Iraq on the Brink

Tribal fighters patrol Fallujah streets on Jan. 5 as the Iraqi government faces off against al-Qaeda forces
Reuters Tribal fighters patrol Fallujah streets on Jan. 5 as the Iraqi government faces off against al-Qaeda forces

Spiraling sectarian violence and weak rule of law could tip the country back into civil war

As I walk through a crowded market in Bayaa on a late afternoon in December, the mostly Shi’ite neighborhood of western Baghdad is bustling. On either side are vendors selling umbrellas, children’s clothing, bottles of perfume and other household goods. Hundreds of shoppers slowly move past the stalls, sometimes stopping to look and buy. The whole area is a soft target, full of civilians, most of them probably Shi’ite. Two weeks before, a suicide bomber took advantage of that vulnerability, walking into a coffee shop next to the market and blowing himself up, killing 15 people.

The blast was one of at least 41 suicide bombings in Iraq in the last two months of 2013, the deadliest year since 2008, and while no one claimed responsibility, the people of Bayaa assume that the bomber was Sunni — and that the bombing was part of an increasingly murderous campaign by al-Qaeda. In a phone shop, the owner voices a sentiment I hear repeated frequently: the army and police have done nothing to stop the new wave of suicide bombings in Baghdad. He credits the followers of the often bellicose Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr with stopping a mob from attacking local Sunnis after the blast. He wonders aloud what would happen if the terrorists sent a truck bomb down the street, killing dozens. Who would be able to prevent the people then from turning on their Sunni neighbors?

The day I visit Bayaa feels like a horrifying replay of 2004 and 2005, when the country stood on the verge of a sectarian civil war that saw death squads slaughtering people because of their faith. That conflict began in earnest in 2006 and lasted through spring 2008, by which time it had claimed the lives of at least 58,000 Iraqis. The war was brought to an end by a confluence of events, primarily a buildup of U.S. military forces to combat both Shi’ite and Sunni armed groups and the decision by Sunni tribes to revolt against al-Qaeda, which then controlled much of Anbar province in western Iraq and other areas in and around Baghdad.

The same political actors who started the civil war are now making similarly aggressive moves — but this time around, there is no U.S. military to help the weak Iraqi government restore order. “We are not, obviously, contemplating returning,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters on Jan. 5. Although Washington would stand by to help, he added, the Iraqis must resolve their own conflicts.

Right now, the leaders in Baghdad are giving little indication they can do that. The catalog of disasters is growing. The headline-grabber is the ongoing fighting in the two largest cities in Anbar — Ramadi and Fallujah — between the government forces and the combined Iraqi and Syrian al-Qaeda franchise known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Anbar was the heart of the Sunni insurgency during the U.S.-led occupation. While the new conflict threatens to widen the chasm between the Shi’ite and Sunni populations — the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is dominated by Shi’ites — there are other ongoing crises contributing to the sense that Iraq is slipping back into violent chaos.

Root Cause
Driving tensions is al-Maliki’s decision to confront his foes rather than making deals with them — particularly his Sunni opponents in the Iraqi parliament. That has led to very public divisiveness within the Iraqi political elite and to fracturing within the security forces. As the country has become increasingly unstable, security officers’ political and religious affiliations are tending to outweigh their loyalty to the state.

The fragmentation goes deep. Radical Shi’ite militias are competing for dominance. Sunni tribes are battling al-Qaeda — and one another. Death squads are once again killing people because they are Shi’ite or Sunni. Iraqis are being forced from their homes because of their faith. “If the politics stay the same, it will be like in 2006,” says lawmaker Izzat Shabander, a former al-Maliki ally.

Al-Maliki’s government could hardly make it clearer that it is dominated by one part of the Iraqi population. Pictures of the Shi’ite saint Hussein decorate almost every entrance to the bunkered Green Zone, the government’s seat of power, nearly every security checkpoint around the city and many of the military and police vehicles that race through the capital. The pictures commemorate the anniversary of Hussein’s death, which fell in November and started a 40-day mourning period that lasted until the close of December. Hussein’s death marks the formal schism between the Sunni and Shi’ite worlds.

Three days before the anniversary of Hussein’s death, I visit Kadhimiya, one of the holiest spots in Shi’ite Islam, where pilgrims come to mourn the saint. There, the fragmented state of Iraq’s security forces is in plain view. Policemen pat down men at block intervals, to prevent suicide bombings at the Imam Kadhim shrine, one of the gathering points for mourners. Other men in plain clothes stand alongside the police and watch every man who passes through. These are not government employees; they are members of al-Sadr’s paramilitary Mahdi Army, among the most powerful forces in this area.

