Does Anyone Remember Iraq?

On October 5, a suicide bomber blew himself up among a crowd of Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad, and another detonated his explosives inside a cafe north of the capital—the deadliest of several attacks across Iraq that day, killing at least 48 people. To many Iraqis, such incidents do not come as a surprise. With the international community’s current focus on the unfolding tragedy in Syria, however, it is easy to forget that the security situation is rapidly deteriorating in Iraq. In the past few months, the country has been hit by an alarmingly high number of attacks on civilians and security forces. According to UN reports, more than 5,700 civilians have been killed since January—almost double the figure reported for the whole of 2010.

For now, in contrast to the situation that prevailed in the early and mid-2000s, Iraq remains a slow-boil crisis that is less dramatic than crises in other Middle East countries. Iraqi refugees are no longer raising massive concerns in neighbouring states; the level of upheaval in the country is not (yet) high enough to generate international alarm; and Iraq’s government doesn’t seem to be on the verge of collapse.

If Iraq continues down its current path, a meltdown is likely to occur—maybe not on the scale of 2006-07, but serious enough to plunge the country into a major violent crisis.

Yet that could change if the attacks continue at current levels. A period of relative calm after the pullout of U.S. forces from the country had raised hopes for a return to quasi-normalcy in Iraq, but tensions are now reaching new heights amid Sunni anger over perceived mistreatment from the Shiite-led government.

Since Iraq is arguably experiencing two separate but interrelated security crises, it is useful to differentiate between Al Qaeda-related mass-casualty attacks and the insurgency carried out by local Sunni and Shia militant cells. The former tend to be more prominent in international media reports, not least because of their visibility and because of the persisting interest in all things related to Al Qaeda. But the less spectacular attacks by sectarian militants (many former soldiers or militia members) are equally, if not more, important. The good news is that so far, the general population  has remained largely uninvolved in the violence, and hence civilian-on-civilian ethno-sectarian violence continues to be relatively rare. The less good news is that there is no guarantee that this will continue to be the case.

Several developments are particularly worrying. Iraq’s security forces seem to have moved away from the formula of population-focused counter-insurgency developed by the U.S.-led coalition, resorting instead to counter-productive traditional tactics such as mass arrests and collective punishment. As Sunni jihadist groups have staged increasingly deadly bombings this year, the forces of the (Shia) Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have responded with a series of harsh security crackdowns, including (according to human rights advocates) indiscriminate roundups of Sunnis, the use of torture to obtain confessions, the use of secret informant testimony to secure convictions, and demands for bribes from the families of detainees.

Not surprisingly, the hope for stability under Prime Minister Maliki, who had promised to be a leader for all Iraqis, is giving way to fears that his government is imitating many of the repressive tactics that his Shiite constituency suffered under the past Sunni minority regime. One example: Mr. Maliki recently reached out for new reinforcements, urging former special forces officers and their trainers (at the rank of major and below) to answer the need of their country by visiting a Ministry of Defense Web site to reapply for service. The problem is that those special forces were among Saddam Hussein’s most feared troops, and were responsible for some of the worst human rights violations.  To justify the security crackdown, Mr. Maliki has sought to cast himself as a fighter against terrorism doing what he must in order to protect the security of the country.   But the new security measures are likely to exacerbate tensions and undermine the process of building a united democratic Iraq.

Over the past seven years,  Prime Minister Maliki has opted for a divide et impera approach, making use of both legal and illegal means to consolidate his power while systematically undermining the prospect of a credible Sunni Arab leadership.  For instance, federal security forces have been disproportionately deployed in Sunni neighbourhoods and regions, and a series of prominent Sunni officials have been removed from office pursuant to the Justice and Accountability Law on the basis of alleged senior-level affiliation to the former Baath party.  Many Sunnis also accuse the government of Prime Minister Maliki of turning a blind eye, if not actually supporting, the activities of Shia militias.

Under growing pressure from government forces, and with rapidly diminishing trust in a political solution, many Sunni Arabs have concluded that their only viable option is violent conflict. To further complicate matters, Sunni extremists linked to Al Qaeda have been emboldened by the civil war next door in Syria. In an increasingly chaotic Syria, they can find safe havens and a pipeline for new bombers through areas controlled by local Sunni allies.

If Iraq continues down its current path, a meltdown is likely to occur—maybe not on the scale of 2006-07, but serious enough to plunge the country into a major violent crisis. Urgent measures are needed in order to reduce violence and lower sectarian tensions, yet there is no sign that such measures are forthcoming. In their absence, and in the context of growing regional tensions, Iraq might once again come to the attention of the international community in the saddest possible way.

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