“Once bombings target a public market, and once again they are targeting cafes and gatherings of youths, or [kidnapping] shepherds and killing them, and no one knows why,” said one female politician who works for the Iraqi government and who preferred to remain anonymous due to concerns about her safety. “We spend most of our time at home, and this is the case for everyone.”
The recent rise in violence forms a potentially dangerous trend that threatens to take Iraq back to the fatality levels of 2007 and early 2008. Back then, the United Nations civilian casualty data estimates peaked in 2008 with nearly 1,100 casualties per month. Those numbers then fell during the American troop surge to an estimated 254 average monthly casualties in 2009, and eventually dropped to 231 in 2011.
Iraq, however, took a turn for the worse in 2012. According to United Nations statistics, civilian deaths in Iraq last year shifted back upwards to the highest levels since 2009. The UN estimates that 3,238 civilians were killed in 2012, or an average of 270 per month. That trend has continued upwards in 2013. This year’s estimated civilian casualties have already more than doubled the total for 2012, with an estimated 319 civilian deaths in January, which has climbed to 887, 852, and 565 in September, October and November respectively.
The factors that are causing the increasing violence in Iraq today are similar to those that intensified violence prior to early 2008. They include regional influences such as Al-Qaeda, sectarian politics, and the capacity of the Iraqi security forces.
All three of these areas have degenerated in recent years. Since 2010, government centralization and abuse of power has fuelled sectarian fear and backlash by extremists, the conflict in Syria has inflamed violence in Iraq, and Iraqi security forces have become unable to cope with security demands.
A return to sectarianism
In late 2012, Iraqi security forces arrested ten bodyguards assigned to protect Finance Minister Rafie Al-Issawi, one of Iraq’s top Sunni political leaders. The action prompted a string of protests in Ramadi, as well as areas of Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit, Samarra and Baghdad. Later, in March of 2013, Iraqi security forces assembled a roadblock on a desert road with two hovering choppers to arrest Issawi. The recently resigned finance minister, traveling with a convoy to a funeral, received a tip-off by phone of the impending confrontation and sped back to the Sunni province of Anbar, where he received protection from local tribes.
Iraq’s political decline and sectarianism resurfaced most visibly after the 2010 Iraqi elections. The results rendered a narrow defeat of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (SLC) by the Iraqiya coalition. Iraqiya was a Shi’a and Sunni coalition headed by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and joined by then Deputy Prime Minister Rafie Al-Issawi’s National Future Gathering. The Iraqiya victory required Maliki to establish a government with Sadrist elements under the Iraqi National Alliance to remain in power. Given Maliki’s decision to use military force against Sadrist militias in 2008, there was resistance to such a coalition.
The political conflict led to a nine-month negotiation in which the Maliki government maintained power, until the signing of the Erbil agreement. The Erbil agreement left Maliki as the prime minister, but established limitations of the prime minister’s power, incorporated power-sharing arrangements including the allocation of top security posts, and called for the creation of the National Council on Strategic Policies (NCSP) to be headed by Allawi.
Neither the power-sharing agreement nor the NCSP ever came to fruition under the Maliki government. Additionally, there are accusations that Maliki not only failed to reduce the powers of the prime minister, rather further centralizing it under his government. Examples include current attempts to control independent government bodies, such as the Independent Higher Electoral Commission, the Integrity Commission, and the central bank, by placing them under the Maliki-led Council of Ministers. He is also accused of appointing high-level army and police commanders without the required constitutional approvals.
“Maliki now wants just to get rid of his partners, to build a dictatorship. He wants to consolidate power more and more,” Issawi told the New York Times in December of 2011.
Sectarian politics have worsened since the US withdrawal at the end of 2011. Nearing that date, Sunni leaders became concerned that sectarian repression might follow. There was a move by Iraqiya to create more autonomous Sunni zones—a measure supported by Parliament Speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi. Following the US departure, Maliki placed tanks in front of the homes of Sunni leaders in Baghdad’s Green Zone, and began preemptive arrests of provincial leaders in Baghdad and Salah Al-Din for alleged Ba’ath Party membership. Additionally, Sunni Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi was accused of orchestrating death squads targeting Shi’ites. Hashemi’s bodyguards were arrested and reportedly tortured and sentenced to death, and Hashemi himself fled to the Kurdish region of Iraq and eventually Turkey.
Many people have a sense that power is being abused and centralized under the Maliki government for sectarian reasons. “The ruling party in Iraq controls the joints of the state, such as the army and the judiciary, which have become tools in his [Maliki’s] hand . . . they are elusive about the demands of protesters, and security forces have launched a campaign of random arrests, especially on a certain group—the Sunnis,” explained the female politician who preferred not to be named.
