The reasons for violence in Iraq go back to the divisive policies of Saddam Hussein’s regime which had laid the seeds for political tension between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. This situation was made worse by the catastrophic management of Iraq by the US-led coalition forces after the 2003 invasion, a free-for-all struggle for power between Iraqi political groups, and the emergence of Al Qaeda-linked Sunni extremists.
The “original sin” of the modern Iraqi state that came into being in the 1920s was its domination at the hands of a Sunni elite, in a country that was majority Shiite. The perception that the top positions in the government and the army were reserved for the Sunnis was greatly reinforced under Saddam Hussein.
Cemented in the late 1970s, Saddam’s regime was controlled by a narrow group of Sunni officers from the city of Takrit. There were many Shiites in the ruling Baath Party, and many Sunnis who opposed Saddam. Regardless, political power became closely associated with religious identity, despite the regime’s secular nationalist ideology.
Things got worse when Iraq’s Shiite Islamist opposition began openly to challenge Saddam – not because he was a Sunni, but because his regime was secular and authoritarian.
Saddam’s response was predictably brutal. By targeting Shiite religious leaders, the regime managed to alienate large sections of Iraq’s Shiite population, laying the seeds of resentment and sectarian mistrust that is so prevalent today.
Iraq after Saddam
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 destroyed the old order, enabling Shiite Islamist parties to claim power in 2005 through free elections. The former Sunni elites were displaced by a new Shiite-dominated government. As rival Shiite politicians jockeyed for power, Sunnis felt sidelines, and many accused Shiites of collaboration with foreign troops.
At the same time, the US-led interim authorities made a catastrophic decision to disband the Iraqi army, putting thousands of officers out of work. Later, Iraqi government passed so-called “de-Baathification” laws, which barred former officials from the Baath Party from state employment and benefits.
Because Sunnis had dominated top military and government positions under Saddam, these measures affected them more than the Shiites. The majority-Sunni provinces in Iraq’s north-west took these developments as a direct threat to their community, an act of collective revenge by the Shiite leaders who they thought where working to monopolize all power in the new Iraq.
Civil Conflict 2006-09
Islamist extremists among the dozens of Sunni insurgent groups began deliberately to target Shiite civilians. A bomb attack on a Shiite shrine in the town of Samarra in February 2006 triggered revenge attacks by Shiite militias, leading to open conflict in religiously mixed areas.
Millions of Iraqis fled abroad, as Sunni and Shiite paramilitary forces fought it out for the capital Baghdad, with tit-for-tat sectarian killings and ethnic cleansing of whole neighborhoods. Outside interference prolonged the carnage: jihadists from across the Muslim world poured into Iraq to fight for Al Qaeda, while some Shiite militias apparently enjoyed Iranian support.
The violence in those years was not solely sectarian in nature. Shiite militias loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr fought government troops and clashed with other Shiite Islamist rivals. Sunnis from the “Awakening” movement turned against Al Qaeda, accepting state payroll under US patronage, while others fought in the national army alongside Shiite soldiers.
By 2009, the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki managed to subdue most Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, saving the state from complete disintegration. However, by this point the mixed Sunni-Shiite areas were devastated. Although only a minority of Sunnis and Shiites played an active role in the violence, the damage to the fabric of the society was done.
Today, major warfare has finished but Iraq remains an unstable place. Although Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians cooperate in the central government, there is no real consensus on the future direction of the state. The oil production is booming, but the state is unable to create enough jobs or boost development.
There is a widely-held belief in the Sunni provinces that the government in Baghdad discriminates against them. This resentment creates a fertile terrain for the anti-Shiite propaganda of Al Qaeda-linked groups, such as the “Islamic State in Iraq”.
Some Sunni leaders want equal participation in central government. Others want majority-Sunni areas to become a federal, autonomous entity within Iraq. A minority of extremists wants a total war against Shiites. Unfortunately, this minority is well-funded and well-organized, and there are plenty of unemployed young men willing to take up arms.
The US troops pulled out of Iraq in December 2011, marking the last stage of transferring full state sovereignty back into the hands of Iraqi authorities. The oil production is booming, and foreign companies are scrambling for lucrative contracts.
However, political divisions, in combination with a weak state and high unemployment, make Iraq one of the most unstable countries in the Middle East. The country remains deeply scarred by the brutal civil war (2006-08) that has poisoned relations between Iraq’s religious communities for generations to come.
The central government in the capital Baghdad is now dominated by the Shiite Arab majority (about 60% of total pop.), and many Sunni Arabs – who formed the backbone of Saddam Hussein’s regime – feel marginalized.
Iraq’s Kurdish minority, on the other hand, enjoys a strong autonomy in the north of the country, with its own government and security forces. The Kurds are at odds with the central government over the division of oil profits and the final status of mixed Arab-Kurdish territories.
There is still no consensus on what the post-Saddam Iraq should look like. Most Kurds advocate a federal state (and many wouldn’t mind seceding from the Arabs altogether if given a chance), joined by some Sunnis who want autonomy from the Shiite-led central government. Many Shiite politicians living in oil-rich provinces could also live without the interference from Baghdad. On the other side of the debate are the nationalists, both Sunni and Shiites, who advocate a unified Iraq with a strong central government.
Al Qaeda-linked Sunni extremists continue with regular attacks against government targets and Shiites. The potential for economic development is huge, but violence remains endemic, and many Iraqis fear the return of civil war and a possible partition of the country.
Sectarian Tension and Fear of Spillover from Syrian Civil War
The violence is spiking again. April 2013 was the deadliest month since 2008, marked with clashes between Sunni anti-government protesters and security forces, and bomb attacks against Shiites and government targets carried out by the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda organization. Protesters in Sunni areas of north-western Iraq have been holding daily rallies since late 2012, accusing the Shiite-led central government of discrimination.
The situation is aggravated by the civil war in neighboring Syria. Iraqi Sunnis are sympathetic to the (largely Sunni) Syrian rebels, while the government backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who is also allied to Iran. The government fears that Syrian rebels could link with Sunni militants in Iraq, dragging the country back into civil conflict and possible partition along religious/ethnic lines.
The Iraqi Government
- Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki: Iraq’s central government is a dysfunctional coalition of Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders. Maliki, a Shiite, has emerged as the strongest politician in Iraq, a master tactician who enjoys close relations both with the US and Iran.
- Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG): While Kurdish leaders participate in the central state institutions in Baghdad – navigating between Sunnis and Shiites – they do as they please in their autonomous entity in the Kurdish north. The Barzanis and the Talabanis are the two most powerful Kurdish families. Their flourishing trade relationship with Turkey, despite the Kurdish issue in that country, shows that everything is possible in politics.
In and out of government, the movement of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is Iraq’s answer to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. This Islamist group appeals to low-income Shiites with a network of charities. Its armed wing has fought against the government forces, rival Shiite groups, and against Sunni militias.
Sunni tribal leaders: Sunni politicians in Baghdad have lost much of their credibility through association with the Maliki government. But traditional community leaders in Sunni areas have been at the centre of opposition to the Shiite-led government, and have backed the efforts to counter the influence of Al Qaeda extremists.
The so-called Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) is a deadly terrorist outfit that specializes in highly-lethal car bombings. ISI’s traditional base is small Sunni towns in the Anbar province, but its unofficial capital is now Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
Refer to this video for a visual and simple explanation of the entire situation in Iraq. Complete credits to the creator of the video.