The ancient Land Between the Two Rivers, considered by some to be the cradle of civilisation, is sliding once more towards the abyss of sectarian war as long simmering tensions between Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds come to the boil amid region-wide turmoil. By Ed Blanche

For months, diehard Sunni militants, including Al Qaeda, have been waging a campaign of increasing ferocity across Iraq aimed at undermining the Shi’ite-dominated coalition government of Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, who has close links to Iran and is accumulating power for himself in the manner of the classic Arab strongman, such as the late Saddam Hussein, the tyrant he once sought to depose.

The withering wave of suicide bombings and assassinations were mostly the work of Al Qaeda and other Sunni groups such as the Jaish Rijal Al TariqahAl Naqshabandi, the JRTN, or Men of the Army of the Naqshahbandia Order.

It is composed largely of members of Saddam’s Baathist regime, particularly the elite Republican Guard and the intelligence services that served him so well over three decades, and led by Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, once Saddam’s loyal vice president and the last of his inner circle still at large.

The 2013 death toll to early June was well over 2,000, some 1,000 in April alone. That’s the highest body count in five years, and underlined how security under Maliki had fallen apart since US forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011.

The violence, spurred in considerable part by the Sunni-led rebellion against the minority Alawite regime in neighbouring Syria, appears to be aimed at triggering the kind of all-out inter-communal slaughter in which thousands perished in 2006-07. Maliki, who is anxious to avoid open sectarian warfare that could splinter the country and its vast energy riches, has largely held off un- leashing his military forces against the minority Sunnis.

Instead, he opted for what veteran Middle East observer David Hirst calls “prudent containment” – employing a combination of political appeasement, buying off his critics in the deeply divided Sunni community, and indeed some Shi’ites too, throwing into prison leading Sunni politicians or accusing them of treason, and laying on an occasional display of brute force.

Pressure has been building since December 2012 amid a wave of protests centred on the Sunni heartland in the western provinces of Anbar and Nineveh and which has spread to other regions with large Sunni populations in Salaheddin, Diyala and Baghdad.

This stemmed from Maliki’s efforts to marginalise the Sunnis, who were the pillar of Saddam’s regime, primarily through a de-Baathification programme that excludes them from government and military positions.

In April, he blocked provincial elections in the Sunni provinces, apparently to ensure his Shi’ite-dominated State of Law coalition was not threatened.

But the gloves finally came off in April in the desolate town of Hawija in the flashpoint northern province of Kirkuk, a signal that Maliki’s patience was running out as he grapples with heavily armed, independence- minded Kurds and Iraq’s seething Sunni minority.

Hawija’s 40,000 residents are overwhelmingly Sunni. They had flourished when Saddam was in power but have fallen on hard times since he was toppled in the US-British invasion of March 2003.

It is also a key bolt-hole for Sunni insurgents, particularly the JRTN, and lies near the so-called “trigger line” in Kirkuk province, where government troops and Kurdish peshmerga – “those who face death” – are locked in a heavily armed confrontation along the southern boundary of the largely autonomous Kurdish enclave that spans three northern provinces.

So it was that just before dawn on 23 April, hundreds of Iraqi troops stormed a tented encampment in Hawija’s main square, where hundreds of demonstrators were holding a sit-in to protest what they said was Maliki’s unfair treatment of the Sunnis.

The army, which had earlier warned the protesters to disband, claimed militants had attacked a checkpoint near the town a couple of days earlier, stolen weapons and vanished into the crowd where hundreds of demonstrators had gathered in Hawija. As soldiers sought to make arrests, the Defence Ministry says they came under fire from inside the crowd. The troops fired back into the throng. Some accounts say more than 50 people, mainly protesters, were mown down by the army, with 100 wounded.

The army says 20 “militants” were killed, along with one of its officers and two soldiers, and that weapons, including machine guns and hand grenades, were seized.

Whatever the true number of civilians slaughtered, the army’s heavy-handed operation encouraged many Sunni factions to unite, giving fresh impetus to their protests and increased potential for further violence.

But Hawija was a massacre waiting to happen, and the tensions that led to it were exploited by leaders on both sides. Several aspects of the bloodbath at the destitute Sunni town suggest the clashes were orchestrated by Sunni militants determined to prod their already disgruntled co-religionists into taking direct action against Maliki’s coalition and to provoke Shi’ite extremists to retaliate against Sunnis.

Overtly sectarian attacks by Shi’ites dropped off after the 2006-07 bloodletting, once it became clear that Al Qaeda and its offshoots were being whipped and the Shi’ites had firm control of Iraq’s security forces. But in April, after repeated attacks on Shi’ites, Sunni mosques and neighbourhoods once again started being targeted regularly.

After Hawija, tribal sheikhs from neighbouring Sunni provinces like Nineveh and Anbar, which were militant strongholds during the insurgency against US occupation, have vowed to take up arms against Maliki’s government and its Shi’ite-dominated army, security forces and intelligence services.

The governor of Kirkuk province has demanded the army withdraw from his region. Curfews have been imposed in the cities of Mosul in the north, Falluja in Anbar, where the Americans fought ferocious house by house battles against militants during the insurgency, and Muqdadidiya in Diyala.

“Neighbouring powers such as Saudi Arabia may also have in interest in quietly encouraging these protests to further weaken Iran’s foothold in Baghdad,” the US global security consultancy Stratfor observed.

“While his government has no alternative to security crackdowns as violence escalates, Maliki can try to pay off selected tribes and attempt to force through his amendments to the de-Baathification law as a form of political appeasement.

