Sunday, April 7, 2013

Terrorism and Ongoing Unrest in Iraq

I.                    Current Events and Why We Should Care
Sectarian unrest between the ruling Shia majority and the Sunni minority in Iraq continues. Suicide and/or car bombings are a daily occurrence in Iraqi provinces. Past weeks have proven to be no exception, with several deadly attacks occurring throughout the country. On March 29, bombs at five different Iraqi Shi’ite mosques killed 19. On April 5, two separate car bombing attacks occurred in Shia-dominated neighborhoods, killing three Iraqi soldiers and three civilians. And perhaps most importantly in this seemingly neverending string of violence, on April 6, a suicide bomber attacked a gathering of Sunni candidates campaigning for the April 20 elections. The attack killed 22 civilians. Similar attacks have occurred at election campaign tents, with a majority of the ten candidates killed previously belonging to the Sunni-backed bloc previously led by a secular Shi’ite politician.

We should care about these events for three reasons. First, both Sunnis and Shias are attacking each other using acts of terrorism. Second, violence and unrest are high in Western provinces. This is important as the government worries that the Syrian conflict may be spilling into Iraq, where Sunni rebels are fighting a Shia-backed regime. Third, the April 6 attack directly targeted Sunnis that would present a challenge to the current leadership.

II.                  Analysis of Acts of Terrorism
Based on this past week’s discussions in class, it appears that these events all qualify as acts of terrorism. Terrorism must be a public act and elicit fear, which is evident by the use of bombings in mosques and market places where innocent citizens are likely to be gathered. Further, both the identity of the attacker and the target matters. Evident from the current events discussed above, Sunnis are directly targeting Shias and vice versa. Attrition is also in play. Minority Sunnis target Shia neighborhoods to display that while they may be small in number, they have the ability to impose great costs. Al-Jazeera reports that Sunnis do in fact attack Shias regularly in order to undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s regime. 

Shia Muslims react to Sunni-led attacks. Photo Courtesy Al-Jazeera.
Also discussed in class, much of the literature devoted to studying terrorism claims that high poverty and low education are influential in determining whether groups will resort to acts of terrorism. While a recent Gallup Poll noted that 55% of the Iraqi population feel that jobs and unemployment have gotten worse as a result of U.S. withdrawal in 2011, it also notes that Sunnis are more likely to see the country as worse off compared to Shias. The Gallup Poll notes 73% of Sunnis feel jobs and unemployment have worsened, compared to 60% in Shia communities. In their article, Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?, Krueger and Maleckova find that acts of terrorism are “more accurately viewed as a response to political conditions and long-standing feelings of indignity and frustration that have little to do with economics.” Therefore, it is important to look more closely at the political conditions Sunnis face under the current leadership. 

Image Courtesy

Image Courtesy

Sunnis feel marginalized by the policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. In December 2012, Iraqi troops detained Sunni Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi. The April 5 suicide bombing directly targeted the campaign tent of a Sunni candidate and the April 20 elections have already been postponed in two Sunni-dominated provinces. Further, Sunnis are frequently imprisoned on charges of terrorism. An Amnesty International Report recently detailed human rights abuses committed by security forces in numerous Iraqi prisons. Sunni prisoners are detained on charges of terrorism and beaten, raped, and tortured to confess to crimes they have not committed. Many prisoners receive death sentences for their supposed crimes, with 129 hanged in 2012 after unfair trials. This is characteristic of Iraqi life since the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. So what should Sunnis do next?

Sunni prisoners in one of "Maliki's prisons." Photo Courtesy Al-Jazeera.

III.                Advice to Policy Makers and Protestors
It is clear that Sunnis have responded to these incidents with acts of terrorism, as seen in the March 29 attacks on Shi’ite mosques and the April 5 car bombings in Shia neighborhoods. In addition, Sunnis have held peaceful protests in Fallujah, a Sunni-dominated province, for three months. They are protesting for changes in both the regime and the constitution. However, one protest leader told Al-Jazeera that many protestors are withdrawing their demands due to a lack of response from Maliki’s government. The protest leader stated that if the government continued to ignore the demands of protestors, that “maybe armed struggle comes next.”

Whether protestors choose to remain peaceful or join more extremist groups that resort to acts of terrorism and violence, moving forward I would advise Sunnis to develop more coherent and detailed demands. In his article, Are Terrorists Really Strategic?, Abrahms argues that acts of terrorism are not strategic and therefore will prove unsuccessful. He claims that terrorists reject compromises and posses protean political platforms. For example, Al-Qaeda frequently claims responsibility for suicide and car bombings that target Shias and plague the country daily, but their demand for global Jihad and a strict interpretation of sharia law is not only vague, but also unreasonable. Sunnis would find more success if they developed more realistic goals. Peaceful protestors must also be more explicit in their demands. What do changes in regime and the constitution look like? Further, as Abrahms argues, groups would find greater success if they pooled their resources. While it seems unlikely that Al-Qaeda will develop a less extreme approach, I believe that Sunnis will find success only by developing more reasonable demands and working together against the Shia government. Further, if the Shia government wants to end the protests, they too must abandon an unrealistic political platform that rejects any Sunni involvement in government. 


Krueger Alan and Jitka Maleckova. "Education, Poverty, Political Violence and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 2003, v17(4, Fall). 119-144. 

Class Notes: Choosing Tactics; April 1, 2013. 

1 comment:

  1. Now that U.S. forces are gone, Iraq's ruling Shiites are moving quickly to keep the two Muslim sects separate,and unequal for that matter. Without the U.S. to play peacekeeper, I think the development of Sunni-ruled areas could lead to a potential breakup of the country. This once armed conflict and sectarian war has moved to a soft conflict fought in the state institutions and on the streets. It will be interesting to see how this conflict plays out and if it will lead to another dictatorship or a divide within the country..