Escalation of crisis in Iraq, what’s next?

Escalation of crisis in Iraq, what’s next?

Since the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, 500 Iraqis have been killed across the country. This is the highest death and casualty toll in the past five years. The recent attacks have mostly occurred in Shiite neighborhoods and intensified a sectarian tension between Sunnis and Shiites. 

This tension flared up with the recent conflict between the Sunni Vice President al-Hashimi and Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki, turning into a full scale political crisis. Al-Maliki has accused al-Hashimi of assisting a terrorist car bombing supposedly aimed at assassinating him. For that reason an arrest warrant was issued for al-Hashimi, after which he fled to Kurdistan. This has agitated al-Hashimi and the Sunni Arab members of parliament, who blame al-Maliki’s political tendency to dominate power centers, rule extra-constitutionally, and deny the rights of Sunni federated regions, as in the case of Kurdistan.

Most Middle East analysts assert that political tensions have created an unstable security situation, making Iraq more vulnerable to violence. This assertion was confirmed by statistics from the Ministry of Interior, with the number of deaths over the past month higher than all but one month last year.

There are three main considerations when trying to explain what is behind this tension:

Firstly, most analysts hold the political path of al-Maliki and his agenda of power concentration responsible. This rests on two foundations. The consolidation of his constituency’s influence on domestic politics and the drafting of a new foreign policy (e.g. toward Turkey) aimed at helping him to strengthen his political position at home. This has been particularly opposed by Sunnis, because they argue he has exercised his control over the government and, by acting as a head of all the security ministries (Defense, Interior and National Security), he has used his power to award top-ranking positions to his allies, contributing to the widespread corruption in Iraq. The gradual exclusion of Sunnis from political power and finally the arrest warrant against al-Hashimi have instilled Sunnis with a growing sense of non-representation, which is seen as a trigger of sectarian violence.

Secondly, the recent attacks have also raised the question of whether al-Qaeda has regained power, after being significantly weakened in 2008. Recently, it announced on its website that it plans to push back the increasing influence of Iran on Iraq. On the one hand, the concentration of attacks in Shiite neighborhoods makes this a reasonable possibility. On the other hand, many experts believe al-Qaeda no longer has the necessary military power to organize such attacks, because it has not been able to smuggle as many fighters into the country as in previous years.

Thirdly, the worst assumption is that those attacks have been organized with the involvement of the Iraqi security forces. The rise of political and ethnic rivalries in the government and between top-officials of armed forces has induced a crisis of confidence among different groups. That is why some officials and security forces are suspected to have cooperated and given assistance to attacks, in order to reduce the power of their rivals.

To sum up, whatever the main reason given for tension and increased attacks, the political climate of extreme division and uncertainty have escalated across Iraq and threatened stability. If the recent political turbulence does not calm down, it is possible that Sunni militant groups, with the affiliation of al-Qaeda, could carry out sensational attacks. It may also lead to the Kurds separating from the central government and declaring an independent Kurdistan.

Kenan Engin is a lecturer at the University of Heidelberg (International Relations)