Protests have rocked Sunni-dominated provinces of Iraq for almost two months, raising sectarian tensions in the country’s fragile post-war environment.
Subsequent actions and reactions have raised fears among Iraqis and in the UN of a resurgence of the kind of violence that killed tens of thousands of people during the civil strife of 2006-08.
Bombings on 8 and 11 February - the most recent in continued attacks since the withdrawal of US forces in late 2011 - have killed dozens of people and heightened those fears.
What is behind the recent escalation in tension?
The protests began in December, after Iraq’s Shia-led government arrested 10 bodyguards of a Sunni leader on terrorism charges in what was widely seen to be a political move. The guards of Rafie al-Essawi, minister of finance and a leader in the Iraqiya political Sunni alliance, were arrested just three months after another Sunni leader, Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, was sentenced to death in absentia for allegedly running a death squad.
Sunni protesters have expressed a rising sense of their sect’s neglect since Sunni President Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003. Their demands include more influence on decision-making, the release of detainees (especially female detainees), cancellation of the de-Baathification law (which bans former members of Hussein’s Baath party – mostly Sunnis - from jobs in the civil service), and cancellation of a counter-terrorism law that Sunnis say is being used only against them. There are increasing calls to topple the government.
As the protests swelled, they spread to predominantly Shia provinces, where people showed their support for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and insisted that no Baath party members be returned to power.
Last week, tensions rose even higher when on 4 February, Wathiq al-Batat, the head of Shia militant group Hezbollah in Iraq, announced the formation of the al-Mukhtar (“The Chosen”) Army. Al-Batat threatened this militia would fight against the protesters if they became controlled by al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
“Kurds have their militia to protect them; Sunnis have al-Qaeda; and Shiites have nothing,” he said at a press conference in Baghdad. “That is why we are forming this army - to protect Shiites and Iraqis in general from al-Qaeda and the Free Iraqi Army,” he said, referring to a newly branded Sunni militant group that says it is fighting to topple the government. “We will carry out attacks against them.”
A few days after his press conference, the government issued an arrest warrant against him, though he remains free. Sunnis have since threatened to bring the protests to the streets of Baghdad.
What are the root causes of this sectarianism?
Analysts and political figures point to a re-emergence of sectarian or ethnic identities decades ago.
Hussein’s exclusionary policies and 10 years of sanctions led to a weakening of state institutions, a decline of the secular middle class - especially doctors and engineers - and the re-emergence of communal identities as key elements governing Iraqi society.
"He chose the policy of a one party state. He eliminated all others… then he started to eliminate figures within his party… then he wanted to keep the power within his family only,” explained political analyst Ehsan al-Shimary.
Besides political affiliation to the Baath party, belonging to a certain sect or ethnic group often meant privileged channels to access employment or promotions.
After the fall of the Baath regime, and during the US occupation in the last decade, US policies further reinforced this trend by promoting the idea that Iraqi society was composed of three main communities - Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds - and creating a political system that partitioned political power among these groups.
In this new system, political affiliation and sectarian and ethnic identity had to overlap: most political parties now have a defined sectarian or ethnic nature.
The failure to rebuild an effective Iraqi state has given Iraqis little choice but to return to their sectarian identities to ensure their own security (for example, the civil conflict led to the creation of “Sunni” or “Shia” neighbourhoods within Baghdad) and affiliate themselves with sect-based political parties to access the job market, promotions or even basic service provision.
What is the way out?
Reform the political class
“We need technocrats to rule this country,” said Sheikh Ahmed al-Rahman of the Anbar tribe, who has helped lead demonstrations in Anbar Province, where protests began in December. “In this case, it would not matter to our people if the leader was a Sunni or a Shiite.”
Observers say Iraqi leaders are using sect to promote themselves, and a reversal in their behaviour would go a long way to resolving the problem.
Take Muqtada al-Sadr, a leading Shia politician, who led the Mahdi Army militia during the civil conflict but has since reached out to Sunnis. In a speech about the protests, he told them: “I am with you in your demands and will support you in them, but do not call for the return of the Baath and do not carry Baath flags and slogans.” Days after his speech, Sunni protesters stopped such acts and even carried Shiite flags of Imam Hussain and others, for the first time in Anbar’s history.
