Home inContext Sectarian Bloodshed on the Rise in Iraq

Sectarian Bloodshed on the Rise in Iraq

Michael Johnson

Six bombings rocked Baghdad on Thursday leaving at least 13 people dead and dozens injured. No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in both Sunni and Shiite areas of Iraq’s capital. The Shiite-led central government has been struggling recently to contain a significant rise in sectarian violence.

Attacks targeting mainly Shiite neighborhoods killed more than 60 people on Monday with another 25 dying from explosions on Wednesday. Smaller scale suicide or car bombings that kill relatively few people have become increasingly common. So far, an estimated 450 people died in May after 700 were killed in April, the highest death toll in nearly five years.

Iraqi security personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Karrada, a district of Baghdad, on May 30, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Most Iraqis want the violence to stop, but religious and ethnic divisions are fueling the fighting. Sunni jihadists are working to reignite sectarian tensions as the civil war in Syria continues, and many Sunnis, a minority in the country, believe the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki discriminates against them. Malaki, in turn, has expanded the security forces, members of which sometimes intimidate government opponents – usually Sunni. Last month, more than 20 Sunnis died when government security forces stormed a protest camp outside Kirkuk.

Divisions among Sunni leaders could also be hampering attempts to calm the violence. Moderate Sunni governors in Anbar and Salahuddin provinces have been working with the central government to help ease tensions. But both officials were targeted in assassination attempts on their convoys on Thursday as well, presumably by Sunni jihadists, underscoring the difficulty of Sunnis working with the government.

Al-Maliki’s government has also made some attempts to calm the violence, trying  both to reward and pressure militants. One recent concession to Sunni interests in recent months has been the release of prisoners. On Tuesday, the government announced enhanced security measures focused on “pursuing all kinds of militias” and warned media outlets to not incite further strife. A UN envoy urged Iraqi politicians to hold talks to help end the violence and reconcile the fractious government.

April elections failed to provide Iraqi political leaders with new incentives to compromise. Fourteen Sunni candidates were murdered in the run up to the poll, bringing low enthusiasm and turnout. Analysts believe the results brought deeper polarization, weakening al-Maliki’s ability to govern effectively.

The failure of the Iraqi government to secure a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the U.S. in 2009 led to the  withdrawal of all American combat troops in 2011. Washington was thus left with little ability to exert influence on the parties in hopes of ending the bloodshed.