Iraq: Current Causes of Sectarian Conflict

iraqi protestors

Iraqi protestors call for an end to sectarianism and government corruption. Image from Iraqi Civil Society Solidarity Initiative.

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In October, 2013, over 1,000 people were killed in Iraq due to terrorism and sectarian violence. The number of deaths has been increasing each month. The reasons for sectarian dissidence and violence in Iraq are both complex and numerous. While recognizing that there are many factors that contribute to the current situation in Iraq, there are two primary antecedents to the current growth of violence: First, the renewed vigor and aggressiveness of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI); second, government corruption in the Maliki administration.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq has expanded its sphere of operations across the border into Syria, where it has become one of the premier rebel forces in combating the forces of President Assad. This al-Qaeda branch has defined its “territory” by naming itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The name implies an expansive policy as al-Qaeda aims to increase its control of terrain and area of influence. The chaos created by the Syrian civil war has created an ideal environment for recruitment. The consistency of combat in Syria gives fledgling al-Qaeda soldiers the opportunity to gain indispensable combat experience, making them valuable in operations both in Syria and Iraq. The connection between the Syrian civil war and an increase in al-Qaeda operations in Iraq should be noted. In July 2012, just a year after the Syrian civil war began, AQI launched a year-long campaign called “Breaking the Walls.” The operational objective was to rescue convicted al-Qaeda militants. Through this campaign, Iraq suffered 24 complex vehicle-born improvised explosive device (VBIED) attacks and eight prison breaks. The campaign culminated in a successful prison break at Abu Ghraib on July 21, 2013, where an estimated 500 prisoners escaped.

Only eight days after the end of the “Breaking the Walls” campaign, AQI announced “Soldier’s Harvest” as the next phase of its mission. Since that time, the number of attacks targeting members of Iraq Security Forces (ISF) has greatly increased. Al-Qaeda has begun using House-Bourne Improvised Explosive Devices (HBIED) to kill Iraqi soldiers and their families, intimidate government forces, and deter civilians from joining the Iraq Security Forces. These attacks suggest that the name “Soldier’s Harvest” refers to AQI’s shift to targeting members of the ISF. Al-Qaeda’s ability to plan and execute complex military campaigns successfully is a testament to its organizational prowess. Al-Qaeda attacks in Iraq are designed to capitalize on Sunni/Shi’ite sectarianism and exacerbate conflict between the two groups. The lack of unity between Sunni’s and Shia’s helps provide recruitment opportunities and greater ease of operation for AQI.

In order to combat al-Qaeda, after coming into office in 2006, Prime Minister Maliki began consolidating power over Iraq’s security forces.

Maliki has used the creation of extra-constitutional security bodies to bypass the defense and interior ministries and create an informal chain of command that runs directly from his office to the commanders in the field, allowing him to exert direct influence over both the targeting of individuals and the conduct of operations. Chief among these are the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC) and provincial- level operations commands.

Such measures were likely seen as necessary by Prime Minister Maliki in 2006 and 2007 when al-Qaeda in Iraq was at its prime. However, current raids into Sunni neighborhoods and communities in search of terrorist affiliates expand the gap of mistrust between Sunni’s and Maliki’s Shia-led administration. Furthermore, the use of these security bodies to bully and threaten political opponents, both Shia and Sunni, has raised accusations of corruption.

Prime Minister Maliki has used his influence to bring the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) under his control. According to the Iraqi constitution, the IHEC is an independent election organization to be monitored by the Council of Representatives. It is not supposed to be under executive authority. Maliki achieved this by arresting Faraj al-Haydari, the head of the IHEC, under accusations of corruption. His crime was giving employees a US$80-130 bonus. These premiums were used as justification to bring the IHEC under government supervision, giving Prime Minister Maliki greater control over the electoral process.

In 2007, Prime Minister Maliki asked the Governor of the Central Bank of Iraq (CBI), Dr. Shabibi, to lend the government $5bn. Dr. Shabibi refused since the 2004 Central Bank Law prohibits the Central Bank from lending the government money directly. Dr. Shabibi was soon the target of a slander campaign and was removed from office under allegations of corruption. The CBI was soon under government control. Like the IHEC, the Central Bank was constitutionally designed to be a separate institution. 180 professionals in Iraq released a petition soon after this event stating that “the previous regime started with smear campaigns, and ended with purges. Hence, we as professionals warn of the end result of these policies.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Image from Truthdig.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Image from Truthdig.

Prime Minister Maliki’s consolidation of power in the military and in civic institutions continues to create rifts in trust between the populace and the government. The Sunni population continually feels sidelined as most influential jobs in universities and government are held by Shi’ites. Maliki’s policies alienate Sunni’s at a time when inclusivity and cooperation would be the most effective tools to combat al-Qaeda.

Long-term stability in Iraq will only be achieved through compromise, policies of inclusivity, and a clear respect for the Iraqi constitution and democratic principles. In order to achieve this, Prime Minister Maliki should work with the Council of Representatives to enable the Central Bank, the Independent High Election Commission, and other civic organizations to re-take their place as independent institutions.  Maliki should also get rid of extra security organizations that have no legal outline to monitor their activities. These actions, along with efforts to reach out to the Sunni community, will do much to ease concerns of government corruption and will help foster a productive political atmosphere.

Prime Minister Maliki visited the United States on October 30, 2013, to ask President Obama and Congress for security money and weapons sales to help counter al-Qaeda in Iraq. The United States should use this as leverage to pressure Maliki to fulfill his obligation to end corruption in his administration, allow institutions to fulfill their constitutional roles, and create policies of inclusivity for all Iraqi citizens. Giving Maliki money and weapons while requiring no policy shifts in return will do little to counter al-Qaeda. Indeed, governmental transparency, compromise, and inclusive policies overtime will do more to quell sectarian violence and the advance of al-Qaeda than anything else.

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