The forgotten conflict of the Middle East
In the commotion created by the Arab Spring and following disturbances, the focus of international politics moved away from Iraq. The especially brutal civil war in Syria, the coup d’état and subsequent turbulence in Egypt, the tensions in Lebanon, Libya, and Yemen and the elections in Iran, have all diverted international attention away from Iraq. However, Iraq is still located at the very center of the region, both geographically and politically, where hundreds of people are being killed every month and the constant violence has become mundane.
Iraq has one of the most diverse populations of the Middle East and all the conflicts in the region resonate within the country. Thus, the spillover effects of the ongoing conflicts around Iraq make up part of the background for the latest upsurge in violence. The country is acutely linked to the Sunni/Shia divide in the region; its Kurds have deeply embroiled in the Syrian civil war, and pressures from Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. are felt acutely by different groups.
The sectarian and ethnic divisions, which were deepened by the U.S. invasion, have not been patched up yet, and the struggle for power sharing has not been resolved. On top of these, current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s openly sectarian policies and autocratic tendencies have enflamed the violence. Since he took office seven years ago, Sunni groups have largely been alienated from public institutions, the army and daily life. What started as non-violent demonstrations against the government’s policies in time turned into a sectarian crisis with a disproportionate use of force by the army, as seen in April at Hawijah.
According to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, nearly 6,000 civilians were killed and almost 14,000 were injured in car bombings and suicide attacks since the beginning of this year. The death toll has reached the highest level since 2006-2007, when it peaked during the civil war. The scale and scope of recent attacks indicate to a country on the edge of unraveling.
In addition to regular attacks in and around Baghdad, the violence has now spread to the north and south. The suicide bombing of the building that housed the regional Kurdish government’s security service in Arbil, the safest part of Iraq, on Sept. 29, was the first attack in northern Iraq since 2007.
This was a clear case of spillover of the lawlessness in Syria into Iraq through groups capable of operating in both countries, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an al-Qaeda linked group. It even coordinated an attack to Abu Ghraib and al-Taji prisons in June, where 500 inmates including senior members of the group were freed.
The volatility of the country cannot end without addressing the grievances of the Sunni minority and finding a way to share power among the various ethnic and religious groups within the country. The al-Maliki government needs to find a way to integrate them into the political process. Otherwise, Iraq will continue to be drawn into the regional conflicts. Isolating Iraq from them can only be possible by creating stability inside the country.
A stable Iraq can play an important role in the region, but there is no sign of that happening at the moment. Al-Maliki will be visiting Washington next week to meet President Barack Obama. It could be a good starting point for the U.S. to own up its responsibility in the Iraqi saga, and persuade al-Maliki, who needs U.S. support and equipment to end the violence in Iraq, to become more conciliatory towards different groups. If he can compromise, then a stable Iraq would be a good starting point towards a peaceful Middle East. An unraveling Iraq, on the other hand, would easily ignite even more ugly manifestations of sectarian, ethnic and political conflicts in the region, which even the U.S. would not be able keep under control.