Throughout his reign in Iraq, Saddam Hussein played up ethnic and sectarian tensions at every opportunity. He spearheaded a long campaign of violent oppression against Shi'ites (who make up the majority of the population), and massacred Kurds in northern Iraq. Six years after his death in 2007, and ten years after the US invaded in 2003, the scars of these sectarian divides remain.
Yesterday, the Shi'ite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, warned that the country is in crisis, as nearly 200 people were reported killed in four days of fierce fighting between troops and Sunnis. In a speech broadcast to the nation on Thursday, he said that the current violence "is a point in which we should stop and think because it might lead to sectarian strife. Everyone would lose. Whether he is in the north, the south, east or west of Iraq, if the fire of sectarianism starts, everyone's fingers will be burned by it." He called for individual Iraqis, tribal leaders, clergy and the media to "take the initiative and not be silent about those who want to take the country back to sectarian civil war."
In his speech, Maliki referred to the dangers of a "region teeming with sectarianism", a clear reference to nearby Syria, where the two-year conflict has a major sectarian dimension as the predominantly Sunni opposition fights to overthrow the Alawite Shia leadership. Despite fears of contagion, Iraq has a troubled recent history of sectarian conflict that has never been eliminated.
Sunnis, who make up the majority of Iraqis, held the power during Saddam's reign, but have been politically marginalised since his overthrow. After the US-led invasion in 2003, majority rule brought forth Shi'ite politicians, who proceeded to exact revenge for decades of oppression. Tension reached its height in 2007, when it was essentially a civil war.
In subsequent elections, Shia politicians have been voted into Baghdad. Mechanisms intended to ensure a balance of power were put in place, but this goal of equality has not been achieved. Bomb attacks continue and millions have been displaced as a result of ongoing sectarian conflict. Since December, tens of thousands of Sunnis have taken to the streets to protest against what they claim is discrimination against them. Attempts to punish former Baathists have turned into a form of collective punishment against all Sunnis, while anti-terror laws are used to imprison many for long periods without charge.
While the conflict has long historical roots, Maliki is right to be concerned by events in Syria. Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi, a Sunni cleric who wields significant influence over Iraq's Sunni population, recently called for members of Iraq's security forces to defect and join the opposition to the Shiite-led government, just as "their brothers did in Syria." He stopped short of calling for an armed rebellion by saying that defectors should not take their weapons with them. According to officials, a few Sunni soldiers have already defected, demonstrating the risk of the situation escalating, like Syria.
Maliki's reliance on force thus far suggests that he won't be able to bring the conflict back from the brink. As journalist Patrick Cockburn has pointed out, Saddam Hussein employed extraordinary levels of force against Kurds, Shia, and dissident Sunni, and even then had control of all of Iraq "only periodically". The same was true of the US army. Each minority is sizeable enough to feel it can continue to fight. While Maliki's government theoretically runs Iraq, in fact it controls just half the country, with no authority in the Kurdistan Regional Government's three provinces, and contested authority in the Sunni majority provinces. The recent history of Iraq shows unwillingness by all sides to compromise; whether this trend can be changed will determine whether Iraq becomes another Syria.
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