News / Middle East

Surging Violence, Sectarian Fears Haunt Iraq

Residents gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, May 30, 2013.
Residents gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, May 30, 2013.
Reuters
— Two months of bombings that have killed more than a thousand Iraqis has not, officials insist, been enough to tip the country back into the all-out communal blood-letting of a few years ago.
 
But such assurances do not impress anxious Baghdadis like Atheer, a delivery driver, who has started restricting his movements again for fear of sectarian death squads.
 
Fanned by the war in Syria, the surge in attacks has been blamed by government officials on Iraqi Sunni Muslim militants, some allied to Syria's Islamist rebels.
 
“I've stopped going to some places, some Sunni areas, because I don't feel safe there any more, because I'm a Shi'ite,” 21-year-old Atheer said, not wishing to use his full name. “Not since 2008 have we heard of things like this.”
 
At least 14 more people were killed early on Thursday in Baghdad, a day after bombings claimed nearly 30 more lives in the capital in the kind of violence that has blighted lives and left the economy of one of the world's most oil-rich states in ruins.
 
Just since April, at least 1,100 people have died, more than 700 of them last month alone, according to the United Nations, making it the bloodiest month in nearly five years, let alone since U.S. troops ended an eight-year occupation in late 2011.
 
However, April's slaughter was barely a quarter of the death toll at the peak of the killing in 2006 and 2007 when 3,000 or more were dying every month, and officials in the Shi'ite-led administration say the situation is still not as bad as before.
 
Pinning blame on militants among the Sunni minority who dominated Iraq before the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, they say Shi'ite militias have yet to hit back as they did in 2006 - but warn that if they do, life could be grim indeed.
 
“For now, there is no sign suggesting the Shi'ite militias are responding,” one senior intelligence official told Reuters. “But if these attacks increase, we could go back to 2006.”
 
A particular concern among Baghdad officials is the prospect of a Sunni Islamist state in Syria, where Iraqi fighters have engaged on both sides of a civil war that reflects a broader regional confrontation pitting Sunnis, and Sunni states like Saudi Arabia, against Shi'ites backed by non-Arab, Shi'ite Iran.
 
In Iraq, militants echo widespread Sunni discontent with the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite many see as too close to Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; their bombs and shootings have hit not just Iraqi troops and police, but Shi'ite mosques, cafes and markets, from north to south.
 
Maliki, who has struggled to keep Sunnis inside his power-sharing government, has pitted the security forces against Sunni militants; dozens of deaths last month after an army raid on a Sunni protest camp near Kirkuk sparked a new wave of violence.

Shi'ite 'Restraint'
 
Government security officials say they do not believe major Shi'ite militias, notably the Mehdi Army, Asaib al-Haq and Kataeb Hizballah, are joining the fight inside Iraq, even if some are sending fighters to Syria to battle Sunni rebels there.
 
Yet Sunni targets in Iraq have also been bombed, including mosques, and Shi'ite militia leaders say they are preparing to fight. There are signs some of their units are flexing their muscles. Shi'ite militants, albeit unarmed, patrolled streets on Monday in one Baghdad district after a series of bombings there.
 
Many in Baghdad fear a resurgence of sectarian death squads.
 
And in a flashback to a time when such militias ruled parts of the capital, officials blamed Shi'ite gunmen this month for attacking liquor stores and for killing a group of prostitutes.
 
Yet security officials name their main adversaries as the Naqshbandi army, associated with Sunni officers once close to Saddam, and the Islamic State of Iraq, Iraq's wing of al-Qaida.
 
The absence of U.S. troops has offered them more scope. There were up to 170,000 Americans in Iraq in 2007 during a “surge” to stifle civil war after the bombing of a major Shi'ite shrine in February 2006 had sparked retaliation by Shi'ite militias and a balkanisation of cities into sectarian zones.
 
While Maliki has an army and police force numbering in the hundreds of thousands, the U.S. departure has deprived them of much air support and intelligence capabilities. Benefiting from Sunni rebel-held territory across the Syrian border, and from deepening frustration with the government among the wider Iraqi Sunni population, the militants have shown their reach.
 
In the last few weeks, almost simultaneous bombings have hit northern towns like Kirkuk and Mosul and even the Shi'ite stronghold of Basra, the Gulf oil hub in the south.
 
Yet differences with the past may limit the instability.
 
For one, Sunni, Shi'ite and ethnic Kurdish and other communities are more separated, a result of the millions fleeing in previous years to more homogeneous towns and neighborhoods.
 
And while Sunnis remain as divided among militants and moderates as before, Shi'ites - perhaps 60 percent of the 36 million Iraqis, now have a more united leadership around Maliki, in control of a better armed military and less likely to turn to the chaotic militia bands who fought the last time around.
 
