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The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict
The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations
Report 52 / Middle East & North Africa

The Next Iraqi War? Sectarianism and Civil Conflict

The bomb attack on a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006 and subsequent reprisals against Sunni mosques and killings of Sunni Arabs is only the latest and bloodiest indication that Iraq is teetering on the threshold of wholesale disaster.

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Executive Summary

The bomb attack on a sacred Shiite shrine in Samarra on 22 February 2006 and subsequent reprisals against Sunni mosques and killings of Sunni Arabs is only the latest and bloodiest indication that Iraq is teetering on the threshold of wholesale disaster. Over the past year, social and political tensions evident since the removal of the Baathist regime have turned into deep rifts. Iraq’s mosaic of communities has begun to fragment along ethnic, confessional and tribal lines, bringing instability and violence to many areas, especially those with mixed populations. The most urgent of these incipient conflicts is a Sunni-Shiite schism that threatens to tear the country apart. Its most visible manifestation is a dirty war being fought between a small group of insurgents bent on fomenting sectarian strife by killing Shiites and certain government commando units carrying out reprisals against the Sunni Arab community in whose midst the insurgency continues to thrive. Iraqi political actors and the international community must act urgently to prevent a low-intensity conflict from escalating into an all-out civil war that could lead to Iraq’s disintegration and destabilise the entire region.

2005 will be remembered as the year Iraq’s latent sectarianism took wings, permeating the political discourse and precipitating incidents of appalling violence and sectarian “cleansing”. The elections that bracketed the year, in January and December, underscored the newly acquired prominence of religion, perhaps the most significant development since the regime’s ouster. With mosques turned into party headquarters and clerics outfitting themselves as politicians, Iraqis searching for leadership and stability in profoundly uncertain times essentially turned the elections into confessional exercises. Insurgents have exploited the post-war free-for-all; regrettably, their brutal efforts to jumpstart civil war have been met imprudently with ill-tempered acts of revenge.

In the face of growing sectarian violence and rhetoric, institutional restraints have begun to erode. The cautioning, conciliatory words of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiites’ pre-eminent religious leader, increasingly are falling on deaf ears. The secular centre has largely vanished, sucked into the maelstrom of identity politics. U.S. influence, while still extremely significant, is decreasing as hints of eventual troop withdrawal get louder. And neighbouring states, anxious to protect their strategic interests, may forsake their longstanding commitment to Iraq’s territorial integrity if they conclude that its disintegration is inevitable, intervening directly in whatever rump states emerge from the smoking wreckage.

If Iraq falls apart, historians may seek to identify years from now what was the decisive moment. The ratification of the constitution in October 2005, a sectarian document that both marginalised and alienated the Sunni Arab community? The flawed January 2005 elections that handed victory to a Shiite-Kurdish alliance, which drafted the constitution and established a government that countered outrages against Shiites with indiscriminate attacks against Sunnis? Establishment of the Interim Governing Council in July 2003, a body that in its composition prized communal identities over national-political platforms? Or, even earlier, in the nature of the ousted regime and its consistent and brutal suppression of political stirrings in the Shiite and Kurdish communities that it saw as threatening its survival? Most likely it is a combination of all four, as this report argues.

Today, however, the more significant and pressing question is what still can be done to halt Iraq’s downward slide and avert civil war. Late in the day, the U.S. administration seems to have realised that a fully inclusive process – not a rushed one – is the sine qua non for stabilisation. This conversion, while overdue, is nonetheless extremely welcome. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s intensive efforts since late September 2005 to bring the disaffected Sunni Arab community back into the process have paid off, but only in part. He is now also on record as stating that the U.S. is “not going to invest the resources of the American people to build forces run by people who are sectarian”. Much remains to be done, however, to recalibrate the political process further and move the country on to a path of reconciliation and compromise.

  • First, the winners of the December 2005 elections, the main Shiite and Kurdish lists, must establish a government of genuine national unity in which Sunni Arab leaders are given far more than a token role. That government, in turn, should make every effort to restore a sense of national identity and address Iraqis’ top priorities: personal safety, jobs and reliable access to basic amenities such as electricity and fuel. It should also start disbanding the militias that have contributed to the country’s destabilisation. The U.S. has a critical role to play in pressuring its Iraqi war-time allies to accept such an outcome. States neighbouring Iraq as well as the European Union should push toward the same goal.
     
  • Secondly, substantive changes must be made to the constitution once the constitutional process is reopened one month after the government enters office. These should include a total revision of key articles concerning the nature of federalism and the distribution of proceeds from oil sales. As it stands, this constitution, rather than being the glue that binds the country together, has become both the prescription and blueprint for its dissolution. Again, the U.S. and its allies should exercise every effort to reach that goal.
     
  • Thirdly, donors should promote non-sectarian institution building by allocating funds to ministries and projects that embrace inclusiveness, transparency and technical competence and withholding funds from those that base themselves on cronyism and graft.
     
  • Fourthly, while the U.S. should explicitly state its intention to withdraw all its troops from Iraq, any drawdown should be gradual and take into account progress in standing up self-sustaining, non-sectarian Iraqi security forces as well as in promoting an inclusive political process. Although U.S. and allied troops are more part of the problem than they can ever be part of its solution, for now they are preventing – by their very presence and military muscle – ethnic and sectarian violence from spiralling out of control. Any assessment of the consequences, positive and negative, that can reasonably be anticipated from an early troop withdrawal must take into account the risk of an all-out civil war.
     
  • Finally – and regrettable though it is that this is necessary – the international community, including neighbouring states, should start planning for the contingency that Iraq will fall apart, so as to contain the inevitable fall-out on regional stability and security. Such an effort has been a taboo, but failure to anticipate such a possibility may lead to further disasters in the future.

 

Amman/Baghdad/Brussels, 27 February 2006

Iraq: Protests, Iran’s Role and an End to U.S. Combat Operations

This week on Hold Your Fire!, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh talk to Crisis Group’s Lahib Higel about the Tishreen uprising that upended Iraqi politics and what President Biden’s announcement that U.S. forces will end their combat mission in Iraq means for the country.

After a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that American forces would end their combat mission in Iraq by the end of 2021. Biden’s announcement comes after a turbulent few years for Iraq. Mass protests saw young people camp out in city and town squares across much of the country despite harsh crackdowns by security forces and Iran-backed paramilitaries. Although demonstrations forced one government to step down and have largely dissipated this year, few of the protesters’ grievances have been addressed, and it is far from clear whether elections in October this year offer a chance for political renewal. In this week’s episode, Richard Atwood and Naz Modirzadeh are joined by Lahib Higel, Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Iraq, to talk about Iraqi politics, Iran’s role, how much of a threat ISIS poses, and what an end to U.S. combat operations likely means for the country. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more information, explore Crisis Group’s analysis on our Iraq page.

This is the last episode of the first season of Hold Your Fire!. Please do get in touch with any feedback for the hosts or ideas for the next season at podcasts@crisisgroup.org.

Contributors

Interim President
atwoodr
Naz Modirzadeh
Board Member and Harvard Professor of International Law and Armed Conflicts
Senior Analyst, Iraq
LahibHigel