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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Assessment for Sunnis in Iraq

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Iraq Facts
Area:    437,072 sq. km.
Capital:    Baghdad
Total Population:    217,220,000 (source: U.S. Census Bureau, 1998, est.)

Risk Assessment | Analytic Summary | References

Risk Assessment

Until the first few months of 2003, the situation of the Sunni Arabs in Iraq remained basically unchanged: despite their numerical minority in Iraq, they had the political advantage under Saddam Hussein's regime and enjoyed cultural freedoms that Shi'as, Kurds and other ethnic groups did not. However, since the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein from power in 2003, the political process has been opened up to these previously excluded groups, and a plethora of religious and cultural rights have been reinstituted. Sunni Arabs constitute approximately 18 percent of the Iraqi population, which is reflected in the Council of Representatives, Iraq’s working legislative body, where Sunni Arabs held approximately 16 percent of the seats as well as the Council Presidency in 2006. While the current power-sharing model incorporating Shi'as, Sunnis, and Kurds may ultimately lead to a more stable and democratic Iraq if the groups learn to compromise with one another, the future of Iraq is extremely hard to predict right now. Security concerns are real for much of the population, Sunni and Shi'a alike. Law and order has broken down, and U.S. and Iraqi forces are struggling to quell an insurgency that is carried out primarily by Sunnis. Whether or not a power-sharing government can function in Iraq remains to be seen. If it cannot, it is not clear what group might end up with the advantage, nor how it might rule; given the harsh treatment of Iraqi Shi'a and Kurds under Hussein, a certain level of retribution may arise against Sunnis, or they could become a decidedly disadvantaged minority.


Analytic Summary

Iraq's Sunni Arabs live primarily in urban areas of Iraq's central and western regions (GROUPCON = 1). Despite being a minority of about 18 percent of Iraq's population, Iraq's Sunni Arabs have historically controlled Iraqi politics, partially due to their dominance of Iraqi urban centers, their occupation of important military and administrative posts under the Ottomans and British, and their control over Iraq's Ba'athist regime until its overthrow by American-led forces in 2003. Their position as an advantaged minority placed Iraq's Sunni Arabs in a position where Saddam Hussein found it necessary to repress the country's other major ethnic groups, the Shi'a and the Kurds. Conversely, Sunnis in Iraq had no need to protest or rebel against the Hussein government (PROT99-02 = 0; REB99-02 = 0).

In March 2003, after months of war build-up, American led coalition forces invaded Iraq, radically changing the political landscape. Lawlessness quickly erupted, affecting much of the Iraqi population. Within a few months, Ba'ath party members were on the run; Hussein's regime had collapsed; and Saddam Hussein was captured in December 2003. Since the start of the invasion and occupation, most of the violent insurgency has been comprised of Sunnis, including Sunni Muslim radicals, people still loyal to Saddam, and former soldiers. The insurgency has continued to grow, employing large-scale guerilla warfare against coalition forces, international relief organizations, and members of the new Iraqi government (REB03-06 = 6). So far no nationwide front against American forces has been organized, and most of the insurgency has been conducted by regional leaders. The U.S. continues to employ its military in suppressing the Sunni rebellion, from destroying suspected rebel hide outs to carrying out massive attacks on rebel-controlled areas (REPVIOL04-06 = 5). There have been mass arrests of suspected members of the insurgency. The use of torture has been widely reported. The Ba'ath Party has become illegal. Intergroup violence between Shi'as and former Ba'ath party members has increased (INTERCON04-06 = 1). Shiite-led government security forces also have been responsible for revenge attacks, particularly in the predominantly Sunni districts in Baghdad and southern areas of the country (REPGENCIV04-06 = 5). Sunni radicals have carried out violent attacks and car bombings that target Shi'a leaders and communities.



Amnesty International. Iraq Report 2001 - 2004.

Congressional Quarterly Inc. 1990. "The Middle East, Seventh Edition." Congressional Quarterly, Washington D.C.

Council on Foreign Relations. 2005. "Backgrounder: Iraq's Sunni Arabs."

Dgenhardt, Henry W., ed. 1987. Revolutionary and Dissident Movements: An International Guide, A Keesing's Reference Publication. London: Longman.

International Crisis Group. 2006. The Next Iraq War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict. Middle East Report No. 53.

LexisNexis. Various reports. 1994-2006.

Library of Congress-Federal Research Division. 8/2006. "Country Profile: Iraq."

Marr, Phebe. 2003. The Modern History of Iraq. 2d Ed. Westview Press.

The Nefa Foundation. 2006. "The State of the Sunni Insurgency in Iraq: 2006."

U.S Department of State. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Iraq. 2001-2006.


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Information current as of December 31, 2006