ANBAR AGITATES FOR AUTONOMY: The withdrawal of US and coalition troops leaves Iraq’s Sunni Muslims worried and wanting regional independence.

Leaders of the Sunni Muslim community in Anbar have started agitating to make their district a semi-autonomous region.

They want Anbar, and a distinctive Sunni Muslim region, to exist under conditions similar to those in the northern semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own Kurdish-centric parliament, legislation and judicial system, separate from Iraq’s federal one.

By Kamal al-Ayash, in Anbar

The suggestion to create a Sunni province is not a new one. And there are some genuine reasons for wanting one, given past insecurity in the country. However in this case, it’s been suggested that the community leaders and politicians are doing this mostly in order to put pressure on the new government in Baghdad.

The politicians have also insisted that local authorities and other Sunni Muslim groups push to become a region.

“There are some serious steps being taken by a number of groups, civil society organisations and other activists, with the support of local politicians,” confirms Yahya Ghazi al-Mohammedi, an MP representing Anbar in Baghdad. He explains that they believe that if a region can be established this would help to guarantee security within Anbar.

Under certain conditions, it is every Iraqi province’s right to try to form a semi-autonomous region and other provinces, including Shiite Muslim-majority Basra, have also considered more self-governance to be a way to solve problems in the past.

The Iraqi constitution allows provinces to become semi-autonomous regions if several conditions are fulfilled: two thirds of local council members must approve the bid for independence, after which a referendum can be conducted among the people of the state.

Mahmoud al-Jarbou, a senior tribal leader in the Anbar city of Ramadi supports the idea. “The time is right,” he told Al Menassa. “Especially after the security problems we have seen here and the interference from external parties. One of our main concerns is that, if we fail to get more political support in our communities, we will see Anbar become a battleground for external influences.”

Part of the reason for this timing is the departure of US forces from Iraq, after the Iraqi parliament expelled them following the assassination of Iranian military commander, Qasim Soleimani, and several other locals. Sunni Muslim politicians tended to see the Americans as a counterbalance to the Iranians, who support Shiite Muslim parties in Iraq.

“The reasons we are pushing to form a Sunni region is because Sunni Muslims have been ignored by the central government,” Faisal al-Issawi, a senior Sunni Muslim politician, explained. Sunni voters and politicians are particularly worried about the growing influence of the mostly-Shiite Muslim militias. “They are delaying government decisions and one of their last major moves was to force a decision to expel the coalition forces [the coalition to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State]. They did not even think about the Sunni need to have those forces in Iraq, or the fact that they created an imbalance in the country that could threaten all of Iraq, internally and externally.”

Not everyone is pleased about the idea of turning Anbar into a Sunni Muslim region though. Opponents of the idea believe that there are still too many internal issues, between tribes, communities and political parties, to unite the Sunni Muslim population around this project. Those divisions will make administrating such a region difficult, they say.

Should the first steps towards the creation of a semi-autonomous region be overcome the tribal nature of local Sunni society and the loyalty of different tribes to different regional and local powers, is likely to cause further problems in Anbar.

However, given the political chaos in Iraq today, it is hard to say if even those first steps toward a region could be achieved.

“It is already clear that the political parties that are supported by local tribes and businesspeople would have the upper hand when it comes to distributing power in a region,” says Abdel-Rahman al-Hamid, a community leader in the city of Fallujah. “Additionally nobody here has much experience in managing external and international relations,” he added; for example, the heads of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan make foreign policy a priority, to get support for their Kurdish project up north.

“That lack of experience may weaken Anbar in the long run and allow anyone e with political and military power to exploit it,” al-Hamid concludes.

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