Sectarian war has reignited in Iraq. Iranian-backed Shia militias have remobilized, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is conducting an intensive and escalating campaign of spectacular attacks against Shia targets, and some of the former Baathist insurgents are staging an effective campaign against the Iraqi Security Forces in the vicinity of Mosul.
The deteriorating security results from two trends that have caused both Sunni and Shia extremists to mobilize and gain traction. The first is Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s deliberate marginalization and ouster of prominent Sunni national politicians, which has led to a six-month-long Sunni protest movement. The killing of 53 protesters and wounding of another 200 in Hawijah on April 23 caused some protesters to rejoin the insurgency. The second trend is
the radicalization and mobilization of Shia militants, both to serve in Syria and to oppose Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Prime Minister Maliki’s consistent targeting of his Sunni political rivals has removed two senior Sunni politicians from his cabinet. Former vice president Tariq al-Hashemi is living in exile and has been sentenced in absentia to death on terrorism charges brought after the arrest and torture of his bodyguards the day U.S. forces left Baghdad in 2011. Former finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, whose bodyguards were similarly targeted in December 2012, has led the Sunni protest movement, which has spread from Anbar all across the northern provinces and into Baghdad.
That nonviolent protest movement has been radicalizing since Maliki postponed provincial elections in Anbar and Ninevah. Those elections were finally held on June 20, months after the rest of the country had voted. And the movement has turned increasingly violent since the January killing of several protesters in Fallujah and a deliberate military maneuver on the protest camp in Hawijah in April that left 200 casualties. After these events, Maliki attempted to arrest tribal and protest movement leaders, generating further active and passive support for AQI and other extremist groups, such as the neo-Baathist organization Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandia (JRTN).
Since January, AQI and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) have conducted spectacular attacks in Baghdad and the south, such as those that rocked Mahmudiya, Hillah, Madain, Nasiriyah, Kut, and Basra on June 10, resulting in more than 180 casualties. And since March, many of their signature car and truck bombs have targeted Shia religious sites and neighborhoods. This sectarian targeting has increased over the past month, as Shia militia groups have mobilized in Baghdad, conducting execution- style killings of Sunnis and morality killings in Shia neighborhoods. AQI/ISI attacks now occur nearly weekly.
AQI and ISI still function as terrorist groups, and Ansar al Islam, another Sunni extremist movement, is increasingly active as well. But the main body of the Sunni insurgency even in 2006 consisted of former Baath party members, often with military backgrounds, who conducted small-arms attacks and planted improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces. The JRTN has been present at protest sites, including the one at Hawijah where Iraqi Security Forces killed numerous civilians. Since that incident, there has been an uptick in the number of highly accurate small-arms attacks inside Mosul proper, as well as IEDs in Qayarah, the approach to Mosul from the south. These attacks primarily target Iraqi Security Forces. Given the similarity of historical and current attack patterns, it appears that the JRTN is now resurgent in Mosul and fighting the Iraqi Security Forces.
As Iraq analyst Stephen Wicken notes,
The protesters have been dissipating from the protest sites this week, something that should be expected at this time, as the provincial elections in Anbar and Ninevah were held on 20 June. But the rising violence trends, and in particular, the attacks that do not bear the AQI/ISI hallmark, suggest that some Sunni have given up on the political process and are resorting to arms to resist the Maliki government. This trend has accelerated also after the fall of al Qusayr in Syria, which, because of the involvement of Hezbollah, has become a rallying cry for Sunni in the region. And as Maliki deploys ISF into Anbar and Ninevah in order to secure the provincial elections, the opportunity for violent opposition to the ISF increases.
There is thus a new inflection point in the Iraq conflict. The peaceful Sunni protest movement appears to be becoming an armed insurgency in northern Iraq.
Another Iranian-backed Shia militia, Asaib Ahl al Haq (AAH), has been responsible for the deaths of many American soldiers through its lethal Explosively Formed Projectiles. This group too began remobilizing in Baghdad in early May. AAH has been fighting alongside Lebanese Hezbollah at a prominent Shia shrine in Damascus since 2012. AAH’s intensified presence in Baghdad is roughly concurrent with Lebanese Hezbollah’s mobilization of a 2,000-man fighting force sent to Syria to reinforce the siege of Qusayr.
Shia militias have mobilized in Iraq and have resumed extrajudicial killings in Baghdad, Diyala, and Hillah. Since parading in a Baghdad soccer stadium ostensibly to celebrate its tenth anniversary, in front of leader Qais al Khazali, who was long in U.S. custody for his role in the murder of five American soldiers in 2007, AAH took to the streets.
The groups are responding in part to the wave of Al Qaeda in Iraq attacks on May 20 and 27, an escalating campaign of suicide bombings. The first attacks targeted the approaches to Baghdad and several sites around the country, the second hit the Shia and mixed fault-line neighborhoods that were contested in 2006-07.
