The situation in Iraq continued growing sharply worse during the second half of May despite the Iraqi government’s efforts to stabilize it. Actions by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have been unable to eliminate the pockets of Sunni resistance that have flared up with renewed vigor in various provinces around the country. Things are increasingly going back to the way they were in 2006-2007 when there was a real civil war going on that forced the US military surge.
Except for Kurdistan, the geography of violence has spread throughout the country over the past two weeks, and there have been terrorist attacks from Bazrah in the south to Mosul in the North. On May 15, for example, 12 vehicle-borne IEDs were blown up in the capital alone, killing 25 people. Several explosions went off at the same time in Kirkuk and killed another 12. Military bases in Ramada and Samara came under rocket and mortar attack. There were several more car bombings in Baghdad the next day that resulted in 16 people dead. And a suicide bomber blew himself up in Kirkuk during a funeral at a Shiite mosque, killing 12.
On May 17, two bombs were set off at the entrance to a Sunni mosque in Baqubah (90 kilometers to the northeast of Baghdad) after Friday prayers. Fifty people were killed and more than 60 wounded. Another 23 were killed by terrorist attacks that same day in the capital. Iraqi army and ISF posts were attacked in several towns, leaving another 14 people dead.
On May 18, Sunni militants first ambushed ISF employees on the Baghdad-Amman highway near the administrative center of Al Anbar Province, capturing five, and then got into a fight with security forces 90 kilometers away and took nine prisoner. Checkpoints on that same highway were also taken.
On May 19, the ISF headquarters in the town of Rawa in Al Anbar Province was attacked; and there were fierce clashes north and south of Ramadi. The authorities responded with a large-scale military operation against militants in Al Anbar Province using heavy equipment and helicopters As a result, several Sunni resistance leaders in that province, including Sheikhs Ahmed Abu Risha and Ali Hatem Suleiman, were forced to flee into neighboring Jordan.
On May 20, the Shiite city of Bazrah was rocked by explosions that killed more than 10 people. That same day, six car bombs blew up in Baghdad, resulting in more than 24 casualties. The head of the provincial council was attacked and seriously wounded in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province. In all, more than 250 people were killed and over 400 wounded during a five-day period in Iraq. Finally, a week later in Baghdad alone there were more than 20 explosions that killed over 100 people.
The clashes between Sunnis and Shiites have obviously become less political than religious in nature, as was the case during the civil war of 2006-2007. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, has said that the responsibility for the violence resides with all of the country’s leaders, and he urged them to immediately open a political dialogue to stop the bloodshed. Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Osama al-Nujaifi proposed holding an extraordinary emergency session on May 21 to discuss the situation, but the initiative failed because Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to attend the meeting on the grounds that he lacked confidence in many of parliamentary deputies due to their ties with “foreign forces” (an obvious reference to Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are funding the Sunni militants).
Attempts by several moderate Sunni leaders to establish a dialogue with the majority Shiite government have also failed to resolve the situation and have even had the opposite effect. For example, an initiative of that type in May by Abdul Malik al-Saadi, a local religious leader in Al Anbar Province, was followed by an initiative to create a Sunni autonomy in Iraq like the Kurdish one and, if it was rejected, to continue fighting. Unfortunately, the al-Maliki government is relying on the use of force rather than seeking peace with the Sunnis. It has evidently set its sights on resolving the “Sunni issue” by military means alone, which is unlikely to settle the conflict. Especially since the government is not even capable of defending all of the important targets in Baghdad against attack. Troops and security forces are continually being shifted from one place to another, which indicates there is a manpower shortage in the army and the ISF.
From May 25-27, the central government conducted a large-scale military operation under the codename “Ghost” aimed at identifying and destroying all Sunni militants in the desert and securing the Baghdad-Amman highway and the area near the border checkpoints with Jordan and Syria. About 20,000 people took part in the operation, in which armored vehicles, artillery and aircraft were used. In addition to soldiers, ISF special forces and the Sunni pro-government Sahwa tribal militia took part in the operation. They succeeded in destroying several al-Qaeda bases, including the largest, Seif al-Bakr; capturing a large quantity of arms and ammunition; and taking several local al-Qaeda leaders prisoner. The militants were dealt a setback, of course, but the problem remains unresolved. The series of bloody attacks that took place in Baghdad following the end of Operation Ghost may serve as proof of that. In addition, the army’s actions further fueled sentiments favoring a “Sunni autonomy.”
Against the backdrop of rising Kurdish separatism, the Syrian conflict in which Iraqi Sunni fighters funded by Qatar and Saudi Arabia are actively engaged, and criticism of the al-Maliki government for its pro-Iran orientation, all this is threatening to split Iraq into three enclaves — Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni — which will take a long time to sort out relations among themselves. It benefits only the United States and the Arab rulers who do not want a strong Iraq, let alone an Iraq partnered with Iran. This means only one thing — the entire nation most likely will continue sinking into the abyss of a civil ethno-sectarian war and will probably become a failed state or a weak federation of enclaves, like Lebanon.
Petr Lvov holds a Doctorate in Political Science. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.