For two solid decades, Sunnis felt threatened, weakened, and headless. But now, the Sunni Muslim community now seems to be on a rebound, united under the leadership of two figures: Businessman-turned politician Khamees Khanjar and Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: It’s been almost 20 years since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003 following the US-led invasion of Iraq. Iraq’s Sunnis have had to pay a high price for being the community that produced the deposed president. Since then, they have seen de-Baathification, systematic persecution, faced paramilitary death squads, while being collectively prohibited from top posts like the presidency and premiership.

The only exception to that rule was transitional president Ghazi Al Yawer, a toothless and ceremonial Sunni tribal leader, who served as president between June 2004 and April 2005.

Two new leaders

For two solid decades, however, the community felt threatened, weakened, and headless. But, now, the Sunni Muslim community now seems to be on a rebound, united under the leadership of two figures: Businessman-turned politician Khamees Khanjar and Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi.

Behind closed doors, Khanjar and Halbousi are rumoured to be “close” to Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Halbousi is often considered Riyadh’s man in Baghdad, while Khanjar is frequently associated with Ankara, although nothing in their careers points to such affiliation.

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Parliament Speaker Mohammed Al Halbousi Image Credit: AFP

It would be only natural for them to reach out to Sunni heavyweight states to maintain a threshold in Iraqi politics, especially given that most of their counterparts in the Shiite community were parachuted into their jobs by Iran, including all former premiers, or been on Iranian payroll since the 1980s.

Contradicting careers

Although Khanjar is better known to the outside world for his wealth, Halbousi is no less successful as a businessman, and no less rich. Before entering politics, he had made a fortune as head of the Al Hadeed Co, handling major reconstruction projects, including the sewage matrix of his native Falluja. At 41, he is young, well-connected both regionally and internationally, and hails from a prominent tribe that was never close to Saddam or Daesh.

Khanjar is older, at 56, and sanctioned by the US since 2019, on charges of corruption. Among other things, he is accused of amassing a fortune through a tobacco business partnership with Saddam’s son Uday. He parted ways with Uday in 1996 and moved to the Gulf, working in real estate development, financial services, and industry, before returning to Iraq in 2003.

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Businessman-turned politician Khamees Khanjar Image Credit: Reuters

When the 2003 invasion happened, the two men stood at opposite ends of the spectrum, Khanjar bankrolling the ‘Sunni insurgency’ while Halbousi was working with American contractors on reconstruction. Khanjar was later accused of collaborating with Daesh, prompting him to set up a 3,000-man army of tribal figures (all Sunni Muslims) to fight Daesh in Iraq.

Khanjar has raised eyebrows by calling for a three-way federalisation of Iraq, between Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds. The Sunni region, he says, would become a hub for regional investment while southern Iraq would remain in Iran’s orbit.

Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

What the Sunnis will get?

Collectively, the two Sunni politicians won 51 seats in last October’s parliamentary elections (37 for Halbousi’s Taqqadum Party, 14 for Khanjar’s Azm Movement). Iraqi Kurds, who are also Sunni Muslims, won 63 seats, bringing the community’s share up to an impressive 114 out of 329 seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

That’s not enough for secure a majority, however, which requires 165 votes in Parliament.

Last January, Halbousi and Khanjar teamed up with Moqtada Al Sadr, the powerful Shiite militia leader-turned-politician, who controls 73 seats in the Iraqi Chamber. Backed by a collective vote with Sadr’s MPs, they managed to secure a second term for Halbousi as speaker, making him the first Sunni to serve for two terms in parliament since 2003.


Sadr is increasingly relying on them to dictate state policy, given that bad blood brewing between him and rival Shiite parties, the Iran-backed Coordination Framework. Those parties, including the Fateh Alliance and Badr Organisation, lost their majority in Parliament and collectively walked out on the chamber’s first session on January 9.

Sadr is planning to name a member of his Sairoun Party as Iraq’s next prime minister, citing the numerical majority of his parliamentary bloc. To do that, he needs parliamentary allies.

Thirty-one Kurdish MPs support him (from the Kurdistan Democratic Party), along with the Sunni bloc of 51 MPs. If combined with the 73 seats that he controls, that adds up to 155 seats — 10 votes short of a majority — which can be filled with support from smaller parliamentary blocs.

If Halbousi and Khanjar stand up Sadr until curtain fall — and they have no reason not to — then they will undoubtedly be rewarded with a greater share of seats in the future government. Since the toppling of Saddam, the Sunnis had been banned from key positions like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior, although compensated with one sovereignty portfolio, being Defence.

Whether that changes in the upcoming period depends on the politics of Khanjar and Halbousi, and what strings they will pull in the upcoming weeks and months.