June 30, 2013

Iraq Sliding into Civil War

RECENT months have witnessed a dramatic spurt of killings in Iraq. There have been reports almost every day of dozens of civilians and officials being targeted in sectarian attacks. In April, 700 people were killed, making it the deadliest month in Iraq in the last five years. The month of May was even deadlier as Shia militant groups and the Iraqi army has started to retaliate. The death toll passed the thousand marks. Many of the deadliest attacks have happened in Shia areas and had all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda operations. In retaliation to the targeting of Shia neighbourhoods and mosques, Sunni residential areas and mosques have now come under attack in different parts of the country. TERROR OUTFITS JOIN HANDS IN NAME OF ISLAM The terrorist organisations like the Al Nusra that have been in the forefront of the fighting in neighbouring Syria are keen to extend the sectarian war to Iraq. Anyway, many of the Al Nusra fighters were originally with the Al Qaeda in Iraq and had gone across the border to pursue their dream of establishing an Islamic Emirate in the region. They have declared a jihad against Shias and other minorities, whom they consider as apostates. Another Sunni militant organisation that has also raised the banner of revolt against the government is the “Sahwa” (Awakening). The outfit was originally set up under the tutelage of the American occupation forces as part of their efforts to quell the Sunni insurgency in central Iraq that had erupted after 2003. Now, the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and their former enemies have joined hands to fight against the government in Baghdad. The Sahwa reportedly has a fighting strength of 100,000. There are reports that fighters owing allegiance to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party have also joined hands with their former adversaries to fight against the central government in Baghdad. The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, in a television broadcast in the last week of April warned Iraqis about the consequences of sectarianism. “Sectarianism is evil, and the wind of sectarianism does not need a license to cross from one country to another, because if it begins in one place it moves to another place,” he said. The escalation in the cycle of violence started after the Iraqi security forces used strong arm methods in the city of Hawija, situated north of the capital Baghdad. Around 26 people were killed when the army and police intervened to end the violent protests there after the demand that the demonstrator give up a man accused of killing an Iraq soldier were rejected. Hawija has long been a centre of Sunni extremism. A sizeable section of the minority Sunni population is yet to reconcile to a government dominated by the majority Shias. The Iraqi vice president, Tareq al Hashmi, who has been accused of organising death squads while in office, fled to Turkey last year after an arrest warrant was served on him. The country’s finance minister, Rafe al Issawi, was also served with an arrest warrant for harbouring terrorists in December last year. Both these Sunni leaders were accommodated in the cabinet after a power sharing formula was accepted by Maliki to break the political impasse that occurred after the general elections two years ago. One of the senior most Sunni leaders in the country, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Osama Nujaifi, has called for the resignation of Maliki following the Hawija incident. TACIT SUPPORT FROM US & ALLIES Neighbouring countries have been encouraging all these outfits to rise in revolt against the government in Baghdad, which is viewed to be close to the Iranian government. They want to enmesh Iraq into the kind of quagmire that Syria now finds itself in. These moves seem to have the tacit support of the American, Turkish and Saudi Arabian governments. After the Hawija incident, the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al Malki, had warned about the dangers of the country sliding into sectarian warfare. “If sectarian war erupts, there will be no winners or losers. All will lose, whether in Southern, or western or eastern or northern Iraq,” he had said. The UN envoy in Baghdad, Martin Kobler, said in the third week of May that it was the responsibility of all the Iraqi leaders to stop the bloodshed. “Small children are burned alive in their cars. Worshippers are cut down outside their own mosques. This is unacceptable,” the UN envoy said. Maliki has been trying to reach out and assuage the restive tribes in central Iraq. He has admitted that the Sunnis have some genuine grievances. A parliamentary committee is investigating the Hawija raid and several prominent Shia lawmakers have criticised the use of force to deal with the demonstrators. But the militant groups have spurned the olive branch. In the last week of April, the tribal leaders of Anbar, a Sunni dominated area, had announced the formation of a tribal army to protect Sunni protest movements. Iraqi government officials say that the protest movements are heavily infiltrated