The more I read news from Iraq, the more I think the provincial elections slated for April next year (except in Kirkuk) are going to be messy at best, and stand a more than slight chance of pitching Iraqis into more conflict than they’ve seen since 2007.
Not that violence has entirely abated in Iraq – far from it. In the first quarter of 2012, over 700 Iraqis lost their lives in attacks by various factions, with an average of 56 people dying in an average of 40 attacks a week. In the second and third quarters, that violence spiked to its highest level in two years. From July to October 2012, 854 civilians were killed and 1,640 were wounded – higher casualty rates than in Afghanistan. However, if anything, the Western media pays even less attention to Iraq than Afghanistan – they’ve moved on to new wars for their headlines, ones America hasn’t lost yet.
However, recently an armed confrontation between Iraqi Kurds and the central government’s forces showed one flashpoint, temporarily defused by US intervention, and now another – this time between Sunnis and the Shia-dominated central government – is showing through.
(Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims blocked Iraq’s main trade route to neighbouring Syria and Jordan in a fourth day of demonstrations on Wednesday against Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
The massive show of force marks an escalation in protests that erupted last week after troops detained the bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafaie Esawi, threatening to plunge Iraq deeper into political turmoil.
“The people want to bring down the regime,” chanted thousands of protesters in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar, echoing the slogan used in popular revolts that ended in the toppling of the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Waving the old flag of Iraq that was changed after Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003, protesters sat in the road, choking off the main trade route between Iraq, Jordan and Syria.
Interestingly, the US’ old Shia bugbear Muqtada al-Sadr has backed the Sunni protests. There’s a feeling of Arab Spring in the air
Iraq’s fragile power-sharing government has since lurched from crisis to crisis and the conflict in Syria risks reigniting sectarian tensions that brought the country to the brink of all-out civil war in 2005-2007.
Addressing the protesters, Esawi said the detention of his guards was politically motivated and that Maliki was deliberately provoking strife.
“It is enough! The country should not be run by such a mentality,” he said, to cries of “God is greatest”.
Maliki has sought to play his rivals off against one another to strengthen his alliances in Iraq’s complex political landscape before provincial elections next year and a parliamentary vote in 2014.
A Council on Foreign Relations memorandum from August warns of the very many ways in which Iraq could be plunged back into chaos and makes it clear that the 2013 provincial elections will be a key event. Any postponement by the central government, citing security concerns, would be disasterous. An election which happens on schedule but the outcome of which is seen as gerrymandered or unrepresentative of minority needs only a fraction less so. Renewed and sustained violence in Iraq would only add fuel to a regional fire which is already blazing out of control in neighbouring Syria. Events in Iraq over the next four months are very much worth paying attention to.