The security situation in Iraq is already bad, but recent anecdotal stories could be pointing to things getting much worse. In Basra, there are reports of threats and killings of Sunnis in retaliation for attacks upon Shiites in the rest of the country. In Diyala and Dhi Qar there have been stories of families fleeing intimidation, while in Baghdad an angry mob burned a suspected suicide bomber and bodies have been found dumped and executed. These are all happening in the midst of the government’s latest security operation, which is proving as ineffective as the last one. These recent acts are directly related to the inability of the government to contain the insurgency. If these types of events become more common it could be a sign that society is breaking down once again, and armed groups are taking matters into their own hands.
In Basra, the police chief was fired recently after attacks and intimidation of Sunnis in the city. In early September, the Basra provincial council voted to dismiss the police chief General Faisal Abadi. The council had been complaining about the lack of security in the province since July, and finally took action for Abadi’s inability to solve the problem. Council members claimed that Sunnis were being targeted in Basra City. The Sunni Endowment for the governorate called for an investigation into assassinations of its members, and claimed that Sunni families were receiving death threats to leave. A lawmaker from Basra added that several Sunni imams and former politicians had recently been killed as well. The head of the Endowment Abdul Karim Khazraji eventually closed down its mosques in the city for safety, while a Basra police officer confirmed to the Associated Press that at least 17 Sunnis had been murdered in the city over the course of the last several weeks. On September 17, a small group of people came out to protest in the center of the city against the violence, calling for cross sectarian unity, and an end to the threats and intimidation. Every couple months Al Qaeda has been able to set off a bomb in Basra City, but otherwise it has been saved from the wave of explosions and shootings occurring in the central and northern regions of the country. These stories of threatening messages and assassinations are therefore a troubling sign that the mood in the south may be changing. As security deteriorates in the rest of the country, people in Basra are taking out their frustrations in the worse possible way, on their fellow Basrans. The solidarity shown by other citizens of the city is a good sign, but they are unlikely to sway the militants who have been committing these crimes.
|Police standing guard outside of a Sunni mosque in Basra (AP)|
|Anti-sectarian violence rally in Basra Sep. 2013|
Basra is not the only southern province that has seen trouble recently Dhi Qar has as well. There the Al Sadoun tribe has been targeted. The Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations in Iraq Gyorgy Posten issued a statement on September 19 saying that he was worried about sectarian displacement in the province. This came after stories of up to a 150 families from the tribe had been forced from their homes and moved to Salahaddin. A local official said that only seven families had left, claiming that the press was exaggerating things. He told Radio Free Iraq that there were two shootings that increased tensions, and led people to blame the Sadoun tribe. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with a delegation from the tribe, promising to resolve the situation. Like in Basra, dozens of people came out in Nasiriyah against the attacks upon the Sadoun, calling for solidarity and coexistence in the governorate. The situation in Dhi Qar is much like that in Basra. Both have only seen occasional terrorist bombings, so this incident of forcing out tribal families, no matter how many it might have been, is a large escalation. Tensions have risen throughout much of the country as insurgents have increased their operations over the last several months. The government seems incapable of stopping them, so now citizens are beginning to take matters into their own hands, a troubling trend if it continues.
|Demonstrators in Nasiriyah who came out against attacks upon the Sadoun tribe|
In Diyala, insurgents have been able to create more divisions. In July, a teenage boy blew himself up in a funeral tent. Al Qaeda in Iraq was blamed, but when it turned out the bomber was from a local tribe, it caused a dispute with other sheikhs who wanted revenge. Afterward, Shiites went after Sunnis in Muqtadiya, killing some and telling others to leave. The New York Times quoted a government official who stated that 365 families had fled the city as a result. Diyala has been a hotbed of militants for years, and was once the scene of bloody sectarian fighting during the civil war. Now it appears that those splits have re-emerged. There have been dozens of attacks in the governorate, but this was the first time that it was reported that average people retaliated after an attack. Again, the violence is leading to a breakdown of law and order.
|A Sunni family displaced from Muqtadiya after receiving threats (NY Times)|
Baghdad has been the scene of the most intense violence since it is the largest city in Iraq and the seat of government, but things are getting uglier there as well. In late August, a crowd attacked a man that was an alleged bomber, setting him on fire as police stood around and did nothing. The Interior Ministry said that two car bombs had gone off in the area previously, so people were angry before they found the man. Then on September 19, Radio Free Europe had a story about ten young men who were found handcuffed, blindfolded, and shot in the head near Sadr City in eastern Baghdad. That was followed by Al Rafidayn announcing five men found shot in the head in Sadr City, Ghazaliya, and Arab Jabour areas of the city. This was the first time in years that people had been discovered executed in that manner. These are more troubling incidents. If there are more they could be the first signs that Iraq is descending again into sectarian war. The government should be the one that protects, investigates, and punishes perpetrators of crimes and attacks. Here, the security forces did nothing as a man was burned. The executions are even more worrying, because those were the exact same tactics used by militias in the past. Each time examples like these appear it is more evidence that the public has lost confidence in the government to protect them.
That’s because Baghdad has constantly announced one security offensive after another in recent months, but with little to no effect. Currently the Revenge of the Martyrs is taking place in central and northern Iraq. Parliament’s security committee is questioning the competence of the army and police after hearing multiple complaints from people about mass arrests during this on-going operation. A Sadrist member of the committee for example, said that the government depends upon the support of the people, but that it was losing it due to mass detentions. One reason for the end of the civil war was that the Americans changed their tactics from punitive and reactionary to pro-active and community based. The Iraqi forces were intimately involved in these tactics, but since the U.S. military withdrawal, they have reverted right back to what the U.S. and Saddam Hussein used to do, which is to arrest all military aged males during raids, which only makes people angry. It has also had no affect upon security, as the number of deaths is now the highest they’ve been since 2008. That’s a major reason why these incidents of vigilante justice are increasing. The insurgency is witnessing a re-birth, and the government appears helpless to stop them. That’s leading to people retaliating against groups they feel are responsible for violence on their own.
If more and more Iraqis take the law into their hands that could lead to a new civil war. The insurgency has always tried to restart the sectarian fighting as a way to bring down the government. For the last several years however, people have let the security forces deal with bombings and hunting down militants. Now it appears that militias and vigilantes are going after people in retaliation after attacks. What’s more troubling is that these incidents are occurring in southern Iraq, which is relatively peaceful compared to the rest of the country where violence is far more common. If they spread that could be the breakdown of society, and the beginning of a far larger conflict than what is already taking place in the country. At the same time, the fact that people came out into the streets to express solidarity with their fellow Iraqis after attacks shows that the country may not be at the brink just yet.
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