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Ethno-religious tragedy rebuilds in Iraq

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

In the shadows of Syria’s deadly civil war, a new tragedy is building right next door, in Iraq.

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Actually, it’s an old tragedy threatening to renew itself.

And the picture looks increasingly ominous.

Ron Sutton has the story.

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Last month in Iraq, about one thousand civilians died in random acts of violence linked to the country’s ethno-religious sectarian conflict.

It was the highest monthly death toll since 2008, in a year already with the highest annual toll since 2008 — the year Australian troops left the country.

And earlier this month, a hundred people died in a single day.

That day unfolded as Iraqi specialist Ben Isakhan, from Melbourne’s Deakin University, was in the country working on a research project.

And while the world’s focus is absorbed in neighbouring Syria’s civil war, Dr Isakhan is one of many seeing deeply worrying signs as the death toll climbs again in Iraq.

“That tells you that we’ve slipped all the way back to 2008. Now it’s really not that much further to go, to put it in crude terms, in terms of just the body count, before we end up in the darkest days of 2006-2007. Is Iraq heading in that direction? Well, it’s certainly very clear that, in the last 12 months — even more than 12 months, more than 18 months now since the US left at the end of 2011 — Iraq has rapidly descended downwards.”

More than 50,000 Iraqis died in largely Sunni-Shi’ite conflict in 2006 and ’07 before a surge in United States military forces took Iraq back from the brink of civil war.

US troops withdrew late in 2011 amid relative calm, as the annual toll settled back to about four thousand each year.

But the neighbouring Syrian conflict that began that year would worsen dramatically, spilling both further Sunni-Shi’ite tension and al-Qaeda-linked fighters across its borders.

Ben Isakhan, who sees a vastly different Iraq from even a year ago, sums up the futility in one particular everyday scene now playing out around the capital Baghdad.

“On odd days, odd-number-plate cars can get through certain checkpoints. And on even days, even-number-plate cars can get through certain checkpoints. Now that might not sound all that complicated, but when you have a massive city of some four million people, three million people, and, you know, these people are trying to go about their day, trying to get to work, trying to get to school, trying to do the grocery shopping, trying to do whatever it is that they need to do, life is just stifled by this — it’s completely crippled, it’s incredibly difficult to move around. The logic of this is, if you prevent half the cars from moving around particular points of the city, then you’re going to reduce the number of cars on the road, which should, in theory, reduce the number of bombs. But I mean, well, firstly, it’s not working, because bombs are going off all the time, as bad as ever. And, secondly, if you were a terrorist, why wouldn’t you just wait till tomorrow?”

The reasons why Iraq could be slipping into yesterday are similarly complicated.

Syria’s breakdown is a significant part, but Iraq’s problems are very much its own, too.

A former governance policy adviser for the postwar transitional government in Iraq, Lydia Khalil, points to a lack of … well, governance.

Now a Melbourne-based international-security analyst, Dr Khalil, too, suggests there is grave danger Iraq could be headed back to the days of 2006 and ’07.

“I’m very concerned about what’s happening in Iraq for a couple of reasons. I think that’s directly a result of the spillover from Syria, but it’s also a result of a number of unresolved issues within the Iraqi governance landscape as well. A lot of that has to do with unresolved feelings of (un)fairness between different minority groups within Iraq, and, also, continued disputes over disputed territories in the region.”

The minority Sunnis held the power under late President Saddam Hussein, but the majority Shi’ites now largely rule the country under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Under his rule, and especially since the US exit, leading Sunni politicians have been targeted politically until much of the Sunni Arab population now feels unrepresented.

At the same time, the Kurdish minority, itself predominantly Sunni, is enjoying autonomy in three northern provinces that are primarily Kurdish.

The al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, able to take advantage of the brewing discontent, has grown in numbers and influence in many parts of the country.

A Canadian study found about half of Iraq’s 18 provinces, particularly the northern Kurdish and some southern Shi’ite provinces, actually are just as safe as Canada.

But it found the other half to be among the most violent places on earth.

Many of those are areas where Kurdish and other interests collide.

Lydia Khalil suggests the US-led coalition’s attempts to create a postwar balance of power between ethnic and religious groups may have actually accented the divides.

“A lot of that was, I think, done with good intention, to keep in mind the sectarian checks and balances within Iraq. But I think, as we’ve seen, that’s kind of created a Lebanon-style sectarian-identity politics, where, you know, Sunnis are expected to have a certain quota of this and Shia, they are the majority, so they’re expected to have a certain quota of that. So that’s a bit troublesome.”

Lydia Khalil says, like so many other places, what are termed sectarian issues are, in truth, issues of power, resources and land.

But the head of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, Samina Yasmeen, says the sectarian split itself is becoming increasingly real, too.

She, too, suggests it was largely brought on from outside, by the US-led coalition.

“I think, once you start a trend where you draw attention to sectarianism, when the state becomes unstable, then different interest groups emerge who have a stake in, in fact, further fomenting that sectarianism. I think what’s happened is, because the American government and the forces talked so much about sectarian differences, with them not being there, that tendency or those trends haven’t disappeared. And then there’s an international language that’s going on which sort of pits the Shias against the Sunnis and the other way around. So those conflicts, I think, we’re going to deal with them, no matter what happens, for the next at least few years, if not longer.”

Professor Yasmeen says there were Sunni-Shi’ite tensions at times before the US-led forces ever arrived.

She points to the early 1980s when the revolution in Shi’ite-majority Iran stirred up fellow Shi’ites in Iraq.

But she says the two groups generally co-existed easily, as evidenced by the fact many Shi’ite families have only now begun to move out of Sunni areas and vice versa.

And she points to changes going on in the region beyond just Iraq.

“I was just telling someone only last week, when I came back from Pakistan, someone actually identified herself as a minority because she is Shia. You wouldn’t hear that language before. We were discussing what’s happening in Pakistan, and she said, ‘Well, you know, we who are a minority …'”

In Iraq, with a federal election due next year, Ben Isakhan suggests a desire to keep Nouri al-Maliki from retaining office may be behind some of the rising violence.

And, he says, that is not driving just one side.

“There’s wide dissatisfaction with the Maliki Government. And whatever one may think of the Maliki Government here, many political factions are using violence as a way to, if you like, undermine him, to demonstrate he’s not in effective control of the country, that he’s not capable of protecting the citizens, whether they be Shia or Sunni or others, from violence and from random acts of terror, and that his work over the last few years has not been successful in improving the conflict. So there are a lot of forces at stake, both Shia and Sunni, who, apart from their ethno-religious motivations, their other motivation is to undermine the Maliki Government and to demonstrate that it’s not as effective as it claims in preventing violence.”

Dr Isakhan tells of a conversation just recently with a Shi’ite man.

Shi’ites were not, typically, supporters of Saddam Hussein.

“This guy said to me, you know, ‘In the former regime, we had schools, we had hospitals, we had roads, we had electricity, we had water, we had working sewerage systems, and we had good public transport and very little problems with pollution and with congestion,’ and so on and so on. ‘But the only thing I couldn’t do was walk out into the street and yell at the top of my lungs, “I hate Saddam.” That was the only thing I was not allowed to do. Now, I can walk out into the street any day I like, and I can say, “I hate Maliki.” But I have no schools, I have no jobs, I have no hospitals, and there’s no working sewerage system, there’s no electricity, there’s often not potable water,’ so on and so on and so on.”