January 22, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Iraq’s Other War

• The sectarian divide in Iraq is worsening; as the country battles the Islamic State, it also fights itself

• In Diyala Province, which saw some of the worst sectarian violence during the Iraq War, there has a been a recent uptick in attacks and reprisals

• Amnesty International recently issued a report finding that Kurdish groups have destroyed thousands of Arab homes in an effort to alter area demographics

• Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani continues to be a powerful voice for moderation; however, the presence of so many armed groups on all sides means the slightest spark can reignite the simmering sectarian war.


Since its founding, the group now known as the Islamic State has sought a full sectarian war in Iraq. It came closest to achieving its goal between 2006-2008 before being badly diminished, but not beaten. Also resilient were the deep sectarian fault lines running between Iraq’s Shi'a majority, its sizable Arab Sunni minority, and the Kurds. Now almost a decade has passed since the death of the group’s sectarian-minded founder, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Iraq is once again witnessing sectarian violence that threatens to further fracture the country. Sunni members of Iraq's Parliament are boycotting parliamentary sessions in order to protest the violence and demand the disarming of Shi’a militias—a demand unlikely to be met. The violence is nowhere near the same levels of 2006-2008, but the trend lines give little reason for optimism.

When the Iraqi army collapsed in Mosul in June 2014, the government turned to Shi’a militias for badly needed help against the Islamic State. Unfortunately, that tactical necessity carried the seeds of potential strategic defeat. Organized as Popular Mobilization Forces, groups such as Asa’ib al-Haq, the Imam Ali Brigades, and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Peace Brigades have played a large role in pushing the Islamic State out of Diyala Province, retaking the city of Tikrit, and in the ongoing battle for Bayji, among other places. As feared, these newly empowered and well-armed militias are now increasing sectarian tensions and levels of violence by turning their attention from fighting the Islamic State to harassing and intimidating local Sunnis.

In Diyala—scene of some of the worst sectarian violence of the Iraq War—these militias are now engaged in reprisal attacks against Sunnis. On January 11, the Islamic State conducted two bombings against a cafe frequented by Shi’a militia fighters in the Diyala town of Muqdadiyah, killing 40 people. Despite an official curfew imposed by police precisely to prevent reprisal attacks—as desired by the Islamic State—several Sunni mosques and businesses were burned. There were also reports of civilians being executed by Shi’a militia fighters.

As he has done during previous spasms of sectarian violence, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called for national unity and made a point of calling for militias outside of government control to be disbanded. Given how strong the militias are, and how large a role they are playing in the fight against the Islamic State, it is unlikely that they will be disarmed any time soon. Yet with every victory against the Islamic State that involves these militias, the country moves closer to another war it cannot afford to fight.

Iraqi Kurds make up the third prong of Iraq’s sectarian fuse. An Amnesty International report released this week accused the Kurdish Peshmerga of demolishing thousands of Iraqi Arab homes in the provinces of Diyala, Nineveh, and Kirkuk. The report found that the deliberate destruction was in part revenge for perceived local support for the Islamic State when the group was in control of these areas. The widespread demolition was also seen as a way for the Kurds to alter the demographics of the area more to their liking—along the lines of dictator Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaigns in Kurdish areas during his rule.

While the renewed sectarian violence has not returned to 2006-2008 levels, it comes at a time when the country is particularly vulnerable to further division. Parts of the country never fully recovered from the war; well-grounded suspicions and wild conspiracy theories reinforce societal divisions as much as concrete T-barriers once did. Collapsing oil prices have wrecked the budgets of Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, leaving both capitals with few funds with which to rebuild what has and will be destroyed in the fight against the Islamic State. Furthermore, the second Sahwah, or 'Sunni Awakening,’ that some had hoped would help defeat the Islamic State never materialized for the simple reason that Iraq’s Sunnis feared a repeat of what happened the last time they rose up to push a terrorist group from Anbar and other provinces. The vast majority of Iraq's Sunnis do not support the Islamic State, but they also do not support the central government—leaving the country in a precarious balance.


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