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Is Iraq Slipping into Civil War?

Incident: On 22 January, 17 people were killed and dozens wounded in a series of attacks in and around Baghdad and in Northern Iraq. Explosions targeted a military checkpoint in Baghdad, a military base in Taji (just north of Baghdad), a predominately Shi’ite neighborhood in Baghdad (Shula), and in the multi-sectarian town of Mahmudiyah (south of Bagdad). The previous week, more than 80 people were killed in a series of attacks later claimed by an al-Qaeda-linked network. Protesters continue to block the highway leading from Baghdad to Amman and Damascus, and the prime minister has threatened to use force to break the blockade.

Bottom Line: The conflict in Syria and the overall rise to power of Salafists across the region is having a negative effect on Iraq and helping to exacerbate already seething sectarian tensions. Feeding on this is Prime Minister Maliki’s own policies of targeting Sunni officials. It is not clear that Maliki can contain this protest momentum, and his attempts at quelling it by calling early elections have so far been stymied by the Kurds (who want a new census and electoral reform first). This, coupled with the intensifying situation between the Kurds and the central government over Northern Iraq’s oil resources could tip the balance towards another all-out conflict. 

Analysis: In late December, a new wave of protests erupted across the country and shows no sign of abating. There are two different perspectives on these protests, which have centered on the Sunni Anbar province, but spread to other key venues across central and southern Iraq. One view is that these protests are sectarian in nature—Sunni defiance of a Shi’ite-dominated government. Another view is that these protests are non-sectarian in nature and represents an overall Iraqi population disillusioned with the prime minister’s own sectarianism, the government’s widespread corruption and growing Iranian influence. There is truth to be found in both perspectives.

And while there is a very genuine element to these protests, they have already taken a violent sectarian turn. This is the most significant challenge yet to Maliki’s rule. Maliki has dangerously overstepped his capabilities—particularly in his targeting of his Sunni political partners in the unity government, who are now supporting the mass Sunni-led protests against him. Even Iran, which wields significant influence on Baghdad, had warned Maliki that his policies were potentially destabilizing.  

There are fewer than three months leading up to key provincial elections in Iraq, scheduled for March, though an exact date has not yet been set. Protests, strikes, and sectarian violence are highly likely to increase in momentum up to and during these elections. If Iran comes to Maliki’s aid in any manner other than a covert one, the Sunni population will only be given more impetus to fight.

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