Today in Iraq a series of coordinated explosions and an attack by armed gunmen on the Justice Ministry in Baghdad killed 22 and injured 55. It is a particularly horrific incident but it is not all that unusual. Despite the mainstream media always noting that “violence in Iraq has subsided from its peak in 2006 and 2007″ in its reports of violence in the country the US and its allies invaded on a pretext ten years ago, Iraq is still deadlier for civilians than is Afghanistan – with a civilian death toll of around 4,500 last year compared to Afghanistan’s toll of around 2,500. The two countries have populations of around 30 million each.
It’s been five years since we were told that the Iraq “surge” was a success, even though many at the time said it had failed to touch the underlying fracture lines in Iraqi society: the enmities between Kurds and Arabs and between Sunni and Shiite – instead simply wallpapering over those problems long enough to call it a win and get out. Iraq has been getting deadlier for months, due to a combination of powderkegs. Now, the wheels are beginning to come off.
“It is getting worse right now for all Iraqis,” said Pascale Warda, of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation. “The security situation now is worse as well as the political situation.” She is keen – like many observers – to draw a sharp distinction with what happened in Iraq’s sectarian war, not least because political leaders now appear at pains, in public at least, to disavow sectarianism.
“I was at a women’s conference last week. The prime minister [Nouri al-Maliki] was there. He made an excellent speech saying Iraq would not go back to the sectarian days. I also saw him speak at a church and say the same. All of which is very good but I was bothered by the fact that he did not acknowledge the speaker of the parliament [Osama al-Nejafi, a Sunni very publicly at loggerheads with Maliki] nor did Nejafi acknowledge Maliki.”
Warda, like others spoken to by the Guardian, blames a complex coincidence of events for the present violence.
Sunnis in the province of Anbar, centred on the city of Falluja, have stepped up protests, complaining of the marginalisation of Sunnis within Iraqi institutions. The government in Baghdad has clamped down to prevent the protests spreading to the capital. The political backdrop has not helped. A stalemate has persisted since the last national elections in 2010, when Maliki failed to win a majority but managed to pull enough Shia factions around him to govern. Since then, Sunni Iraqis have accused Maliki of being a dictator. He has accused his detractors of plotting against the state.
The result, Warda argues, is not sectarian hatred for its own sake as was visible five years ago. Instead, where it exists, it is defined by a political agenda.
Meanwhile, those leading the Sunni militias cite the Syrian conflict as a new unifier for their cause – bringing back together those backed the Americans with who supported Al Qaeda and the insurgency, with backing from Sunni charities from Gulf states and wealthy Gulf state figures in the form of arms and money. One commander told a Guardian reporter:
“This time we are organised. We have co-ordinated with countries like Qatar and Saudi and Jordan. We are organising, training and equipping ourselves but we will start peacefully until the right moment arrives. We won’t be making the same mistakes. Baghdad will be destroyed this time.”
Added to the old resentments in areas like Kirkuk, the Syrian sectarian Sunni/Shia civil war across the border (where Kurds too see themselves as victims but also with opportunities to seize) and a new period of Turkish aggressiveness could yet cause the Iraqi pot to boil over. If so, we’d see an extension of an arc of insatbility that encompasses Afghanistan too, inviting the regional power players – Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – as well as boththe West and Russia to be tempted to intervene. Interesting times. We should all hope Iraqis succeed in kicking the can down the road once more, and staving off a new civil war while they try to find negotiated solutions and let time do a little healing.