DAMASCUS, Syria- More than a decade after the United States-led invasion of Iraq sparked a sectarian conflagration in the country, Iraq’s delicately woven social fabric continues to be torn apart by religious violence between its Sunni and Shia communities. Suicide attacks, car bombings and execution-style killings are pushing the nation’s death-toll to its highest level since 2008.
The sectarian carnage, which has claimed the lives of more than 8,000 Iraqis this year, shows no signs of abating, as the spillover from the religiously-tinged civil war raging in neighboring Syria continues to set Iraq’s sectarian passions alight and deepen religious fault lines between the country’s newly ascendant Shia majority and its once dominant Sunni minority.
Syria’s civil war, in which mostly Sunni rebels are battling a regime dominated by Alawites–an offshoot of Shia Islam–has stoked Sunni-Shia tensions across the Middle East. Sunni Gulf monarchies and Turkey have supported the Sunni insurgents, while Shia Iran and its Lebanese proxy force, Hezbollah, have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, buttressing Assad’s embattled regime through the provision of fighters, arms and money.
The crackdown on the rebels by Assad’s security forces, who are supported in their campaign by Shia fighters from Iran, Hezbollah and Iranian-trained Iraqi militias, has enraged the insurgent Sunni brethren in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.
Over the past year, the violence and sectarian tensions emanating from Syria’s nearly three year long civil war have increasingly spilled over the border into neighboring Iraq, home to more than 200,000 Syrian refugees, most of whom are Sunni. Militant Sunni Islamist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have unleashed a bloody wave of attacks targeting Iraq’s Shia community, killing scores of people in suicide attacks and car bombings that often tear through crowded marketplaces in Shia neighborhoods. In the first 11 months of 2013, according to the United Nations, 7,157 civilians were killed, along with 952 members of the Iraqi security forces, making 2013 Iraq’s deadliest year since 2008.
The sectarian tensions unleashed by Syria’s civil war were made even more acute in April, when Iraqi security forces raided a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija, leaving more than 50 people dead and 110 others wounded in an assault that enraged Iraq’s Sunnis. The encampment had been part of a larger Sunni protest movement against Iraq’s Shia-dominated government that erupted in predominately Sunni areas of the country in late 2012.
Iraq’s Sunni minority, which dominated the country during Saddam Hussein’s rule, but was forced to accept a new Shia-led political order following the U.S. invasion, began staging demonstrations in response to the arrests of the bodyguards of Rafi al-Issawi, a prominent Sunni politician who previously served as Iraq’s Finance Minister. The arrests came shortly after fugitive Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, also Sunni, was sentenced to death for allegedly running death squads in a case that enraged Iraq’s Sunnis, who viewed Hashemi’s prosecution as an effort by the Shia-dominated government to marginalize their community’s highest-ranking official.
Hashemi’s death sentence and the arrests of Issawi’s bodyguards sowed the seeds for the Sunni protest movement that sprang up last December, when Iraq’s once dominant religious sect took to the streets to express its contempt for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led administration.
The April raid on the Hawija protest camp brought religious tensions-already simmering from Syria’s civil war-to a boil. May was Iraq’s deadliest month since June 2008, as a wave of sectarian-infused violence engulfed the country, killing 1,045 Iraqis, according to the UN. Since the April assault on the Sunni protest camp, Iraq’s monthly death tolls have skyrocketed.
There have been no indications that the carnage, which continued unabated over the summer and into the fall, will subside anytime soon, as an upsurge in execution-style killings pushed Iraq’s death toll in November from terrorism and other violence to above 600 for an eighth consecutive month. As Assad’s regime continues to battle the Sunni majority, and Prime Minister Maliki shows no signs that he is willing to offer concessions to placate Iraq’s Sunnis, the bloodshed in Iraq looks like it will continue to mirror the sectarian carnage across the border in Syria.
– Eric Erdahl