Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi, a leader of the nation’s Sunni minority, called for a national dialogue that would effectively reboot Iraq’s post-ISIS political life by forging a binding consensus on religious rights, federalism, justice reform and distribution of national wealth.

Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi
Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi

As Iraq winds down a three-year war to recover territory seized by the ISIS extremist group, a “new national partnership” must commit to addressing the underlying causes of terrorism, security chaos and militias, Nujaifi said at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He said it would aim in part to resolve disagreements over interpretation of the country’s constitution.

The post-emergency period has created new crises for us.

Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi

“The post-emergency period has created new crises for us,” Nujaifi said. Alongside the displacement of millions and destruction of cities in the war against ISIS, the referendum on independence by Iraq’s Kurdistan region “has put Iraq on the brink of division again and opened the door of new conflicts that should be closed” calmly and rationally, he said.

An immediate danger to stability is a militarization of Iraqi politics, Nujaifi said, with armed groups that aligned with the army to fight ISIS forming political wings to run candidates in the next election, and political parties establishing military branches.

Nujaifi, one of three vice presidents and the former speaker of the parliament, is seeking the dialogue as the power of Sunnis, who once dominated Iraq’s government and military, sinks to a new low. The Popular Mobilization Forces—auxiliary units that helped the military fight ISIS—are dominated by groups from Iraq’s Shia community, and are establishing bases in the Sunni heartland. And once-powerful Sunni tribes have been weakened by ISIS’s strategy of pitting tribes and their members against one another.

In addition, displacement has torn Iraq’s social fabric. Since the start of 2014, as ISIS began seizing significant Iraqi territory, roughly 6 million Iraqis have been forced from their homes, and 3.2 million remain displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Despite the sectarian divisions and proliferation of armed groups, Iraqis are ready for reform and recognize the high cost of previous mistakes, Nujaifi said.

A possible path is to create a broad coalition of moderate parties, said Nujaifi, who in May launched the United for Iraq party. While he didn’t elaborate on the political dynamics that would produce a coalition, he said it would reflect Iraqi nationalism and take the popular position of standing up to Iranian influence. U.S. support would be critical, he added.

Influence of Iran

Iran, he said, has managed to intrude on the Iraqi state through the militias it supports and through the economy.

“The Iranian project is quite clear,” he said. “Iran wants to spread its control to Syria, Lebanon and beyond. The dream is to control the entire Middle East.”

Within Iraq, the problems bred by insecurity go beyond the areas recaptured from ISIS or under dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nujaifi said. Tribes, even in southern Iraq, a relatively stable Shia region, have medium and heavy weapons and mafias conduct business with impunity, he said.

A non-sectarian coalition that would strengthen the state while allowing greater autonomy for Iraq’s ethnic, religious and national groups to organize their own affairs could be a solution, he said.

Obstacles to Coalition

“There’s merit to the coalition idea but it has proven difficult in the past,” said Sarhang Hamasaeed, USIP’s director of Middle East programs. “Each group has diverse interests and when it’s even come close to forming something that transcends Sunni and Shia divide, regional influences have intervened.”

Bridging the fissures of Iraqi society is even harder now with the extreme mistrust arising from the fight against ISIS and the fragmentation of communities, Hamasaeed said.

Nujaifi said the Kurdish referendum, on September 25, was illegal and a mistake. The Kurds incorrectly thought that beating back ISIS opened the way to take over disputed areas permanently and to engineer a permanent “vast expansion” of Kurdish territory with the vote, he said. They found that the entire international community opposed anything that threatened a unified Iraq and supported Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s decision to retake Kirkuk and the disputed areas.

“The law has to be obeyed by everyone,” Nujaifi said.

Still, the Kurdistan region must be preserved within its 2003 borders, he said.

Nujaifi has publicly advocated forming regions in Iraq that would allow Sunnis and other minority groups more latitude to govern themselves, organize their own security and preserve their culture. While the constitution does not permit the creation of such regions on the basis of sect, he said at USIP, it would permit them to be based on administrative boundaries. In press interviews, Nujaifi has portrayed broad federalism as pragmatic as opposed to full reconciliation with the Shia community, which he said at this point is unrealistic.

The Challenge of Elections

For Sunnis, the national parliamentary elections scheduled for May 15 are problematic, Nujaifi said. Enabling a fair vote would require restoring electricity, water and health care in the next six months to communities devastated in the fighting and bringing most of Iraq’s displaced citizens back home.

The U.S. … can assist the transformation to making Iraq a democratic country.

Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi

Another complication for elections is that the expanded role of Iraq’s militias will let them influence the outcome, Nujaifi said. While the Popular Mobilization Forces were legalized by the parliament, that law is unconstitutional, he said, and the forces must be dismantled.

Many PMF units are regarded by large numbers of Iraqis as Shia militias. Nujaifi said that some such units, having established a strong presence in traditionally Sunni areas, are putting up Sunni candidates for election next year, a move that could strengthen Shia influence in Sunni zones and lay the seeds of future confrontation.

The United States should play a continuing role in Iraq after contributing so directly and successfully to combating terrorism, Nujaifi suggested. Sunni Iraqis have come to view international involvement in Iraq far more positively, he said. He noted an “effusive reception” for the U.S. ambassador in Fallujah, a city that suffered heavy damage and casualties in U.S. military offensives against Sunni militants in 2004.

“The U.S. can support the political process and forming a coalition,” Nujaifi said. “It can help Iraq make reforms. It can assist the transformation to making Iraq a democratic country. The U.S. can help.”

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