“However,” Stratfor concluded, “if Maliki’s political concessions are perceived as insufficient, the coming security crackdowns designed to stamp out Sunni un- rest may well end up enflaming it, which is exactly what jihadists hope.”

Ten years after George W. Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq in what turned out to be a grotesquely criminal undertaking based on cooked-up, deliberately skewed intelligence, monumental lies and a neo-conservative bloodlust to avenge 9/11, the Land Between the Two Rivers, considered by some to be the cradle of civilisation, seems to be coming apart at the seams again.

In tandem with the bloody civil war in Syria, the burgeoning Sunni rebellion against Maliki’s Shi’ite dominated regime in Baghdad reflects the growing polarisation of the Arab world between the mainstream Sunni sect of Islam and the Shi’ites who broke away in the 7th century, a religious schism that seems to be reaching out across the millennia to a potentially cataclysmic denouement. Increasingly, the bloodletting engulfing Syria and Iraq is looking like one gigantic sectarian showdown.

Sunnis and Shi’ites have been at odds since the death of the Prophet Mohammed in 632 AD over who would succeed him. The Umayyad caliphs, the Sunnis, won by defeating their heavily outnumbered rivals, followers of the Prophet’s grandson Hussein Ali, in the Battle of Karbala, in what is now Iraq, in October 680 AD.

If this religious schism between the two Muslim sects actually reaches critical mass, the result is likely to convulse the entire Muslim world from Morocco to Indonesia.

“Like Assad before him, Maliki is toying with a ‘military solution’ to his woes, despite the Syria-like horrors that would surely entail, “observed Hirst, an author and journalist who lives in Beirut.

“Should that happen, it will be hard to imagine Sunnis and Shi’ites ever coming together again in the kind of ethno-sectarian democracy America sought to install.

“And harder still when one considers the latest action of the third component of the Iraq mix, the Kurds. The Kurdish peshmerga seized territory around Kirkuk.

“Six months ago it might have been enough to trigger that ‘ethnic war’ that Maliki had warned of. If it is unlikely to do that today, it is at least partly because Maliki has the more pressing business of another war in the making.”

Maliki, a lifelong Islamist who was elected in 2006, is a political survivor with Machievellian tendencies. He was one of Saddam’s most implacable foes and leader of the Ad-Dawa, or Islamic Call, party, and given shelter in Iran in the 1980s. He only returned to Iraq after Saddam was toppled. He is distrustful of the clerical regime in Tehran, as are many Iraqi Shi’ites who are Arabs and historically have little love for the Persians, but he can- not afford to alienate Tehran, which wants to absorb its former foe into its sphere of influence.

Largely at Iran’s behest, and because he fears Syria’s Sunnis taking power by toppling Bashar Assad, Maliki supports the embattled Syrian regime, galvanising the opposition of Iraq’s Sunnis who have been emboldened by the revolution in Syria. But, says Hirst, Maliki’s regime “is essentially a Shi’ite regime. And though he may be an ‘elected’ leader, he has turned into not much less of a despot than Saddam himself.

“Consummate manipulator of the grey areas of constitution and law, he has amassed a positively Saddam-like array of personal powers.” These include direct control of the defence and interior ministries and the all-important intelligence services.

Maliki’s steady centralisation of power in his own hands, in the face of a divided and often incompetent opposition, has alarmed even his political allies.

“He controls the budget, he’s controlling the military, internal security, defence, intelligence,” says Maysoon Al Damluji of the opposition Iraqiyya bloc. “He’s controlling the judicial authorities, he’s controlling the media. He’s broken the constitution several times. What can you call him, if not a dictator?”

“Some of these manoeuvres are meant to intimidate Sunnis and keep them out of the political process – for example, attacks against polling stations and Sunni politicians during the provincial elections in April,” Stratfor observed.

“Others, such as attacks on sensitive Shi’ite religious sites, are meant to encourage the Shi’ite-dominated security apparatus to crack down on harder on Sunnis” to provoke them into resisting Maliki’s government.

“Retaliatory assaults against the security apparatus threaten to trigger an even tougher reaction from the §authorities,” observed the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based conflict resolution organisation.

“Only by credibly addressing the protesters’ legitimate demands – genuine Sunni representation in the political system – can … Iraq stem a rising tide of violence that, at a time of growing sectarian polarisation throughout the region, likely would spell disaster.”

Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki may be grappling with a mounting Sunni rebellion, but the explosion many see as looming in Iraq could well come from another quarter: the increasingly fraught confrontation between Maliki’s Iranian-backed forces and the rebellious Kurds in the north over ethnically mixed Kirkuk and its adjacent oil fields, and Kurdish separatism. For months heavily armed forces on both sides have been squaring off around Kirkuk and the southern boundary of the Kurds’ semi-autonomous enclave.

The minority Kurds, who for decades battled Baghdad for self-rule, claim that the Kirkuk region, which contains one-third of Iraq’s oil reserves of 150bn barrels, is historically their territory as it was under the Ottomans.

But Baghdad cannot afford to relinquish the oil fields or allow the Kurds to break away because that could encourage other restive regions to do the same, and bring about the collapse of the federal state.

The Kurds have incensed Baghdad by attracting major international oil companies to their three-province enclave and have started exporting crude to neighbouring Turkey from fields that have reserves of 45bn barrels.

In recent days there have been reports Iraqi troops are deserting in the north in the face of escalating hostility by non-Shi’ites.

“There are signs the army can no longer cope with as crisis which in which it is confronting both Sunni Arabs and Kurds,” observed veteran analyst Patrick Cockburn.

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