In fight against Islamic State, Iraqi sectarianism is rising, not falling

A look at what that means for the US strategy in Iraq, and for Iraq's future.

Khalid al-Mousily/Reuters
Men mourn during the funeral of prominent Iraqi Sunni tribal leader Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi and his son, Mohammad, who were killed in an attack on their convoy, in Baghdad Saturday. Security and political sources said Janabi and his son were shot dead late on Friday along with at least six guards after gunmen stopped them on the way back from their home in Latifiya, a city south of Baghdad.

When Haider al-Abadi became Iraq's prime minister last August, President Barack Obama hailed what he described as a new "inclusive" Iraqi government with the ability to unite Shiite and Sunni Arabs, and ethnic Kurds, in the fight against the self-styled Islamic State.

The US had withheld military support to Iraq because of concerns that the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was far more dedicated to protecting Shiite interests in Iraq rather than Iraqi ones. The White House apparently believed that Mr. Abadi – a politician from the same religious Shiite party as Mr. Maliki – would upend the chauvinistic policies of his predecessor. 

In the six months since, it hasn't worked out that way: Iraq's sectarian death squads and militias are rampant again after a few years of relative quiet. And the battle within Iraq stands in the way of any simple resolution of a widening conflict.

The current focus of the American war effort, and of allies like Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, is bombing IS bases from Iraq to Syria. But in Iraq, a far broader internecine war has been playing out since US forces toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, allowing the majority Shiite Arab population to establish and maintain dominance over the country's Sunni Arab minority, who enjoyed a relatively favored position under Hussein's regime. 

Though the US doesn't want Iraq to break up, increasing the momentum in that direction is an unintended consequence of the war, and of the unqualified assistance that's being given to rebuild the Shiite-led army and political order. There are few good ways to avoid that outcome when wading into this kind of war. And American concerns about hardening the sectarian lines in Iraq, and of undermining the existence of the state in its current configuration, may be hampering the fight against IS. 

On Sunday, the 73 Sunni Arab MPs in the Iraqi parliament (there are 328 total seats) announced they were suspending participation in protest of the murder of the influential Sheikh Qassem al-Janabi, his son, and seven bodyguards. The men were abducted and killed in Baghdad, allegedly by a Shiite militia. The abduction took place at a checkpoint set up by men in uniform, and the victims were taken to Sadr City, a sprawling and almost exclusively Shiite district in eastern Baghdad, where they were executed. Mr. Janabi's nephew Zeid al-Janabi, an MP, was released unharmed to tell the tale.

Awakening and militias

After the 2003 invasion, Sheikh Janabi was detained by the US military. He later became an important supporter of the Sahwa ("Awakening") movement of Sunni tribes who rose up with US support against Al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State. Today such elders run a double risk by cooperating with the Iraqi government. 

First, they are targeted for execution by IS and its supporters – dozens of influential figures in Anbar Province, for instance, have been murdered by IS for standing with the government. But they are also hated by the Shiite militias, many backed by Iran, who have risen in stature once more as the anti-IS campaign has geared up. 

For Sunni Arab leaders, there are parallels with the dynamic that prevailed in Iraq between 2004-2008, when well over 150,000 Iraqis were killed in sectarian fighting and whole towns and neighborhoods were cleansed of their Shiite or Sunni populations. This was the backdrop to the Awakening movement in 2006-07. Today the "pick your poison" nature of the situation leads many Sunni leaders to throw in their lot with IS as their best hope for survival for themselves and their families. 

And for every prominent Sunni like Janabi killed, there are dozens of less well-known victims. In a report released Sunday by Human Rights Watch, the group recounts how Sunni Arab victims are victimized as much after IS is driven from an area as before. Towards the end of last year, IS fighters were routed from the area around Muqdadiya in Diyala Province, north of Baghdad and running along the Iranian border. About 3,000 Sunni Arabs who fled the area when IS moved in have since been prevented from returning home by a melange of government forces and Shiite militias.

HRW quotes local residents as saying police paramilitaries and the Iran-backed Asa'ib al-Haq militia have kidnapped, murdered, and tortured Sunni Arabs who have tried to return. The group writes:

The attacks in northern Muqdadiyya appear to be part of a militia campaign to displace residents from Sunni and mixed-sect areas after the militias and security forces routed ISIS in these areas. On December 29, Hadi al-Ameri, the Badr Brigades commander and transport minister under the previous administration of Nuri al-Maliki, threatened Muqdadiyya residents, saying, “The day of judgment is coming” and “We will attack the area until nothing is left. Is my message clear?”

The Badr Brigade is one of the country's oldest and strongest Shiite militias, has received extensive training from Iran, and is closely tied to the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite political party that holds 12 seats in parliament.

"With the government responding to those they deem terrorists with arbitrary arrests and executions, residents have nowhere to turn for protection," Joe Stork, HRW's Middle East Director, said in the statement. The group says it's also investigating the reported execution of 72 civilians by a Shiite militia in the Diyala town of Barwana on Jan. 26.

Finding support where possible

Abadi has pledged that these militias will be reined in. But the reality is that Shiite militia leaders are often taking the lead in operations in northern and central Iraq. As implied by Mr. Stork's comment, Sunni Arab leaders must seek support where they can find it. So far, they have been rebuked by the US, in contrast to the 2006-07 occupation period. 

In January, a Sunni delegation from Anbar Province, where IS is in control of many towns, came to Washington seeking American arms. "The tribal leaders found themselves thwarted at every turn in their efforts to meet with high-level administration officials," Politico reports. "They were told they would have to take up these matters with new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and would have to rely for weapons on those provided to them by Abadi’s ministry of defense." 

That delegation's leader, Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, is a prominent member of the Awakening movement and is now its head. His brother Abdul Sattar Abdul Risha ran the group until he was killed by an Al Qaeda bomb in Anbar province in 2007. "This is a tragic loss," Gen. (Ret.) David Petraeus, said at the time. "It's a terrible loss for Anbar Province and all of Iraq... He was an organizing force who did help organize alliances and did help keep the various tribes together."

Those organizing forces no longer can count on US support – and the Abadi government views them as potential traitors and enemies. The Obama administration doesn't want to go around the Shiite government in Baghdad to arm them, out of concern that will feed into Iraq's dissolution. But that leaves Sunni leaders surrounded by enemies on all sides, with the US at best an indifferent former friend.

Baghdad and Washington agendas

That point was driven home during the visit to Washington, when Abu Risha's family compound in the Anbar capital of Ramadi was attacked, leaving nine of its defenders dead.The de facto US policy at the moment is to leave these Sunni Arab tribal figures to fend for themselves. But a decision point is coming where Obama and his aides will either have to acknowledge this is what they're doing, or make the decision that Baghdad's desire that the fight against IS should not strengthen the Sunni Arab tribes is not Washington's desire.

As for Mr. Abadi, there's no reason to expect he would behave much differently than Maliki if and when the war against IS is won. The Maliki government cut off funding for the Awakening tribes within weeks of the US military withdrawal from the country in 2011, and embarked on a series of politically motivated terrorism prosecutions against senior Sunni politicians. Abadi appears to have as little long-term use for America as his predecessor.

In October, Abadi said the US was not to be trusted and that any foreign troops allowed in the country would seize and keep territory indefinitely. This comment jarred with his own repeated pleas for more US military aid to shore up an Iraqi army that had collapsed in the face of IS attacks across much of the north. When he's in a stronger position, he's hardly likely to be more compromising.

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