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.
Corruption or incompetence?
Why do Al-Maliki’s security forces still use a bogus detector which puts Iraqis’ lives at risk, asks Salah Nasrawi
With some 712 Iraqis killed in violence last month, April was Iraq’s bloodiest month in almost five years as ethno-sectarian tensions continue to rise and plague the sharply divided nation. Most of the victims were Shia Muslims who were killed in horrific bomb attacks that rocked cities across Iraq, which are widely believed to be the work of Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Some lethal bomb attacks also targeted Sunni mosques.
The attacks, which came amid a lingering Sunni-Shia government crisis, were reminiscent of those that led to a sectarian civil war following the US invasion in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-controlled regime of Saddam Hussein. The escalation has revealed widespread concerns about Iraq’s security forces’ failings; in particular, their inability to curb the terrible bombing operations which are responsible for the high death tolls.
Amidst the controversy lies a plastic pistol-shaped detector that Iraqi army and police have been using for years to detect explosives that experts have long ruled was not suitable for bomb detection. Iraq’s Interior Ministry began importing the British-made device through a front trading company based in Jordan in 2007 at a time when the country was gripped in its worst sectarian strife when terrorists were carrying out nearly daily sporadic bombings.
From the start, many Iraqis insisted the device was useless in detecting bombs, and joked at checkpoints as false alarms were raised over other things found in their cars such as perfumes, air fresheners or gold fillings in the passengers’ teeth. Last week the small hand-held device came into the limelight again when a London court ruled that the machine is bogus and sentenced its manufacturer Jim McCormick to 10 years in jail for selling the faked device to Iraq and other countries.
The court said the device is modelled on a £15 toy golf ball detector sold in the US as Golfinder and is utterly useless at sniffing out explosives. It said McCormick netted an estimated £60 million selling the cheap US novelty dowsing rods as sophisticated bomb and drug sniffing devices for up to $30,000 a piece. “The device was useless, the profit outrageous and your culpability as a fraudster has to be placed in the highest category,” a presiding judge told McCormick after issuing the sentence.
Yet, Iraqi soldiers are still walking past a line of cars checkpoints carrying the alleged bomb detector looking for its antenna to swing left, indicating a threat. Back in 2007, Iraq’s Interior Ministry spent over about $119.5 million on some 1,500 devices known as Advanced Detection Equipment, or ADE 651. Major General Jihad Al-Jabiri, head of the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate for Combating Explosive at the time, praised the device as very effective.
The device which McCormick claimed would detect all known drug and explosive based substances was instantly ruled as fake by experts. Research done by American forces in Iraq and Iraqi experts at the Ministry of Science and Technology also found that the device was not effective and did not work. Other studies concluded that the instruments had no working electronics in them that could detect bombs or anything else and do not provide more than a random chance of detecting a bomb.
The experts said daily shootings and bombings in Iraq have also been a testament to the failure of the device which is used at main checkpoints in Baghdad and many other cities. Al-Maliki’s government dismissed reports that the device was useless and its spokesman at the time Ali Al-Dabbagh told reporters that a government inquiry had found that “more than 50 per cent of the devices are good, and the rest we will change.”
Nevertheless, the bogus bomb detectors are still in use at checkpoints in place of physical or other inspections of cars. Policemen and army soldiers still stand under sheds erected over the roads with the device with its telescopic antenna on a swivel, pointing parallel to traffic, checking cars as they pass. If the device’s antenna points to a vehicle, it is usually directed to a second team in the checkpoint where thorough inspection is carried out by policemen or soldiers who also ask for identification.
Because it was not effective, McCormick’s bogus bomb detectors are believed to have contributed to the shedding of Iraqi blood. There is no way to know exactly how many innocent lives have been lost as a result. But Iraqi Body Count estimates that some 122,000 Iraqis have been killed in Iraq’s violence since 2003, many of them in bombing attacks or blasts.
Many Iraqis would love to see Iraqi officials responsible for the fraud behind bars for their role in the waste of Iraqi blood. Al-Jabiri, who was involved in the purchase of the devices, was referred to the judiciary and in 2011 he was jailed for four years, but no proper investigation was conducted, including the role of a Jordan-based firm which was an intermediary in the deal. Many Iraqis believe Al-Jabiri got a relatively light sentence in exchange for concealing names of alleged accomplices.
Corruption in post-US invasion Iraq has gone on for so long that it has lost some of its power to shock. Most of Iraq’s political elite are believed to be involved in one type or another of corruption, manipulating the economic system in order to extract rents they can use to secure control of the government. Some are believed to have set up bogus companies abroad to run dodgy business deal with the government through cronies.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry, which is headed by Al-Maliki himself, is among the most corrupt government departments in Iraq, raising concern that a greater security threat may come from within the system from the top commanders down to soldiers who man checkpoints. Internal reports on corruption by the ministry’s inspector general have specifically cited the bribery of checkpoint guards.
Senior police officers are reportedly buying their authority over particular neighbourhoods by bribing politicians while junior officers pay their seniors monthly stipends and everyone gets a return on their investment by extorting money from families of detainees who are arrested on false charges. The government inaction to investigate and bring criminal charges against Iraqi officials and businessmen who are believed to be responsible for the death of so many people and the reluctance to remove the device from checkpoints are quite puzzling.
Many Iraqis wonder why only one official was convicted and sent to jail for his part in the detectors’ scandal. They believe that the case involves many top officials at the Interior Ministry and the government whose signatures are required to make the deal. Other Iraqis question the security strategy of army and police commanders who have kept the devices operational at checkpoints despite the fact that they are ineffective.
Suicide bombers are still able to get explosives through checkpoints where these devices are used to kill people and destroy buildings. Demands are increasing for investigation and retribution.
On Saturday, Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr told Al-Maliki, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, to apologise for the bogus detectors’ deal and “to exonerate” himself before the country’s judiciary and parliament. Al-Sadr also urged the government to order security forces to stop using the device at checkpoints, and demanded compensations to the victims and their families.