Iraq: The Sectarian Divide


Baghdad | 26 Apr 2013 –  The months-long standoff in Iraq between Sunni Arab protesters and the central government has begun a perilous, downward slide toward confrontation. The emergence of an arc of instability and conflict linking Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, fuelled by sectarianism and involving porous borders as well as cross-border alliances, represents a huge risk.

Failure to integrate Sunni Arabs into a genuinely representative political system in Baghdad risks turning Iraq’s domestic crisis into a broader regional struggle.

On 23 April, over 50 were killed and 110 wounded when security forces stormed a sit-in in the town of Hawija, in Kirkuk governorate. While Baghdad argued its crackdown was justified by the demonstrators’ refusal to surrender both weapons and individuals implicated in an earlier attack on an army checkpoint, the disproportionate response provoked predictable outrage among protesters; retaliatory assaults against the security apparatus threaten to trigger an even tougher reaction from authorities. Only by credibly addressing the protesters’ legitimate demands – namely, ensuring genuine Sunni Arab representation in the political system – can the government ensure that the current Sunni Arab leadership not remain beholden to, or gradually be abandoned by, an increasingly frustrated street. And only by doing so can Iraq stem a rising tide of violence that, at a time of growing sectarian polarisation throughout the region, likely would spell disaster.

The popular protest movement that developed beginning in late 2012 in predominantly Sunni Arab areas is symptomatic of a widespread sense of disenfranchisement. Demonstrators feel alienated from Baghdad (perceived as the seat of a newfound Shiite power); from their purported representatives (blamed for focusing on their own parochial interests at the expense of their constituents’); and from security forces (accused of committing human rights abuses on a sectarian basis). The war in Syria also plays a significant part: as the conflict intensifies, Sunni Arabs experience mounting solidarity with their brethren next door and share feelings of hostility toward a purported Shiite axis linking Hizbollah, Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran. Sunni Arab tribal chiefs, religious leaders and politicians – including some previously co-opted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – soon threw their lot in with grassroots protesters, seeking to reap political benefit; remnants of both the former regime and the insurgency that spread after its demise followed suit.

Until recently, both sides had displayed relative restraint. Fearing a costly escalation, and despite internal debate, the protest movement by and large remained peaceful. The government likewise opted for a strategy of prudent containment. Prior to the Hawija events, security forces clashed with demonstrators on only two occasions, in Fallujah on 25 January and in Mosul on 8 March. Seven reportedly were killed in the first event; one in the second. The authorities simultaneously offered minor political gestures to deflate anger and divide the opposition; these included releasing prisoners and granting pensions to former regime personnel. Ultimately, they wagered, people would tire of demonstrating and their self-proclaimed leaders, once again jumping ship, would revert to courting Maliki for the sake of personal gains.

Yet the government also resorted to other, more hazardous tactics. It has tried to rally support by claiming protesters are sponsored by Turkey and the Gulf monarchies, harbour terrorists, belong to the banned Baath party or are driven by sheer sectarian animus. The result has been to radicalise the Shiite community, many of whose members now consider this challenge to the status quo an existential threat. This, coupled with the expansion and strengthening of the security apparatus, might well have persuaded the government that it could physically eradicate the popular movement without having to deal with it politically.

The Hawija operation is one indication. Extensive and seemingly well-planned, the purpose appears to have been to discourage any resort to violence on the part of protesters by hitting them directly – and hard. If this was the theory, it has proved deeply flawed. Already, retaliatory attacks have escalated. In a budding cycle of violence, protesters, anticipating further attacks from government forces, have threatened to ready themselves for more robust military resistance.

The most urgent task today is to tamp down the flames, and the burden for this lies above all with the government. Among pressing steps, it should withdraw its security forces from the Hawija square where the sit-in was organised; negotiate with Kirkuk’s authorities to compensate victims; refrain from provocative steps (raids, large-scale arrests, curfews) as well as from further deployment of security forces in provinces experiencing protests; and strengthen cooperation between national security forces and the local police so that security can be chiefly ensured by the latter.

Political steps to address underlying grievances are equally necessary. Unilateral, piecemeal concessions will not suffice; instead, meaningful negotiations with the protest movement – regarding the Justice and Accountability law, which Sunnis perceive as discriminatory; counter-terrorism legislation; and the make-up of security forces – are needed. In turn, this requires creating proper conditions for the emergence of a genuinely representative leadership in Sunni Arab populated governorates. Provincial elections in Anbar and Ninewa governorates have been postponed and rescheduled for July; they should be held as early as possible and without government interference.

If violence is to subside and negotiations to take off, protesters have responsibilities as well. Aggressive action against government security forces will backfire; influential religious personalities along with tribal leaders should insist on a peaceful settlement and discourage violence. At the same time, efforts are required to bring about a more coherent, unified leadership across the relevant provinces that could credibly and effectively negotiate with the government.

Failure to manage the fears and legitimate grievance of Iraq’s Sunni population could further encourage some factions involved in the protests to strengthen ties with regional actors that back the Syrian opposition and, conversely, push the government to further align itself with the Syrian regime. Arresting this overall trend is beyond the scope of any one government. Still, Maliki has presented himself as his country’s foremost statesman, determined to protect its unity and willing to take on his own constituency in doing so. Now is the time for his deeds to match his words.