How the Shiites are blowing it in Iraq
The successful battle to push Islamic State forces out of Tikrit last month was a victory against that barbaric organization, but it also appears to have meant the defeat of long-term hopes of stabilizing Iraq.
By Jill Carroll
Best Defense guest columnist
The successful battle to push Islamic State forces out of Tikrit last month was a victory against that barbaric organization, but it also appears to have meant the defeat of long-term hopes of stabilizing Iraq. The Baghdad government’s effort to regain control of northern Iraq was eclipsed by the show of power by vengeful Shiite militias.
One of the key ways needed to undercut support in Iraq for the Islamic State (IS), and any follow-on organizations if IS collapses is to address Sunni disenfranchisement and alienation by the Shiite-dominated government and security forces. Sunnis must be convinced and strongly supported by Baghdad to turn against IS. It would be a Herculean task, and was from 2003-2011 for the U.S. government. It is now a near impossibility.
The Iranian-backed Shiite militias have demonstrated they are the true power brokers in Iraq and they are not looking to heal the country. They are an unstable array of groups bent on punishing Sunnis. They certainly have no plans to cede a shred of power to them. This amounts to a recipe for sectarian bloodletting.
On Wednesday Shiite pilgrims on a march heavily guarded by Iraqi security forces to the Baghdad shrine of a key 7th century Shiite imam to mark his death, erupted in violence while passing through the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah just across the river from the Shiite shrine. News reports said several houses were set ablaze, along with the building housing the Sunni Waqf in Iraq, which maintains and manages funds to administer Sunni mosques.
Even by Iraq’s standards, the facts on the ground are bleak. Part of Iraq is controlled by brutal militia forces beholden to Iran; another part is controlled by a brutal terrorist organization. Both are stronger than the government in Baghdad.
If there was any doubt about who is in charge in Iraq, a little-noticed dispute in April spoke volumes. On April 3, just after the Islamic State was pushed out of Tikrit, Reuters published a story detailing arson, looting and lynching by victorious forces. It provided first-hand accounts of militia members dragging a body behind a pick-up truck by a cable and a suspected IS militant killed by federal police by laying his head across a street curb and then intermittently stabbing and sawing at the man’s neck with a clearly dull blade and then stringing his dead body up a nearby pole.
Just two days after the report was published, threats against the American reporter who wrote the story, Ned Parker, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Reuters wire service, surfaced on Facebook. Three days later, the Asa’ib Ahl al Haq militia, backed by Iran, and a major participant in the Tikrit offensive, issued threats on its television station against Parker and also included a picture of him. Parker, a veteran of ten years of reporting in Iraq, is no shrinking violet, but the threats were so widespread and menacing he was forced to flee the country.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi while in Washington, D.C. asking for billions of dollars in aid to help fight the Islamic State, refused to specifically defend Parker. He eventually issued a bland statement, only in English, that essentially said “Threats? What threats?” He agreed publically during his Washington visit to also issue the statement in Arabic, making it easily distributed across Iraq, but he has failed to do this.
If Abadi couldn’t issue a statement that the Shiite militias would dislike, he clearly doesn’t have the power to take the much more difficult steps needed to stop the militias from persecuting Sunnis and truly re-integrate Sunnis into a unified Iraq or convince them to turn against the Islamic State en masse.
Abadi has improved the rhetoric used by Baghdad regarding Sunnis and taken some steps to include Sunnis in the government and military, an improvement over his deeply alienating predecessor, Nouri al Maliki. But in the end, Abadi is beholden to the Shiite militias and support from Iran, and neither of these groups is interested in reconciling with Sunnis.
The Shiite militias and the Islamic State have demonstrated they are in the fight for the long haul and there is no greater power able or willing to rein in either side. This is a recipe for bitter sectarian war horrific even by Iraq’s standards. Worst of all, this is likely only the beginning.
Jill Carroll lived and worked in the Middle East for five years, including in Iraq from 2003-2006, as a freelance reporter for various newspapers and as a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor.
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