by terrorist groups. All the insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda, have openly vowed to protect the demonstrators. More than a hundred of those killed in recent weeks have been Iraqi soldiers and policemen. Ten soldiers were kidnapped and executed on May 19. Many Iraqi commentators have started saying that the civil war in Iraq has already erupted and that it is going to be worse than what Syria is currently witnessing, Residents of Baghdad have started hoarding essential commodities, fearing the worst. The latest surge in violence has further complicated the acute refugee problem the country has been facing since the American invasion in 2003. More than a million Iraqis had fled the country during the American occupation to escape the deadly violence that had plagued many Iraqi cities and towns. Many of them had found refuge in Syria. With the situation deteriorating there, they would like nothing more than returning to their country. There are around 450,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan. The orgy of bloodshed that Iraq is witnessing these days is not a happy augury for them. In fact, more Iraqis are now thinking of leaving their homes and finding refuge from the mayhem they are witnessing on a daily basis. LONG TERM US GAME PLAN (!) Most observers of the Iraqi scene agree that the current strife in Iraq is a spill-over from the bloodshed in Syria. The insurgent groups waging war against the government in Damascus now control a huge swathe of long border between the two countries. This makes it easier for fighters and arms to move to and fro with comparative ease. The ten year long American military occupation of the country had exacerbated the sectarian divide. The Christian community in Iraq which was around five per cent of the population before the American invasion has now been almost totally denuded. Most of them have fled from the country after they were selectively targeted by the Al Qaeda linked extremist groups. After the overthrow of the secular Ba’ath government in 2003, the Americans had purged the entire civil service and the army, hoping to instal a pliant government in its place. Things, however, did not go according to their plans. The country itself was de facto partitioned into two parts with the Kurds in the North running a virtually independent state. One of the stated aims of the neo-conservatives who dominated the Bush administration was to redraw the map of West Asia. Many believe that the Obama administration too is not averse to this goal. The splitting up of Iraq and Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines could be a long term game plan of Washington. Obama administration officials, after having evidently lost hope of effecting a regime change in Syria, are now suggesting that the country is heading for a three way split, with the Kurds and the Sunnis carving out their own mini states. In Iraq, the Americans patronised “death squads” and militias to do their dirty work during the ten long years of occupation. The US military consciously tried to foster a Shia-Sunni divide and expressed alarm when there were signs of growing unity between the two groups. In all the elections that were held since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Shia dominated parties have emerged on top, reflecting the will of the majority. The government led by Maliki has refused to be subservient to Washington. Iraq witnessed relatively calm provincial elections on April 20. Maliki’s “State of Law” party won most of the seats. The Sunni led “Iraqiya Bloc” fared poorly in the elections. The election was not held in Sunni dominated Anbar province because of the security situation. Banners have appeared in Sunni dominated cities like Fallujah accusing the Americans of having surrendered the country to the Shiites and Iran. “America, you gave Iraq to Iran and then just left,” many of the banners put up in Fallujah proclaim. Many of the Sunni insurgents have told the media that they hope a change in government in Damascus will help their cause. The insurgent groups however are still weighing their options ---whether to wage a war of secession or for a return to the status quo that existed before the American occupation of the country when the Sunnis monopolised power. Since the overthrow of the Sunni monarchy in fifties, though the leadership of the country was under Sunni heads of state, they implemented a mainly secular agenda. The ideology of Pan-Arabism transcended the sectarian divide. Israel was the enemy and Palestine was a sacred cause. Now America, aided by its conservative allies in the region, has succeeded in fostering a sectarian divide. The main enemy for many conservative Arab states today is Shia Iran and its allies --- Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. The Palestine issue has faded into the background. Israel is in fact helping the Sunni groups fighting the Syrian government and Hezbollah. There are reports that America is on the verge of brokering a new defence agreement between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to protect their strategic interests in the region.