Is Iraq on its Way to a Civil War?

Adil E. Shamoo

All indicators are pointing to a looming sectarian civil war on Iraq’s horizon. It is possible to avoid this civil war, but so far, the country’s leaders are not willing to compromise, and outside parties show little interest in stopping it. They should care more than they do: if not resolved, a bloody civil war in Iraq will fuel the rising conflict among Sunni-Shia across the Middle East — now in Lebanon and Syria — with the potential of spreading into other countries and inviting extremists to take advantage of the conflagration. 

Of course the United States’ nine-year occupation of Iraq unleashed this friction between Sunni and Shia, the underlying inferno that keeps Iraqis killing each other. According to Iraq Body Count, 4,505 Iraqis died from violence in 2012-409 in the month of Ramadan alone. Many will say this is civil war already, with numerous groups carrying out suicide attacks, bombings and outright assassinations on a daily basis. No one knows for sure who is responsible most of the time, but invariably it is Al-Qaeda, Sunni militants, lingering Baathists, sectarian fighters, and insurgent nationalists who are to blame. 

Politically, it’s a mess. Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani is in failing health, suffering from the effects of a stroke and convalescing in Germany. Talabani is a moderate and a Kurd and has been a unifying figure on the issue of the Kurdish relationship with the central authority in Iraq. Many political factions are gearing up for a fight to replace him, amid serious tensions between the semi-autonomous north and Baghdad.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is hunting down his opponents, including his own vice president, Tariq Al-Hashimi. The Sunni politician was charged with terrorism in 2011 when three of his bodyguards were accused of murder and committing acts of torture, supposedly under al-Hashimi’s orders. Al-Hashimi escaped first to Kurdistan, and in September 2012 was sentenced to death in absentia by an Iraqi court. He is now residing in Turkey where he is reportedly safe from extradition. Furthermore in December, al-Maliki’s security forces raided the home and offices of the Sunni finance minister, Rafie al-Issawi, and arrested ten of his bodyguards on charges of terrorism. Mr. Issawi was accused in the past with links to terror, but no proof has ever been offered. 

Since coming to power, al-Maliki has taken complete control of the country’s security forces through executive orders. This control was Maliki’s ticket to his own survival and that of the government, but since then his regime has been accused of torturing prisoners and other abuses once consigned to his predecessor, Saddam Hussein. This has generated an opposition that is now willing to do anything to topple him, including terrorism, fomenting further sectarian violence and unrest. 

Many of the seeds of this conflict were sewn in the US-written constitution and new Iraqi laws under which al-Maliki now operates. For example, the constitution institutionalized the separation of Kurds, Shia and Sunni by regionalization and the division of oil revenues (an ongoing source of tension that has yet to be resolved). Furthermore, the United States helped to form the National Intelligence Service (NIS), which under the occupation was reporting directly to the CIA. At present, NIS officially reports to al-Maliki. 

Meanwhile, waiting in the wings is AIyad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiyya coalition and darling of the CIA. He seeks to form his own government, as Iraqiyya has wide support as the largest winning bloc in the 2010 parliamentary elections. The Kurds too, are taking advantage of the weak and unstable government to ratchet up their own demands for autonomy — including clear access and control of all oil revenues in Kurdish territories.

In recent weeks, large and frequent demonstrations across the Sunni areas of Baghdad and in the cities of Ramadi, Mosul, Samara and Tikrit, have demanded improved living conditions, an end to government discrimination against former Baathists, and a nullification of the de-Baathification laws. Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni deputy prime minister echoing others, has demanded the resignation of the Nuri al-Maliki’s government. And the Sunni speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, in January called for an amnesty law to free Sunnis detained on what Sunnis say are discriminatory charges of terrorism. 

The prime minister, while releasing some female prisoners, has called for the demonstrations to cease in the interest of national security. He is bolstered by counter-demonstrations demanding the maintenance of the status quo, and rightfully expressed fears of any Baathist return to power. 

Mr. al-Maliki has had an historic opportunity to unify Iraq and move it forward economically. He may still have time, but he must start by ending the violence and changing his own policies, including the use of authoritarian and undemocratic methods to govern. Iraqis have suffered too much.

But one man alone cannot transform the entire landscape. First, Mr. Allawi needs to suspend his burning desire to become a prime minister. Others - from the Kurds, and Sunni and Shia leaders such as Muqtada al-Sadr - need to cooperate in earnest with the government for the sake of national unity. It will take such herculean efforts to stop Iraq from sliding into a civil war.

Adil E. Shamoo is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies, a senior analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus, and the author of Equal Worth: When Humanity Will Have Peace. His blog is www.forwarorpeace.com. He can be reached at ashamoo@som.umaryland.edu