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Back towards the brink in Iraq as old tensions are renewed

Things have not been going well in Iraq for a while. Sectarian violence is on the increase, having reached levels last seen in 2008. As a consequence, the government of Nouri al-Maliki is in dire straits…

Debris is cleared from a car bombing in Bagdad last month. Karim Kadim/AP/Press Association Images

Things have not been going well in Iraq for a while. Sectarian violence is on the increase, having reached levels last seen in 2008. As a consequence, the government of Nouri al-Maliki is in dire straits. The same prime minister who negotiated a restrictive status-of-forces agreement with the United States in 2008, now comes begging to Washington for military aid and support.

We are seeing old tensions and new combine, pushing Iraq once again to the edge of a very steep cliff. In 2008, sectarian violence was at a high level, but the trend was downward from the heights of the civil war that started in earnest in 2006; now the trend is, if anything, upwards.

The violence in Iraq is part of a broader and very dangerous pattern of sectarian confrontation across the Middle East that is playing out in places such as Bahrain, and above all Syria, as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that feeds, and feeds off, local tensions. In the case of Iraq, these local tensions between Shia and Sunnis date back to well before the 2003 intervention.

The removal of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship and the de-Baathification that followed it were seen by Shia Muslims as an opportunity to right the wrongs of the past. Sunni Muslims, have seen the same process as the beginning of a period of repression and discrimination thinly veiled as victor’s justice. The drafting of the 2005 interim constitution – both in process and outcome – reflected few, if any, Sunni concerns. National elections in 2005, were widely boycotted by Sunni political parties and candidates. As a – self-inflicted – consequence, they did not gain any effective representation in national institutions.

The political and economic exclusion that Sunnis experienced, particularly in light of their previously more privileged position as a community under Saddam Hussein, led to the 2006-2008 civil war. It provided a context in which al-Qaeda could gain a major foothold in the country, grafting itself onto a local Sunni insurgency with the far more limited objective of fighting back against an increasingly repressive Shia-led government.

Attempts by al-Qaeda in Iraq to trigger a full-scale sectarian war eventually failed. US and Iraqi government strategies changed significantly during the course of the 2006-2008 civil war, eventually leading to an arrangement with Sunni tribes that drove al-Qaeda out of Iraq and paved the way towards more inclusive policies that placated at least some of the concerns of Sunni communities and their leaders about security, political participation and economic development.

Yet, following the 2010 elections, protracted negotiations over the formation of a new government coalition by al-Maliki, the partial exclusion and partial persecution of Sunni leaders (which was already apparent in the run-up to the those elections) led to a worsening of Sunni-Shi’a relations once again. Exacerbated by continuing insecurity, political instability, lack of economic development and the regional turmoil caused by the Arab Spring, the violent escalation of tensions was inevitable.

Second wave of violence

The most likely trigger of the current cycle of violence was the government crackdown on a protest by Sunnis in Haweeja in April 2013: the breaking-up of a sit-in that had been running for three months as a statement against the perceived unfair treatment of Sunnis prompted a significant backlash.

In this sense, the second cycle of major civil violence in Iraq was caused, in large measure, by the same exclusionary and discriminatory policies against Sunnis that contributed to the 2006-2008 civil war. Then, as now, it creates an opening for al-Qaeda to infiltrate a highly volatile local context and exploit it for its own wider agenda.

Crucially though for our understanding of the situation in Iraq, the Sunni-Shi’a divide is only one of many problems that were never fully resolved in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led intervention.

Divides among the Shia remain, both in regional and political terms. The initial alliance between Shia and Kurds against Sunnis has given way to increasing acrimony between the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil and the Shia/Maliki-led coalition government in Baghdad, in which the Kurds are officially a partner. There has also been more co-operation between Kurds and Sunnis.

In this context of multiple sources of instability, the ongoing confrontation between Erbil and Baghdad over the future of the so-called disputed territories, especially over oil-rich Kirkuk, remains the other major security concern alongside sectarian violence.

