The situation in Iraq is steadily deteriorating. A quick analysis of the country through media outlets reveals an ever-growing number of terror attacks and a rising tally of civilian casualties. Since the American withdrawal two years ago, the violence has been steadily rising, reaching new peaks this year. Six thousand civilians have been killed this year, and 1,000 of these casualties occurred in September alone. Most concerning, "analysts fear the country is lurching towards civil war" amid rising sectarian tensions.
The rise (or, rather, return) of sectarianism in Iraq dates back to 2003. Prior to that date, the largely secular Sunni Ba'ath party, led by Saddam Hussein, had done an effective job of damping sectarian tensions for decades. The American invasion of Iraq, however, quickly altered the dynamics, resulting in a wave of sectarian violence that peaked in 2006 and 2007 and was not stalled until the American troop surge in 2008. Violence continued, but was heavily restricted, until the American withdrawal in 2011. Since then, the violence has been steadily rising, expanding outwards from the capital to affect areas previously unaffected by insurgent activity.
The sectarian violence in Iraq has been exacerbated by the continuing Syrian civil war, and both Sunni and Shia Iraqis have been involved in both sides of the conflict. At the same time, roughly 160,000 Syrian refugees have fled the country to Iraq, placing further strain on the country. Now, a number of different militias and insurgent groups are active in Iraq, working to destabilize the country for their political agendas. It is these militias that are the greatest symptom of trouble in Iraq, as they are a sign that the country is slipping from government control and could descend into civil war.
However, there is more to this conflict than just the rise of sectarian tensions. Sectarianism is a potent, though volatile, political tool to generate support for political purposes. In Iraq's case, the political issues are specifically related to the country's transfer to democracy following decades of rigid control under Saddam Hussein, a member of the Sunni minority. Under democratic elections, the Shia majority easily took over control of the government. Though the constitution was established with the intent to share power between the various populations (and the Kurds have had an autonomous region in Northern Iraq since 1991), the Shia leaders are effectively in control of the government. This fact causes the Sunnis to perceive themselves as both marginalized and, potentially, threatened. They have come to see the elections as rigged and regard the government as self-serving.
The current spate of violence afflicting Iraq began at the start of the year, following a government raid against Sunni Foreign Minister Rafia al-Issawi, which resulted in anti-government protests. Since then, the attacks have grown to be more coordinated, increasing both in frequency and geographic reach. The insurgents are targeting both civilian and government locations, hoping to further sectarian tensions. The government has responded with repressive crackdowns, restricting the movement between Sunni and Shia areas of cities. One such raid of an anti-government camp led to 20 civilian casualties. These actions foster mistrust of the government, carefully protected in Green Zones, and the military, seen as ineffective despite U.S. military training.
The sectarian crisis is, therefore, a symptom of the political struggles within Iraq. There is a serious lack of trust between the political parties, and a similar lack of trust between the civilian populations. Together, it is these two factors which could cause the country to fracture into various regions. Rather than sharing power with the Sunnis and Kurds, the Shia leaders are re-centralizing and sharing power within a small circle, which now controls the military, financial, and judicial sectors of the Iraqi government. This centralization is the reason for the tensions seen within the country, as Kurds and Sunnis see no reason to support a government that marginalizes their people and will not address their needs.
Fortunately, there is still time to resolve these tensions before the country collapses into civil war. Tensions are also expected to ease following the 2014 election in Iraq, but this is not a guarantee. The next leader (potentially current incumbent Nouri al-Maliki) needs to be encouraged to relax the government's grip and reconcile with its civilian populations. Iraq's neighbors and other countries with interests in the area can assist in this venture. Turkey and the United States, in particular, have a vested interest in the development of an oil pipeline from Iraq through Turkey, rather than the current line that moves through the Strait of Hormuz, near Iran.