Iraq has seen increasingly dramatic rises in violence recently, as ethnic, religious and political divisions continue to tear apart the country. Incidents of fighting and attacks have led to a growing number of casualties, as seven car bombs exploded in the Shia districts of Baghdad on May 20 alone. Associate professor of religious studies Juan Campo shares his thoughts on the increasingly dire situation with the Nexus via email.
According to Campo, the region has not faced such rampant bloodshed since the peak of the United States’ War in Iraq in 2006, when the country suffered innumerable casualties.
While American forces withdrew in 2011 after years of occupation following the invasion of 2003, many regional sects are still in conflict with one another and the young Iraqi government has now been left to pick up the pieces.
Campo said Sunni militias “first emerged in the wake of the US invasion”, creating the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia. These militias are now resurfacing in the face of attacks by Shiites, also referred to as Shi`is, despite being previously suppressed by General David Petraeus’ counter-insurgency plan, which was primarily funded by Arab Sunni tribal leaders, Campo said.
Since the withdrawal has resulted in the election of a government dominated by Shiite parties, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is now assuming more power, which Campo said has led to rising tensions between the Sunni and Shiite populations of Iraq.
“This has alienated the Sunni Arab population, the minority in Iraq that controlled the country until Saddam Hussein was removed by U.S. invasion,” Campos said. “There is now increased violence between Arab Sunnis and Shi`is, with hundreds [of] civilians being killed each month.”
The pronounced leap in violence is due to the “failure of the Iraqi government to make political and economic concessions to Iraqi Arab Sunnis and [use of] Shi`i security forces to attack and intimidate them,” Campo said.
Campo rejects the common refrain that such divisions stem from “centuries of religious hatred,” and instead he pointed to “US policies and actions in the Persian Gulf region since the first Gulf War in 1990” as pivotal in exacerbating regional hostilities.
Indeed, the Maliki government has demonstrated a dubious commitment to easing tensions. When protests erupted in late April, after government troops killed 27 Sunni protestors staging a sit-in, Iraqi government officials claimed the violent response was due to demonstrations being infiltrated by Baathists and Al-Qaeda.
However, ethnic divisions have reared their head as well, particularly among the Kurds of the semi-autonomous northern region, who were subject to brutal suppression from the Hussein government during the 1980s. Kurdish nationalism and desire for official territorial claim over the relatively stable yet oil rich region, has still not given the minority ethnic group full independence from Iraq.
However, Campo said the “Kurdish area is already lost,” while still noting that the “rest of Iraq still has lots of oil resources and would be viable if religious and political conflicts could be resolved.”
Another concern has been the foreign influences on Maliki’s government, according to Campo, who said the country previously exercised rule under the influence of Western forces such as the United States.
“Internationally, Iran exercises tremendous influence on the country, and Iraqi foreign policy generally is pro-Iranian,” Campo said. “This was not the case under Saddam Hussein.”
Meanwhile, Campo said domestic conflicts in Iraq could translate into greater regional instability, as Kurdish militias have made incursions over the Turkish border, potentially provoking Turkish military action. However, Campo said Turkish forces will continue to “avoid invading as much as possible,” adding that the role of Iraq among neighboring countries will continue to be fairly limited.
“Iraq is too internally divided to be able to play a role in the region, except as an ally of Iran and supporter of Assad regime in Syria,” Campo said.
Now, Iraq faces additional instability stemming from external forces, as the current civil war in Syria has now drawn in Al-Qaeda from Iraq and Hezbollah from Lebanon, who are supporting the rebels and Assad government, respectively.
“Increased sectarian violence in Iraq and political fragmentation will only exacerbate conflict in Syria and possibly Lebanon” but “the reverse is also possible — ongoing civil war in Syria will worsen situation in Iraq,” Campo said.
Although the current situation in Iraq is dire, Campo said there are policies the Iraqi government can pursue to ameliorate tensions and restore order.
“Shi`i parties need to negotiate differences with Arab Sunni [and] Baathist groups to allow them more political participation and sharing of national resources,” although such an effort would be complicated by the involvement of neighboring governments, according to Campo.
“I don’t think either the Iranians or Saudis are willing to let this happen,” Campo said. “Perhaps the UN or a multi-nation reconciliation commission could help mediate these negotiations, but Iraqi parties would have to accept outside mediation for this to happen.”
While making this prediction, Campo also said the road to peace will likely be quite difficult for Iraq, with conditions likely to get worse before they get better.