Sectarian conflict flares in
Iraq By Brian M Downing
Sectarian conflict in Iraq is again a
concern as the Shi'ite government seeks the arrest
of a Sunni vice president whom they tie to an
Implicit in the
accusation is the charge that Sunni politicians
were complicit in a number of bombings over the
past two years that have killed hundreds of
Shi'ites. At present, the conflict is political
and judicial, but it may not be settled by
dialogue and legal rulings.
want to establish an autonomous region in central
Iraq; regional Sunni powers, who oppose
Iranian-Shi'ite influence, support that goal.
Shi'ite Iraqis want to keep the Sunnis a weak
minority; their Iranian ally seeks to punish the
warfare against it. There is considerable danger
of a return to sectarian warfare and also of
situation Conflict between Sunnis and
Shi'ites has been part of the Mesopotamian region
ever since the time of the Ottoman Empire, when
Sunnis, though a minority, were politically
dominant. Sunni pre-eminence continued as the
British installed the Hashemite monarchy after
World War I and various politicians and generals,
including Saddam Hussein, came and went.
Saddam's ouster in 2003 led to an
insurgency aiming to prevent Sunni marginalization
and Shi'ite dominance. Mollified temporarily by
United States and Saudi bargaining in the troop
"surge", the Sunnis later faced systematic arrests
and exclusions at the behest of the Shi'ite
Over the past two years, a
deadly bombing campaign has been directed against
the Shi'ite population and security forces,
killing scores of people every month.
Sunni resistance differs from the old Sunni
insurgency. It has no prominent leaders or bold
manifestoes; it has moved from dozens of tribal,
Ba'athist and army movements to a reasonably
unified entity of nebulous leadership and
uncertain size. It generally eschews firefights
and ambushes - commonplaces during the insurgency
- in favor of bombs. Puzzlingly, it only rarely
attacked US troops, though they were prime targets
during the insurgency.
resistance's coherence and discipline suggest
considerable indigenous political organization and
also substantial foreign support - almost
certainly from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh cautioned
Washington angrily that ousting Saddam would lead
to Shi'ite and Iranian ascendance, and it now
seeks to contain or even roll back their power.
The conflict coming to a head in Iraq,
then, is not simply a conflict between indigenous
Sunnis and Shi'ites. Amid concern over Iran's
nuclear ambitions and Shi'ite restiveness in
Sunni-ruled countries, it has become part of the
geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and
Prospects for a Sunni
insurgency Though outnumbered three to one
in Iraq, the Sunnis have strengths and resources
that could make the impending sectarian strife
protracted and costly. Many of their assets stem
from ties to Saudi Arabia, most of which are
The largest of the
Sunni tribes is the Dulayim of central and western
Iraq, whose martial skills and outlooks did not
fade over the many decades of change. The Dulayim
were mainstays of Saddam's army and security
forces but retained a strong tribal identity that
led to a ferocious insurrection against him in
1995 when some of its generals were mistreated.
As sheiks lost patronage and revenue from
Saddam's state and young men were unceremoniously
demobilized from the army, Dulayim tribal networks
played important roles in the anti-US insurgency
of 2006-2008, providing recruits and leaders and
Those networks are nor
confined to Iraqi soil. Fellow Dulayim in Syria
supported the insurgency; fellow Dulayim in Saudi
Arabia did the same but later were helpful in
calming the insurgency during the "surge".
Dulayim men remain skilled in light
infantry weapons and tactics, though bomb-making
is especially useful at present. They can fight in
conventional formations with Sunni units in the
new Iraqi army should these revolt or as
guerrillas in irregular warfare and insurgency.
Sunni regions also have a formidable
Salafi presence. The Anbar province town of
Fallujah has long been a center of that austere
and militant form of Islam, which is an
unappreciated reason for its importance in
opposing the US occupation.
humiliating defeat in the First Gulf War (1991),
Salafi thought spread through Saddam's army.
Soldiers saw the crushing loss as the result of
personal impiety and looked to Salafism as the
path to personal and national regeneration.
When Western powers became occupiers of
Iraq, Salafists saw their duty. During the peak of
the insurgency, when Saudi and other volunteers
had arrived in numbers, Fallujah was virtually a
Salafi theocracy with Wahhabi-like morality police
roaming the streets, menacing the unbearded and
Fallujah and Anbar have been
taken from Salafist control, but the consciences
and aspirations of Iraqi Salafis have not been
eased. The intellectual and financial wellspring
of Salafism is Saudi Arabia, which has encouraged
its study as a means of spreading its influence
through young militants. In this respect, Salafism
links various nationalities not only to Saudi
religion but also to Saudi geopolitics.
Salafist hostility to Western values is
well known - so well known that it may overshadow
its hostility to Shi'ism, which it sees as an
exceptionally loathsome corruption of Islam.
Salafis in Iraq share Riyadh's hostility to
Shi'ism in general and also to Shi'ism's political
incarnations in Tehran and now in Baghdad. They
are the the most ideologically motivated soldiers
in the anti-Shi'ite forces coalescing in Iraq.
They mesh well with the anti-Iran states
that Riyadh is coordinating among the Gulf States.
Anti-Shi'ite forces in Iraq will not lack funds or
safe havens - or plausible denials of foreign
Prospects for a regional
war A sectarian conflict in Iraq with one
side backed by Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia
will be extraordinarily difficult to contain
within the borders of Iraq. The conflict could be
used to (further) intimidate Iran or even as a
pretext to attack it.
All three principals
- Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia - have large
hydrocarbon deposits; the latter two are key oil
exporters, the other soon will be. An enemy's oil
fields, pipelines, and export terminals would
naturally be tempting targets with immense
significance in world capitals and exchanges.
Granting the Iraqi Sunnis ambition for
autonomy might seem a judicious or at least an
appealing way to defuse a dangerous situation, but
two problems readily stand out.
Sunni and Shi'ite regions are not cleanly divided,
not even after the murderous fighting of recent
years, and the two faiths are interspersed in many
parts of central and southern Iraq.
Second, a Sunni autonomous region would,
given the present regional alignments, remain a
haven for attacks on Shi'ite and Iranian targets.
Neither Iraq nor Iran wants another enemy,
especially one with promising though undeveloped
hydrocarbon wealth and a slew of Sunni allies.
Events taking place in Syria are already
shaping events in Iraq. The overthrow of the
Shi'ite Assad regime and the advent of a majority
Sunni government would bolster the Iraqi Sunni
drive for autonomy and perhaps lead to their
integration into a Sunni-dominant Syria.
Alternatively, Iraqi Shi'ites may come
down hard on the Sunnis and drive large numbers of
them into Syria where they may gladly help to
overthrow the Shi'ite regime there. The Saudis
will be eager to assist in either scenario.
The looming conflict comes close on the
heels of the US withdrawal from Iraq, which left
little goodwill for the US save in the Kurdish
north - happily but warily aloof from events to
The Sunnis see the US as a
foreign power that arrogantly and unwisely ended
their domination of the country. The Shi'ites see
the US less as the power that ousted Saddam and
made Shi'ite rule possible, rather more as
benefactor of the Sunni tribes since the surge, as
well as an enemy of Shi'ite militias, ally of the
House of Saud, and a linchpin of an anti-Iranian
coalition with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Though US foreign-policy makers cling to
ideas of intimidating Iran and aligning Iraq with
the West, the Americans might well be fortunate
that Baghdad has shown them the door.
Brian M Downing is a
political/military analyst and author of The
Military Revolution and Political Change
and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in
America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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