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Sectarian Tensions in Iraq360°CONTEXT

Last month’s spike in violence across Iraq has underscored the sectarian tensions that have been on the rise since the withdrawal of US troops.

Background

Of the numerous challenges facing Iraq as a nation, sectarian tension between its Shia majority and Sunni minority may be the most intractable. Sectarian rifts that deepened under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime bubbled to the surface after the United States invasion in 2003, culminating in a civil war that left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead. Although the violence has diminished significantly since 2007, tensions plague the country’s political and economic spheres, and outbreaks of violence threaten its stability.

In 2005, Iraqis participated in the country’s first post-invasion elections, voting primarily along ethnic and sectarian lines and bringing a Shia coalition to power. In the ensuing months, Shia political parties and armed militias, in alliance with Kurdish groups, solidified their hold on political and military power, effectively preventing the Sunni community from having a meaningful stake in the new order. Distrust grew, as Sunnis faced accusations of collaborating with or profiting from Hussein’s regime and feared for their safety under a Shia-dominated government policed by security forces stacked with Shia militants.

A developing nationalist insurgency against US and coalition forces, a cyclical trend of violence between Shia and Sunni extremists, and an increasingly uneasy Sunni population ultimately set the stage for civil war. In 2006 and 2007, violence reached unprecedented levels, and sectarian cleansing of mixed cities occurred across the country, as Shia and Sunni militias took control of neighborhoods.

In 2008, the violence dropped to a fraction of what it was at the height of the civil war, following the ceasefire of the primary Shia militia (Moqtada Al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army), the US troop surge, and the start of the Sunni Awakening, a movement of Sunni tribesmen turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq and maintaining security in their communities. However, the underlying sectarian tensions remained and have been on the rise since the US withdrawal at the end of 2011.

With the US troops gone, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has issued arrest warrants for a number of Sunni leaders on charges of terrorism, which many view as blatant power grabs. Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni official, fled the country after Maliki issued a warrant for his arrest; he has since been sentenced to death by an Iraqi court. In December 2012, Iraqi security forces arrested two bodyguards of then-Finance Minister Rafe al-Essawi, who has recently submitted his resignation and now also faces accusations of terrorism.

The prime minister's actions against Essawi have exacerbated tensions between Maliki and the secular Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc in his national unity government, which has accused him of authoritarianism and sectarianism. The situation has also served as a rallying cry for the Sunni community, whose members feel disenfranchised and targeted and have lost faith in Maliki’s promises to decentralize power and distribute resources fairly.

In December, Sunnis began to lead protests against the government, calling for Maliki’s resignation and accusing the government of using anti-terrorism laws to harass the Sunni community. The protests have spread across Iraq’s Sunni regions, and hopes for reconciliation have diminished.

Why Are Iraq’s Sectarian Tensions Relevant?

Violence flared up across Iraq last month, leaving more than 700 civilians and security officers dead and making April the deadliest month in Iraq since June 2008, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. The majority of the violence occurred after a military raid on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija on April 23, in response to an armed attack on a nearby military checkpoint.

The clash has ignited attacks across the country against security forces and Shias, as well as retaliatory bombings of Sunni targets and military crackdowns. The continuing violence has led the UN envoy in Iraq to warn that the country is “at a crossroads” and to urge Iraqi leaders to call “for immediate restoration of calm and for a broad-based national dialogue.” Maliki, for his part, has suggested that spillover from the Syrian conflict is causing sectarian strife to return to Iraq.

Politicians and pundits are debating whether Iraq is on the brink of civil war, with some calling this rhetoric alarmist and others arguing that the civil war has already begun. Whether the recent wave of violence is a blip on the screen or the start of a downward spiral, it has made clear that the country will need to address its sectarian rifts before it can move forward toward stability.

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