The armed attack on a Shi'a religious procession in Baghdad on 20 August 2006 that killed around seventeen pilgrims (as well as four gunmen) and caused injury to at least 253 is only the latest incident in an escalating cycle of sectarian violence in the city. The numbers being killed on both sides of the Shi'a-Sunni divide the total in July was 3,438, an average of more than 100 each day are greater than at any time since the United States-led invasion of 2003. What are the reasons for this intensifying trend, and how does it relate to current US plans for Iraq's political future?
The available evidence suggests that the war in Iraq has indeed recently entered a new phase, which will prove to be even bloodier than anything that the country has seen before. Over the past few months, guerrillas have been flowing into Baghdad from the north, west and south and have started engaging each other with a view to eliminating each other from the streets of the capital. The groups that are engaged in this struggle are working to eliminate their rivals altogether, one neighbourhood at a time.
Terrorism has been used in Baghdad for years as a means to drive people from their homes, but recently sophisticated military tactics have been used to take over entire quarters of the city at a time. Baghdad has therefore deliberately been transformed into a battlefield in which each party is attempting to ethnically cleanse the city of all its armed and civilian rivals.
Baghdad, and indeed the entire country, has of course been witness to sectarian violence since the United States-led occupation first began in 2003. At first, it was the city's poor and destitute Shi'a population that suffered the most, as Sunni religious extremists from both within and without the country targeted crowded streets and markets with a view to provoking a civil war. The country's Shi'a clergy was conscious of this scheme and, despite almost constant images of bloody destruction, successfully counselled its followers to exercise restraint.
This situation continued until the start of 2005, when the country's first parliamentary elections brought to power a number of fundamentalist Shi'a parties that were affiliated to violent militias. Thus, through their connections in government, said militias were given access to more equipment and weaponry. They were also able to operate with the acquiescence of the Iraqi police, and sometimes even fought from among its ranks. It was at that point that Sunnis in Baghdad started complaining that death squads, which were responsible for kidnappings, killings, extortion and other violent crime, were roaming the city's streets.
Zaid Al-Ali is an attorney at the New York Bar and specialises in international commercial arbitration. He has graduated from King's College London, the Sorbonne University in Paris and Harvard Law School. He is also the editor of www.iraqieconomy.org
Among Zaid Al-Ali's articles on openDemocracy:
"Iraq: the lost generation"
(7 November 2004)
"Iraq's dangerous elections"
(23 December 2004)
"The end of secularism in Iraq" (18 May 2005)
"Lebanon's pre-election hangover"
(27 May 2005)
"Iraq: a constitution or an epitaph?"
(16 August 2005)
"Iraq: a constitution to nowhere"
(14 October 2005)
"Hizbollahs last stand?"
(1 August 2006)
"Whatever happens, Hizbollah has already won" (10 August 2006)
Although the country's Sunni population agreed that it could not remain passive in the face of this new trend, it was divided as to what exactly should be done. In the event, a decision was made to attempt to participate in the political process. This involved taking part in the drafting of the new constitution, voting in the referendum on the constitution that took place in October 2005, and finally in the December 2005 elections.
However, the Sunni community considered that its attempt to participate in the political process was sabotaged on each occasion. The final draft of the constitution did not reflect any of its demands (although this may have been the result of the failure on the part of Sunni leaders to properly articulate their positions), the results of the referendum were met with accusations of widespread fraud, and the elections were no better.
A new strategy
Thus, at the start of 2006, as the pace of killings continued to rise throughout the capital, a gradual reshaping of minds was made within a part of the Sunni community. It was bitterly disappointed by its failure to influence the political process, and by the fact that Nouri al-Maliki, another Shi'a fundamentalist, was appointed as prime minister after the elections. It also took note of the government's apparent failure to improve security in any measurable manner.
Another factor that encouraged a reconsideration of the strategy was the reaction that followed the destruction on 22 February 2006 of the Imam al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of Shi'a Islam's most revered sites. Shi'a militiamen widely assumed that the attack was carried out by Sunni extremists and went on the rampage for two days afterwards, killing more than 1,300 people in the process.
The Sunni militias' response to this combination of factors was to focus more of its efforts to retaking control of the country by force. This, it was concluded, could only be done by seizing control over Baghdad itself. As a result, fighters throughout the country have been converging onto the city for the past few months for that specific purpose.
