Who is responsible for Iraq’s sectarian violence?

These developments in Syria, with the involvement of Iraqis, have intensified and widened the divisions among Iraqis themselves.  

Zana Khasraw Gul
7 June 2013

All the signs are that Iraq is heading towards a sectarian war reviving the memories of the civil war of 2006-07, unless there is containment of the political crisis by the major political powers. 

Iraq entered a relatively stable period between 2006 and 2008 after the sectarian violence or the ‘civil war’ subsided between the various competing factions, mainly the Arab Shias and the Sunnis. The attempts of the US to control this violence by supporting the tribal Al-Sahwa movement (Arabic: ‘Awakening’), also known as the ‘Sons of Iraq’, contributed substantially to declining insurgency in the Anbar province as well as the Sunni regions. The US had earlier promoted the ‘Sons of Iraq’ to fight against Al-Qaeda as well. Meanwhile, in 2008, the Maliki government ordered a major raid on the Muqtada Al-Sadr militia’s ‘Mehdi Army’ which had for a period of time, fought against the US-led forces.

Significant efforts by the Iraqi security forces (ISF) backed by US military capabilities, the Al-Sahwa movement to curb insurgency, and the rejection of terrorism by the Iraqi people in general, did have a short-term impact on this deep-rooted crisis. Civil war in Iraq led to a horrific number of deaths: the Iraq Body Count (IBC) reported a death toll of 25,774-27,599 in 2006, and 22,671-295 in 2007. However, inter-communal violence declined by 63% from 2007 to the end of 2008, when the death toll dropped to around 9,048.

In 2009 Iraq did seem to be headed towards a stable political and security environment. However, a crisis broke out between the federal region of Kurdistan, with its own Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and the central government. Territorial disputes as well as different interpretations of the constitution on both sides led to the threat of imminent military confrontation. A temporary withdrawal of military forces averted the crisis. Several efforts were made to ensure national unity over the years; however, over the long term, all efforts have proved fruitless.

In 2010, the security environment showed some improvement, with 14% fewer terrorist incidents compared to 2009. Nevertheless, the challenges to security still remained. The year saw the election of a government formed with fragile compromises made by the competing parties. According to IBC, the terrorist attacks slightly increased in 2011 compared to the previous year. However, in December 2011, the American troops withdrew from Iraq, leaving it divided and thrown back into the clutches of instability. 


Today, the security environment in Iraq remains highly vulnerable. Both government and public have been targeted by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), vying for an Islamic state and currently led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (Abu Dua), and the Naqshbandi Army, a neo-Baathist insurgency group headed by Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. Despite an increase in the numbers of troops in the Iraqi security forces, according to IBC, terrorists were intensively active in 2012 in central Iraq, notably Baghdad and Mosul. Furthermore, there are Shia militias negatively influencing the country’s stability, such as the League of the Righteous (Asaib Al-Hag), the Mahdi Army spin-off called the Promise Day Brigade, the Hezbollah Brigades (notably Kataib Hezbollah), and the newly formed Mukhtar Army.

Shia, Sunni and remnant Baathist insurgencies have contributed to the escalating sectarian violence, widening the gap between the Shias and the Sunnis, as well as weakening the control of the Iraqi security forces. These groups have taken advantage of political disagreements to bring in new recruits and strike at the government, as well as the public, to escalate the crisis. However, not all these groups employ the same strategies or tactics to achieve their goals. Despite their common agenda against the US-led coalition and the Iraqi government, two incoherent camps (the Arab Sunnis and the Shias) are also bitterly fighting each other. 

The Government approach

After the withdrawal of the US forces, the Shia central government of Iraq has been accused of centralizing power and marginalizing the minorities, leading to severe discontent among the Sunnis and the Kurds. The Shia-Sunni conflict raised its ugly head again, particularly when a warrant was issued against the fugitive Vice President, Tarig-Hashimi, on charges of terrorism. Following Hashimi’s escape to Turkey, security conditions worsened and the political crisis deepened. The verdict on him, delivered in his absence, resulted in a further escalation of violence across central Iraq. 

The protest of the Iraqi Sunnis began on December 21 2012 in Fallujah, following the arrest of 10 guards of the Finance Minister, Rafi Al-Issawi, and quickly spread throughout the Arab Sunni regions with a demand for the resignation of the Prime Minister, Nori Al-Maliki. Demonstrations were aimed against the marginalization of the Sunnis, who had been in power since WW-I, and the anti-terrorist law which, they claimed, targeted their community, not only causing unemployment among them but also leading to an unfair treatment of prisoners from the community. Even though the government increased the wages of Al-Sahwa and released around 3,000 prisoners, the protests not only continued but escalated. The Iraqi Sunnis saw the actions of the Shia-dominated government as politically motivated and influenced by Iran. 

The crisis intensified when the Iraqi security forces raided an anti-government protest camp in Hawija, resulting in the tragic death of more than 20 protesters. After this, the Arab Sunnis virtually rose in revolt and rejected the authority of the central government, which had to withdraw some of its forces from some of the Sunni areas because of threats by some Sunni clerics and prominent Sunni political individuals and to calm the tensions. Sunni and Shia mosques were targeted; the Iraqi troops as well as the Al-Sahwa militants in the Arab Sunni provinces of Anbar and Mosul were frequently attacked, and either killed or kidnapped. The rise of anti-government sentiment left the field open for Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Neqishbani army to recruit new members. The retaliatory attacks between the Shia and the Sunni insurgents has reached a higher level than at any time in the last five years.

