“After a lull of nearly five years during which it seemed as if Iraq might be emerging from the legacy of its civil war, the country has been drawn back into a nightmare of spiraling attacks on a widening range of targets. The past four months have been among the bloodiest since 2008; nearly 3,000 people have been killed and over 7,000 injured. But the Islamic State of Iraq, the latest incarnation of al-Qaeda, now appears to have broadened its scope from its trademark attacks on security forces and Shia mosques and markets, to suicide-bombings of cafés and funeral gatherings.
… Even by Iraq’s miserable standards, the latest attacks during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan have been shocking. The dead include nine boys blown up while playing football in a street in Baghdad and dozens of young men bombed to death in a café in the disputed city of Kirkuk while enjoying their evening tea. Since the bombing of a funeral north-east of Baghdad on July 11th, grieving families mourning their loved ones nervously scan the faces of those coming to offer condolences, lest there be a suicide-bomber among them.”
As of today, November 2013, the death toll in Iraq for the year is 5,800 and climbing. Former Iraqi Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi spoke to BBC News on Nov. 22, outlining the dire domestic problems that Iraqis face on a daily basis, which account for some of the security breakdowns in society. According to Mr. Allawi, Iraqis face no prospects for jobs; the political system and political process are not inclusive; sectarianism is pervasive; now there are Iraqis well placed in Al Qaeda, and are able to strike anywhere anytime; the government is not able to deter this; the current environment is favorable for Al Qaeda operations; the impact of the Syrian civil war next door is exacerbating the crisis in Iraq. He said, “This whole region is very explosive now,” and according to Mr. Allawi, the “Arab Spring” has been extremely negative for the region, as it has allowed some elements to exploit and manipulate the situation throughout the Middle East and North Africa. He points out that a new brand of extremism has spread throughout the region, and he predicts that Egypt and Libya might see a return of more authoritarian regimes once the chaotic dust settles.
When the U.S. invasion of Iraq took place in 2003, the George W. Bush administration tipped the sectarian scales of Iraq’s political system, which, under Saddam Hussein, consisted of a minority Sunni demographic ruling over a majority Shia population. With the invasion, an interim government took over, elections were held, and Shia politics and leadership eclipsed the Sunnis. This, of course, has angered the Sunni constituents in Iraqi politics, and much of the sectarian violence has revolved around this sensitive issue. Plus, the de-Ba’athification policy that the Bush administration enforced in the Iraqi military and politics was a disaster. The U.S. government woefully underestimated the extent of Ba’ath membership – and employment – from the top down in Iraq, in both civilian and military sectors. All of sudden, Iraqis faced mass unemployment. On top of that, basic utilities and services have not been functioning. This includes electricity, and some buildings and homes remain vacant even today due to the energy and utility deficiencies.
Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, is faring much better. The autonomous region is enjoying a healthier economy, better security, and forging major deals in the oil and gas industry with regional and global trade partners. For example, Reuters reports (Nov. 6) that:
“Iraqi Kurdistan has finalized a comprehensive package of deals with Turkey to build multi-billion dollar oil and gas pipelines to ship the autonomous region's rich hydrocarbon reserves to world markets, sources involved in talks said.
The deals, which could have important geo-political consequences for the Middle East, could see Kurdistan export some 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil to world markets and at least 10 billion cubic meters per year of gas to Turkey.
… During a visit to Istanbul last week by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, both sides agreed on the fundamentals of the deals and mapped out technical details for a second oil pipeline and a gas route from Iraq's north to Turkey, sources involved in the talks said.”
This has severely complicated Iraqi Kurdistan’s relations with the central government in Baghdad, and the latter is furious because it feels that it should be in control of the oil industry. Turkey’s courtship of Iraqi Kurds –
“Has infuriated Baghdad - which claims sole authority to manage Iraqi oil and says Kurdish efforts towards oil independence could lead to the break-up of Iraq. It has also raised concern in Washington.
Under Iraq's constitution, all oil export revenue goes through Baghdad. The autonomous Kurdish region is entitled to 17 percent of the total, a windfall that has helped it flourish as a prosperous oasis safe from the violence that consumed the rest of Iraq in the decade since a U.S.-led invasion.”
To further complicate matters, Iraq’s hard-line Sunni extremist militias not only attack targets inside Iraq, but also actively recruit and export fighters into Syria to fight against the Assad regime. Al Qaeda-affiliated groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), have rendered the Syrian civil war into a cross-border conflict, wherein Iraq now witnesses and suffers from many levels of violence in a complex matrix of sectarian motivated killings, which are not entirely disconnected to the sectarian based fighting in Syria. All of this has a lot to do with Iranian political maneuvering in both Iraq and Syria, as both governments are Iran’s allies. Moreover, these Al Qaeda-affiliated militants are often pitted against Syrian Kurds, who are pursuing autonomy. This, in turn, is making Turkey nervous, given its bloody history with Kurdish nationalism and terrorism in the country. We come full circle, back to Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq, where many PKK militants set up camps and where Turkey occasionally carries out air strikes in retaliation for terrorist attacks inside its borders.
Iraq sadly stands on the precipice of failure, as an experiment in democratization, as well as in post-conflict rebuilding, reconstruction, development, and progress. Instead, Iraq’s failure as a healthy pluralist democracy, and the daily destruction and bloody mayhem at the hands of terrorists, might serve as a least desired template for regional destruction, violence, and instability.
This is a tragedy of enormous proportions, and regional actors are only fueling the violence, sectarian hatred, and conflict (both small scale and large scale) through their support for proxies based on ideological and sectarian fault lines. Regional destruction is already happening, and is only spreading. The regional actors need to hit the pause button, and get a grip on this escalation of conflicts and senseless violence. Consider what Mr. Allawi says regarding his own country, Iraq, which should also apply to the entire region: “We cannot leave our country to go down the drain.”
Hayat Alvi, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College.
The views expressed are personal.