Iraqi security forces
Since 2010, both the capacity and methods of Iraqi security forces have regressed. Iraqi security forces have not been able to handle the size and complexity of Iraq, and have been unable to successfully combat the regionally organized violence of Al-Qaeda groups and the ISIS, or local groups such as the Sunni Ba’athist Naqshbandi Army, or Shi’a groups loyal to Moqtada Al-Sadr such as Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq. Additionally, the Iraqi security forces are burdened by sectarian disputes within their ranks, corruption and bureaucratic problems.
The overall lack of capacity, equipment and training is in part due to the US withdraw of forces at the end of 2011. However, Iraqi security forces increasingly shifted to sectarian strategies over the methods of local partnerships developed during the surge. Increasingly, Iraqi security forces have engaged in raids and mass arrests that are based more on sectarian motivation than security interests. In Baghdad, they have forced groups into repressive neighborhoods, what Sunni leader Rafie Al-Issawi referred to as “giant prisons ringed by concrete blocks,” and even reportedly cooperate with militia groups loyal to Moqtada Al-Sadr.
The Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces have also alienated the Iraqi Awakening Council movement. The Council was critical in expelling Al-Qaeda and AQI from Iraq in previous years, and had become a Sunni police paramilitary. The group, however, was slowly extinguished by Iraqi security forces through lack of pay, heavy restrictions, and even through the arrest of leaders. Now with Al-Qaeda back on the rise in Iraq, council members are both unable to provide security, and are themselves threatened.
The lack of security has in part led to increasing retaliations. In many cases, revenge killings or extrajudicial executions are a form of retaliation for Shi’a groups that have been targeted by Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Executions have been an increasing problem. In Basra, nearly twenty Sunnis were killed, and some of the dead were found with notes that said the deaths were revenge for increasing Al-Qaeda bombings in Basra.
The UN envoy to Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov stated that: “While indiscriminate bombings and other attacks continue to take a terrible toll on Iraqis every day, I am profoundly disturbed by the recent surge in execution-style killings that have been carried out in a particularly horrendous and unspeakable manner.”
In October, Maliki met with United States President Barack Obama to request military aid to combat growing violence. But it is unlikely that upgrading the government’s security forces will be sufficient, as part of the sectarian frustration also comes through the actions of the government and the security forces.
The conflict in Syria
The political decline in Iraq and sectarian struggles have created an opportunity for Al-Qaeda in neighboring Syria to exploit the divisions, as it did prior to 2007.
In a November briefing to the UN Security Council, Iraq’s ambassador to the UN, Mohamed Al-Hakim, warned of a regional conflict with Syria, stating that there are close to 35,000 foreign fighters in Syria that have had “a significant impact on increasing the frequency of terrorist acts in Iraq.” Mladenov also warned of cross-border links between Iraqi groups, Al-Qaeda and other groups.
One such group is ISIS. ISIS was originally known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi until his death in 2006, and renamed the ISIS under the leadership of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
The AQI fell into decline by late 2007 with the loss of local support, the emergence of the Iraqi Awakening Council, forces of Sunni fighters established by the US army to confront Al-Qaeda, and the implementation of the surge strategy; however, it successfully reemerged in 2011 by expanding its partnerships and links in Syria. Baghdadi established operations in Syria, including the Al-Nusra Front, and renamed the ISI the ISIS while incorporating a portion of Al-Nusra Front followers. Baghdadi himself is now believed to operate from Syria.
Since the conflict in Syria and the evolution of ISIS, both Al-Qaeda and ISIS have reemerged as a formidable force in Iraq. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of car bombs has increased from an average of 10 to 68 per month. The organization has increasingly targeted Shi’ite civilians and Sunnis working with the government, as well as members of their former Sunni adversaries, the Iraqi Awakening Council. The situation threatens to create a transnational conflict zone with Anbar and Syria. “ISIS is trying to control the borders to find a means to transport weapons, equipment and fighters between the two countries,” Falih Al-Essawi, the deputy head of Anbar provincial council, recently told the Wall Street Journal.
ISIS activities also include attacks against checkpoints, police stations and even prison facilities. In July of 2013, ISIS attacked Abu Ghraib and Taji prisons. According to reports by the Iraqi government, the insurgents used dozens of motor shells, suicide-vest bombers, and car bombs to gain access to the prisons. A number of prisoners escaped successfully from Abu Ghraib.
While much of the violence in Iraq can be attributed to the war in Syria, the role of Iraqi politics and security have been key factors at both the domestic and regional levels. The shift to increasingly sectarian politics, expansion of central powers, and the inability and abuses of Iraqi security forces, have created an environment that is fertile for regional and local terrorist groups and militias to incite hatred and undermine the government, which in turn leads to escalating retaliations.