight Al Qaeda in their areas, have apparently also been contacted by those locals who think this is a good idea.
Majid al-Ali, a former Awakening leader based in northern Tikrit, told NIQASH he had been approached and told he would earn a monthly salary of US$10,000 if he returned to this kind of work. But, underlining the unrealistic nature of the plan, he says he refused because he didn’t want to get involved in what he thought might end up as a fight between Sunni Muslim fighters and the Shiite Muslim militias.
Local security analyst, Abdallah Mahmoud al-Jibouri, believes that all of the current problems in Salahaddin are being caused by a sort of jostling for power as different forces realign themselves after the Islamic State group’s departure. That is reflecting directly on the wellbeing of citizens and their safety, he says, which is why some politicians and community leaders are talking about more extreme options.
“Personally, I do not think Iraq will be torn apart,” al-Jibouri told NIQASH. “I think the country will stay together but as a weak nation that continues to serve the interests of its neighbours.”