Largely ignored by the global media, Iraq today stands on the brink of a renewed Sunni insurgency. The emergent insurgency in Iraq is following the same sectarian pattern as the civil war in Syria and the growing violence in Lebanon. It also involves many of the same local and regional players.
The rising violence in Iraq is not, however, simply the result of a spillover from the Syrian war. It derives also from internal Iraqi dynamics. But these are themselves in significant ways comparable to the Syrian and Lebanese situations.
Over 9,000 people were killed in fighting in Iraq in 2013. This is not yet up to the levels of violence just prior to the surge, in the very worst days of the insurgency against U.S. forces and the sectarian bloodletting that accompanied it. But it’s the highest since 2007. This year, more than 2000 people have already lost their lives as a result of political violence in Iraq.
As of today, a coalition of Sunni insurgent groups control the city of Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province west of Baghdad. The city of Ramadi remains partially in insurgent hands, though its southern districts have been re-conquered by government forces in recent days.
Nor is the violence confined to Anbar province. Rather, car bombings have become a near daily occurrence in Baghdad, and insurgent activity against Iraqi security forces and non-Sunni civilians is taking place in Nineveh, Mosul, Kirkuk and elsewhere in areas of high Sunni Arab population.
So who are these insurgents, and why have events in Iraq reached this crisis point?
As in Syria, a myriad of insurgent groups have emerged. But there are two main forces. These are ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and the Naqshbandi Army.
ISIS emerged in Iraq in 2004, and for a time constituted the official franchise of al-Qaeda in the country. Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces in 2005, it became renowned for its brutal methods.
ISIS experienced a resurgence during the Syrian civil war, and today it controls much of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, including Raqqa city.
In February, 2014, ISIS was “expelled” from al-Qaeda because of its insanely brutal methods in northern Syria, which have included, for example, execution of civilians for smoking, and for swearing.
This movement is now an active force on the insurgent council that now governs Falluja. Its fighters also rove freely in the vast deserts of western Anbar, making the desert highways unsafe for travelers and government forces.
The Naqshbandi Army is a very different, and somewhat bizarre group. It is headed by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, a former high official in Saddam Hussein’s regime. Many of the Naqshbandi commanders and fighters are former officials or members of the Ba’ath party.
The Naqshbandis somewhat bizarrely combine their Ba’athist and pan-Arabist outlook with support for the Naqshabandi Sufi Muslim sect of Iraq, from which their name derives.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a UK based Iraqi researcher who has emerged as a leading analyst on the emergent Iraqi insurgency, cautions against dismissing the Naqshbandi outlook as a “total farce.”
Tamimi said in a recent interview that the Sufi orientation served to differentiate the Naqshbandi from the jihadi outlook of ISIS and other salafi groups. But he noted that the Ba’athist and Pan-Arab element is the dominant one, with the religious coloration perhaps an acknowledgement of the extent to which Iraqi society has become more religious in recent years.
In addition to these two groups, a variety of smaller militias are operating, including, notably, tribal forces previously associated with the “Sahwa” (Awakening) movement. This was the anti al-Qaeda trend whose emergence was a key element in the relative success of the U.S.-led surge in reducing violence after 2007.
So what lies behind the eruption of Sunni violence? I’ll explain on the next page.
The dawning insurgency is, on one level, the result of the increasingly sectarian policies pursued by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in recent years, which has gathered pace since the last withdrawal of U.S. forces in December of 2011.
Maliki has targeted senior Sunni politicians, forcing Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi into exile, and harassing Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi.
The increasing marginalization felt by the Iraqi Sunni Arab minority birthed a large protest movement in mid-2013.
Maliki’s uncompromising tactics against the protest movement in turn paved the way for the re-igniting of insurgency in January and February of this year.
Elections are due to take place in Iraq in April. Some observers suspect that Maliki’s hard line against the Sunnis is in part intended to solidify Shia support for his party.
But the emergent violence in Iraq should also be seen in broader terms. For Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime and its replacement by a Shia-led government represented an existential disaster — the toppling of the Sunni domination which had pertained in the area since the birth of the modern Iraqi state, and for centuries preceding its emergence.
Maliki’s clumsy policies notwithstanding, a reaction against the new Shia dominance was probably inevitable.
The Sunni uprising against the Assad regime undoubtedly provided an impetus to Iraq’s Sunni Arab population, showing that resistance was possible, even if in the Syrian context Sunni Arabs form a majority of the population, while in Iraq they constitute between 15-20% of the population.
In this regard, the Maliki government’s active and vital support for the Assad regime should be factored into the equation as an additional factor fueling Sunni anger.
Maliki has made Iraqi airspace and highways available for the transport of vital Iranian weaponry to the Assads. He has also turned a blind eye to the flow of Iraqi Shia volunteers heading to Syria to engage on behalf of the regime.
ISIS, the main component of the emergent Iraqi insurgency, operates in a contiguous area crossing the porous border between Iraq and Syria.
So in addition to its internal dynamics and origins, the Iraqi situation also constitutes a single front in a broader sectarian war.
Iraq, a decade after the western invasion that toppled Saddam, stands on the brink of renewed sectarian conflict. The U.S. response so far has been to relate to Maliki as the legitimate government of Iraq, and to supply limited aid (including several hundred Hellfire missiles) to his “counter-insurgency.”
This is a misreading of the picture. Maliki, though elected, is engaged in sectarian warfare no less than are his Sunni opponents.
The Iraqi situation is driven by sectarian realities, Iranian interference and the weakness of any unifying, state identity or structure. Thus the reality of Mid-Eastern dynamics, in 2014 and for the foreseeable future.