The carnage that has once again become the standard headline out of Baghdad is an eerie throwback to 2006: Dozens of Iraqi civilians murdered daily in a relentless barrage of bomb attacks, executions and kidnappings. The protagonists are the same, and the domestic political blame-game has resumed. But despite some of the echoes, the Iraq of 2014 is not the Iraq of 2006, so it's worth asking whether the changes – the U.S. military withdrawal, for example – will set Iraq on a path back to the civil war of 2006.
What created the crisis of 2006?
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 obliterated the country's sectarian balance of power: Saddam Hussein's regime had privileged the Sunni minority, and it was from that now disenfranchised community that the first insurgency against the occupation emerged. The long-suffering Shia majority, on the other hand, were the beneficiaries of Iraqi democracy, using their greater number at the polls to return successive Shia-dominated governments. The Sunni insurgency, particularly after it absorbed Al-Qaeda fighters into its ranks, began directing its attacks not only against U.S. forces, but also against Shia civilians and holy sites.
What tipped the scales and sent Iraq into civil war in 2006?
There had been intermittent retaliatory attacks on Sunni civilians by Shia militias in the period preceding civil war, but their religious leaders, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged them to resist the provocation, mindful of their dominance in the political sphere. That all changed on February 22, 2006, when Sunni fighters blew up Al-Askari mosque in the Sunni town of Samarra, north of Baghdad. The golden-domed mosque is a sacred Shia shrine, where two of their 12 holy imams, or saints, are buried, and believed to be the site where the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, was last seen before he disappeared. Many Shia believe al-Mahdi was hidden by God and will remain in hiding until the end of days, when he will return to deliver justice. Iraq’s then-prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, declared a state of emergency and ordered three days of national mourning, calling on Shias not to respond to what Iraqi officials described as their own "September 11." By day's end, however, dozens were reported dead as Shia death squads went on a rampage of killing and kidnapping random Sunnis, in some cases setting afire Sunni homes with their residents trapped inside.
How did it end?
After almost a year of relentless killing and terrorizing of civilians that boosted the number of internally displaced Iraqis to more than 3 million, the U.S. military initiated a surge of troops that took control of whole neighborhoods or Sunni enclaves in Baghdad to prevent Shiite militias from entering. At the same time, the Sunni sheiks of Anbar entered into a pact with the U.S. military to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq, effectively putting thousands of Sunni insurgents on the U.S. payroll as "Sons of Iraq" – and making them responsible for security in their neighborhoods there and in Baghdad. The Shia-dominated government also promised an outreach that would allow for reconciliation by giving Sunnis a stake in the political process. At least, that's what the U.S. hoped. In reality, the Shia-dominated government and security forces did little to accommodate the Sunnis, leaving a wellspring of resentment that has grown more and more toxic in the years since the U.S. withdrawal.