Friday, October 4, 2013

Iraq: The Middle East’s Ticking Time Bomb

On December 18, 2011, Iraqis watched in mixed fear and jubilation as the last US tanks rolled across the border into Kuwait, marking an official end to the American-led invasion in 2003. Two years later in 2013, those fears seem to have borne out while jubilation is in short supply: civilian deaths are reaching levels not seen since the Iraqi civil war of 2007-2009, and massive attacks have become a regular facet of everyday life. In September alone, there were nearly 1,000 deaths, 800 of which were civilians. Even this was shy of the 2013 high of 1,057 deaths in July. Sectarian, regional, and tribal divides have widened, not subsided, and the Maliki government itself is a hotbed of corruption, poor governance, and has lost the public’s faith as a democratic institution. The current path of Iraq indicates at best a pattern of cyclical violence, and at worst a nearly unstoppable march back to civil war.

Qasim Ahmad Tahan carries the body of his 5-year-old son Walid.
Courtesy AP.
Yet chances are, you haven’t seen Iraq in the headlines in a while. Violent acts have become so frequent that they hardly make it on Twitter reports. On Monday alone, 15 car bombs went off in Baghdad, which, as the BBC’s Michael Knights points out, “would have been an unprecedented event...[i]n any other country.” In Iraq, it was the 38th attack of this kind in the last 12 months. Given that the current security crisis began but did not end with the US occupation of 2003-2011, American policymakers should be scrambling to figure out a way to aid the Maliki government in combatting the violence. With a civil war next door in Syria and unrest in Egypt, instability is spreading like disease throughout the region in the wake of the Arab Awakening’s derailing by autocrats. Combined with US war weariness with Iraq itself, it appears that the US can or will do little to stem the tide of what is becoming a river of blood.

The violence itself has many different aspects. On the one hand are attacks launched by national and international groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), whose preferred tactics are “big bang” style attacks such as the string of car bombs in Baghdad on Monday. On the other are smaller attacks launched by local nationalist and sectarian groups, as well as what Knights calls “professional insurgents.” These insurgents depend upon ongoing violence no only for the survival of whatever group they claim to represent, but also for their livelihood. Thus everyday, “civilian-on-civilian ethno-sectarian violence is still relatively rare,” despite some media sources acting as if attacks are so commonplace that all Iraqis are regularly taking part. Yet civilians may soon join the slaughter rather than simply being its victims as Shi’a rage against Sunni-led AQI and other Sunni militant groups mounts.

The pattern of an attack followed by a revenge attack could set off a spiral of perpetual violence or even civil war. As it stands, the Shi’a led government is already viewed by many Sunnis as acting as a violent oppressor with an official stamp of approval. The security services are perceived – often correctly – as roving militias that work to intimidate the Sunni population and deprive it of economic opportunity and political participation. Violence against Sunnis is rising alongside the mounting violence on Shi’as, and attacks also transcend sectarian lines and often take place between tribes or regions. There are no clear dividing lines in Iraq, least of all between victims and attackers.

The Maliki government has only added fuel to the fire, lacking resources and suffering from endemic corruption. The US-led tactics of a “population-focused counterinsurgency” have been abandoned for the traditional authoritarian tools of repression: mass and arbitrary arrests, collective punishment of sects and tribes, and divide and conquer tactics that create three new problems every time they solve one. Added to the quagmire is the relative inexperience of the Iraqi security services following the misguided policies of de-Baathification in 2003, and you get a recipe for disaster.

As if there were not enough challenges to Iraq’s stability in a post-occupation world, the Syrian conflict next door is slowly creeping over the border. Syrian tribes neighboring the restive al-Anbar province in western Iraq provided arms and fighters to insurgents there during the Iraqi civil war; now, the tide of arms and fighters has reversed as Iraqis flow across the border to join (for the most part) the rebels battling Bashar al-Asad’s forces. In return come Syrian refugees, former fighters, and more weapons, leading to an increase in attacks in al-Anbar on Iraqi security services over the last year. In March 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda affiliate, killed dozens of Syrian government soldiers who had sought a safe haven in Iraq and were being escorted back to the border by Iraqi security services, illustrating the government’s lack of control over the region.

While this article speaks in broad generalizations in terms of sect, it is important to remember that the situation on the ground is a patchwork of regional, tribal, familial, and business affiliations. All – or even most – Sunnis do not hate all or most Shi’as, nor do they universally blame them for attacks. In a country like Iraq, where for decades people have been forced to rely on religion and familial support systems in the absence of a functioning government to provide them with services, it should come as no surprise that when the chips fall, people are loyal to the groups that have fed them, housed them, and cared for them when they are sick. The question, then, is how to stem the violence in the face of these multilayered loyalties. The Maliki government itself is short on resources and long on weaponry, giving rise to its repressive approach.

A more constructive method would be to first address the grievous socioeconomic conditions faced by many Iraqis. Providing crucial services like education and healthcare equally across groups are expensive but irreplaceable first steps to calming the insurgency. Second, the government should focus a significant amount of energy on curbing corruption before the next elections in 2014. This is a colossal task in a region where corruption is the rule, not the exception, and patronage is the only means by which political groups know how to stay in power. Finally, repressive tactics of the security forces need to be shifted to the population-centric model that was already employed relatively successfully by US troops during the “Surge.” Given the Maliki’s record thus far, however, these changes are unlikely to be made anytime soon. For the current administration, the system in place has worked so far to keep them in power and line their pockets. For Iraqis, a lack of positive steps in the right direction has meant death and destruction, a bloody pattern that is likely to continue if Maliki’s coalition claims victory in the upcoming 2014 elections.

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