“We've moved away from the dynamics of the past, which supported a more devastating civil war, to one of on-and-off clashes between the Shi'ite government forces and the Sunni periphery,” said Ramzy Mardini, at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies in Beirut.
 
Kidnap Fears
 
Further ahead, however, much depends on Syria. Signaling their regional intent, al-Qaida in Iraq earlier this year proclaimed an alliance with Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra.
 
Should Assad fall, Shi'ite Iraqi officials fear the rise of a hostile, hardline Sunni government. Their nightmare scenario is Sunni Islamist guerrillas flooding back across the border.
 
Those regional concerns mean little to Iraqis faced by daily violence. Aside from the bombings, particular fear is spread by talk, especially among Sunnis in Baghdad, of a return of death squads and kidnap gangs operating under cover official uniforms.
 
One man, who insisted on anonymity out of fear of reprisals, said his brother, a 24-year-old Baghdad Sunni called Nassir, was killed this week after what a work colleague told the family was a kidnap by Shi'ite gunmen in Baghdad.

“There was a false checkpoint and he was taken there,” the man said. The next the family knew of Nassir, they had a call to check the morgue.
 
A senior police official denied this week that sectarian militias were setting up fake checkpoints to snatch victims from rival communities - the rumor he put down to legitimate police units working in plain clothes. But many in the capital are not reassured and shops have begun shutting up early in some areas close to religious fault-lines as staff hurry home before dark.
 
“If we go back to that time, life will come to a halt,”  said Umm Ali, a housewife living in a Baghdad neighborhood that is still home to both Shi'ites and Sunnis. “We won't be able to do anything.”

You May Like

Reports of Mass Murder on Mediterranean Smuggler’s Boat

Boat sailed from Libya with 750 migrants aboard and arrived in Italy with 569 More

Video New Thailand Hotline Targets Misbehaving Monks

Officials say move aims to restore country’s image of Buddhism, tarnished by recent high profile scandals such as opulent lifestyle, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as child sex abuse More

Study: Dust from Sahara Helped Form Bahama Islands

What does the Sahara have in common with a Caribbean island? Quite a lot, researchers say More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Astronauts Train in Underwater Labi
X
George Putic
July 25, 2014 7:25 PM
In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Not Even Monks Spared From Thailand’s Junta-Backed Morality Push

With Thailand’s military government firmly in control after May’s bloodless coup, authorities are carrying out plans they say are aimed at restoring discipline, morality and patriotism to all Thais. The measures include a crackdown on illegal gambling, education reforms to promote students’ moral development, and a new 24-hour phone hotline for citizens to report misbehaving monks. Steve Sandford reports from Bangkok.
Video

Video Virtual Program Teaches Farming Skills

In a fast-changing world beset by unpredictable climate conditions, farmers cannot afford to ignore new technology. Researchers in Australia are developing an online virtual world program to share information about climate change and more sustainable farming techniques for sugar cane growers. As VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports, the idea is to create a wider support network for farmers.
Video

Video Airline Expert: Missile will Show Signature on Debris

The debris field from Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 is spread over a 21-kilometer radius in eastern Ukraine. It is expected to take investigators months to sort through the airplane pieces to learn about the missile that brought down the jetliner and who fired it. VOAs Carolyn Presutti explains how this work will be done.
Video

Video Treatment for Childhood Epilepsy Heats up Medical Marijuana Debate

In the United States, marijuana is classed as an illegal drug by the federal government. But nearly half the states have legalized it, to some degree. Proponents say some strains of marijuana might have exceptional health benefits, for treating pain or inflammation in chronic conditions such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy. Shelley Schlender reports on a strain of medical marijuana developed in Colorado that is reputed to reduce seizures in childhood epilepsy
Video

Video Airbus Adds Metal 3D Printed Parts to New Jets

By the end of this year, European aircraft manufacturing consortium Airbus plans to deliver the first of its new, extra-wide-body passenger jets, the A350-XWB. Among other technological innovations, the new plane will also incorporate metal parts made in a 3-D printer. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video AIDS Conference Welcomes Exciting Developments in HIV Treatment, Prevention

Significant strides have been made in recent years toward the treatment and prevention of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. This year, at the International AIDS Conference, the AIDS community welcomed progress on a new pill that may prevent transmission of the deadly virus. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from Melbourne, Australia.
Video

Video IAEA: Iran Turns its Enriched Uranium Into Less Harmful Form

Iran has converted its stockpiles of enriched uranium into a less dangerous form that is more difficult to use for nuclear weapons, according to the United Nations’ Atomic Energy Agency. The move complies with an interim deal reached with Western powers on Iran's nuclear program last year, in exchange for easing of sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

AppleAndroid