Al-Sadr isn’t the only religious leader with men in these streets. Members of the rival organization — Asaib al-Haq (the League of the Righteous) — also circulate through the crowds in plain clothes, residents tell me. The group once belonged to the Mahdi Army militia and was considered the movement’s main arm against al-Qaeda during the civil war. But its leader, Qais Khazali, broke off from al-Sadr in 2007. The police seem unable or disinclined to prevent the militias from operating.

People in Kadhimiya express real anger over the Shi’ite political elite’s tolerance or sponsorship of groups like Asaib al-Haq and the Mahdi Army. Abu Benin, a police officer who is carrying his 3-year-old son to the Imam Kadhim shrine, tells me he has been in the national police since 2005. After joining, he fought Sunni terrorists in the northern city of Mosul. During that period, he was injured by a bomb that exploded near him. He still has shrapnel in his head from the blast. But if he hates al-Qaeda — and he does — he also has no affection for Iraq’s political leaders, including the Shi’ite politicians.

Parts of Benin’s neighborhood, Hurriya, are dominated by Asaib al-Haq, he says. To sell or buy property on his street, one has to pay Asaib al-Haq a commission. And the militia can expel people at will. His father-in-law, a Sadrist, returned to Baghdad in 2012 after years in exile in Canada but was ordered out of his old home by Asaib al-Haq within months and fled to the city of Najaf. “They are all criminals,” Benin says of the militias.

The immediate roots of today’s instability can be found in Iraq’s last national election, in 2010. Then, the Sunni-supported Iraqiya coalition — headed by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shi’ite — won the largest share of seats in parliament, but al-Maliki secured a second term by forming a weak coalition with other Shi’ite parties. He then began alienating potential Sunni allies. He refused to let the main Sunni-backed political bloc hold one of the security ministries, started a vocal media campaign denouncing Sunni terrorists, real and imagined, and often spoke publicly about Shi’ite suffering. Frustrated, Sunnis began pushing for their own semiautonomous region.

Iraq’s political elite had chances to reverse course. The last great opportunity came with a wave of protests by Sunnis that started in December 2012 in Anbar. The protests erupted after al-Maliki arrested the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, a Sunni from Anbar. But the demonstrations were about far more than one Sunni politician. Overwhelmed by hopelessness and looking with envy at the thrilling revolts that had taken place in other parts of the Arab world, Sunnis mobilized in Anbar, Baghdad and the northern provinces. Their demands focused on the status of tens of thousands of Sunni detainees, held in prisons for years, many without charge.

Abandoned Allies
I spent a week at the protests in Ramadi in February 2013 as a guest of a Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman. Suleiman was a reminder of the lost promise of the U.S.-backed Sunni tribal uprising against al-Qaeda. He had come to prominence in 2006 as part of a small circle of Sunni tribesmen who led the initial rebellion. He had formed an alliance with the Americans and al-Maliki. Suleiman accepted that Iraq would be ruled by the Shi’ites, and he understood the need for Sunnis to find their place in that new order. But in the aftermath of the 2010 election, he had fallen out with al-Maliki; the end of their alliance was just one of the many consequences of the Prime Minister’s broader failure to court Sunnis. When the Sunni protests broke out last year, Suleiman became one of its leaders.

In the meantime, al-Qaeda was growing in strength. After the U.S. troop surge ended in 2008, al-Qaeda fighters carved out strongholds in rural areas outside Baghdad. The group bided its time until last spring, when it saw opportunity in the stalemate between al-Maliki and the Sunni protest movement. In April, instead of reaching out to strike a deal with old Sunni allies like Suleiman, al-Maliki ordered a full-scale attack on a protest camp in Hawija, north of Baghdad. (The assault was in response to the shooting of a soldier there.) The attack left 51 people dead and ushered in days of fighting around Iraq. The monthly death toll soared to its highest level since the last days of the civil war, in May 2008.

In recent days, the government has fought both ISIS and onetime allies like Suleiman, who are opposed to al-Qaeda but also now see the government as an enemy. Without a real effort to address Sunni grievances by the government, there will likely be more confrontations between the security forces and the regular Sunni population — and not just in Anbar.

Raad Dahlagy, a Sunni member of parliament from Baqubah, capital of Diyala, a province to the east of Baghdad, says Diyala is now the scene of tit-for-tat sectarian killings and expulsions that started in July when an al-Qaeda suicide bomber blew himself up at a Shi’ite funeral. “Put these ingredients together and you have a total lack of security,” Dahlagy says, referring to the political crisis and the violence. “It’s ripe for criminals and anyone to exploit the situation.”

With a national election due in April, the chance of a credible turnout in Sunni regions is looking doubtful. That would further undermine the legitimacy of the next government. The vote, which is unlikely to hand outright victory to any party, could also leave al-Maliki and his Shi’ite rivals jostling over who should form the government. A similar stalemate followed the election of 2006. Within months of that vote, the civil war was raging out of control. Iraq’s politicians may be too late to stop the country from going back to that bloodstained past.

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