Leiden Islam Blog

Beyond Sunni vs. Shia – not sectarianism, but systematic violence

Beyond Sunni vs. Shia – not sectarianism, but systematic violence

In the midst of the ISIS takeover of parts of Iraq, the international community is turning a blind eye to the systematic atrocities which have been committed by the Iraqi security forces against the Iraqi people, argues Sami Al-Daghistani.

The majority of media outlets that has been covering the recent developments in Iraq has focused mainly on the rise of the ISIS movement, its anti-Shia agenda and its rapid progress in Iraq. Yet, those analyses fail to provide context for this success. They lack a thorough account of how these confrontations have emerged, as well as a detailed analysis of the complex power structure in post-2003 Iraq, including various groups battling al-Maliki’s security forces. Almost entirely absent have been views of Iraqis – their accountability as well as their insurgency.

One can disagree whether Iraq was liberated or occupied in 2003, yet it is clear that the sovereign state was forcefully canceled – its institutions, apparatus, military, police force, judiciary and political associations were disabled and put to an end. After the US invasion and the elimination of the Ba’ath party, a new government was installed with the support of domestic and foreign proxies that exercised their power by following a sectarian agenda. Most Iraqis perceive the newly created Iraqi army as an occupying force comprised of predominantly soldiers and militiamen who successfully infiltrated Iraq’s security apparatus – which would not have been possible without funding from Washington and Tehran.

Iraqis have traditionally lived in interreligious and interethnic communities. Recent sectarian strife has radically changed this situation, exacerbated by the disastrous abuse of power by prime minister al-Maliki. Before the US invasion, Baghdad had mostly mixed areas, whereas today, with a population of 7 million, it has become predominantly Shia. The 2006-2007 civil strife between Sunnis and Shias resulted in the cleansing of entire neighbourhoods. Since the rapid seizure of central Iraqi cities (e.g. Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah) by ISIS, the atmosphere in the capital has become toxic and the first signs of turmoil have already appeared, as news reports describe several cases of scurrilous militias executing more than 50 men just south of Baghdad.

In June 2014 the security service numbering 350,000 soldiers and 650,000 policemen was opposed by an estimated force of 5,000 ISIS fighters who were backed by tribal leaders and former army officers of the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries. This Council announced that “The Military Council of the Revolution, formed by the former Iraqi army military, youth of the revolution and tribal members, is coordinating the military struggle of different groups against the Maliki government, heir to the political system imposed by the U.S. occupation.” 

ISIS undeniably presents a threat to the country’s security, but one has to be aware of the paper tigers within the organization. The political establishment of the Shia-led government has done little to prevent the further escalation of violence. Quite the opposite, as the most important Shia religious leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called for a levée en masse among the Iraqi population to “defend the country” and to join the army or militias against the Sunni insurgents. And since ISIS is composed of radical Sunnis, there is a fear that Iraqi Sunnis are yet again to become subject to religious and political repression. In this turmoil, many Iraqis do not dare to return to their cities due to fears of reprisal and aerial bombing by government forces. This might be the reason why approximately 500,000 people fled Mosul when ISIS took over the city.

According to a retired four-star general, ISIS’s takeover of Mosul was the result of a failing prime minister, his weak military, and corrupt governmental bursaries. Corruption, connected to American advisers who set up the new Iraqi army a decade ago, had turned it into a money-making business where one could buy a position for $20,000.

Since 2011, Iraqis (predominantly Sunnis) have been protesting against the unjust policies of the government. Protestors’ demands have not been met, and instead, activists and opposition members have been murdered. Security forces also cleared protest camps in Fallujah, Ramadi and killed many protestors in Hawija (near Kirkuk) in December 2013. This is one of the reasons why tribal leaders took arms and have played an important role in the resistance against the government. Despite the differences between various groups fighting security forces, the Iraqi government has treated all fighters as terrorists and launched an indiscriminate aerial bombing campaign that to date has killed over 440 civilians in Fallujah, and has displaced tens of thousands from Anbar Province. Since 2013, residential neighbourhoods and hospitals in Fallujah have been frequent targets. According to Human Rights Watch, the Iraqi security forces and militias have committed crimes against humanity by extrajudicial killings of more than 250 Sunni prisoners from 9 June 2014 to date as revenge killings for the atrocities carried out by ISIS. Currently there are an estimated 100.000 prisoners across the country, most of them being Sunni.

ISIS does not act alone in Iraq and accounts for only a small fraction of a collective rebellion against the current regime. Yet, questions about its efficacy as a political power and its current use of illegal and brutal force do remain.

Despite the fact that president Obama has stated that the US will not intervene militarily in Iraq, Washington has already provided intelligence and other assistance to the Iraqi government, including sending personnel and arms to Iraq’s security forces. In addition, Iran has announced that it would help fight the Sunni uprising in Iraq, and has done so by sending jet-planes.

Regardless of the political and religious tensions, splitting Iraq into three enclaves along Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish lines, would not only fuel the US’s and Iran’s plans to pursue their national interests, it would also be a poor scenario for groups like the Yazidi Kurds, the Iraqi Christian communities, the Turkomans – including both Sunni and Shia – as well as other groups, as they would be trapped in between this political gap and would thus fall victim to various extremist ideologies.

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