The (Two Day) Daily Iraq, July 15-16, 2013

Just plain didn’t do one of these yesterday, no excuses. It seems some news outlets are starting to take notice of what’s happening here; the NYT covered the attacks I wrote about on Sunday, the AP (via is noticing the uptick in violence in just the week since Ramadan began, and USA Today reported on Monday’s violence, which killed 15 in attacks in Kirkuk, Samarra, Tuz Khormato, Mosul, and Baghdad (although the linked article says 9 the final tally was 15). As a side note, I think I should start using Iraq Body Count to track even daily statistics, since they compile total figures at the end of the day, instead of relying on news reports that report the casualty figures they have on hand at the moment, before all the facts are in. Sunday’s country-wide spree of violence, for example, actually claimed 66 lives when all was said and done, not the 40-45 the news reports were showing when I wrote about it later that day. Iraq Body Count’s running tally now counts 452 civilian deaths in July.

More, including an optimistic take on what’s happening from a contributor at Foreign Policy, if you read on.

Anyway, from the AP piece:

The bloodshed during Ramadan is an extension of a surge of attacks that has been roiling Iraq since the spring. It follows months of rallies by Iraq’s minority Sunnis against the Shiite-led government over what they contend is second-class treatment and the unfair use of tough anti-terrorism measures against their sect.

The killings significantly picked up after Iraqi security forces launched a heavy-handed crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija on April 23. A ferocious backlash followed the raid, with deadly bomb attacks and the return of sporadic gunbattles between insurgents and soldiers — this time members of the Iraqi security forces rather than U.S. troops.

I highlight this bit because the sectarian component conflicts with the message of this piece, “Not an Iraqi Civil War,” by Douglas Ollivant on Foreign Policy’s website. Dr. Ollivant, a retired army colonel, was one of the planners of the surge strategy in Iraq, so he knows the country. But I wonder if he’s a little too invested in the idea that The Surge Worked to allow for the possibility that things in Iraq really are starting to come apart at the seams, particularly with respect to the Sunni population’s willingness to participate in, rather than oppose, the political system. He insists that what looks like sectarian conflict is actually a simple terror campaign:

Iraq is, quite simply, on the receiving end of a major al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) offensive. AQI remains one of the most capable of the al Qaeda affiliates or regional franchises. As a percentage of the population, Iraq has lost more of its citizens to al Qaeda explosives in each of the past three months than the United States did on September 11, 2001, according to AFP statistics, which show there were more than 400 casualties in each month of April, May, and June. The AQI offensive targets both the Shiite populace in general and Sunni moderates in particular. One would think that the reaction of the United States, despite its desire to forget all things Iraq, would at least be one of deep sympathy.

Instead, the reaction of the U.S. political class has been to bemoan “sectarian violence” and to conflate the attacks with grievances by the Sunni minority against their Shiite-dominated government … The comparisons to the Iraqi civil war that peaked in 2006 and 2007 may seem appropriate if looking at the raw numbers. However, when one pushes another level down and realizes this is not two communities fighting each other (as did occur in the civil war) but instead a nihilist al-Qaeda franchise attacking both the Shiite community randomly and the Sunni community strategically, the resemblance quickly fades.

None of that is wrong (particularly the criticism of our muted reaction in the US to what’s going on there, though I would argue that our indifference is as much a product of Americans tiring of bad foreign news as it is of our desire to forget Iraq). The violence that’s going on right now in Iraq is noteworthy for its one-sidedness; even the attacks on Sunnis and Sunni targets have been AQI and its Salafi allies going after moderates, not Shi’i retaliation against Sunnis. But to say there’s no sectarian component to the violence is misleading. For one thing, al-Qaeda and other Salafi groups like it are inherently sectarian; the only way they can justify their attacks against fellow Muslims is by identifying those other Muslims (be they Shi’a or moderate Sunni) as apostates. Describing them as “nihilist” may be intellectually satisfying, or it may be a rhetorical way to isolate their movement so that we can talk about being “at war” with them without bringing Islam into the discussion, but it’s not accurate. If nihilism rejects socio-political structures, or the concept of morality, or the idea that life has meaning at all, or all of the above, how does that term apply to a movement that has as its goal the re-establishment of what they see as the only moral socio-political entity the world has ever known, the original Islamic community? Al-Qaeda’s goals or plans may be vague or poorly thought out; you could most likely say the same about theocratic movements in any religion. That doesn’t mean they don’t have goals and plans.

For another thing, even in Dr. Ollivant’s attempt to disconnect AQI’s violence from the larger problem of Iraq’s disaffected Sunni minority, it’s clear that the heretofore more-or-less cooperative attitude of the Sunni community is reaching a breaking point:

Some more charitable Sunni speakers [at Sunni rallies] refer to the Shiites as Iran’s pawns. But deeply offensive sectarian terms for the Shiites — the regional equivalent of racial epithets — are also being used at the protest sites. In some ways, the Sunni protests have less the character of the “Occupy” movement or even Arab Spring, and are being manipulated to have more the flavor of a supremacist movement. This combination of demographic error and racist-like sectarian bigotry is hijacking the common democratic expression of the average demonstrators and introducing a new dangerous and disturbing combination, as the reactionary former elite tries to regain the status it once held under Saddam’s Baath Party.

The Baath Party are not Sunni radicals, but Sunni resentment and discontent is Sunni resentment and discontent, and who’s behind it matters less than who’s in a better position to benefit from it. Making matters worse is the situation in Syria, which “has now also taken on a significant sectarian character,” and close ties between Sunni extremists in both countries.

What Iraq has going for it is that there’s been no large-scale retaliation from the Shi’a community, which we know from the 06-07 civil war does have its own paramilitary groups. While nobody is suggesting that Iraq is currently in a state of civil war, or that the sectarian violence going on right now is going both ways, it’s the threat that AQI is counting on and that ought to concern western observers. So far, as Dr. Ollivant writes:

Iraq is nowhere near the brink of civil war — primarily because the Sunni have so much to lose. Sunni elites distinctly recall finding this out the hard way in the civil war of 2006 to 2007. The lethal success of the AQI terror campaign admittedly hints at the reappearance of war, but again, on closer examination this violence is almost exclusively one-sided. The Shiite militias that fought (and won) the last civil war have not — at least yet — rearmed or remobilized.

That’s obviously a good thing, but is it going to hold? The Shi’a militias that haven’t yet rearmed or remobilized may reach the point where the violence becomes so great that they are compelled to do exactly that, which may then compel Iraq’s Sunni population at large to mobilize as well. Then AQI gets what it wants, a real sectarian civil war to go along with/blend into the one its brother organizations are trying to lead in Syria.

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