At the same time, Iraq's Shi'a militias are also aware of the Iraqi government's impotence, both in regard to its failure to protect Shi'a residents of Baghdad from random attacks, and in terms of the bombing of the shrine in Samarra, which was considered to be a major affront. They too have therefore concluded that the only way for them to gain complete, physical control over the capital is to conquer it by force. A decision has therefore also been taken to force the situation once and for all, and to seize physical command of the entire city.
Each side intuitively understands what this strategy entails. Each realises that as long as a sizeable group of civilians from their rival sect remains in the city, there might be militiamen hiding amongst them. Both the Sunni and Shi'a militias have therefore come to the inevitable conclusion that, in order for them to win control over the entire city, they must drive all of their opponents, whether armed or not, out of it. In short, they are both engaged in a war to eliminate each other's presence from the city altogether.
This is a process that is taking place one neighbourhood at a time. Both sides have increased the sophistication of their methods in order to quicken the pace and effect of their operations. Thus, neighbourhoods are attacked as if they were fortresses within a matter of hours, they are surrounded, cut off from the rest of the city, attacked from without, invaded, and eventually emptied of all their inhabitants.
This is done through any number of methods, including establishing checkpoints at each of the neighbourhood's entry points and carrying out an invasion from different angles; or by using a combination of weapons including car-bombs, mortar-shells, rocket-propelled grenades, and small-arms fire in order to terrorise the neighbourhood's inhabitants into a state of utter helplessness.
In addition, attacks are designed in an increasingly strategic manner: particular neighbourhoods are attacked with a view to isolating particular areas from each other, thus making it easier to overcome their respective defenses in the future. Somewhere in Baghdad, there are people peering over a map of the city and directing operations in the way that Russian and German commanders did in Stalingrad during the second world war.
A war to the end
This new phase in the fighting has played itself out on a number of occasions. The first was seen on 18 April 2006, when the Sunni Adhamiya neighbourhood in Baghdad was surrounded by armed men from the ministry of the interior, which in Iraq is largely assumed to be dominated by the Shi'a Badr Brigades. Their attempt to enter was repelled by the neighbourhood's inhabitants, who decided to defend themselves with all the weapons at their disposal. On July 9, 2006, however, the predominantly Sunni Jihad district of Baghdad was surrounded early in the morning by the Mahdi army and was emptied of all its inhabitants. At least seventy people were killed in the process, and the rest of its inhabitants now live in a refugee camp just outside Baghdad.
More recently, the mostly Shi'a neighbourhoods of Karrada and Zafraniya were attacked on 27 July and 14 August respectively. The attacks, which were claimed by a Sunni extremist group, involved a combination of mortars, rockets and car-bombs that killed more than 100 people. Both neighbourhoods are now mostly empty. The intensity of the violence is such that it has now become difficult to track which side actually has the upper hand. Some international observers maintain that Sunni guerrillas now occupy as much as two-thirds of the city, but this figure is disputed by others.
A second element distinguishing this new phase in the fighting is the relative impotence of all the forces that had previously been assumed to wield significant authority in the country. It is nothing new that the Iraqi government is being criticised by all sides for failing to have any effect on the violence, but the difference on this occasion is that Nouri al-Maliki is no longer assumed to be capable of curbing the violence. Such is the disappointment in the prime minister's performance that rumours have been circulating like wildfire throughout Baghdad that a military coup d'etat could occur within the next few months.
More surprising, however, is that the Shi'a eminence Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani who had previously been considered to be the most powerful person in the country, has now been rendered completely impotent. He is now invariably dismissed even by members of his own constituency as an old man detached from reality. His latest call for restraint had no impact whatsoever.
The third, and perhaps equally surprising element, is the relative inability of the American military to stem the violence. In response to the urgency of the fighting in the capital, the US military deployed thousands of soldiers to the streets of Baghdad, and in the past few weeks has carried out a number of offensives against both Sunni and Shi'a strongholds, sometimes resorting to building walls around individual neighbourhoods. But, as it is in the process of discovering, there is almost nothing that it can do to stem the violence. There are simply too many fighters in the city, and their desire to control Baghdad is too great to subdue. Baghdad's war of elimination will continue, both despite the presence of American troops and because of it.