Magazine article The Middle East

Iraq's Slippery Slope: Few Nations Have Been as Tormented by Violence and Upheaval as Iraq Has over the Last Four Decades of Constant War, but Now It's Going through Another Savage and Often Random Bloodletting, Pitting Sunni against Shi'ite in a Sectarian Conflict That Is Remorselessly Consuming the Middle East

Magazine article The Middle East

Iraq's Slippery Slope: Few Nations Have Been as Tormented by Violence and Upheaval as Iraq Has over the Last Four Decades of Constant War, but Now It's Going through Another Savage and Often Random Bloodletting, Pitting Sunni against Shi'ite in a Sectarian Conflict That Is Remorselessly Consuming the Middle East

Article excerpt

IRAQ IS BEING TORN APART ANEW BY SECTARIAN violence, increasingly fuelled by the civil war in neighbouring Syria. As of early December, the United Nations reported that more than 8,000 people had been killed in 2013, a chilling reprise of the wholesale slaughter of 2006-07 between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunnis.

Iraq's new relentless descent into chaos this year has virtually eroded all the security gains that were made at great human cost over the previous five.

Much of the current violence is the work of hard-line Sunni jihadists of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which rebranded itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and is now emerging as the most powerful rebel force in the Syrian civil war, or indeed anywhere in the Muslim world.

These two fearsome conflicts are blending together into an expanding Sunni-Shi'ite war across the region in which the jihadists are now seizing and holding territory, a strategy that if successful, bodes ill for the Middle East.

The violence in Iraq has not reached the terrible peaks of 2006-07 when the sectarian war was at its height, triggered by Sunni attacks on Shi'ite religious shrines. Iraq expert Michael Knights says that throughout 2013, the monthly total of terrorist strikes has regularly topped 1,200. That's still well below the 6,000-plus incidents reported monthly during the bloodiest days of 2006-07.

But the war in Syria, which has allowed Al Qaeda to greatly strengthen its power and influence, has accelerated the sectarian violence in Iraq, and whole units of jihadist fighters rotate between operations in the two countries.

Growing despair

There is a growing sense of despair in Baghdad and other cities that have been particularly hit such as Mosul, Kirkuk, Fallujah and Haditha. The bombing campaign is expected to escalate ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 30 April.

"Iraq is arguably experiencing two separate but interwoven security crises," Knights observed in an October analysis. "Experts differentiate between the 'Al Qaeda stream' of mass-casualty attacks and what might be called a 'normal insurgency' undertaken by local-level Sunni and Shia militant cells."

For most Iraqis, the current bloodletting, a part of a region-wide Al Qaeda campaign that covers Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and North Africa, is just one more bout of violent upheaval which they have been forced to live with for the last 40 years.

It started in 1979, when Saddam Hussein seized power and began his grotesque dictatorship, the police state and Saddam's gulag of deaths camps, torture centres and prisons in which thousands vanished never to be seen again.

Then there were the killing fields of the 1980-88 war with Iran, Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the destruction it brought down on Iraq, the years of sanctions and isolation that followed; and then the US-British invasion in March 2003 that brought about the bloodiest years of all in which as many as 500,000 Iraqis perished.

Shi'ite fighters

Most of the victims of the new insurgency have been Shi'ites. So far the Shi'ites as a sect have largely stayed their hand. But there are signs that all-out sectarian war may soon erupt again.

"The near future is dark," warned Shi'ite leader Moqtada Al Sadr, a cleric and former firebrand whose followers fought the Americans and British, and has now become a moderate seeking national unity. He's also highly critical of fellow Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.

Sadr told The Independent in a November interview with veteran Middle East commentator Patrick Cockburn there is a danger "the Iraqi people will disintegrate, its government will disintegrate, and it will be easy for external powers to control the country."

Shi'ite groups like Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, and Kataib Al Hizbullah, or Hizbullah brigades, both trained by Iran's elite Al Quds Force during the US occupation and used to attack the Americans, are reported to be bracing for reprisal attacks against Sunnis, and may already be in action. …

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