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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
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

Barham Salih, Iraq's President meets with Nobel Peace Prize laureate,Yazidi activist Nadia Murad at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A Way Forward for Sinjar

Sinjar, the Iraqi district that was the site of the Yazidi genocide in 2014, still carries the wounds of that horrible time. But today a confluence of national and international interests holds the promise to revitalise the area and deliver it to local governance.

Sinjar, on Iraq’s north-western border with Syria, is still recovering from the trauma of occupation by the Islamic State (ISIS). In 2014, the jihadists seized the district, targeting its Yazidi majority in a genocidal campaign of killing, rape, abduction and enslavement. Now an opportunity has arisen to steer the area toward a safer future.

Both Iraq and its autonomous Kurdish region have formed new governments that seem ready to resume talks about the status of Iraq’s disputed territories. These are fourteen administrative districts – of which Sinjar is one – nominally controlled by Baghdad but claimed by the Kurdish regional government in Erbil. A new UN special representative for Iraq has brought fresh momentum to the task of resolving the disputed territories’ status. Meanwhile, Nadia Murad, a UN Good-will Ambassador who survived the Yazidi genocide, has won the Nobel Peace Prize, attracting renewed international attention to Sinjar in particular. The new government and the UN should jump at this chance to work with Yazidi leaders to rebuild Sinjar as an example for all Iraq.

Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar.

A Region Yet to Recover

Sinjar became the scene of atrocities in August 2014, when ISIS militants murdered and enslaved thousands of Yazidis, driving tens of thousands more to flee their homes in terror. ISIS is gone; Iraqi and Kurdish forces finished retaking the district in mid-2017. But many of the Yazidi displaced remain huddled in makeshift shelters in the nearby Dohuk province, unable to return due to insecurity and the stagnant economy. Since 2003 a succession of outsiders – first Iraqi Kurdistan’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), then ISIS, then factions affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), then the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units (the militias that presently patrol Sinjar) – have controlled the district or parts thereof, pushing the population to take up arms and dividing local elites.

In a February 2018 report, Crisis Group concluded that only the Iraqi state could stabilise Sinjar. We called on Baghdad to mediate between factions and restore local governance, in order to allow the displaced to return, lay the groundwork for reconstruction and end foreign interference. We urged the federal government to merge competing militias into a unified police force and open administrative jobs to skilled locals regardless of which outsiders they had aligned themselves with before.

Ten months later, Sinjar is scarcely better off. Both the federal and Kurdish regional governments have been busy with elections in 2018, and neither has paid due attention to Sinjar’s challenges, which they may deem minor. In May, Baghdad tasked the National Reconciliation Committee, a government body with a mandate to facilitate inter-communal peace, with formulating a roadmap for reinstituting governance in Sinjar. The Committee’s thirteen-point plan includes, among other provisions, calls to restore security, as well as basic health care, education and agriculture, to enable the uprooted to return. In late October, Baghdad and Erbil tried to reach a deal on the return of Sinjar’s local councils to the district. As yet, however, there is no progress either in implementing the roadmap or in bringing back the local councils. Sinjar remains dominated by the Popular Mobilisation Units. 

It is tempting to surmise that the area can regain its footing only if Yazidi politicians and military leaders free themselves from dependency on Iraqi, regional and international patrons. Local supervision of governance and security would encourage the displaced to come back to their homes and lands.

Confluence of Interests

Yet Baghdad and Erbil still have a role to play – and so do Iraq’s international partners.

Baghdad’s stake in stabilising Sinjar stems from its newly appointed government’s interest in engagement with Erbil. Adel Abdul Mahdi, the new prime minister, has long enjoyed strong relations with the Kurdish regional government. Cooperation with the Kurds could allow him to counterbalance the growing influence of Shiite factions affiliated with the Popular Mobilisation Units. Barham Salih, the new president, likewise has expressed a desire to reaffirm Iraq’s commitment to accountability and reconciliation in the post-ISIS era, and in particular to address the disputed territories question as a way to strengthen his office. Sunni Arabs in Parliament belonging to the Islah bloc could profitably ally with the Kurds to press the Popular Mobilisation Units to withdraw from the disputed territories, home to their main constituencies. The yet-to-be-named defence minister, a post usually assigned to a Sunni Arab, might also back such an agreement, especially if he comes from Islah.

Key international players would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity.

For its part, Erbil wants to engage with Baghdad as a way to recoup its losses (in both autonomy and territory) after the September 2017 referendum on Kurdish independence. The KDP’s Masoud Barzani, the referendum’s architect, hopes to use senior party officials in ministerial positions in Baghdad to negotiate a settlement on outstanding issues, such as security and governance in the disputed territories, oil exports and revenue sharing. Competition between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) could block a settlement, however, as government formation unfolds in Erbil. The KDP’s ambition for hegemony in Iraqi Kurdistan could push the PUK closer to Iran as a way to consolidate its position in Baghdad. A further breach in the KDP-PUK relationship, following a decade of close cooperation in both the Kurdish region and Baghdad, would complicate efforts to settle the disputed territories issue. Yet the two parties still have common interests there. This suggests that as long as the KDP’s engagement with Baghdad endures, it has an interest in working with the PUK to move toward a deal with the federal government on the disputed territories, including Sinjar.

