Sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis escalates as rebel outfits at the forefront of the conflict in Syria get active in the country. By JOHN CHERIAN

The months of April and May witnessed a dramatic spurt of killings in Iraq. There have been reports almost every day of dozens of civilians and officials being targeted in sectarian attacks. In April, 700 people were killed, making it the deadliest month in Iraq in the past five years. If the current spate of killings continues, May could be even deadlier as Shia militant groups and the Iraqi army have started to retaliate. On May 13 and 14, successive terror attacks killed more than 50 people. The attacks took place in Shia areas such as Sadr City and had all the hallmarks of an Al Qaeda operation. In retaliation to such targeting of Shia neighbourhoods and mosques, Sunni residential areas and mosques came under attack in the first two weeks of May in different parts of the country.

Terrorist organisations such as Al Nusra that have been in the forefront of the fighting in neighbouring Syria are keen to extend the sectarian war to Iraq. Many of the Al Nusra fighters were originally with Al Qaeda in Iraq and had gone across the border to pursue their dream of establishing an Islamic emirate. They have declared a jehad against Shias and other minorities, whom they consider apostates. Another Sunni militant organisation that has also raised the banner of revolt against the government is the “Sahwa” (Awakening). The outfit was originally set up under the tutelage of the American occupation forces as part of their efforts to quell the Sunni insurgency in central Iraq that erupted after 2003. Now, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and its former enemies have joined hands to fight the government in Baghdad. The Sahwa reportedly has a fighting strength of 100,000. There are reports that fighters owing allegiance to Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party have also joined hands with their former adversaries to fight the central government in Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in a television broadcast in the last week of April, warned Iraqis about the consequences of sectarianism. “Sectarianism is evil, and the wind of sectarianism does not need a licence to cross from one country to another, because if it begins in one place it moves to another place,” he said. The escalation in the cycle of violence started after the Iraqi security forces used strong-arm methods in the city of Hawija, situated north of the capital, Baghdad. Around 26 people were killed when the army and the police intervened to end violent protests there after demands that the demonstrators give up a man accused of killing an Iraqi soldier were rejected. Hawija has long been a centre of Sunni extremism.

A sizable section of the minority Sunni population is yet to reconcile to a government dominated by the majority Shia. Iraqi Vice-President Tareq al-Hashmi, who has been accused of organising death squads while in office, fled to Turkey last year after an arrest warrant was served on him. The country’s Finance Minister, Rafe al-Issawi, was also served with an arrest warrant in December last year for harbouring terrorists. Both these Sunni leaders were accommodated in the Cabinet after a power-sharing formula was accepted by al-Maliki to break the political impasse after the general elections held two years ago. One of the senior-most Sunni leaders in the country, parliament Speaker Osama Nujaifi, has called for the resignation of al-Maliki following the Hawija incident.

Neighbouring countries have been encouraging the Sunnis to rise in revolt against the government in Baghdad, which is viewed as being close to the Iranian government. They want to enmesh Iraq in the kind of quagmire that Syria now finds itself in. These moves seem to have the tacit support of the American, Turkish and Saudi Arabian governments.

After the Hawija incident, al-Maliki warned about the dangers of the country sliding into sectarian warfare. “If sectarian war erupts, there will be no winners or losers. All will lose, whether in southern or western or eastern or northern Iraq,” he said. The United Nations envoy in Baghdad, Martin Kobler, said in the third week of May that it was the responsibility of all Iraqi leaders to stop the bloodshed. “Small children are burned alive in their cars. Worshippers are cut down outside their own mosques. This is unacceptable,” he said.

Al-Maliki has been trying to reach out and assuage the restive tribes in central Iraq. He admitted that the Sunnis had some genuine grievances. A parliamentary committee is investigating the Hawija raid, and several prominent Shia lawmakers have criticised the use of force to deal with the demonstrators. But the militant groups have spurned the olive branch. In the last week of April, the tribal leaders of Anbar, a Sunni-dominated area, announced the formation of a tribal army to protect Sunni protest movements. Iraqi government officials say that the protest movements are heavily infiltrated by terrorist groups. All the insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda, have vowed to protect the demonstrators. More than a hundred of those killed in recent weeks were Iraqi soldiers and policemen. Ten soldiers were kidnapped and executed on May 19.

