How do you stop a suicide bomber? More than 10 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi government has been asking itself this question. So the Iraqi security forces, who face deadly attacks on a daily basis, held a seminar for café owners and shopkeepers on 30 November last year. A hundred Baghdad traders listened to unconvincing advice — hire a private security guard, reduce the number of entrances — from the seemingly powerless police. The entire country is affected by bombings and attacks, which claimed more than 6,000 lives last year.
Having failed to eradicate the violence, the government is trying to live with it. “It’s always the same. When a bomb goes off at a market, the police and the army impose a curfew in the area, but they always arrive after the bombing. The government are playing at firemen putting out fires: they need to arrest the arsonists,” said Mokhlas al-Juraisy, a journalist living in Baghdad.
In the capital, every family has its own tragedy, its bitterness and its dead. “Nothing changed when the US occupation ended. We had bombings before, and we still have them now. It’s the same for unemployment and other problems facing Iraq. The Americans left us a legacy of death. At least the British built bridges and schools,” one Baghdadi said, referring to the British occupation in 1918.
There are many reasons for the violence. To understand them, we must go back to 2003, shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. Paul Bremer, the US administrator, took the decision to dismantle Iraq’s security apparatus and de-Ba’athify the political system. This arbitrary and damaging policy excluded nearly a million qualified and experienced men from Iraqi society and, in the space of a few days, turned Iraq into an administrative desert. This political purge targeting anyone who had collaborated to any extent with the previous regime goes some way to explaining the country’s vulnerability.
A Declaration of War
The weakening of the state almost inevitably exacerbated sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias. These reached a peak after the bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, a Shia holy site, on 21 February 2006. Shias saw the incident as a declaration of war. Despite appeals for calm from all religious authorities, Shia militants took their revenge by bombing Sunni mosques. “It was our 9/11,” said a Samarra resident whose brother had been killed by a militia fighter during the reprisals.
For more than two years, Shia militias — especially the two best known, the Sadrist movement’s Mahdi Army and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Badr Corps (1) — kidnapped Sunnis, whom they usually tortured and executed. Sunni militias retaliated with car bombs in Shia areas of Baghdad. Every day, there would be 100 or so bodies on the streets or in the Tigris. Although tardily, and clearly motivated in part by political rivalry, the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, launched a major offensive in Sadr City in March 2008, aiming to disarm the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr. The violence on the ground has gradually diminished, but it has fuelled rivalries among the political class. Violence remains the focus of al-Maliki’s rhetoric. He uses a simplistic vocabulary, in which the words “terrorist” and “Ba’athist” both refer to the Sunnis.
Another factor in the security crisis since the US withdrawal is the Sahwa (“awakening”) militia, made up of members of Sunni tribes who allied themselves with the US to fight Al-Qaida in Iraq. Under the strategy set out by General Petraeus, the “surge” (2)relied on the collaboration of Sunni tribes, symbolised by the charismatic Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, killed in September 2007 by an Al-Qaida commando.
The 100,000-strong Sahwa militia achieved significant successes by expelling the Iraq branch of Al-Qaida from the cities. The members of Sahwawere supposed to become part of the regular army, but al-Maliki failed to deliver on this undertaking and only 20% were integrated. The rest have been left to their own devices and al-Maliki has been publicly voicing his suspicion of them.
Iraq has changed. Baghdad is no longer the heterogeneous city where all the provinces were represented. With rare exceptions, Sunnis live in Sunni areas, Shias in Shia areas. Elsewhere, Joe Biden’s “soft partition” (3) of Iraq into a Kurdish north, Sunni centre and Shia south is already a reality.
The fall of Iraq could still have been prevented if al-Maliki had made good on his electoral promise of national reconciliation, especially as many Sunni tribal councils had offered him their allegiance after he came to power. But he continued to feed the standoffs between Sunni and Shia and between Arabs and Kurds, and sidelined anyone who disagreed with his policies. Al-Maliki’s isolation started in 2011 with the removal of the Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi, accused of terrorism. The following year, it was another Sunni, the deputy prime minister and finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, also accused of terrorism.
In December 2012, a year after the US withdrawal, a huge demonstration began in Fallujah’s “Dignity Square” and spread throughout Sunni territory. An alliance between al-Maliki and the tribes was no longer possible.
During the demonstrations, the leaders of important Sunni tribes, including the Dulaim, Jumaila and Mahamda, demanded al-Maliki’s resignation. Some called him a puppet of Iran or a “Safavid”, a pejorative term for Iranian conservatives. From the start, this popular movement expressed its solidarity with the Syrian rebellion, comparing al-Maliki with Bashar al-Assad. Amidst the crowds brandishing Iraqi flags, the emblem of the Free Syrian Army was clearly visible. The Iraqi Sunni struggle has gone beyond national borders: the enemy is no longer just al-Maliki, but the Shia axis of Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran.
