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.