At the root of the problem is Iraq’s political crisis, which has left the Iraqi parliament in a stalemate since 2010, unable to move the country forward because of deep-rooted divisions among sectarian-inclined politicians competing for power.
“Politicians must be aware and speak with a calm tone to prevent the political crises from being reflected onto the streets,” said Ali al-Alaq, a Shiite sheikh and member of the parliament’s social affairs committee. “Sometimes a member of parliament gives a speech on TV and the next day we witness an explosion.”
“It is the duty of the Iraqi leaders to find a solution to the current political stalemate in the country,” the special representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq, Martin Kobler, said in a statement after the 8 February bombings. “It is their duty and responsibility to sit together to see what can be put in place to stop this heinous, horrible violence.”
The International Crisis Group (ICG) insists that the prime minister implement the power-sharing deal negotiated in 2010 and step down at the end of his term, instead of running for a third term in 2014. “In turn,” the ICG wrote in a July 2012 report, “his rivals should call off efforts to unseat him and instead use their parliamentary strength to build strong state institutions, such as an independent electoral commission, and ensure free and fair elections.”
Reduce foreign interference
Another important step in diffusing tensions in Iraq is “to diffuse Iranian influence in Iraq, which tries to highlight sectarian differences,” said Walid Khadduri, an Iraq expert and former editor of the Middle East Economic Survey. This will likely prove even harder in the future as Iran loses its traditional foothold in the Middle East (Syria), and as a result looks to Iraq even more closely.
Others, like al-Alaq, point to Turkey as an instigator trying to encourage Sunnis in Iraq to rise up.
“We must have serious talks with the UN to play a better role in preventing other countries from interfering in Iraqi internal issues,” he said. “Security coordination must take place with the neighboring countries in order to prevent terrorists and people with foreign agendas from entering Iraq and increasing the tension in Iraq.”
Create legal deterrents
The government must also put legal limits on hate speech whether in speeches, on TV, or on the Internet, observers said, to make it impossible for leaders to call on their followers to “kill the Shiites” or “free Baghdad of the Shiites”.
Raise the stakes of divisions
Both Sunnis and Shiites want to avoid a return to the kind of violence that ripped the country apart in 2006. But how to cement that intellectual understanding? Make the stakes higher, said Sarmed al-Tai, a well-known Iraqi journalist and writer.
“Trade and business have always been a way of ending any kind of tension, even between two enemies,” he said. “Financial losses must be considered during a civil war, to show that everyone loses, and there is no winner.”
He cites the case of the northern autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq and its neighbour Turkey, which is struggling to contain Kurdish separatists on its own soil.
“There are major political problems between them, but the trade business and the common economic benefits between both have made Massoud Barazani [leader of Iraqi Kurdistan] and Recep Tayyip Erdogan [Turkey’s Prime Minister] among the most important partners in the region today…
“Economic solutions sometimes are more important than a political solution.”
Start a national dialogue
“The most important part is the intellectual and cultural part,” said al-Alaq. He recommends conferences and workshops led by “moderate, cultured people” to talk about forgiveness.
“We also have to empower moderate society leaders among the Sunnis and the Shiites.”
Al-Tai points to the “Shiites who say, ‘we cannot build our country unless we are united with the others’; the ones that believe in a pluralist system; those who believe supporting the others is what will protect the interest of the Shiites,” and not those who support Maliki’s strategy to “weaken the Sunnis and the Kurds…
“Shiites are in control of everything in the country. They need to re-identify their role in Iraq.”
Re-educate the people
Many people IRIN spoke to highlighted the need for a re-education of Iraqi society via anything from speeches at Friday prayers to TV series and books that would highlight the risks of sectarianism and the common goals Iraqis share.
“At Friday prayers, lectures must be given to Shiites to re-assure them that a Sunni in power doesn’t mean that Saddam is returning,” said high school teacher Hayfaa Ahmed who specializes in social and community classes. There are simple steps, she said, like removing Shiite flags from the streets.
`Marjiyas’, religious authorities, for both the Sunnis and the Shiites could play a big role by sensitizing imams, encouraging joint prayers, and issuing fatwas that prevent religion from being mixed with politics.
“Sunnis and Shiites have to learn how to forgive, how to forget about revenge and blood,” said al-Rahman, the imam. “Islam is based on forgiveness, not revenge and killing.”