Yet for all Mahmoud’s (an Iraqi Sunni) passionate sense of injustice, his belief that the government is irredeemably anti-Sunni is only part of the story. Sunni and Shia have both used mass violence against one another’s communities in the past 50 years, but the Sunni have most often been the perpetrators. The explosive growth of sectarian killings in 2012 to 2014, when 31,414 civilians were killed according to Iraqi Body Count, very much reflects the growth of Isis.
The group carried out massacres of Shias and Yazidis as a matter of policy, and then broadcast videos of the murders. Isis (Salafi Deobandi) bombers targeted bus queues, funerals, religious processions and anywhere else where Shia gathered and could be killed. The obvious motive was anti-Shia and a desire to destabilise the government, but there was also a carefully calculated policy at work of provoking Shia into retaliation against Sunni.
Isis knew that this would leave the Sunni with no alternative but to fight and die alongside them.
As Isis’s columns advanced last year, its fighters carried out massacres to spread fear just as Saddam Hussein had done against the Kurds and Shia a quarter of a century earlier. When the government’s Badush prison, near Mosul, was captured by Isis, its fighters slaughtered 670 Shia prisoners. At Camp Speicher, outside Tikrit, 800 Shia cadets were lined up in front of trenches and machine-gunned. Pictures of the scene resemble those of atrocities carried out by the German army in Russia in 1941. In August, when Isis fighters stormed into Kurdish-held regions, they targeted the Yazidis as “pagans” to be murdered, raped and enslaved.
The Isis advance in Iraq had largely ended by last October. Since then it has retreated, though not very far. Where Shia militias or Kurdish Peshmerga have successfully counter-attacked, the Sunni have generally fled before their towns and villages were recaptured – or they have been subsequently expelled. It is not surprising that the Shia and Kurdish commanders fighting back are not in a forgiving mood. There is an almost universal belief among last year’s victims – be they Shia, Sufis, Yazidis, Christians or Kurds – that their Sunni Arab neighbours collaborated with Isis.
Where Isis is beaten back, the Sunni may hold on to their strongholds where they are the great majority, but where populations are mixed they are likely to be losers. A final ethnic and sectarian shake-out in Iraq seems to be under way.
Is the defeat of Isis, and with it the Sunni, inevitable? In the long term it is difficult to see any alternative outcome in Iraq because they make up only a fifth of the population and their more numerous enemies are backed by the US and Iran. The land mass held by Isis may be large, but it was always poor and is becoming more impoverished.
There is little electricity. In Mosul, Ahmad, a shopkeeper in the Bab al-Saray area, says: “We are getting only two hours of electricity every four days.” There are private generators, he says, “but since there are no jobs, people have no money to pay their electricity bills or for generator supply services”.
This has had the effect of reducing some prices because there is no power for fridges and freezers, meaning food cannot be stored for long.
Deteriorating living conditions mean that many want to leave Mosul, but they are prevented by Isis, which does not want to find that its greatest conquest has become a ghost town. In any case, it is not clear where the one million people still in Mosul would go.
As the fighting intensifies across Iraq this spring, the Sunni cities and towns are likely to be devastated. Mahmoud may well be right in thinking that the Sunni will be forced to take flight or become a vulnerable minority like the Christians.
Even if the government in Baghdad wanted to share power with the Sunni, Isis has ensured through its atrocities that this will be near impossible. For its part, Isis has been raising tens of thousands more fighters – they may now number well over 100,000 in Iraq and Syria. The so-called Islamic State will not go down without fierce resistance and, if it does fall, the Sunni community will be caught up in its destruction.
Extracted from: The Counter Punch