A few days ago the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a Sunni militant group with links to Al-Qaeda, claimed responsibility for the March 8th massacre of 48 Syrian and nine Iraqi soldiers in Iraq’s western province of Anbar. The attack targeted an Iraqi army convoy that was returning Syrian troops who crossed into Iraq to escape rebel fighters. Originally, the operation was attributed the Al-Nusra Front, a Sunni insurgent group in Syria that is also linked to Al-Qaeda and has been labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. government. The reality is that it doesn’t matter if the attack was carried out by Al-Qaeda’s Syrian or Iraqi front. What matters is that the attack is the most glaring sign to date that Syria’s civil war is spilling over into an Iraq that is struggling with increased sectarian tensions and fears of another civil war.
The statement released by ISI highlights the rising sectarian tensions within Iraq. The group claimed to destroy a column of the “Safavid army” that was carrying members of the “Nusairi army” and Syrian regime “shabiha.” As AFP reports, Nusairi is a derogatory term for Alawites, the Shiite sect to which Bashar Al-Assad belongs, and shabiha is used for the Syrian militias loyal to Assad. However, the term that is most revealing is the use of Safavid to describe the Iraqi soldiers. Safavid refers to the Safavid dynasty of Persia who’s first ruler, Shah Isma’il, is responsible for converting what is now modern day Iran to Shiism in the early 16th century. By using this language, ISI not only draws a sectarian line but also links the mostly Shiite Iraqi government in Baghdad to Iran.
The link between Iran, Iraq and Syria is one that often surfaces in reports about the civil war in Syria. The Iranian government has openly announced their support for Syria’s embattled President Assad and is actively supporting his regime with weapons, training and money. While many see Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s refusal to call for Assad to step down as falling in line behind Tehran, the truth is more complicated. While Maliki has not called for Assad to step down, he has also not voiced support for his internationally unpopular regime. Maliki fears that if Assad falls Syria would become “a haven for extremists and destabilize the region,” specifically the turbulent Sunni region of western Iraq. While at the same time, openly supporting Assad could risk inciting further unrest among Iraq’s already unhappy Sunni population.
Maliki may fear the war in Syria spurring unrest among Iraq’s Sunni population but it seems, for now, that the Iraqi prime minister himself is the driving force behind sectarian unrest. Protests erupted among Iraq’s Sunni population in Anbar province after Maliki ordered a
security forces raid on the house of Iraq’s finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi, a Sunni, in December. During the raid a number of al-Issawi’s bodyguards were arrested and charged with terrorism. The largely peaceful protest movement has grown since December demanding, among other things, a repeal of the de-Baathification laws that limit members of Saddam’s Ba’ath party from entering politics and a reworking of Iraq’s anti-terror laws. Sunnis claim that both laws are used to discriminate and alienate Iraq’s large Sunni population.
The protests have, until recently, remained mostly peaceful. Rebuking urges from Al-Qaeda groups in Iraq to take up arms, the protestors have opted instead for demonstrations, political demands, and postponing Anbar’s upcoming provincial election. Clearly unhappy with the non-violent approach taken by Sunni protestors, Al-Qaeda groups such as ISI have increased their attacks. Not only responsible for the March 8th attack on the Syrian border, the group has been linked to recent attacks, car bombs, and suicide bombs in Baghdad.
The recent sectarian flares and increased violence have left many Iraqis, especially residents of the capital city, Baghdad, fearful of another sectarian civil war. Between 2006-2008, militias loyal to Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite sects fought a bloody civil war leaving tens of thousands dead. The recently announced political coalitions for the provincial elections in April show that sectarianism continues to weigh heavily on Iraqi politics. In addition, the postponement of elections in Anbar province makes it unlikely that April’s vote will calm Sunni protests there.
Maliki’s fear of Syria’s civil war spilling over into western Iraq and inciting sectarian violence are well founded, as the events of March 8th have shown. However, the current unrest in Anbar province is driven by internal Iraqi politics and has little to do with Syria. If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki truly fears sectarian unrest he will have to do better than focusing on Syria and look to his own government for reform.