Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ethnic Conflict in Iraq

Since U.S. departure from Iraq in 2011, unrest between minority Sunnis and the ruling Shia government has increased. While sectarian unrest is certainly not new to Iraq, the conflict between the two religious groups has increased over the course of this year. Sunnis are protesting to overthrow the Shia government. More specifically, Sunnis are outraged over the sectarian policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sunnis have been imprisoned on charges of terrorism, and in December, Iraqi troops detained Sunni Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi. Sunnis feel disrespected and marginalized by the Shia government and protest daily against its policies.

Sunni protestors in Iraq. Photo Courtesy Associated Press.

On February 17, suicide blasts killed an Iraqi intelligence officer and three of his bodyguards. One day later, a series of deadly car bombs targeted predominantly Shia areas of Baghdad. The blasts occurred mainly at outdoor markets, targeting ordinary citizens at peak hours. Al-Jazeera reported that the blasts were “well-planned and well coordinated.” Later that day, an al Qaeda affiliate claimed to be behind the attacks. 

There are several important implications regarding these events. First, it is important to point out that both non-violent and violent tactics are being used in opposition to the Shia-led government. While daily protests remain relatively peaceful, deadly conflict is not uncommon. According to Al-Jazeera, January marked the bloodiest month since last September. Secondly, a disconnect appears in the tactics used by the different protestors. While many Sunnis participate in mass protests daily, Sunni extremist groups, like al Qaeda, have resorted to violence in order to accomplish their goals. Further, the violence has moved from targeting members of the Shia-led government to ordinary citizens.

There are also important implications for this conflict in regards to Syria. Sunni rebels in Syria are fighting against the Shia-led government of Bashar al-Assad. Also important, Assad is allies with Shia-dominated Iran, a state which openly sponsors terrorist organizations. Many fear that this will intensify conflict within Iraq. What’s more, Al-Jazeera reported that the February 17 killing took place in Tal Afar, located between an already unstable city and the Syrian border. The fact that conflict has increased in the Western part of Iraq means that it has the potential to be influenced by Sunni unrest in Syria.

This past week in class we discussed ethnicity and its relation to violence. While ethnic differences may not be a sole cause of conflict, it certainly can be used as a tool during conflict. It does appear that Instrumentalism is present in Iraqi unrest. Government leaders have used their identity as a way to manipulate outcomes favorable to them. This is evident from the imprisonment of Sunni citizens, as well as the oust of the Sunni Finance Minister in December. In addition, Iraq is no stranger to Sunni-Shiite conflict, making future unrest more likely.

The conflict also exemplifies Cederman et al.’s claim that access to power is an important determinant in ethnic conflict. What matters in determining conflict is not how diverse a society is, but how the groups are ordered within society. If groups are excluded from central government decision-making, they will be more likely to rebel. Sunni members of the Iraqi government have been forced out of their positions and the Sunni population in general marginalized. It appears that Maliki is attempting to create an all Shiite government, excluding Sunnis from the political process.

The recommendations I would make to Sunni protestors moving forward is to form a coherent plan of action. In other words, Sunnis must decide whether nonviolent or violent action is the best tactic. The fact that al Qaeda is behind recent acts of violence against the Shia population may undermine the overall group’s legitimacy. We have learned that external patronage can invalidate movements. Being a large network, al Qaeda receives support that spans beyond internal patronage.  However, a resort to non-violence on behalf of al Qaeda seems unlikely given the fact that they are an extreme terrorist organization. Given that two sets of actors play a role within the Sunni population, it is important for ordinary citizens to remain peaceful in their efforts and not succumb to the violence endorsed by al Qaeda. Not only will this increase legitimacy, but it may prevent the type of violent conflict we see in Syria from spilling over into Iraq. Further, it may overcome commitment problems, increasing the likelihood that all members of the Sunni minority will be willing and able to participate in the protests.  


Class notes: Feb. 4, 2013; Feb. 18, 2013

Cederman, Lars-Erik, Andreas Wimmer and Brian Min. "Why Do Ethnic Groups Rebel?: New Data and Analysis." World Politics 62, no.1 (2010): 87-119. 


1 comment:

  1. At this stage in Iraq's history it is extremely important that the Iraqi government show itself to be fair and even-handed in its dealings with its various peoples. It should listen to their problems, meet with them, discuss the problems, and help them attain fair representation in the government. It must show and exercise genuine leadership. If it fails in this, I think it will be confronted with very difficult internal problems that it cannot solve without reverting to its dictatorial historical type.