Iraq’s civil war in motion
The level of tit-for-tat sectarian killings shows Iraq’s worst fear — civil war — is already underway, writes Salah Nasrawi
A group of militants attacked and killed eight policemen including one officer on Monday in Rawa, a town of a few thousand in Iraq’s Western province of Anbar, the heartland of the country’s Sunni Arabs and the centre of nearly five months of protests against the Shia-led government. The bodies of the dead soldiers were later found mutilated and dumped in the desert, a murderous scene reminiscent of the level of savagery in violent attacks that pushed Iraq to civil war following the 2003 US invasion which toppled the Sunni-controlled regime of Saddam Hussein and empowered Shias.
Seven policemen were also killed when militants attacked checkpoints and patrols in the nearby town of Haditha. Elsewhere in the Anbar province, armed groups attacked police posts and pro-government Sunni militias. The outbreak of violence in Anbar has raised fear that the anti-government insurgency has grown into a larger war as Iraq remains deadlocked in its worst ethno-sectarian struggle over power and wealth sharing.
Earlier this month community leaders in Anbar announced that they are forming a tribal army and warned that they will fight the Shia dominated and controlled government troops if they will not leave the predominantly Sunni populated province. Anbar offers a snapshot of what is going on among the Sunni groups elsewhere in Iraq. Tensions have grown in recent months between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias, especially after Sunnis waged protesters to demonstrate against what they perceive as marginalisation and mistreatment by the government.
As the government refused to comply with the Sunnis’ demands to rescind the US-orchestrated political process which Sunnis believe had propelled Shias to power at their expense, the protests have turned to violence. On Monday, a wave of car bombings targeted Shia areas, army and police posts and pro-government Sunni militias across Iraq, leaving dozens of people killed or wounded. The attacks, some of which hit mosques, market places and crowded bus stops during the morning rush hour, pushed the death toll in Iraq in four days to nearly 300.
Monday’s shootings and bombings followed three days of attacks that killed and wounded hundreds of people in both Shia and Sunni areas. Although no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, they look like retaliatory sectarian violence. On Friday dozens of people were killed when bombs struck as worshipers were leaving a Sunni mosque and attending a funeral in the city of Bakuba, about 60 kilometres north of Baghdad. A day earlier a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at the main entrance to a Shia mosque in Kirkuk. Six others were killed in Baghdad’s Shia neighbourhoods. These attacks followed blasts and roadside bombings that targeted mosques, cafes and commercial areas in predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods in Baghdad and elsewhere.
In other violence, gunmen killed Sahwa militia fighters in several towns in the Sunnis triangle that include Anbar, Nineveh, Salaheddin and Diyala. Sahwas are Sunni tribesmen who helped government troops subdue Al-Qaeda and are often targeted by Sunni militants who view them as collaborators with the Shia-led government.
Three men of a Shia family who were travelling to Jordan for treatment were kidnapped on Saturday after their car was stopped in the Anbar province on the highway linking Iraq with the neighbouring country. Family members told local media that they received calls from their abductors saying the hostages will be killed. Gunmen also ambushed and kidnapped 10 Sunni policemen near Ramadi, the capital of Anbar. Their bullet-ridden bodies were found later, dumped in a remote desert area.
Tribesmen clashed with security forces across Sunni areas apparently in bids to drive the government troops out and entrench themselves instead in that zone. The deadly attacks continued throughout the week causing more death and destruction in several parts of Iraq. The spate of attacks committed by both sides reveals that sectarianism, for so long a main factor in the Iraq conflict, is now a driving force for substantial elements of both the disgruntled Sunnis and politically dominant Shia.
The flare-up raised concern about the potential for another wave of deadly conflict in Iraq amid rising fear that the sectarian strife in neighbouring Syria will further strain Iraq’s fledgling ethno-sectarian balance. Iraqis might have been able to live up with daily bombings, but the longer and more vicious the new wave of violence turns the more likely it is that extremists on both sides will come to the fore.
This week Sunni Tribal leaders have given the government until Friday to meet their demands and warned of war unless the country splits into a federation. The London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper on Monday quoted a local tribal chieftain in Anbar as saying that a military confrontation between the newly formed tribal army in the province and the government troops is “inevitable”.
The tribal chief said that some 1,000 well trained volunteers have already joined the “Army of Dignity and Honour”, some of them former officers from Saddam’s army, the rest insurgents. The disclosure came a day after Sheikh Abdel Malek Al-Saadi, who is considered the Iraqi Sunnis’ spiritual leader, announced he was withdrawing his proposal for a negotiated settlement with the government.
“News Iraq”, an Internet news outlet reported Sunday that Sunnis in Diyala had formed the “Revenge Battalion”, a militia to avenge government forces accused of killing Sunnis. In addition to the Al-Qaeda terror network there are several other Sunni armed groups, some of them linked to Saddam loyalists, which are already active in insurgency. Some hard-line Shia groups have joined the chorus calling for civil war and issuing similar undisguided threats.
Leader of the extremist Iraqi Hizbullah Wathiq Al-Battat has warned that more than 3,000 of the party’s members are ready to fight against “those who are waiving their arms. They are bloodthirsty to confront the enemy,” he was quoted as saying by Baghdad’s Al-Mada newspaper on Tuesday.
Another radical Shia group, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, or the “League of the Righteous”, also said that it will fight alongside the government forces if war broke out with Sunni groups. “We are ready to back the army and the police,” Firas Al-Saidi, spokesman for the group told Al-Sharqiya television on Sunday.
Now the question is whether Iraqis have exhausted all their options to secure a political solution to their problems and started their descent to civil war which many believe could also be a march toward self destruction. Broadly defined a civil war is an armed conflict involving domestic political groups fighting for political or identity causes which entails massive numbers of casualties.
If that is the criteria, Iraq’s current wave of violence seems to be a civil war. First, the failure of the contentious sides to reach a political compromise. Iraqi sectarian groups have displayed an alarming degree of intransigence in recognising the legitimate concerns and fears of each other.
Second, the exhaustion of peaceful means to end the bloodletting is giving violent groups legitimacy and public support and encouraging others to join in. This increases polarisation, and the conflict thus becomes a true ethno-sectarian conflagration.
Third, the sharp rise in the number of people killed in political violence discredits the political process and increases motivation of people to engage in violence. With the UN claiming more than 700 people killed in April and probably double that number this month, Iraq’s bloodshed has surpassed the known average number of casualties in many previous civil wars.
Given the ongoing carnage, deepening sectarian hatred and the chronic political conflict, Iraq’s quagmire is getting worse every day and if it won’t turn into an all-out civil war soon it could become a prolonged Somali-like situation with a high cost to both Iraq and the region.