With civil war now raging in Syria, and post-Arab Spring governments taking their first unsteady steps in Egypt and Libya, it’s all too easy to forget the unfinished business that is Iraq. The tenth anniversary of the operation to unseat Saddam Hussein went barely noticed in the West last month, where neither the pro-war or anti-war camps seem particularly keen on to dwell on it. For some, it’s a fiasco best forgotten altogether, while for others, it’s time to move on now that the basics have been achieved: a dictator toppled, American and British troops withdrawn, and the trappings of a democratic government in place, even if it still suffers from corruption and authoritarianism.
Thursday’s violence in northern Iraq, however, where Sunni guerrillas have staged an uprising in Mosul and seized an entire town further south, shows how close to the country is to returning to the sectarian war that tore the country apart in 2006-7. It could easily eclipse the one in neighbouring Syria, and this time there are no US forces in Iraq to try to stop it.
Sectarian tensions have been on the rise again ever since start of demonstrations last year in places like Sunni like Fallujah, the tough Sunni town better known as “the graveyard of the Americans”. The protesters have taken their cue from Arab Spring movements elsewhere, claiming that Sunnis, who dominated during the rule of their kinsman, Saddam Hussein, are now second class citizens in the new Iraq, where democracy has enshrined the numerical advantage of the Shias, who have a two-thirds majority. In particular, they complain of discrimination in government jobs and hassle from the Iraqi security forces.
However, the participants in Iraq’s version of the Arab Spring have little in common with the cuddly, middle-class Facebookers who were the stars of Egypts’ Tahrir Square. Many are tough tribal leaders and ex-Ba’athists, the same disenfranchised folk who formed an alliance of convenience with al-Qaeda during the US occupation to wage war on both the Americans and Iraq’s Shia community. They have weapons, militias and a decade of guerrilla know-how, not to mention potential backing from other Sunni states like Saudi Arabia.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Iraq’s Shia-dominated government does not look at this as a benign civil rights movement, but as a clear and present threat to the integrity of the Iraqi state. Which, coincidentally, is how some of the Sunni campaigners see it too – part of the aim of Thursday’s uprising is to make the Sunni heartlands an independent country.
Adding to the lack of sympathy from the Iraqi government is a sense that the protest stinks of hypocrisy. Sunnis in the likes of Fallujah did very well under Saddam, dominating the security forces that he deployed to persecute the Shias. If Sunnis are now getting a taste of their own political medicine, than that is just tough luck, as far as many Shias are concerned. The rhetoric of the prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, talks of a government for all Iraqis, of course, but plenty in his support base are not in quite such an inclusive frame of mind. Three decades of neglect under Saddam tends to have that effect – as do memories of the chaos of the early post-Saddam years, when the Sunni-led insurgency wrecked any chances of a quick return to prosperity.
The stage is thus set for a real grudge match, involving two sides whose more belligerent elements have no shortage of fighting experience. The Iraqi security forces are now a tough, battle-hardened bunch, thanks to the horrendously steep learning curve they went on when first deployed into Sunni areas as rookies, when they were often cut to pieces. Their tactics, meanwhile, make their American predecessors look fairly gentle by comparison.
But their opponents are no push-over either. The Sunni guerrilla units of Fallujah and Ramadi all but held the US military at bay, and with al-Qaeda fanatics on their side as well, the Iraqi government forces may only be able to impose their will after a great deal of bloodshed on either side.
In the mix also is very fresh memories of the Sunni-Shia civil war of 2006-2007, which has left no shortage of bereaved and traumatised people with scores to settle. Indeed, in the end, it may only be memories of the horror of those days that holds Iraq back. If this week’s events are anything to go by, though, some of those memories are already wearing thin.