Iraq in 2014: Back to civil war?

Fears grow that elections next year could reignite sectarian tensions

A blaze engulfs a car at the scene of an explosion in the Shia Muslim Al-Amin district of Baghdad on Dec. 8, 2013.
AFP/Getty Images

As Iraq closes out one of its bloodiest years since the 2003 U.S. invasion, fears are mounting that the national elections next April will foreshadow more violence and perhaps even another descent into the sectarian conflict that enveloped the country and cost tens of thousands of lives.

These will be the first national elections since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011. Then, violence was at a relative lull, and reconciliation between ethnic groups seemed to be within reach. Since that time, however, violent attacks have sharply increased. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under pressure from his allies in and outside Iraq to demonstrate inclusiveness in his government, and his actions after the virtually certain victory for his Shia bloc will be critical.

The past week began with a series of car bombings that killed nearly 100 people; over the past month, more than 260 people have died in similar attacks. The number of dead so far this year now rivals 2006 and 2007 figures, when sectarian fighting was at its most feverish, tit-for-tat attacks drove millions of people from their homes, and at least a million refugees left the country.

The majority of the recent attacks have been carried out against the majority Shia population by Sunni groups led, primarily, by a branch of Al-Qaeda that has folded in Al-Qaeda in Iraq with its affiliates in Syria to become known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Syria (AQIS). The group continues to absorb fighters filing across the 400-mile border the two countries share. Attacks on Iraqi security forces, simultaneous bomb attacks in different locations, and mass prison breaks have rapidly escalated in the past 12 months.

The Iraqi security forces appear to be the ultimate Shia militia, corralling Sunnis into ghettoized neighborhoods.

Michael Knights

Washington Institute for Near East Policy

In February 2006, Sunni fighters blew up the golden-domed al-Askari mosque in Samarra. Shia leaders called it their people's 9/11 – an act so grievous it propelled Shia militia death squads into rampaging through Sunni neighborhoods, kidnapping dozens of people en masse and piling the corpses of people killed execution-style into morgues that had nowhere to hold them.

"Going back to 2006 is the major fear," Michael Knights, a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently visited Iraq, told Al Jazeera America. "What we don't want to happen is going back there and we have to go through another cycle of civil war."

He said he believed civilians would, unlike in 2006, sit out the current conflict. The mass attacks, he told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs during a hearing last week on the resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, "are beginning to severely test Shia patience, resulting in growing evidence of revenge attacks on Sunni mosques, preachers and civilians."

But to Sunnis in Baghdad, Knights continued, "the Iraqi security forces appear to be the ultimate Shia militia, corralling Sunnis into ghettoized neighborhoods, where they are subject to repressive policing and economic isolation."

The fight continues to roil between the Sunni-led groups, such as AQIS, and the Iraqi security forces, which, on the whole, are politically driven, ethnocentric and corrupt. Their members, most of them Shias, include many who claim membership in militia groups.

Ranj Alaaldin, a Middle East analyst and doctoral researcher with the London School of Economics, says violence in Iraq will continue unabated in the new year.

"Terrorists will continue targeting sensitive and crowded areas with the aim of launching mass-casualty attacks," he said in an interview, adding that Al-Qaeda-linked groups will see the upcoming elections as an opportunity "to undermine the government and exacerbate political tensions."

De-Baathification still law

So far there is no candidate within Maliki's political bloc challenging his position, although another contender could emerge in the weeks prior to the poll. His Dawa party is expected to retain power with the help of other Shia groups with which he is aligned. Other Shia leaders, including former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, will challenge him on a separate ticket. The political party loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr is also opposing Maliki's rule.

The rifts that Maliki had been tasked with healing persist. Political reconciliation, both informal and otherwise among the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, are suspended as Maliki and his government continue to target political adversaries. His office, for instance, recently issued arrest warrants for three legislators belonging to Sadr's party.

The government finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, a moderate Sunni, resigned in protest in March after security forces raided his office and over other acts he saw as alienating to his political party, the Iraqiya List, headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi.

De-Baathification, adopted in 2003 to weed out Saddam Hussein-era officials from positions of power, is still law. It has been employed by the Maliki government to isolate, arrest or oust political threats and opponents.

The security forces remain under the thumb of Shia politicians, including those from Maliki’s Dawa party, but also members of the Badr brigade — the former military wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which ran against Maliki's Dawa Party in the last parliamentary election, in 2010. Despite repeated appeals by the U.S. to bring more Sunnis into the ranks, the Interior Ministry, which controls the country's security forces, remains a Shia bastion. Sunnis guarding the few remaining Sunni enclaves in Baghdad in makeshift units called the Sons of Iraq continue to be shut out of joining.

Maliki wants the U.S. to provide Iraq with Apache attack helicopters and drones and recently purchased Korean fighter jets. His critics claim he intends to use them against their communities.

These issues, says Knights, will figure prominently as the time for election nears.

"Perceptions of a stolen election, of Iranian meddling or of noninclusive government without Sunni Arab participation would gift the terrorists with a further propaganda coup," he says. "On the other hand, a positive propaganda coup might be secured by the government if the terrorism charges against Rafi al-Issawi … can be rapidly quashed."

Maliki defends his record

During a visit to Washington in October, Maliki blamed the tumult in Iraq on the Syrian conflict and the Arab Spring.

"Regretfully the Arab revolutions were able to shake the dictatorships, but were not able to fill the void in the right way," he told an audience at the U.S. Institute for Peace. "So, a vacuum was created and Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations were able to exploit, and to gain ground."

Iraq needs support from its international friends, he said, or the consequences "would be disastrous for the whole world."

He also defended his record, denying that his failure to reach out to political opponents and bring more Sunnis into the government had prompted much of the backlash and violence.

"I never, never stepped on the constitution," Maliki said. "Democracy needs lots of time and solutions, and we have a very heavy legacy."

Economic growth within reach

At the same time, Iraq's fragile economic gains could serve to unite its leaders and people, especially with the outlook for its oil exports predicting exponential growth, said Deputy Assistant Secretary Brett McGurk during testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at a different hearing last month.

Last year, Iraq surpassed Iran as the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' second-largest producer, he said. It now leads Iran as an exporter to India and China, and its 3 million barrels a day were earning nearly $200 billion in revenue a year.

That rate is expected to increase to 6 million a day by 2020 and 8 million by 2035, McGurk went on, and revenues for the period could approach $5 trillion.

The U.S. does not take sides in the Iraq conflict, he said, although Washington has repeatedly called on Maliki to reach out to other parties. "Instead, we focus on the principles enshrined in the Iraqi constitution and the maxim that it is always better to peacefully divide a large pie than to fight over a small one."

Also solidifying its financial base are Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, who sought to bolster their local support in cities such as Mosul, in the north, where Iraqi security forces have failed to gain a foothold.

"Since 2010 AQIS has been self-funding through organized crime rackets involving kidnap for ransom, protection payments from large Iraqi companies, plus trucking, smuggling and real estate portfolios," Knights said.

That Al-Qaeda fighters are crossing borders to perpetrate attacks in Iraq and Syria strengthens Maliki’s mandate to crack down on what he deems security threats. In comments broadcast in August on Iraqi state television he warned that "no one should imagine that he can interfere and set a country and its people on fire" while escaping "the interference of others in their affairs."

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