Posted by on May 22, 2013 in Blog

As most of the Middle East focuses on the unfolding catastrophe in Syria, Iraq has begun to unravel. Though levels of violence have not reached the heights that were routine during Iraq’s 2004-2007 civil war, recent attacks have revived the sectarianism that made those years so bloody. Just on Sunday and Monday, multiple car bombings and shootings left 64 people dead and injured more than 170. What caused the current spasm of communal violence, and what might American policymakers do to arrest the cycle of retribution between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities?

The proximate cause for this wave of violence was the predominantly Shia Iraqi military’s raid on a Sunni protest camp in Hawija in late April. The raid killed 29 people and injured many more, setting off protests and attacks against security services in other majority-Sunni areas. Since then, Sunni and Shia insurgent and militia groups have exchanged car bombings and shooting attacks on prominent symbols of the rival sect, including mosques. The attacks on mosques are especially troubling, given the potential of religious sites to incite further violence, as in the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra. Sectarian tensions have been further complicated by the absence of Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and frequent Sunni-Shia mediator. Talabani is in Germany undergoing medical treatment, and in his absence, sectarian passions have come into full view.

Of course, sectarian violence never disappeared in Iraq. The current rates of violence represent an increase from the 2010 and early 2011 levels, according to a database kept by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. WINEP’s numbers show that in the first quarter of 2011, the most peaceful since the 2003 invasion, Iraq saw only 358 attacks per month. In the first three months of 2013, however, those numbers increased dramatically, to 804 attacks per month. As these numbers illustrate, the current outbreak of violence should be seen as a continuation of the predominant trend since 2003, and the illusory calm of 2011 and 2012 as the real outlier.

So, what is causing the current outbreak of sectarian violence? The primary reason is the failure of Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, to govern as the leader of all Iraqis, rather than of only the Shia. Sunni disenfranchisement feeds the insurgency, and Maliki has done very little to combat the problem, the most urgent facing his country. An instructive example is the fate of the Awakening militias. As the United States prepared to withdraw from Iraq, US forces began to pay Sunni tribesmen to form Awakening militias that would provide security and expel al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) from Sunni provinces like Anbar. The plan was that the Sunnis would eventually be incorporated into Iraq’s national army, killing two birds with one stone by depriving AQI of recruits while strengthening and diversifying the Iraqi military. Unfortunately, this arrangement collapsed when American forces left Iraq and the flow of money that kept Awakening groups loyal to the government dried up. Nearly five years after the plan was outlined, very few Awakening forces have been incorporated into the Iraqi Security Forces. Though Maliki and his Dawa Party deserve much of the blame for these failures, American forces are not innocent. Gen. David Petraeus’ much-ballyhooed “surge” reduced violence in Iraq sufficiently to enable a non-disastrous American withdrawal, but policymakers never really solved the problem of what to do with the Awakening militias. Maliki had proved by 2006 that he was not much interested in cooperating with Sunnis, so today’s situation was hardly unpredictable.

These factors, specific to Iraq, have been complicated by the civil war unfolding next door in Syria. Though the rise in sectarian violence clearly predates the Syrian civil war, the flow of Sunni refugees into western Iraq and the ties between Iraqi and Syrian jihadi groups have exacerbated Iraq’s crisis. Efforts to unite the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra with AQI should be especially concerning to American and Iraqi officials. Though reports of splits within Jabhat over the union with AQI have emerged in recent days, the new arrangement seems to have strengthened both groups. Jabhat al-Nusra has emerged as the most effective of the Syrian rebel groups, and AQI has been much more active within Iraq in the last few months, helping fuel the current spasm of sectarian violence. Perhaps the most important effect of the war in Syria, however, is more nebulous. The conflict has sharpened sectarian identities across the region, encouraging governments and citizens alike to choose sides. The brutality of the Syrian war encourages Iraqi Sunnis to associate more closely with their Syrian counterparts, and a similar process unites Iraqi Shiites with Syrian Alawites. This phenomenon can create a bloody feedback loop, in which each new atrocity against one’s coreligionists in Syria encourages Iraqis to take revenge against domestic groups thought to represent the perpetrators.

So, what can be done to ensure that Iraq avoids the sectarian bloodletting that marked its civil war? American policymakers must use the little remaining leverage they have over Maliki to encourage him to meaningfully incorporate Sunnis into Iraq’s national affairs, rather than simply paying lip service to the idea. Ironically, Tehran may share this goal, at least in the broad sense. Iran is interested in having a relatively stable Iraq as a Shia client state, but an open renewal of sectarian civil war is not in the Islamic Republic’s interests, since it would divert resources from Iranian efforts to support the Assad regime in Syria. So, a combination of American and Iranian pressure may be able to keep Iraq away from the brink this time, but a more long-term solution must find a more equitable way to incorporate Sunnis and Kurds into Iraq’s national government. Though outside encouragement might be helpful, this task will belong to the Iraqis alone.    


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