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Sectarianism, politics & bloodshed: Iraq's security catastrophe

Iraq is becoming a quasi-failed state in which the government is losing full control over some provinces. But who can end the crisis?

Bassem Aly, Tuesday 28 Jan 2014
Iraq
Iraqi soldiers look on during an intensive security deployment in Ramadi, 100 km (62 miles) west of Baghdad January 23, 2014 (Photo: Reuters)
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When the United Nations announced that 140,000 people, including 65,000 during the last week, had escaped deadly clashes in an Iraqi province, then something must be going seriously wrong.

This shocking information was announced on Friday regarding the ongoing conflict in Anbar province between government forces and anti-government fighters.

The ongoing Sunni-Shia conflict in Baghdad cannot be regarded as new news, but its continuation should ring a warning bell about the nation’s future.

Therefore, analysts say Iraq’s latest security developments signify an extremely urgent situation.

What is happening now? 

Can dispersing a demonstration lead to military conflict? Yes, especially in Iraq.

Security forces cleared a year-long Sunni protest camp on 30 December, causing the eruption of fighting near Ramadi and spreading to Fallujah.

Moreover, Sunni militants took partial control of Anbar and Fallujah as they took advantage of the support of Sunni tribesmen who founded the Sahwa [Awakening] militias, armed groups that allied with US troops against Al-Qaeda in late 2006.

These events were the first time anti-government fighters have exercised open control since the height of the rebellion against the Shia government after the US-led invasion in 2003.

Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Al-Assadi warned in a speech on Monday that militant groups fighting in Anbar had amassed "numerous and modern" weapons.

"They are enough to occupy Baghdad," he said. "Their target is not just controlling Fallujah or (the nearby town of) Garma, it is to topple the entire political process."

On Sunday, government troops launched air strikes and artillery fire in Fallujah against Sunni militants associated with the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), creating a loose cordon around the city.

Last week, a military attack drove militants away from large desert areas which had been under the latter’s control along the Syrian border in western Iraq.

Speaking to Ahram Online on condition of anonymity due to security concerns, an Iraqi activist stated “many causes” had caused the high levels of sectarian violence since 2008.

“The most important is corruption that badly affects whole fields of government. The other leading cause is the sharing of power based on a sectarian and ethnic basis that generated the so called (the national participation government),” said the activist.

The source argued that the “lack of understanding” among Sunni politicians and tribes provided a chance for Al-Qaeda to enter Anbar from Syria, organising themselves in the desert that “became their hiding place.”

“The violence in Iraq, especially in Anbar, is a real war against terror which needs the participation of all Iraqis to put an end to it; but as long as there are political blocs that serve regional agendas, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Iran; this war will continue and the price is Iraqi blood,” concluded the activist.

Reactions 

Some international crises capture world attention, and Iraq’s crisis is one of those.

Human Rights Watch accused all sides of committing abuses and “apparently unlawful methods of fighting” that cause civilian casualties and property damage.

Based on NGOs and UN-provided date, the rights organisation expressed concern about the government blockade of Fallujah and Ramadi, which constrains access to food, water and fuel supplies.

Yet the Iraqi Red Crescent announced providing humanitarian aid to more than 8,000 families across Anbar.

"I would urge the leaders of the country ... to address the root causes of the problems," UN chief Ban Ki-moon said during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki on 13 January during his visit to Iraq just months ahead of general elections.

Zaid Al-Ali, an adviser to the United Nations in Iraq from 2005 to 2010, argued that “state legitimacy” in places like Fallujah and Ramadi was “very thin.”

“Terrorist organisations place explosives throughout the country despite the presence of checkpoints every few hundred meters,” Al-Ali said. But he mentioned other reasons for the ongoing security dilemma.

“Police and special army forces routinely round up groups of young men for no reason and torture them for weeks, trying to force confessions, in complete violation of their basic human and constitutional rights,” he said.   

“That practice has been particularly problematic in Sunni areas, where young men can be disappeared by the security forces for months or years, often for no reason,” noted Al-Ali. 

Don't count on Washington 

Sometimes, governments can be too weak to face their challenges. Al-Maliki called residents of Anbar to “take a stand” against Al-Qaeda fighters.

He met with US President Barack Obama in Washington in October to seek White House support, a step that came three years after the last American soldier withdrew from the country.

Barry Lando, a US Mideast writer, said the last thing the US should do is become “militarily embroiled” in the conflict raging again in Iraq. He used the example of the first Gulf War in 1990 as practical evidence for his argument.

“George H.W. Bush called on the people of Iraq to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein. But when they finally did, after Saddam’s forces were driven from Kuwait President Bush refused any gesture of support, even permitted Saddam’s pilots to keep flying their deadly helicopter gunships. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered.” 

The US position towards the situation in Iraq was a bit vague until State Secretary John Kerry’s statement.

"We will stand with the government of Iraq who push back against (militant) efforts ... but it is their fight - that is something we determined some time ago," he told reporters in Jerusalem on 5 January.

Kerry said the United States is “very, very concerned” about the ISIL, describing it as the “most dangerous player in the region.”

Four days later, US House of Representatives speaker John Boehner called on Obama to authorise a larger US role in Iraq through aiding the army with additional equipment.

Nevertheless, Boehner asserted that a new US troop presence was "not called for at this time."

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