The restive province of Anbar has witnessed repeated clashes between the Iraqi forces and the tribesmen. Ali Hatem Al-Suleimen, one of the Al-Sahwa leaders, has even announced the formation of the ‘Army of Pride and Dignity’ to protect the Sunnis here from central government. Some prominent Sunni factions have called for a federal region for the Arab Sunnis. However, not all the Sunnis agree to that.  

The Syrian crisis has exacerbated fragmentation in the body politic of Iraq. In Syria, the Arab Sunnis and the Shias are fighting each other in a fierce battle. Nevertheless, the central government has announced that it is not supporting any side in this war. Meanwhile, the AQI and the Jabhat Al-Nusra merged with the declared aim of establishing an Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham or the Whole Levant. However, this development that hardly caused a stir because AQI has had a crucial role in promoting Jabhat Al-Nusra since its beginnings, and has provided strategic and ideological guidance to it.

On the other side, the Iraqi Shia fighters from Katab Hezbollah and Ashab Al-Hag, and the individuals who joined Abu Fadle Al-Abbas (a Shia volunteer brigade fighting on the side of the Syrian regime) have been fighting in Syria against the rebels to protect the Shia Shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus. These developments in Syria, with the involvement of Iraqis, have intensified and widened the divisions among Iraqis themselves.  

Consequently, the escalation in political crisis has led to renewed bloodshed. More than 700 people were killed in these incidents of violence in April and more than 1,000 in May 2013. May 2013 has, in fact, been one of the bloodiest months in Iraq since 2008, prompting the UN to urge the Iraqi leaders to take immediate action to stop bloodshed.

Stability in Kurdistan Federal Region and tension with the Central Government       

In the meantime, the Kurdistan Federal Region, under its Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), has experienced a period of stable and secure development. It has taken a remarkable leap forward in trade and investment in the oil sector, reconstruction of its infrastructure, and tourism, at a time when the rest of Iraq has been in the grip of conflict. In fact, the Kurdistan Federal Region is the safest part of Iraq today, mainly because of the collaboration between the Kurdish people and the Kurdish security services. The Kurdish people have rejected the ‘radicalization’ (read terrorism) which initially established the region’s stability.

Despite some accusations of corruption and nepotism, which are still minor breaches compared to the rest of Iraq, the political atmosphere of the region has shown a remarkable maturity, reflected in the nature of interaction among the political parties and movements. It is notable that the opposition and the unions have criticized the Kurdish government and administration in a civilized manner, contributing to the region’s stability. Besides, the doctrine of the military forces and security services here has safeguarded the region from terrorists. These military forces and security services include the Peshmerga,  the official Kurdish military forces, and the Asaish, (the Iraqi Kurdistan security service), which is currently headed by the General Chief of the Kurdistan region’s security and the Deputy Chief of the Kurdistan National Security Council, Dr. Khasraw Gul Mohammad.

However, there are issues where the KRG and Baghdad do not see eye to eye. The chief of these are territorial disputes, the authority to administer the natural resources (oil and gas), and differing interpretations of the constitution whereby both sides argue that they are implementing it and accuse the other of ignoring it. There were times in 2009 and 2012 when the KRG and the central government were on the brink of conflict over their territorial disputes. The recent issue of the KRG forming contracts with multinational corporations dealing with oil and gas, without taking Baghdad into its confidence, has led to divisions, particularly after the passing of the central budget in the absence of the MPs from the Kurdistan Federal Region, resulting in the boycott of the central government by them.

After negotiations, the Kurdish officials, ministers and MPs have returned to their duties, without however permanently addressing the issues. However, currently both sides are negotiating to resolve the disagreement. Although these disagreements have not reached the level of destabilizing the security situation for civilians, they nevertheless highlight the failure of internal politics and the inability of the central government to reach out to the various communities of Iraq and solve their problems.


The ongoing political crisis since 2003 presents the spectacle of an era of democracy with serious misunderstandings and suspicions among the major political parties, leading to a crisis stemming from their negative and confrontational stances. The renewed tensions of the recent months in Iraq have revived the intolerable prospects of death, and pose the danger of breaking up the country if its main components show no sign of mature political behaviour.

All main political powers share the responsibility for securing the country from internal and external threats. Theoretically, the central government has the power to create a stable and secure country. However, in the perception of many Iraqis, it does not derive this power from the willing cooperation of its citizens, but by suppressing them and imposing its will on them by force. The fragile Iraqi society shows no inclination to put up with such an offensive or dominating attitude any more. The central government should consult with the major political powers of Iraq and try to ensure consensus in the decisions that affect everyone. Maliki’s government has failed in providing security for the people of Iraq. The key to security now lies in mutual understanding and a tolerant attitude on the part of Baghdad towards the various political powers throughout Iraq. The immediate steps signalling such an attitude would be the decentralization of power, equality, and a share in ruling the country.


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