Violence in Iraq is on the rise. On Monday, 23 Shiite Muslims were killed in a series of car-bomb attacks, bringing this week’s death toll to 200. While no group has claimed responsibility for this most recent attack, it bears the trademarks of the Islamic State of Iraq, the local Al-Qaeda franchise. On Saturday, masked gunmen killed four Shiite soldiers in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar, an expansive governorate west of Baghdad that abuts Syria and Jordan. These attacks should come as no surprise as tensions between disenfranchised Sunnis and the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been building for months.
Iraq is a country forged from disparate parts. The Ba’ath Party under Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, dominated for decades leaving the majority Shiite population struggling under the yoke of oppression and fear. After the U.S. overthrow of Saddam in 2003, the Shiite took power and under the rule of Prime Minister al-Maliki have systematically rooted out almost all remnants of the Ba’ath. Yet Maliki’s destruction of the Ba’ath has not been able to root out the last bastions of Sunni power. In the western Iraq governorate of Anbar, where the famous Sunni awakening occurred that turned the tide of the 2006 civil war in the U.S.’s favor, tribesmen and religious dignitaries have formed a new army that threatens to once more pull the country into sectarian civil war.
Since late 2012, a grassroots protest movement has been fomenting among western Sunni communities that feel disconnected from and oppressed by the Shiite-dominated government. On April 20 Iraqis went to the polls to elect representatives for local councils, yet Prime Minister al-Maliki postponed elections in the governorates of Anbar and Ninawa in direct response to the protestors’ calls for “an end to Sunni marginalization, balance within state institutions, and jobs for the unemployed.” Herein lies the deeper problem.
Under the U.S. occupation, Sunni tribal leaders such as Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha were turned into allies that helped to drive Al-Qaeda out of Sunni communities in the western governorates. After the U.S. departure, Abu Risha’s Sahwa Council militiamen were to be incorporated into the newly reformed Iraqi Army. However, under Prime Minister al-Maliki the Sunni militiamen who helped to turn the tide of the civil war were never brought into the military. This has left a pool of disenchanted, well-armed Sunni men who, angered by the increasing presence of the Shiite-dominated military, may no longer recognize the viability of organizations such as the Sahwa Council.
On April 23, Iraqi army forces attacked a gathering of protesters in the town of Hawija in Kirkuk governorate. During the attack, 50 were killed and 110 wounded. While government sources said that the attack was in response to protestors’ refusal to lay down their arms, the scale of the attack only further inflamed an already tense situation. In response to the army attack, Sunni tribesmen began raising a new force called the Army for Pride and Dignity. “In order to keep Anbar a safe place for the Sunnis, we decided to form an army called the Army of Pride and Dignity with 100 volunteers from each tribe to protect our province,” said Sheikh Saeed al-Lafi.
This loose collection of disenfranchised, war-hardened tribesmen has the ability to once more pull Iraq into the throes of civil war. While Prime Minister al-Maliki has stated that “sectarianism is evil, and the wind of sectarianism does not need a license to cross from a country to another,” a veiled reference to the civil war currently under way in neighboring Syria, his comments ignore his own culpability in the events that are unfolding. According to the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Iraq, “the country is at a crossroads.” Prime Minister al-Maliki’s quest to centralize power at the expense of the Sunni minority has laid fertile ground for not just Al-Qaeda, but more traditionally oriented, former Ba’athist organizations to once again take root in the disenfranchised western Sunni communities.
From the U.S. perspective, the region is a strategic mess. Syria is in flames, Lebanon is teetering on the brink, Jordan is drowning in refugees, and Iran continues to meddle and scheme. The current situation in Iraq has the potential to turn the mess into a nightmare. Iraq, while weakened by the U.S. occupation and the rise of Iran, is still one of the most powerful and influential countries in the region. If the current sectarian strife brewing were to burst into all-out war, the instability now reigning in Syria could very well stretch from Beirut straight through to Baghdad.