Many Iraqi commentators say that a civil war has already erupted and that it is going to be worse than what Syria is currently witnessing. Fearing the worst, residents of Baghdad have started hoarding essential commodities. The latest surge in violence has further complicated the acute refugee problem the country has been facing since the American invasion in 2003. More than a million Iraqis fled the country during the American occupation to escape the deadly violence that plagued many Iraqi cities and towns. Many of them found refuge in Syria. With the situation deteriorating there, they would like to return to their country. There are around 450,000 Iraqi refugees in Jordan. The orgy of bloodshed that Iraq is witnessing these days is not a happy augury for them as well. In fact, more Iraqis are now thinking of leaving their homes to find a refuge elsewhere.

Most observers of Iraq agree that the current strife in Iraq is a spillover from the bloodshed in Syria. Insurgent groups waging war against the government in Damascus now control a huge swathe of the border between the two countries. This makes it easy for fighters and arms to move between the two countries with comparative ease. The 10-year-long American military occupation of the country has exacerbated the sectarian divide. The Christian community in Iraq, which was around 5 per cent of the population before the American invasion, has now been almost decimated. Most of them have fled the country after they were selectively targeted by Al Qaeda-linked extremist groups. After the overthrow of the secular Baath government in 2003, the United States purged the entire civil service and the army, hoping to install a pliant government in its place.

Things, however, did not go according to its plan. Iraq was virtually partitioned into two, with the Kurds in the north running a virtually independent state. One of the stated aims of the neoconservatives who dominated the George Bush administration was to redraw the map of West Asia. Many believe that the Barack Obama administration too is not averse to this goal. The splitting up of Iraq and Syria along sectarian and ethnic lines could be a long-term game plan of the U.S. Obama administration officials, after having evidently lost hope of effecting a regime change in Syria, are now suggesting that the country is heading for a three-way split, with the Kurds and the Sunnis carving out their own mini states.

Shia-Sunni divide

In Iraq, the U.S. patronised “death squads” and militias to do its dirty work during the 10 years of occupation. The U.S. military consciously tried to foster a Shia-Sunni divide and expressed alarm when there were signs of growing unity between the two groups. In all the elections that were held since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Shia-dominated parties have emerged on top, reflecting the will of the majority. The government led by al-Maliki has refused to be subservient to Washington. Iraq witnessed relatively calm provincial elections on April 20. Al-Maliki’s “State of Law” party won most of the seats. The Sunni-led “Iraqiya Bloc” fared poorly in the elections. Elections were not held in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province because of the security situation. Banners have appeared in Sunni-dominated cities such as Fallujah accusing the U.S. of having surrendered the country to the Shias and Iran. “America: You gave Iraq to Iran and then just left,” many of the banners put up in Fallujah proclaim.

Many Sunni insurgents have told the media that they hope a change in the government in Damascus will help their cause. The insurgent groups, however, are still weighing their options—whether to wage a war of secession or return to the situation that existed before the U.S occupation of the country when the Sunnis monopolised power. Since the overthrow of the Sunni monarchy in the 1950s, though the leadership of the country was under Sunni heads of state, they implemented a mainly secular agenda. The ideology of Pan-Arabism transcended the sectarian divide. Israel was the enemy and Palestine was a sacred cause. Now the U.S., aided by its conservative allies in the region, has succeeded in fostering a sectarian divide. The main enemy for many conservative Arab states today is Shia Iran and its allies—Syria and the Lebanese Hizbollah movement. The Palestine issue has faded into the background. Israel is, in fact, helping the Sunni groups fighting the Syrian government and Hizbollah. There are reports, too, that the U.S. is on the verge of brokering a new defence agreement between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to protect their strategic interests in the region.