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The Vicious Cycle of Iraqi Sectarian Conflict

The latest suicide bombing in Iraq, which killed 13 children on the playground of an elementary school in the Shiite city of Qabak, has most likely been overlooked by many newsreaders since it plays a small part in a consistent string of attacks which have destabilized the region over the past few months. This larger pattern of instability continues to impede postwar development, and has seemingly been ignored on an international level due to other regional concerns. However, the interconnected nature of Middle East politics calls for direct action in regards to terrorist threats.

UN statistics have revealed that terrorist attacks killed 979 people in the month of September, 887 of them civilians. Suicide bomber attacks have become increasingly common in outlying predominantly Shiite areas and sectarian violence appears to be an endless issue which the Iraqi government is unable to address.  This is largely due to the conflicting political interests of its Shiite and Sunni power bases.

The surge in violence has followed a deadly crackdown by the Shiite government on a Sunni protest camp in April. More than 5000 civilians have been killed throughout Iraq in the past six months due to acts of terrorism. This past September held the highest number of civilian deaths since U.S withdrawal in December 2011.

The lack of international concern is largely due to the fact that Western governments have become preoccupied with other issues in the region, especially in Syria and Egypt. However, if we look to the source of the ongoing unrest in Iraq, it has been primarily caused by external factors.  Not only was the American invasion of 2003 a failure on all counts, but previous international sanctions which followed the 1991 Gulf war led to the disappearance of the middle class, and this forced many Iraqis to turn to corruption and organized crime.

What is most concerning is the Iraqi government’s response to the growing civil turmoil. The  Sunni-Shia divide in Iraq has played a role in the atrocities, as well as the response from the government. The Shiite dominated government has failed to contain growing Sunni unrest. With the lack of government response, many Shiites are beginning to take up fighting themselves in response to endless Sunni suicide bombings. This inaction has furthered Iraqi accusations of an illegitimate and corrupt government. While many Westerners see the current violence solely as a clash of internal religious factions, the causes also lie in regional politics and in the terrorist networks which have been created by social and geopolitical factors. 

Iraq faces a huge threat from al Qaeda, since the government’s inadequate approach to violence has failed to combat the flow of terrorist networks.  Spillover from the Syrian conflict is also adding to the prevalence of extremists. There is a strong connection between al-Qaeda extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, marked by the al-Qaeda Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). This has given rise to concerns that if Sunni extremists in Iraq grow through ISIS, Syria could turn into an al-Qaeda controlled state, like Taliban run Afghanistan, and use this as a basis to launch attacks against Shiites and the Iraqi government. Fears like this, which have become widespread, might begin to affect Iraqi foreign policy, for instance, the increased Iraqi support for the Syrian regime. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to fear what could happen to Iraq should the Syrian government collapse. Although no direct support has been offered, Maliki allows Iran to carry out direct flights of personnel and supplies to Syria, playing a crucial role in propping up the current regime. Further support by Iraq could have a drastic effect on the ongoing civil war, and this should concern the international community and those who wish to see the demise of the Assad regime.

Many United Nations officials in Iraq are calling on political, religious and civil leaders to work together with security forces. Collective action is the only hope to end constant bloodshed. Cooperation between the government and Sunni political groups would seek to build a front to combat violent jihadist threats but the Shiite government instead sees the Sunni’s purely as a political threat. If an uprising were to occur, Iraq would experience greater destabilization possibly leading the country into a sectarian civil war, not unlike in Syria. Iraq could relapse into the violence experienced in the Sunni-Shia clashes that peaked in 2006-2007, which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people and left the state on the brink of civil war.

There must be a refocusing on Iraq from the international community. If security in the Middle East is ever to be achieved, smaller suicide bombings encompassed in larger terrorist schemes need to be met with a response by Western anti-terrorist policy in cooperation with regional actors. The interconnected problems of the Middle East need strategic attention rather than the continued dumping of external resources from crisis to crisis.  If precedent is anything to go by, structural reform in response to sectarian violence in Iraq seems unlikely to come from external states.  However, focused advisory bodies or other forms of soft power pressure could aid the Iraqi government in constructing a satisfying independent response to the ongoing unrest.

– Beth Mansell

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