Iraqi leaders fear that the country is sliding rapidly into a new civil war which “will be worse than Syria”. Baghdad residents are stocking up on rice, vegetables and other foodstuffs in case they are prevented from getting to the shops by fighting or curfews. “It is wrong to say we are getting close to a civil war,” said a senior Iraqi politician. “The civil war has already started.”
This is borne out by the sharp rise in the number of people killed in political violence in Iraq in April, with the UN claiming more than 700 people were killed last month, the highest monthly total for five years.
The situation has suddenly deteriorated since the killing of at least 36 Sunni Arab protesters at a sit-in in Hawijah on 23 April. An observer in Baghdad, who did not want to be named, said “ever since, Hawijah people are frightened of a return to the massacres of 2006”. She added that Sunni and Shia were avoiding going into each others’ areas. Signs of deteriorating security are everywhere. Al-Qa’ida showed its reach on Monday when five car bombs blew up in overwhelmingly Shia southern Iraq, leaving 21 dead. The Sunni fundamentalist group, which had a resurgence in 2012, is responsible for killing a majority of the almost 1,500 Iraqis who have died in political violence so far this year.
Its members are now able to roam freely in Anbar province where a year ago they were a secretive underground movement. In neighbouring Kirkuk, al-Qa’ida last week seized the town of Sulaiman Bec, shot the chief of police, stormed the police station and departed with their weapons after agreeing a truce with the Iraqi army.
Residents in Baghdad say that soldiers, whom they claim are Shia militiamen in uniform, have massed around Sunni enclaves in the city and are setting up checkpoints. Memories of the sectarian civil war in 2006 and 2007 when, in the worst months, some 3,000 people were butchered, may be exacerbating the sense of threat, but old fears are reawakening. Bombs have usually been directed against Shia in the past, but in recent weeks Sunni mosques and cafés are being targeted. “Before we could escape to Syria, but with the violence there where can we go?” asked one Iraqi. “There is no way out.”
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is floundering in its response. In dealing with the four-month-old protest movement by the Sunni Arabs, a fifth of Iraq’s population, who say they are treated as second-class citizens, he varies between denouncing them as terrorists and admitting that they have real grievances. The government has closed the main road from Iraq to Jordan, which the Sunni say is a collective punishment for their community. Overall, Mr Maliki has badly miscalculated in believing that, if he played for time, the Sunni protests would die away and he could divide the Sunni leadership with promises of money and jobs.
Sunni demonstrations, often taking the form of sit-ins in town and city squares, are now being guarded by well-armed fighters who set up their own checkpoints. At the weekend one stopped a car containing five Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes, who were suspected of being intelligence officers, near a protest in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar. The men were all killed. The Iraqi government depends on an alliance between the Shia and the Kurds who, before the US invasion of 2003, were oppressed by the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein.
This alliance is now frayed and much weaker than in the past. Iraqi army and Kurdish troops (peshmerga) massed to confront each other last year in a broad swath of disputed territories known as “the trigger line”.
A Kurdish delegation led by the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Nechervan Barzani, went to Baghdad to discuss a host of divisive issues including security, oilfields and the Kurds’ share of the federal budget. Mr Maliki has promised to visit the KRG in 10 days and Kurdish ministers are ending their boycott of the cabinet, but the Kurds do not expect progress on most matters in dispute.
Speaking of the incipient Sunni revolt, Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff of the KRG President Massoud Barzani, said that “the western part of the country is caught up in an uprising against the government. We don’t want to have a second Syria here and we are heading in that direction. The fire is very bad and we don’t have many firemen.” He believes the present crisis is worse than previous ones because there is nobody to mediate.
The last American troops left at the end of 2011, President Jalal Talabani is ill in hospital in Germany, and the Kurds themselves are too much at odds with Baghdad to play a moderating role between Shia and Sunni. Mr Hussein fears that if the present crisis deepens there is nothing to prevent it exploding into a bloodbath.
The crises in Iraq and Syria are now cross-infecting each other. The two-year-old uprising of the Sunni in Syria encouraged their compatriots in Iraq, who share a common frontier, to start their own protests. These began last December and, until the army killed and injured scores of protesters at Hawijah, were largely peaceful.
The Iraqi Sunni drew strength from the fact that, while they are a minority in their own country, they are a majority in the region.
The revolts in the two countries are ever more running in parallel. Al- Qa’ida in Iraq last month announced that it had founded the al-Nusra Front, the most effective Syrian rebel military force, devoted half its budget to support it and sent experienced al-Qa’ida fighters to Syria as reinforcements.
When Syrian government soldiers fled into Iraq in March and were being repatriated to Syria, some 47 of them were ambushed and killed at Akashat close to the Syrian border. The rebels claim that the Shia-dominated Iraqi government is becoming a more active supporter of President Bashar al-Assad. Rebels reported last week that an Iraqi air force aircraft had bombed their forces at Deir Ez-Zhor in eastern Syria.
This was more likely to be a Syrian aircraft that had briefly entered Iraqi airspace, though the government in Baghdad issued no immediate denial. Iraqi Shia volunteers have travelled to Damascus to defend the Shia shrine of Sayida Zaynab though their numbers are unknown. The US alleges that Iranian aircraft with arms for Assad’s forces regularly fly across Iraq.
Iraqi leaders in Baghdad and Erbil are convinced that the whole region is on the edge of being convulsed by a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia. In such a conflict Iran and Iraq will be very much in a minority.
Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish leader and MP, believes that the government in Baghdad has an exaggerated idea of its own strength and underestimates the degree to which the international environment is hostile to it. He says: “I remind them that of 56 Islamic states in the world, only two are fully Shia.”
Many Iraqi politicians blame Mr Maliki for exacerbating the crisis. As leader of the religious Shia al-Dawa party, he has been Prime Minister since 2006 when he was chosen by the US ambassador Zilmay Khalilzad as the Shia leader most acceptable to the US, and who was also on good terms with Iran.
The US and Iran have remained crucial in him retaining his post, though one British diplomat reflected later that the failure to veto Mr Maliki’s reappointment was the worst mistake made by the US and Britain.
In his earlier years in office Mr Maliki took a more inclusive and conciliatory approach to the Sunni Arabs and the Kurds. This was partly under American pressure. But Mr Maliki has secured his electoral support as the main Shia leader by convincing Shia voters that he and his party prevent a counter-revolution by the Baath Party which would evict the Shia from power.
Playing the sectarian card also has the advantage of making security, rather than the government’s pervasive corruption and failure to provide services, the main issue for the Shia majority. Mr Maliki’s mentality is very much as a security man within the highly centralised and authoritarian Dawa party which, in many ways, is a Shia version of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party.
In consolidating his support among the Shia, Mr Maliki has permanently alienated the Sunni who view him with distrust. “He may have won over the Shia but he has lost Iraq,” says Ghassan al-Attiyah, a political scientist in Baghdad.
He believes that the key to defusing the present crisis is for Mr Maliki to step down and be replaced by a more neutral figure as prime minister until the parliamentary elections next year.
It is not likely to happen. The Shia of Iraq suspect that they may be facing a fight for their existence. These fears may be exaggerated, and deliberately inflated by the government, but they secure Mr Maliki’s political base. The Iranians have their openly expressed doubts about him, but they do not want to see him displaced while they are fighting to save their ally in Syria.
They believe it is a time for all Shia to stand together. The uprisings in Syria and Iraq are coming together with explosive results for Iraq, the region and the world. An Iraq only recently stabilised is becoming unstable again. Only two months Sunni demonstrators were chanting “Maliki or Iraq!”. But now they shout “War! War!”.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.