Sinking into chaos

Print edition : October 06, 2006

Iraq is on the verge of a civil war, with guerillas and sectarian forces beginning to dominate Al Anbar province and Kirkuk city.

ATUL ANEJA in Bahrain

In Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, guerillas carrying rocket-propelled grenade launchers, a March 2005 photo. With the American clout on the wane, guerilla forces now control the province.-BILAL HUSSEIN/AP

THE authorities and residents in Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, now acknowledge that guerilla fighters control the Iraqi province. Harassed by the armed groups and their local supporters, American forces have apparently told the residents that they would be withdrawing to their bases in Haditha and Habaniyah in the province. Security would be handed over to Iraqi forces - a move that is unlikely to work because the guerillas are much too strong for them.

The decline of American military influence is likely to have a big impact on the country. Al Anbar, Iraq's largest province, is spread over a massive desert and is strategically located because it borders three countries - Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Cross-border smuggling is well established in this area and predates the U.S. invasion. Now, with the declining American clout, coupled with the inability of the Iraqi forces to police the area, smuggling including that of weapons and explosives can only be expected to increase. Consequently, the influence of the resistance groups will grow.

The Al Anbar province also hosts the 550-kilometre-long highway linking Iraq to Jordan. In the past, this road was Iraq's major artery for trade, commerce and tourism. Lawlessness prevails along this road these days. Criminal gangs control significant stretches of this highway.

Looting of cargo is common and commuters, including pilgrims, on this road have been routinely robbed, and even killed. Guerilla fighters have frequently targeted U.S. vehicles and fuel tankers transiting through this route.

The battle for the control of Al Anbar has been driving up casualties. A recent quarterly report of the Pentagon records that out of 65 deaths of U.S. soldiers in August, 36 were in Al Anbar alone. The average number of attacks throughout Iraq between May 20 and August 11 had risen to around 800. This figure is almost double that for early 2004. Two years ago, the daily casualty count for Iraqi civilian and security personnel averaged around 30. It now averages at around 120 a day.

Unlike large parts of Iraq where Shias or Kurds are in a majority, Al Anbar is the only province that has a dominant Sunni population. The resistance movement here, therefore, shows Sunni domination.

Iraq's top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. His disengagement from politics is likely to increase the power of the radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.-AFP

However, the rapid consolidation of Sunni guerilla groups in Al Anbar has had its impact on the sharpening sectarian tensions in Iraq. Nearly 60 per cent of Iraqis are Shias, but the country has large Sunni and Kurdish populations. In the north where Kurds dominate, Turkmens, Arabs and Assyrians form sizable population segments.

Sectarian tensions have deepened following the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The presence of the American troops also drew Islamic extremists, having formal or informal links to Al Qaeda, into Iraq. Among them was the Jamaat Al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, a group that was led by the slain Jordanian militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Al Zarqawi had visited Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and later, after a meeting with Osama bin Laden, operated his own camp, near Herat, close to the border between Afghanistan and Iran. Al Zarqawi entered Iraq following the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11.

Al Zarqawi, until his death on June 7, is said to have run a systematic campaign that targeted Shias in Iraq. These included coordinated attacks during Shia religious festivities in Karbala and Baghdad on February 1, 2004, in which an estimated 185 people died. His group also targeted the historic Al Askari shrine in Samarra, apparently to trigger a full-scale Sunni-Shia civil war.

The surge in such killings generated a wave of counter-violence by Shia groups, despite the restraining influence of Grand Ayatollah Syed Ali Sistani, the top Shia spiritual authority in Iraq. It is likely that the fighting between Sunnis and Shias will intensify, as Sistani declared on September 3 that he would no longer intervene in politics and instead confine himself to religious matters.

Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.-ALI ABU SHISH /REUTERS

Members of Sistani's inner circle say that it was in response to the repeated defiance of his call for calm by the Mehdi army, the militia formed by the young firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. Apparently, a recent incident in the town of Diwaniya hastened his decision. When fighting broke out in late August between Iraqi soldiers and the Mehdi army and left dozens dead, Sistani appealed for calm. His exhortations fell on deaf ears. The Provincial Governor was left with no option but to travel to Najaf for an audience with Al Sadr. Al Sadr reportedly brought the fighting to a halt with a single telephone call. Now with Sistani's disengagement from politics, the already formidable power of Al Sadr, who exercises tremendous influence among the Shia underclass, is likely to grow further.

Al Sadr comes from a well-known family of clerics and therefore there is no obvious challenge to his legitimacy from local Shia groups. He is the fourth son of the famous cleric Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Sadeq Al Sadr and son-in-law of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir Al Sadr. Al Sadr's Mehdi army, had twice revolted against American occupation, cementing his credentials as a resistance fighter among his followers.

Two other factors have enhanced Al Sadr's profile, and made him the de facto challenger to Ayatollah Sistani. First, he has mastered the art of providing patronage to his loyalists. For instance, his groups run an effective charity network, which is acquiring increasing importance because of the turbulent situation. Second, the Mehdi army provides protection to the local people. Media reports also suggest that the Mehdi army has been swiftly retaliating against any sectarian attack on Shias that is brought to its notice. This has attracted more followers.

The scene of a suicide car bomb attack in Kirkuk on August 28.-SLAHALDEEN RASHEED /REUTERS

Like other parts of Iraq, the spectre of a civil war has befallen northern Iraq. Already a cauldron of tensions, Kirkuk witnessed in recent times events that have brought it to the edge. A 5,000-year-old metropolis, it straddles the vast oilfields of northern Iraq. Ethnic Kurds, who form the majority community in northern Iraq, have recently reinforced their claim that Kirkuk belongs to them. This has not only alarmed the minorities in the city, but also fuelled anxieties across the border, in Turkey. It is feared that Kirkuk's oil wealth would fund the Kurds' drive for political independence. This would cause turbulence and could even encourage secessionism in Turkey, where a Kurdish minority has been fighting for independence for decades. Iran and Syria, which also have Kurdish minorities, have been apprehensive about the calls for a Kurdish homeland.

Recently, local leaders of the Turkmen and Arab minorities have been alleging that the demographic profile of Kirkuk is being deliberately altered through the mass migration of ethnic Kurds into the city. Kurdish migrants, they say, have occupied vacant public buildings and stadiums. Kurdish leaders deny the allegation. They argue that the migrants belong to families that were displaced when former President Saddam Hussein forcibly settled Arabs in Kirkuk in order to alter the demographic profile of the city.

Kurdish authorities recently called for a referendum on the status of Kirkuk, to be held in late 2007, heightening tensions. Retaliatory attacks on Kurds are therefore becoming increasingly common. In fact, the strikes on Kurdish targets reached their peak when a shrine owned by the family of Iraqi President and Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani was attacked on August 27. On the same day, a car bomb exploded near the Kirkuk office of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). It is widely believed that the Turkmens and Arabs have joined hands to counter a possible Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk.

The trial of Saddam Hussein has also begun to fuel the sectarian divide. Contrary to the dominant view in Kurdish and Shia circles, Saddam Hussein, for a large section of Sunnis and pan-Arabists, symbolises an era of Sunni ascendancy not only over Iraq, but over large parts of West Asia.

At the trial, the deposed President and his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid were accused of killing up to 180,000 Kurdish civilians during what has been described as Operation Anfal. The trial has become controversial with the chief prosecutor accusing the chief judge of showing bias towards the defence. In the courtroom, Hussein accused some of the witnesses of plotting ethnic divisions in Iraq by alleging chemical attacks and mass arrests in their villages during the course of a military crackdown in the late 1980s.

As a civil war threatens to explode in Iraq, the country is witnessing the emergence of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish "warlords" exerting their influence over those areas that their militias can dominate. With no single cohesive force that can keep the entire country united in sight, Iraq is set to witness several waves of bloodshed in the days and months ahead.

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