By early June AAH had resumed some of the violent behaviors that characterized Shia militant attacks against Iraqis in 2006-07: establishment of false checkpoints, ID checking, kidnapping people from their cars or public places, and executing them. For example, two people were kidnapped from a bus stop near Baghdad University in the late afternoon, and their bodies were found in western Baghdad at a traditional 2006 dumping site, hands bound, shot in the head or chest, a few days later. AAH has also resumed executions with silenced weapons of other targets
with an intent to intimidate: whether pulling shopkeepers from their homes and killing them and their families; executing teachers; executing liquor store owners and conducting other morality policing. These events have occurred in areas not far from Sadr City, as well as in Diyala, in places familiar during the violence of 2006--07. The militias are evidently reasserting their control of East Baghdad while projecting checkpoints into West Baghdad.
Some of the militia activity is occurring within sight of Iraqi Security Forces checkpoints. Maliki is either tolerating it or has lost control over the escalation. In any case, politicians will not be able to check this violent retribution, which has a dynamic of its own—as Americans learned all too well in the wake of the Samarra mosque bombing in 2006.
Not all Shia groups are fanning the flames of sectarian reprisals. Even so, the current mobilization is unlikely to be limited. Some Shia militias are targeting Sunni mosques with IEDs in retribution for AQI attacks. The mobilization of AAH makes it hard for the Sadrist fighters to stay neutral, even when ordered to do so by their leader, Moktada al-Sadr, who has repeatedly instructed them not to reignite sectarian conflict. Rogue Sadrist elements—against Sadr’s orders—have paraded in areas south of Baghdad.
In contrast, AAH’s political bureau chief, Adnan al-Dulaimi, stated that AAH “is ready for [mobilization] and we are ready to protect our people.” Indeed, friction between the Sadrist Trend and its AAH splinter is running high, after AAH attempted to assassinate Hazem al-Araji, one of the most prominent Sadrists, near the Kadhimiya shrine, a sacred site in Baghdad where he has served as a key patron.
The Sadrist Trend has allied itself with Sunni political parties and Kurds in Diyala and Baghdad to control the leadership of the newly elected provincial councils, freezing out Maliki’s coalition. This odd alliance creates new opportunities for Sunni political participation in two swing provinces, where the sectarian fault lines are deepest. But it is difficult to imagine a political settlement that would gain the support of the remobilizing former Baathist elements or the rekindled AQI/ISI.
The United States
The United States must no longer unconditionally back Maliki, who has created this circumstance by choosing to target his Sunni political opponents and by tolerating violence against civilians in the protest movement. The United States cannot simply support the Iraqi Security Forces, which are tolerating the Shia militants willing to kill Sunni civilians. Iraqi Security Forces, even if supported by the United States, cannot target AQI without being able to separate it from the Sunni population.
Secretary of State John Kerry has used the limited leverage that the United States has to try to stop Iraq from allowing Iranian overflights to Syria. This is the least efficient use of our leverage, even though the strategic principle is sound, because Maliki has neither the capability nor the will to stop the Iranian regime from supporting Assad. It is no surprise that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force has staged inspections of its own aircraft to prove that Iraq is not permitting arms to transit its airspace.
There are, however, ways that the United States could use its leverage to influence the behavior of the Maliki government, although not to arrest the violence entirely. First and foremost, the United States needs to condition the provision of arms, equipment, and training to the Iraqi Security Forces on Maliki’s respect for the representative political system, humanitarian treaties Iraq has signed, and inclusive political solutions. These include dropping his legal charges against the cabinet members and protest leaders, meeting the reasonable demands of the protesters for transparency and de-Baathification measures, and implementing the promised terms of the 2010 Erbil Agreement by which he achieved the premiership. It is also vital that Maliki not tolerate Shia militant groups.
Second, the United States can block the United Nations from lifting Iraq’s onerous Chapter VII status, even though Kuwait has at long last agreed to support the change, until Maliki makes those concessions. Those who argue that conditioning aid is difficult must note that our failure to condition our aid has empowered Maliki disproportionately. His deliberate disenfranchisement of the Sunni population is the main accelerant to insurgency in Iraq.
Iraq sits at the heart of the Middle East and straddles the sectarian divide. The United States once hoped that, with American help, Iraq could decelerate sectarian conflict, serve as a buffer against an expanding Iran, and be an ally against al Qaeda. The United States had largely achieved those political conditions—fragile though the achievement was—by the time American troops departed. But that is not the Iraq we have today. The United States must no longer imagine that it has a friendly government in Baghdad with which to work, or that Iraq is stable enough to buffer the region against the sectarian war that is brewing in its heartland.
Kimberly Kagan is the founder and president of the Institute for the Study of War.