A WIDENING arc of violence across Iraq is raising fears that the country could fracture under the weight of sectarian and political strife. Attacks in the past week stretched from north of Baghdad, the capital, to the normally calm southern city of Basra, killing more than 200 people. The targets included Sunni mosques as well as Shia districts and Iraqi security forces. On May 20th alone, at least seven car-bombs went off in Shia districts of Baghdad.
The UN says more than 700 Iraqis were killed last month, the highest figure since 2007, when the country suffered its worst sectarian mayhem since the American invasion of 2003. In a sign of rising concern, the UN mission in Baghdad has resumed issuing casualty figures. Though the death toll is still a lot smaller than at the height of Iraq’s civil war in 2007, when 3,000 people were sometimes being killed in a month, the latest sectarian violence, together with growing links between al-Qaeda in Iraq and the conflict in neighbouring Syria, is dangerously undermining Iraq’s stability.
Although no group has yet taken responsibility for the most recent wave of attacks, the suicide-bombings and many of the car-bombings and kidnappings in Shia districts bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has taken advantage of political tension to regroup in Sunni areas.
But joining the deadly mix, say Western and Iraqi security officials, is a hitherto obscure extremist Sufi group believed to be led by Saddam Hussein’s elderly former right-hand man, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Iraq’s government blamed him and his Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi for last month’s attacks on security forces near the city of Kirkuk, which is disputed by Kurds, Turkmen and Sunni Arabs. Though deemed heretical by al-Qaeda, the group is believed to have operational ties with it and seems to have growing support among Sunnis on the ground.
Much of the violence has been in areas claimed both by Iraqi Kurdish leaders and Iraq’s central government in Baghdad. The authorities in the Kurds’ autonomous region in the north responded to last month’s unrest by moving their troops south of Kurdish territory in what they said was a bid to protect the oilfields. “I think what we’re seeing is the beginning of the break-up of Iraq,” says a senior Kurd.
When rebellious Sunnis rose up between 2004 and 2006, chunks of Iraq’s police and parts of its army buckled. This time, Iraq’s security forces have so far stood firm. But the army’s tactical withdrawal after clashes in Sunni-dominated Anbar province to the west of Baghdad and the government’s security clampdown elsewhere have created a de facto partition of territory between Sunnis and Shias, including in cities such as Baghdad.
Three years after he formed his present coalition government, Nuri al-Maliki, the prime minister, a Shia, still has no defence or interior minister. He has responded by replacing many of his senior security men. That is unlikely to make a big difference.
The residents of many Sunni districts in Baghdad and in cities in Anbar have been locked in by army roadblocks and prevented from moving freely. The government fears armed gangs infiltrating from Anbar and talks of reinforcing a trench around all of Baghdad. The capital is again becoming like a fortress. Many parts of Iraq are still ruled under emergency measures imposed by America after its invasion; they have stayed in force since American troops left at the end of 2011.
Although the influence of America has greatly diminished, it still plays a big role as mediator, seeking to bring together Iraqi officials with Sunni leaders who view the United States as their protector. But Arab governments in the region, all Sunni-dominated bar Lebanon’s, view Iraq’s Shia-led government with fear, distrust and hostility, and are loth to offer Mr Maliki help. The Arab League has closed its mission in Baghdad, established with fanfare when Iraq held the organisation’s rotating presidency. That honour now belongs to Qatar, which Iraq’s government accuses of condoning and even paying for the current wave of attacks. It also blames Saudi Arabia and Turkey. With such sectarian bad blood stirring across the region, the chances of soon restoring harmony in Iraq look slim.
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