KARMAH, Iraq — After the Islamic State was finally driven from the central Iraqi city of Karmah last year, Sirhan Sallom returned to his home to find it demolished.

Mr. Sallom, 70, has since waited in vain for help. In Iraq’s deeply sectarian system, he doesn’t expect much from the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. But he is angry that local and national Sunni politicians haven’t come to the aid of his Sunni Muslim city either.

“These politicians are Sunni — they are supposed to help us,” he said. “They’re useless.”

Fourteen years after the American invasion ended decades of Sunni dominance in Iraq, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are struggling to reclaim relevance and influence. After they were ousted from government jobs and from the military by the post-Saddam Hussein government, their powerlessness and rage gave rise to Sunni militant movements like Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State.

Now that those militants are being driven from the Sunni heartland, how the government responds to Sunnis trying to rebuild their lives is likely to have long-term consequences for the country’s stability and security.

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More than 3.1 million Iraqis, the vast majority Sunni, remain displaced from their homes after three years of occupation and battles with the Islamic State. Another 2.3 million have returned. As Sunni towns like Karmah await rebuilding, Sunni leaders have not been able to wring much help from a cash-strapped central government more focused on battling the militants and, more recently, the Kurds.

Since 2003, Sunnis, who make up about a quarter of the population, have lost out to Shiites and Kurds, who were both brutally repressed by an elite Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein. With Iraq’s government now controlled by Shiites, and the Kurds governing their own autonomous area in the north, the Sunnis are in a political no-man’s land.

Photo
A car destroyed during fighting between Iraqi government forces and the Islamic State last year remains on a Karmah street. Residents said rubble from the battle had not been cleared in the absence of aid from Sunni politicians or the Baghdad government. Credit David Zucchino/The New York Times

There were high expectations when Haider al-Abadi became prime minister in 2014 that he could turn the page after the divisive sectarian rule of his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and win the confidence of the Sunnis.

Instead, Sunni leaders say, he has forsaken them as he forged closer ties with Iran, the hard-line Shiite theocracy next door. Iran now wields tremendous influence over Iraq’s economy, military and government.

Hamid al-Mutlaq, who represents Karmah in Parliament, said the government was more focused on working with Iran and Iranian-armed Shiite militias than helping Sunnis rebuild.

“We are now a displaced people, a completely marginalized people — and it’s getting worse by the day,” he said.

“We have a corrupt government controlled by a foreign power, at the expense of Sunnis,” he added.

But Sunni politicians are mired in local feuds. They can hardly advance their own case when they can’t even agree on where to meet to patch up differences. At a Baghdad conference two years ago, Sunni politicians threw chairs at each other as their bodyguards traded punches.

“Our politicians do nothing for us,” said Ismail Jassim, 39, who relies on donations from neighbors in Karmah to survive in his home, which was burned by militants. “We never see them, except on TV at election time.”

Continue reading the main story

KARMAH, Iraq — After the Islamic State was finally driven from the central Iraqi city of Karmah last year, Sirhan Sallom returned to his home to find it demolished.

Mr. Sallom, 70, has since waited in vain for help. In Iraq’s deeply sectarian system, he doesn’t expect much from the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. But he is angry that local and national Sunni politicians haven’t come to the aid of his Sunni Muslim city either.

“These politicians are Sunni — they are supposed to help us,” he said. “They’re useless.”

Fourteen years after the American invasion ended decades of Sunni dominance in Iraq, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are struggling to reclaim relevance and influence. After they were ousted from government jobs and from the military by the post-Saddam Hussein government, their powerlessness and rage gave rise to Sunni militant movements like Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State.

Now that those militants are being driven from the Sunni heartland, how the government responds to Sunnis trying to rebuild their lives is likely to have long-term consequences for the country’s stability and security.

More than 3.1 million Iraqis, the vast majority Sunni, remain displaced from their homes after three years of occupation and battles with the Islamic State. Another 2.3 million have returned. As Sunni towns like Karmah await rebuilding, Sunni leaders have not been able to wring much help from a cash-strapped central government more focused on battling the militants and, more recently, the Kurds.

Since 2003, Sunnis, who make up about a quarter of the population, have lost out to Shiites and Kurds, who were both brutally repressed by an elite Sunni minority under Saddam Hussein. With Iraq’s government now controlled by Shiites, and the Kurds governing their own autonomous area in the north, the Sunnis are in a political no-man’s land.

There were high expectations when Haider al-Abadi became prime minister in 2014 that he could turn the page after the divisive sectarian rule of his predecessor, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and win the confidence of the Sunnis.

Instead, Sunni leaders say, he has forsaken them as he forged closer ties with Iran, the hard-line Shiite theocracy next door. Iran now wields tremendous influence over Iraq’s economy, military and government.

Hamid al-Mutlaq, who represents Karmah in Parliament, said the government was more focused on working with Iran and Iranian-armed Shiite militias than helping Sunnis rebuild.

“We are now a displaced people, a completely marginalized people — and it’s getting worse by the day,” he said.

“We have a corrupt government controlled by a foreign power, at the expense of Sunnis,” he added.

But Sunni politicians are mired in local feuds. They can hardly advance their own case when they can’t even agree on where to meet to patch up differences. At a Baghdad conference two years ago, Sunni politicians threw chairs at each other as their bodyguards traded punches.

“Our politicians do nothing for us,” said Ismail Jassim, 39, who relies on donations from neighbors in Karmah to survive in his home, which was burned by militants. “We never see them, except on TV at election time.”

