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Iraq Is Back on the Brink of Civil War

Sectarian strife is the worst it's been in many years—and Syria isn't helping


The Iraq conflict came back into view in the last week of April, when several areas of northern Iraq exploded in violence on a scale not seen since the height of the 2006-2008 civil war. The carnage began on April 23, with either a botched arrest attempt or a brutal crackdown by government troops, just three days after Iraq held largely peaceful elections for local government. In the early hours, Iraqi forces raided a campsite for Sunni anti-government protesters in the town of Hawijah, a former insurgent stronghold near Kirkuk, ostensibly seeking suspects in the murder of an Iraqi soldier a few days before. Which side shot first is still unclear, but when the gunfire stopped about twenty protesters and three Iraqi soldiers were dead, with more than 100 people wounded.

The Hawijah clash rippled across northern and central Iraq. Within hours of the raid, Sunni gunmen overran police and army outposts in neighboring towns, leaving more than fifty dead on both sides. Some of the gunmen were likely associated with the Naqshbandi Army, a potent Ba’athist-related militant group whose spokesmen angrily announced immediately after the Hawijah raid that it would return to war against the government. By April 25, the fighting spread to Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, where Sunni gunmen engaged Iraqi troops in another battle that left nearly forty more people dead. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went on national television to warn that continued “sedition” against the government would lead to a full-scale sectarian war. Despite his warning, or perhaps because of it, on April 26 the violence spread to Baghdad, where four Sunni mosques were bombed soon after noon prayers. The next day, Sunni gunmen pulled five government intelligence officers out of a car and executed them. The bloodshed culminated on April 29, when four Al Qaeda-style bombings in Shia cities south of Baghdad killed twenty-five and wounded almost seventy more, bringing the death toll for the month to more than 700, the highest since the dark days of summer 2008.  

This spiral of violence is disappointing, but not surprising. For those who have been watching Iraq, it seemed bound to happen. For several months, Iraq’s Sunnis and Maliki’s Shia-led government have fought a political battle that began when Maliki’s troops attempted to arrest one of the country’s top Sunni leaders, Maliki’s own Finance Minister Rafe al-Issawi, on terrorism charges on December 20. Tens of thousands of Sunnis protested in streets in all of Iraq’s Sunni provinces, where they set up “Occupy”-style camps and carried out near-daily demonstrations. Maliki responded by deploying Shia-led army units around the most restive Sunni cities, including the unit that assaulted the protest camp in Hawijah.

There are much longer-term factors at work, as well. Violence erupted in April because the fundamental causes of the Iraq conflict have never been resolved. First and foremost, Shia are determined not to let the Ba’ath and Sunni tribes emerge as powers again, leaving Sunnis feeling that they are being denied a commensurate share of power. The situation has not been helped by Maliki’s continued attacks not just against Sunni extremists—such as Al Qaeda—but against the Sunni center, represented by Iraq’s fugitive Vice President Tariq Hashemi and Issawi. This has pushed the Sunni political center from participation in the political process toward rejection of, and even armed resistance against, it. Indeed, the current violence is not a matter of the government against terrorists and Al Qaeda; it is instead shaping up to be a matter of the government against the mainstream leaders and constituents of the Sunni community. This was made plain when the top Sunni politician in Iraq, Parliament Speaker Osama Nujaifi, stunned the country by calling for Maliki's resignation after Hawijah.

Simply put, we are witnessing the reversal of the Awakening, the Sunni popular movement that helped to dramatically change the course of the Iraq war six years ago. The towns that are the setting for the current violence, including Hawijah, are all former insurgent strongholds that switched sides in 2007 and 2008 and began fighting against Al Qaeda alongside U.S. and Iraqi troops. But this movement of about 100,000 Sunni tribal fighters was never really embraced by a skeptical Shia-led government, and as U.S. troops withdrew, the Awakening came under pressure from the government on one side and Al Qaeda and other extremist groups on the other. Now Awakening leaders seem to be on the verge of returning to outright resistance against the government. Tellingly, the suspects whom Iraqi forces are hunting for the murder of the intelligence men in Fallujah include the nephew of Abu Risha, the leader of the Awakening in Ramadi.

Then there is the unresolved Kurdish question, which has also played a part in the violence of recent weeks. Hawijah and the other northern towns where clashes have been most intense all lie on the volatile, disputed line dividing Arab and Kurdish Iraq, and in fact Hawijah has long been a base for Sunni militants who focus their terrorist attacks against Kurds in Kirkuk.

Finally, we are seeing signs of an unfolding region-wide sectarian conflict, as tensions from Syria spill over into Iraq. Iraqi Sunnis believe the fall of the Alawite regime and the emergence of a Sunni Syria will enable them to retake a greater share of power in Baghdad, if not all power. Shia Iraqis, including Maliki and his allies, believe Bashar al Assad must be propped up to prevent that outcome, and Iraqi Shia groups are working directly with the Iranian regime to that end. It is not an accident that the protesters in Sunni cities have waved the flags of the Free Syrian Army, or that growing numbers of Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters have entered Syria to fight against the Assad regime’s troops in places such as Deir ez-Zour. Nor is it mere coincidence that young Iraqi Shia men are posting YouTube videos of themselves fighting to defend the Zaynab Shrine in Damascus, or that Iraqis are starting to see funerals for young Shia “martyrs” killed in the Syrian war.

The late April battles may or may not have begun with a miscalculation in Hawijah. But as long as the fundamental issues that divide the Iraqi communities remain unresolved, there will be many more instances like this, where a local clash has the potential to spiral out of control, throwing Iraqis back into a national conflict. The Iraq war is, after all, a conflict that never ended, but only slackened: More than 6,000 Iraqis have been killed in insurgent or terrorist violence since U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011. “What happened in Hawijah…and other places, is a point in which we should stop and think because it might lead to sectarian strife,” Maliki told Iraqis just days ago.  “Everyone would lose. Whether he is in the north, the south, east, or west of Iraq, if the fire of sectarianism starts, everyone’s fingers will be burned by it.”  The Prime Minister meant it as a warning, but it is better taken as a prediction.

Joel Rayburn is a research fellow at National Defense University.  He is a U.S. Army officer with more than 20 years of experience in a variety of military assignments in Europe, and the United States, South Asia, and the Middle East, including combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. The views he expressed here are his own and do not represent those of the National Defense University or the Department of Defense.