The connections between the Sunnis of Anbar Province and the Syrian rebels on the other side of the border partly explain the rise in violence in Iraq. The struggle for power has an increasingly sectarian dimension, and, according to Sheikh Rafeh al-Jumaily, many Iraqis want a Syrian-type scenario, “to rebalance the power relationship in the region.”He believes Tehran will lose an important ally if the Assad regime falls. “If the Sunnis take power in Syria, we will be in a stronger position against the rise of Shiism in Baghdad.”
A New Fighting Force
The Iraqi equivalent of the Free Syrian Army was created six months before the Sunni demonstrations, though it is rarely mentioned in the media. In an official statement issued on 19 July 2012, it set out three objectives: “to counter the Iranian invasion of Iraq, support the people of Syria and the Free Syrian Army, and unite Sunni fighters in Iraq under a single banner.”
Who is behind this new organisation, and has it had a real influence? It’s too early to tell. It posted videos of its attacks on the regular Iraqi army on the Internet, then gradually vanished from the radar until the arrest of its leader — whose identity is unknown — last February, near Kirkuk.
The alliance between Al-Qaida in Iraq and Al-Qaida in Syria is more proof of the “natural” links between Syrian and Iraqi Sunnis. United under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), their fighters can move freely across the Iraqi-Syrian border, held by the Syrian rebels. Formed in Iraq in 2006, as a platform for a number of jihadist groups, ISIS has become a powerful force in the war in Syria. It enjoys freedom of movement and has no problems in supplying itself. In this border region, tribal alliances are old, and inhabitants of Fallujah or al-Qaim are always welcome in Abu Kamal in Syria.
The Syrian conflict really did spill over into Iraq in March last year. Forty Syrian soldiers and civil servants were killed in Iraq’s Anbar Province, to which they had fled after a rebel attack. Seven Iraqi soldiers also died.
The crises in Iraq and Syria may have different causes, but they share a sectarian aspect. The Syrian civil war is between mainly Sunni rebels and a coalition of ethnic and religious minorities supporting the Assad government. In Iraq, a mainly Shia government faces sometimes political and sometimes armed opposition from Sunnis.
So it is probably no coincidence that, as the Syrian civil war has intensified, sectarian conflicts have been revived in Iraq. Even the US government attributes an important role to Iraq in the Syrian crisis. During al-Maliki’s visit to Washington in October, Barack Obama apparently asked the Iraqi premier to use his good relations with Iran to persuade al-Assad to go quietly. Iraq is also under increasing pressure from Iran, the major Shia power in the region, as well as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, two major Sunni countries, which are the chief backers of the anti-Assad rebellion.
After a decade of unprecedented violence, Iraq is caught in a maelstrom of power struggles between Sunnis and Shias, feeding off the Syrian conflict. The Maliki government is trying to ignore the new regional alliances. The new electoral law, which sets the date for the next legislative elections at 30 April this year, is seen as a joke. Voters laugh at Iraq’s MPs —at the ease with which they pass laws favourable to their personal interests and the difficulty they have in agreeing on major issues. Iraqi sociologist Amir Ahmed likens the elections to absurdist theatre, and Iraqi politics to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: “Every time there’s an election, the politicians announce the arrival of a man who promises change. But he never comes. They keep us busy and distract us, while we wait. The Iraqi people are waiting for Godot.”
“The existing Iranian presence in Iraq has increased mistrust and fear in the Arab region,” said Ahmed. “It is the sudden change in regional politics that has provoked all these tensions. And we must not forget that Iraq is an oil-rich country and this arouses the greed of international forces, which try to fuel the violence rather than stabilise the situation, since it’s easier to make a profit from a weak, unstable country than a strong and stable one.” Oil may be Iraq’s real problem.
Feurat Alani is a journalist.
(1) Sadrism is a movement representing people from deprived backgrounds, neglected by the Shia establishment. Founded in 1982, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) has a military wing, the Badr Corps, with between 8,000 and 15,000 men.
(2) In January 2007 George W Bush decided to send another 30,000 US troops to Iraq. General David H Petraeus was given command of this “surge”.
(3) To resolve the Iraqi conflict, US vice president Joe Biden set out a plan dividing the country into three ethnic/denominational blocs, inspired by the partition of Bosnia in 1995. He envisaged a decentralised state, with the north for the Kurds, the centre for the Sunnis and the south for the Shias. See Helene Cooper, “Biden plan for ‘soft partition’ of Iraq gains momentum”, The New York Times, 30 July 2007.
Translated by Charles Goulden.
This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.