Conflict inflicting collateral damage on Iraq


FOR AT least a year Iraq has been suffering increasing spillover from the deepening conflict in Syria. Violence against Shias from radical Sunni jihadis, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, is growing. On some days the death toll from bombings and shootings in Iraq rivals the tally in Syria.

The spillover can go both ways. Yesterday, bombers, presumably Sunni fundamentalists, struck Sayyida Zeinab, a major Shia shrine outside Damascus, killing seven and demonstrating that anti-Shia violence could become a major sectarian feature of Syrian civil warfare as it is in the continuing conflict in Iraq.

Spillover into Iraq is far greater and more threatening to Iraq’s stability than that of Lebanon, Jordan or Turkey.

Lebanon is governed by competing confessional coalitions (in which the highest offices are apportioned to representatives of certain religious communities) that observe “red lines” in order to avoid plunging the country into another civil war.

Jordan is a largely Sunni country, where the Hashemite monarchy is seen as a unifying institution by all sectors of the population except tiny radical Muslim fundamentalist fringe factions.

Due to its massive size, non-Arab ethnicity and strong army, Turkey should be able to deal with any threats posed by unrest across its 900km-long southern border or from the Turkish Kurdish Workers party (PKK), reinvigorated by the Syrian rebellion.

All three countries provide essential services to citizens and ensure a certain degree of stability.

Iraq has none of the advantages enjoyed by Syria’s other neighbours. Public services and utilities are still lacking nine years after the 2003 war. Iraqis live in fear of bombs and kidnappers and express loathing of the government.

While Iraq’s Sunnis largely back Syria’s rebels, the Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, fearing the establishment of a Sunni fundamentalist regime on Iraq’s western flank, supports the secular Syrian regime.

Iraq’s armed forces and civil administration, dismantled after the US occupation, have not been restored. The military, where most soldiers were always from the majority Shia community, has been transformed into a sectarian Shia force by Maliki.

Sunni fighters who helped the US defeat al-Qaeda and its offshoots have been denied recruitment into the armed forces, creating a wellspring of resentment in Sunni provinces that border on Syria. Youngsters are encouraged to join radical Sunni groups. Some have gone to Syria to fight against the Assad regime while others are mounting deadly attacks on Shias and Iraqi regime targets.

Weapons and foreign jihadis are flowing into Iraq from Syria or crossing back and forth across the border to operate on both sides.

Shia fighters loyal to radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have migrated to Syria to fight for the government.

Therefore, the struggle for Syria could pit Iraqi Sunnis against Iraqi Shias, precipitating Sunni-Shia violence inside Iraq.

Syria’s mainly Sunni rebellion feeds Iraqi Sunni alienation and discontent.

Instead of adopting the inclusive line advocated by the US, Maliki has consolidated his grip on power by excluding from decision-making Sunnis and secularists who won the largest number of seats in the 2010 parliamentary election. Many Iraqis regard Maliki as a dictator and fear he could try to maintain his hold after the 2014 legislative election.

The death sentence for commanding death squads imposed in absentia on fugitive Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi has sharpened tensions between Sunnis and the Maliki regime.

Relations between Arabs and Kurds are increasingly strained due to the assertive independence of the autonomous Kurdish regional authority, which portrays itself as the only stable regime in the combined territory of Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership is promoting separatism among Syria’s Kurds, who are aligned with Turkey’s secessionist PKK.

Iraq’s western provinces could be drawn into the conflict in Syria. Sunni dissidents, inspired by the civil war next door, could increase deadly attacks on Shias, risking conflict with armed Shia irregulars or the largely Shia armed forces, which have, so far, exercised a certain restraint.

If fresh sectarian conflict erupts in Iraq, Maliki’s ally, Iran, is likely to become directly and deeply involved to a far greater extent than it is in the Syrian civil war. Such involvement could exacerbate regional polarisation between Shias, championed by Iran, and Sunnis, led by Saudi Arabia. Since Iran is Washington’s nemesis and Saudi Arabia is a key US ally, such polarisation can only destabilise an already wildly unstable region.