Iraq's cold war leaves country on edge

Iraq's brutal sectarian war petered out in 2008, but many Iraqis say it never truly ended.

Hadi Mizban/AP
People seen through broken bricks of a damaged shop inspect the site of a car bomb attack at the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 4, 2013.

During Iraq's provincial election, Shiite politician and cleric Muqtada al-Sadr allied with Sunni political blocs to successfully challenge Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s ruling party – a brief glimmer of hope that Iraq was edging toward reconciliation.

The pairing took many off guard. During Iraq’s brutal civil war, which began in 2006 and dragged on for more than two years, Shiites and Sunnis squared off, leaving tens of thousands dead. The rival factions never completely reconciled. Last spring’s election was the first glimpse of possible progress.

But several months later and after levels of violence not seen since 2008, most Iraqis say the political union was more of a statement about both groups’ dislike of Mr. Maliki than an actual desire to work with one another. Now, many Iraqis fear that their civil war never really ended – instead it just morphed into a cold war that leaves the nation vulnerable to a renewal of sectarian violence.

“The cold war means we live in fear and we’re afraid of others and ourselves,” says Sa’ad Salloum, a political science professor at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University who has written extensively on minorities and Iraq’s ethnic makeup. “The civil war is in our minds. We can’t change the country without changing our minds.”

Iraq’s sectarian violence declined steadily after 2008, but bloodshed has been on the rise again since the beginning of this year. In Baghdad, residents have been subjected to almost daily explosions since July. More than 5,000 people have been killed so far this year. 

Tensions boiled over in parliament recently when members came to blows during a debate about whether to remove pictures of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, from the streets of Baghdad. For many Shiites he remains a popular figure, but for many Sunnis the pictures are a symbol of creeping Iranian influence.

Sunnis have long voiced concerns about exclusion from the post-Saddam Hussein government. Last winter thousands gathered to protest what they see as an effort, led by Maliki, to consolidate Shiite power.

“The very weak efforts for reconciliation have failed,” says Maysoon Al-Damluji, a member of parliament. “A large portion of Iraqis, mainly Sunnis feel that they have been disenfranchised…. I see Iraq dismantling and I think the reason is that there was no intention to bring together all Iraqi factions to make plans for the future.”

Many Iraqis say that if Sadr, one of the most influential Shiites in the country, and his Sunni allies succeed in removing Maliki from office in the next election cycle, Sunnis and Shiites are more likely to turn on each other than work toward a new unity government.

The Syrian war next door to Iraq has also helped to drudge up a number of dormant sectarian issues. Sunnis tend to support the opposition and Shiites gravitate toward the Syrian government, as members from each group move back and forth across the border to help their allies and refugees flood into the country.

Saad Sirophanna, a Catholic priest in Baghdad, says that although the Christian community remains relatively neutral, he’s seen a steady stream of his parishioners leaving Iraq. Aside from the risk of getting caught up in the violence, the strain and uncertainty it's placed on the economy is driving many people outside the country.

“Since the beginning of 2013, things have gotten much worse, especially because of the situation in Syria, which is reflecting on the situation in Iraq," Mr. Sirophanna says. “This conflict is affecting so much of the life of society itself. People are desperate, tired, and afraid."

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