Is Iraq Backsliding Toward Another Civil War?

Iraqi politicians are gathering today to elect a new president, in their continuing struggle to take a small but vital step toward ending political deadlock and creating a power-sharing government. Yet, conditions in Iraq, especially in Baghdad, suggest that the country is on the precipice of falling into yet another bloody sectarian conflict. All the necessary ingredients needed are there—missing only the final catalyst—that could plunge Iraq back into conflict. The growing separation between Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad’s neighborhoods, the rise of a well-armed Shia army, and the targeting of Sunnis by Shia militias all set the stage for another civil war. The final blow could come about through the destruction of a highly regarded Shia religious shrine. Al-Askri shrine, the destruction of which in 2006 sparked years of sectarian violence, remains the most vulnerable. The assassination of a well-known religious or political figure could also have similar consequences.

The growing political and geographic divides between the Sunni and Shia in Baghdad most accurately highlight the imminent danger to Iraq’s security. Recent maps of the city illustrate the (literal) divide along clearly defined sectarian lines. Militias from both sects bear the foremost responsibility in segregating Baghdad residents into homogenously populated Shia or Sunni neighborhoods. Yet, with the recent turmoil, Sunni areas are becoming more isolated from their Shia counterparts, and are subject to repressive policing and harsh economic seclusion. In Ghazaliya, a working-class district of about 100,000, Mushajjar Street marks an invisible border that divides the Shia area from the Sunni one. Many residents describe a climate reminiscent of the grim days of 2006. Shia militias once again roam the streets, adding more tension to the already fragile situation.

The rise of well-armed and organized Shia militias is also symptomatic of the fraying social fabric. Responding to calls from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most senior cleric, to guard Shia shrines against the ISIS advance, thousands of Shia volunteers picked up arms. The announcement by al-Sistani led to the resurgence and creation of Shia militias across Baghdad. The Peace Brigades (formally known as the Mehdi Army), Iraqi Hezbollah, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, are all Shia militias heavily backed by Iran with battle-hardened members returning from Syria. A recent show of force by the Peace Brigades in Baghdad, deeply feared by Sunnis for their habit of sectarian reprisal killings, revealed a militia of 50,000 forces equipped with missiles, rocket launcher, hi-tech assault rifles, and artillery. The organizational and fighting capabilities of these militias firmly surpass that of the Iraqi army and police, placing Sunnis living in Baghdad at mercy of those forces.

Given increased territorial division and the power of armed factions, it was only a matter of time before violence toward Sunnis across Baghdad followed. The failure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government to transcend sectarian politics fostered the distrust of Sunni neighbors in Baghdad. In the minds of the paranoid, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) takeover of the northwestern region in Iraq clearly implicates the Sunni population, prompting a shakedown of entire neighborhoods. Shia militia forces round up Sunnis in Baghdad over suspicions of membership in ISIS sleeper cells operating in the capital. Kidnappings, threat letters warning Sunni residents to leave town, and ID killings, are all making a comeback on the streets of Baghdad. On a daily basis, bodies of mostly Sunnis turn up in Baghdad’s morgues, each with gunshot wounds to the head and signs of torture—an undeniable indication of the level of instability present on the streets of Baghdad.

The dam holding back Iraq from a full-scale sectarian war is slowly eroding. The factors listed above are picking away at the fragile social fabric of Iraqi society. Yet, Iraq is not in the midst of a full-scale civil war—not yet. ISIS killings of Shia and Shia militias’ targeting of Sunnis has yet to reach the critical mass that characterized the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007. Nonetheless, a triggering event, similar to the bombing of al-Askri shrine in 2006, could potentially plunge Iraq toward a bloody and grim civil war, with violence meeting or surpassing 2006 levels. The Shia, already recognizing this fact, enlisted thousands of volunteers and militia members to protect al-Askri shrine from any attack launched by ISIS. The revered shrine in Samarra holds the tombs of two Shias imams, and Shias have sworn that they will defend it as well. Figures such as Muqtada al-Sadr, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, or Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have both religious and political significance for many Shias in Iraq, and the death of any one of them would prompt Shia retaliation without any constraints.

The formation of a new government does not guarantee a way out of the crisis. Having demonstrated the fragility of conditions in Baghdad, Iraqi politicians need to put aside their differences in order to construct a compromise toward creating a power-sharing deal, conceding significant power and responsibility to the Sunnis and Kurds. Last week’s election of a speaker and today’s attempt at selecting a new president mark the first of many steps toward a functioning government that might provide incentive for Sunni leaders in Iraq’s west to reject ISIS and work with the central government, but time is not on Iraq’s side.

Omar al-Dulimi is an intern with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Image: Shi'ite volunteers from the Mehdi Army loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, ride in a vehicle during a patrol, on the outskirts of Tikrit, July 20, 2014. Iraqi troops and Shi'ite militants patrolled areas of Tikrit as they launched an assault to retake the city currently held by Islamic State fighters. (Photo: REUTERS)