Key international players – the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq, U.S. and EU – would like to support Erbil-Baghdad negotiations as a way of reinforcing Iraq’s unity, enhancing the prime minister’s power and ensuring the government’s stability. Sympathy with the Yazidis’ plight makes Sinjar a strong entry point for renewed international diplomatic engagement in Iraq.

Recommendations

To capitalise on this confluence of interests, Yazidi leaders in Baghdad, the Kurdish region and Sinjar district, including Nadia Murad with her moral authority, should advocate that Sinjar become a model for addressing the disputed territories’ status. The Sinjar councils should commit to honouring the thirteen-point roadmap presented by Iraq’s National Reconciliation Committee in May.

Yazidi leaders should take the following steps:

  • Agree on a new candidate for Sinjar district director (mayor), as a sign of Yazidi unity and Yazidi leaders’ commitment to help mediate political negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil;
  • Support the Yazidi members of the elected Sinjar district and sub-district councils until the next local elections. In the meantime, hammer out an agreement among all security actors deployed in Sinjar (Popular Mobilisation Units, Peshmerga and Yazidi militias) that would integrate their Yazidi fighters into the interior and defence ministries;
  • Support negotiation of a deal that would see the withdrawal of non-Yazidi militia commanders from civilian areas in Sinjar in exchange for the right (for now) to stay on the district’s border with Syria.

Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi should continue the work of his predecessor in tackling the Sinjar question through an agreement with Erbil, and step up efforts to reach a security arrangement in Sinjar that includes the Popular Mobilisation Units.

The Abdul-Mahdi government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Negotiate an agreement to integrate members of all irregular security forces in Sinjar into Federal Police units in charge of protecting Sinjar district and sub-districts, to be placed on the interior ministry payroll;
  • Integrate local Yazidi fighters deployed on the Syria border into Iraqi army battalions also stationed there, and transfer them to the defence ministry payroll to reduce smuggling and their fealty to non-Yazidi commanders;
  • Negotiate with Kurdish leaders the return of the Sinjar district council and sub-district councils to Sinjar, and secure joint commitment to the National Reconciliation Committee’s thirteen-point roadmap. 

The president of Iraq should continue public commitment to addressing the case of Sinjar, including by seeing through completion of the National Reconciliation Committee’s roadmap by an agreed-upon deadline.

The Kurdistan Regional Government should take the following steps:

  • Agree on the new district director/mayor put forward by the Yazidis;
  • Continue negotiations with Baghdad on the return of the Sinjar council and sub-district councils to Sinjar in exchange for supporting the merger of KDP-affiliated Yazidi forces into local Federal Police units and deploying Peshmerga only up to the checkpoint before the shortest route home for Yazidis displaced in Dohuk;
  • Reopen the Dohuk-Sinjar road to allow Yazidi civilians free movement in and out of Sinjar and to enable the displaced to go home.
Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners.

Iran and Popular Mobilisation Unit officials should agree on merging the Units’ Yazidi fighters under the authority and on the payroll of the interior and defence ministries, and otherwise withdrawing from Sinjar, in exchange for allowing non-Yazidi commanders continued access to Sinjar’s border with Syria (with the proviso that, eventually, the Iraqi army will reacquire full control over the border).

The U.S., EU and UN Assistance Mission for Iraq should take the following steps:

  • Facilitate Baghdad-Erbil dialogue on a mutually acceptable security arrangement for Sinjar that would consist of merging Yazidi fighters belonging to various militias with federal forces;
  • Work with the Sinjar district council to start UN-sponsored and other reconstruction programs;
  • Assist the National Reconciliation Committee in carrying out its thirteen-point roadmap for Sinjar;
  • Prepare the ground for free local council elections in Sinjar, ensuring representation of all communities. 

The Sinjar District Council (once it has come back to the district) should facilitate the return of all displaced Sinjar residents, including non-Yazidis, to their homes. With the help of the Baghdad and Erbil governments, as well as the UN, it should establish a mechanism for reconciliation between Sinjar Arabs and Yazidis (as well as other minorities that suffered at the hands of ISIS).

The UN, working with the National Reconciliation Committee, should lead Sinjar’s reconstruction in a way that takes into account inter-communal tensions and the risks involved in favouring one community over another, or giving that perception.

Now’s the Time

Failure to stabilise Sinjar would come at considerable risk for the federal government and its international partners. The pain of ISIS depredations is etched in Yazidis’ collective memory, leaving survivors with feelings of victimhood and helplessness. Unable to obtain justice by institutional means, many feel an impulse for vengeance. But things need not go that way. The moment presents an opportunity for a concerted push by local leaders in Sinjar to make overdue administrative and security changes in the district with the help of both the federal and Kurdish regional governments. If they succeed, they could turn Sinjar into a model for addressing the wider disputed territories question that has long divided Baghdad and Erbil.

This possibility, combined with knowledge that the calculations in Baghdad and Erbil may change, should prompt rapid action. The time is now to chart a new way forward for Sinjar.