While not at the stage of an all-out Arab-Kurdish civil war (yet), this simmering conflict has potentially far-reaching consequences in its ability to trigger not just a civil war in Iraq, but an armed confrontation that could easily draw in Iraq’s neighbours Syria, Iran, and Turkey. Each of these countries has its own Kurdish populations and each has strategic interests in a reconfiguration of power and influence in the region.

Stepping back from the edge

The Arab-Kurdish dispute in Iraq partially overlaps with the wider sectarian confrontation in the Middle East and, as such, also has the potential to draw in Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies. A further escalation of the violence in Iraq to the regional level is a scenario that will leave behind more losers than winners among states -– and no winners among the civilians that are likely to bear the brunt of the costs and consequences of such escalation.

The key task for the Iraqi government, its regional and international partners and for Sunni and Kurdish leaders, therefore is to work together towards de-escalation of the volatile situation in Iraq. Sunnis must be given a meaningful voice in Iraqi politics and they must in turn be willing to accept opportunities to participate. Iraq needs to become a fairer and more just society for all its communities and their individual members regardless of their ethnic or religious identity. On that basis, communities and their political and religious leaders can build the trust that is necessary to tackle Iraq’s multiple problems in a constructive and sustainable way.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Food with Thought

    logged in via Twitter

    does anyone know if they have food to eat? Looking at the population growth in that part of the world, plus the most primitive agricultural systems, this thing is bound to implode. What they need is training, tools, and support. Plus someone needs to tell them to stop having babies.

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  2. Wandee Thaweetham

    Company Director

    There are no secrets that time does not reveal.

    Jean Racine, 22 December 1639 – 21 April 1699, Britannicus (1669)

    British control of Iraq started on 11 November 1920 when it became a League of Nations mandate. First steps the British took were to impose a Hashemite king, Faisal, onto the people that had been kicked out of Syria by the French and selecting from the minority Sunni Arab elites the government ministers. Shia and Kurds were excluded, which caused a rebellion and forced the British…

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  3. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    Things get even more complicated once you realise Turkey is a very important member of NATO due to it's location

    NATO is bound to assist it's members, The Kurds are going to create massive problems

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  4. Pera Lozac

    Heat management assistant

    No one cares about Iraq any more. We came - we plundered - and the rest is history marked by unmarked graveyards of innocent people.

    Such a waste....

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    1. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Pera Lozac

      Yeah why did we follow the US (and stayed well beyond the time other nations had realised the futility of their involvement)?

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    2. Gerard Dean

      Managing Director

      In reply to Pera Lozac

      Plundered what?

      It cost the Australian taxpayer hundreds of millions to fund the war in Iraq, and we got back virtually nothing.

      Gerard Dean

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    3. Wandee Thaweetham

      Company Director

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      I agree with that but at least Australia is part of the intelligence sharing club (5 countries) and that should be something, shouldn't it? 'That is supposed to be sarcasm.'

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  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    In the past there was peace but no democracy in Iraq.

    Iraq has traditionally been ruled by the minority Sunnis for hundreds of years. The Sunnis run the government and the military and the Shia do the work.

    Along came the US and its allies and imposed democracy which delighted the majority Shia people but infuriates the minority Sunni people. Now there is democracy but no peace.

    Iraq won't settle down until the Sunnis annoy the Shia so much that they give up on democracy and let the Sunnis take over again.

    Then there will be peace again but no sadly no democracy.

    Sad, but blaming the west for these two warring tribes not getting on is ridiculous.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Wandee Thaweetham

      Company Director

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Iraq has traditionally not been ruled by the minority Sunnis for hundreds of years. That is a misconception also peddled by Tony Blair in his book Journey. The Sunni minority rule started after WWI and given that part of the Middle East as a mandate to the UK. They placed a King onto the throne and made sure that all major government positions were given to the Sunnis. After the WWII there was for a short period of time a popular government established by a military coup. It involved also the Shias and Kurds. However, that was undermined by US and UK efforts because it also had done one unforgivable thing and nationalized the land that the major oil companies had owned in the country.

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