Turbulence in Iraq
Tensions are soaring in Iraq as the country continues to experience violent clashes and political deadlock, writes Salah Nasrawi in Baghdad
When Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki dispatched the army to the country’s Anbar province late last month, he vowed that the troops would obliterate the Al-Qaeda terrorist group in Iraq’s troubled western province.
Instead, the crackdown initiated an uprising in the Sunni-dominated province that many now fear is sending the country back to the edge of sectarian civil war.
In just one short week, Iraq, which has been struggling with its worst violence since 2006, has taken a dramatic turn for the worse.
The country now stands at a crossroads, and the power struggle between the two Muslim communities has reached a crescendo that may force them to rethink their future in a unified Iraq.
The escalation of violence broke out last week after the security forces arrested a prominent Sunni lawmaker and moved to dismantle a protest camp in the city of Ramadi that had been demanding an end to what the Sunnis perceive as being the marginalisation and exclusion of their community.
Fighting gripped much of the province as tribesmen seized control of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, and its second largest city Fallujah, fending off incursions by government forces.
As later developments suggest, an alliance of Al-Qaeda operatives and a variety of tribal insurgents then took advantage of the escalation to take over the two cities that control the strategic highway that links Baghdad with Jordan and Syria.
Bolstered by the air force and artillery bombardment, the Iraqi police and pro-government tribal fighters later claimed to have retaken part of Ramadi after fierce fighting had left scores of dead, though much of Fallujah has remained under the rebels’ control.
It was the first time in years that Sunni insurgents had taken ground in the province’s major cities and held their positions for several days, signalling a bold effort to defeat the country’s Shia-led government.
A second move in the insurgents’ new offensive strategy was to step up their attacks in areas closer to Baghdad and in Sunni-populated provinces like Salaheddin and Nineveh, which indicates a push to encircle the Iraqi capital and isolate and surround the government forces.
Like most of Iraq’s problems, the current standoff stems from the country’s political leaders who have been exploiting the ethno-sectarian divisions in their favour in order to grab more power.
The escalating tension shows how much the war-battered country is smarting from the anxiety of decline, and each new conflict seems to be plunging it ever deeper into the abyss.
In mapping Iraq’s political landscape following the flare-up, worrying signs can be identified to the effect that the country’s community leaders are still failing to rise above partisanship and engage in a fair and equal partnership.
By triggering the crisis, Al-Maliki hopes that he will be able to grab a victory ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in April. He thinks that by showing his readiness to use strong-arm tactics against his Sunni opponents he will be able to consolidate his power and his leadership of the Shias and guarantee himself a third term in office.
His Shia rivals, meanwhile, seem to be giving Al-Maliki enough rope to hang himself instead of trying to keep him on check or promoting initiatives to resolve the standoff.
On the other hand, the power-greedy and poorly-led Sunni politicians are disunited and lacking in a vision and strategy that can address the underlined problems.
Equally, the Sunni tribal leaders are preoccupied with seeking their share in the country’s power and wealth and seem to have nothing useful to offer.
Insurgents such as former Baathists and members of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s army and security forces who remain determined to topple the post-Saddam regime appear to be in the forefront of the latest uprising.
As for Al-Qaeda jihadists, their objective in Anbar seems to be mustering the broader population’s support in their fight to defeat the Shias and their endeavour to impose an Islamic state.
It is unlikely that the terror group will succeed in its enterprise, but it will remain a source of great uncertainty, much like the parties’ failure to reach a compromise.
The signal achievement of the latest escalation in the violence in Iraq may be that no one can now predict the course of the country’s sectarian conflict, which is being fought out in the glare of the media and amidst election frenzy.
The pity is that any optimism for stability in Iraq is becoming ever more elusive, as the conflicting goals of the various sides and the complicated battleground are making it that much harder to find a solution to Iraq’s growing sectarian crisis.