The power of Sunni politicians was greatly diminished by the power-sharing agreement adopted after the American invasion. Under its formula, the prime minister’s post, along with the interior and foreign ministries, are reserved for Shiites. Kurds get the presidency and finance ministry. Sunni Arabs get Parliament speaker and defense minister, but the prime minister is commander in chief, and Shiite army commanders and militia leaders wield significant influence.

Iranian-trained Shiite militias are part of Iraq’s armed forces and have battled Islamic State militants since they seized nearly a third of Iraq in 2014. The militias have been accused of atrocities against Sunni civilians, and their presence near Sunni areas has alarmed many residents. A Shiite religious flag fluttered last week at an Iraqi military checkpoint outside Karmah.

Kurds have their own army as well, known as the pesh merga. But Sunnis have no national armed force, only tribal militias blended into Iraqi security forces to fight the militants.

Some Sunni politicians have advocated an autonomous Sunni region, but those proposals have gone nowhere amid partisan bickering.

“Sunnis have no unified leadership,” said Wathiq al-Hashimi, the head of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, an independent research group in Baghdad. “And Sunni politicians seem to care only about narrow personal interests.”

A Kurdish referendum on independence last month further divided Sunnis. Most opposed it, preferring to keep Kurds inside Iraq as a counterweight against Shiite domination; virtually all Iraqi Kurds are Sunni. Many Sunnis cheered the government takeover of contested areas, where Sunni Arabs had seethed under Kurdish control.

But even Sunnis opposed to the Kurdish vote were alarmed when Iraqi forces conducted military maneuvers with Iranian troops inside Iran along the Iraq border.

“We won’t tolerate that kind of foreign interference on top of everything else,” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Karim, a Sunni lawmaker who generally supports the government of Mr. Abadi, the prime minister.

In Parliament, the Sunni-led bloc has 78 seats, roughly proportionate to their share of the population, but is dwarfed by the Shiite bloc, with 182. The Kurdish bloc has 65 seats. Parliament has fallen increasingly under the sway of Iran, which is locked in a regional power struggle with Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia.

Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni lawmaker, has called the government “a cardboard state” because of its ties to Iran. He has asked, acidly, whether Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite overseas military forces who has advised Iraq’s Shiite militias, had a proper visa to enter Iraq.

Shiites seem driven by a sense of religious grievance and a pan-Shiite destiny. Kurds are motivated by nationalism and dreams of independence. And Sunnis?

“For the Sunnis, there’s a lack of political cohesion about exactly what they want,” said Maria Fantappie, a senior analyst for Iraq at the International Crisis Group.

David L. Phillips, a former State Department adviser who has worked on Iraq for 30 years, said Sunnis had failed to organize as effectively as Shiites and Kurds.

“Baghdad is perfectly content to see the Sunnis in disarray,” he said.

There are a few hopeful signs. Because some Shiite factions will oppose Mr. Abadi in April, and Kurdish politics are in upheaval, he will have to court the Sunni bloc to help ensure re-election.

“The Abadi government has never needed the Sunnis more than now,” Ms. Fantappie said.

But Sunnis could suffer political losses in April if hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunni constituents are unable to vote. If hard-line Shiite populists prevail, some reconstruction funds could end up going to poor Shiite regions rather than liberated Sunni areas.

The post-Saddam era has proved ruinous for many Sunnis. After 2003, a de-Baathification program stripped hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civil servants of their jobs, including doctors and teachers. Many sacked Sunni army officers joined the Al Qaeda insurgency against American forces, though Sunni tribes later helped drive out the militants in the so-called Sunni Awakening.

Elements of de-Baathification continued, however. Mr. Mutlaq, the Sunni lawmaker who had been a general in Mr. Hussein’s army, said a de-Baathification commission had banned him three times since 2010 from running for Parliament. “Pure political harassment,” he said.

(He appealed, and now sits on Parliament’s security and defense committee.)

Under Mr. Maliki, who was prime minister from 2006 to 2014, many Sunnis who had reclaimed their jobs were purged from the military and government, some for the second time. Festering Sunni resentment helped spur the rise of the Islamic State and allowed its fighters to take over Sunni towns and cities in 2014 with relative ease.

The militants promised a new era of Sunni dominance, drawing widespread support from disenfranchised Sunnis. But they failed to deliver, and the reign of terror they imposed ultimately turned many Sunnis against them.

Now Sunni towns like Karmah, where residents initially welcomed the militants, feel abandoned by their politicians. Karmah, with a population of about 95,000, was liberated in May 2016. The United Nations has provided some aid, rebuilding schools and making emergency infrastructure repairs.

But the only sign in Karmah of the Iraqi agency charged with rebuilding liberated areas is the beginning of construction work on five schools. Mustafa al-Hiti, a Sunni pharmacist who directs the agency, said that just $140 million had been allocated by Baghdad this year for rebuilding all of the areas that had been under Islamic State rule. He estimated total costs for that job at more than $100 billion.

He said international donors had allocated billions of dollars, but much of that money has been slowed by audits amid donor concerns about Iraq’s reputation for corruption.

So Mr. Sallom is rebuilding his home in Karmah using his life savings and the help of his son, Ali Sirhan. Mr. Sirhan, 44, was asked whether he thought Sunni politicians would soon offer help.

“Help?” Mr. Sirhan asked. “Forget help. They don’t even come visit, even if it’s just to say, ‘God help you.’”

Nytimes

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