Sunni-Shia tensions flare in Iraq, causes unaddressed

Bassem Aly , Sunday 2 Jun 2013

While political figures meet in the attempt to stem unrest that claimed over 1000 lives in May in Iraq, the government appears unwilling to face the root cause: Sunni political exclusion

In this file photo, a woman reacts as residents gather at the scene of the previous days car bomb attack that killed least 127 people and injured 148 at the Sadriyah market in Baghdad, Iraq Thursday, April 19, 2007 (Photo: AP)

Two years have passed since the US troop withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011 after spending hundreds of billions of dollars and losing roughly 4,500 servicemen during an eight-year occupation phase.

The present crisis of the oil-rich state lies in its divided nation, not the presence of foreign troops.

The alarming death toll, which exceeded a thousand in this month alone, is not a result of war, but rather of tragic and bloody waves of shootings and bombings between Sunnis and Shias.

Since the US military show is over, who is capable of building a national consensus in Iraq? This question remains unanswered.

Blood on both sides

During the era of ex-President Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Sunni community enjoyed precedence in the political system. This collapsed with the 2003 US invasion and subsequent destruction of the Saddam regime.

Now, Sunnis complain of marginalisation and victimisation, blaming the central government for their political exclusion, a situation that led to widespread protests last December.

As protests grew, so did the government clampdown. Bomb attacks, at a relative low compared to six or seven years ago, began to re-emerge. The number of people killed in unrest has reached 614, officials told AFP. But UN estimates suggest 1,045 killed and 2,397 injured.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shia, parliament speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, along with other high-level political and religious figures met Saturday in an attempt to contain the situation.

No clear results from the meeting have been announced until now.

"This is a political, not only sectarian conflict," says Maria Fantappie, an analyst of Iraqi affairs at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

"The political representation of the Sunnis in the Iraqi politics remains the main outstanding issue, which makes a compromise between all parties a hardly possible scenario," she argued.

Fantappie pointed out that Al-Maliki has not yet seriously engaged in negotiations, while Sunni protesters failed to form a single united bloc within the country's different provinces.

Al-Maliki's government, for its part, took a raft of decisions in a bid to lessen the intensity of Sunni anger, including the release of prisoners and increasing the salaries of Sunni anti-Al-Qaeda fighters.

It has not been enough to stem the bloodshed.

Sami Moubayed, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, believes Iraq's crisis cannot be separated from its regional context, as Iran and Saudi Arabia deal with the issue as part of a regional proxy war.

"Saudi Arabia will never, ever, ever, allow this country, which it considers its own backyard, to remain under firm Iranian control," Moubayed said.

"Back in 2012, a 'Sunni Spring' was being prepared for Baghdad, the brainchild of Saudi Arabia's late Emir Nayef Ibn Abdul-Aziz. The idea was for Sunni districts to rise in protest, demanding Maliki out, and to eventually declare autonomy in places like the Saladin Province, or Anbar."

Moubayed stated that Riyadh tolerated Iran's interferences when the "Americans were there," but with the wave of Sunni nationalism spreading in the region, it will not accept the status quo in Iraq much longer.

"As far as Riyadh is concerned, Al-Malki, Muqtada Al-Sadr, and Ammar Al-Hakim must go," he concluded.

Iraq is Washington's fault

The United States seems worried about post-withdrawal Iraq.

"The vice president expressed concern about the security situation in Iraq and pledged continued US support for Iraq in its fight against terrorism," said a statement from Joe Biden's office issued 25 May.

"Without doubt, sectarianism began to re-emerge in Iraq after the US military pull out. This is partly due to the fact that various groups are trying to re-establish themselves and believe that some groups in power were initially installed by the United States not by the will of people," says Majid Rafizadeh, a member of the advisory board of the Harvard International Review.

"The US government helped establish Iraq upon the bases of religious identity; most polls show that the majority of ordinary Sunnis and Shias are willing to resolve the crisis through democratic tools. The government has not shown any legitimate indication to take the necessary steps."

Meanwhile, US concern with the security situation in Iraq is partially linked to its preoccupation with the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Earlier, the US secretary of state accused Baghdad of ignoring Iranian military shipments passing through its territory to reach the Syrian regime currently involved in a two-year civil war against rebels.

Stephen Wicken, Iraq analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, claims that outbreak of the conflict in Syria, in addition to Al-Maliki's efforts to consolidate power around his office and "inner circles," pushed Iraq back towards sectarian violence.

Wicken also makes reference to the role played by Iraqi Kurds in the political game.

"President Jalal Talabani was a key mediator between political factions, as well as between Iraqi leaders and Iran, while the president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, has been one of Prime Minister Maliki’s most vocal opponents. Historically, Iraqi Kurds have been allied strategically with Shia Arabs, as both were oppressed by Saddam Hussein and have experienced tension with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. President Talabani’s absence from Iraq is a blow, since what Iraq needs is an honest broker," he asserted.

Talabani, 79, travelled to Germany in December after suffering a stroke, the latest in a series of health problems he suffered in recent years.

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