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

Lion Cecil's Killing Sparks 'Canned Hunting' Debate in S. Africa

Conservationists believe incident, which triggered worldwide outrage, will reshape debate about practice in which hunters are allowed to target animals bred for hunting More

US Urges Taliban to Stay With Afghan Peace Talks

Top US Afghan diplomat also meets with Pakistani, Afghan officials following news of Mullah Omar's death More

Environmentalists Issue Warning on Mekong Biodiversity

Scientists say decades of economic development, hydropower-dam construction, lax law enforcement and trafficking have taken their toll 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 Underwater for Deep Space Missionsi
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
July 30, 2015 8:59 PM
Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.

VOA Blogs