Asia Times Online
Brian M. Downing
January 5, 2012
Sectarian conflict in Iraq is again a concern as the Shi'ite government seeks the arrest of a Sunni vice president whom they tie to an assassination team.
Implicit in the accusation is the charge that Sunni politicians were complicit in a number of bombings over the past two years that have killed hundreds of Shi'ites. At present, the conflict is political and judicial, but it may not be settled by dialogue and legal rulings.
Sunni Iraqis want to establish an autonomous region in central Iraq; regional Sunni powers, who oppose Iranian-Shi'ite influence, support that goal. Shi'ite Iraqis want to keep the Sunnis a weak minority; their Iranian ally seeks to punish the Sunni powers conducting clandestine warfare against it. There is considerable danger of a return to sectarian warfare and also of regional conflict.
The sectarian situation
Conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites has been part of the Mesopotamian region ever since the time of the Ottoman Empire, when Sunnis, though a minority, were politically dominant. Sunni pre-eminence continued as the British installed the Hashemite monarchy after World War I and various politicians and generals, including Saddam Hussein, came and went.
Saddam's ouster in 2003 led to an insurgency aiming to prevent Sunni marginalization and Shi'ite dominance. Mollified temporarily by United States and Saudi bargaining in the troop "surge", the Sunnis later faced systematic arrests and exclusions at the behest of the Shi'ite government.
Over the past two years, a deadly bombing campaign has been directed against the Shi'ite population and security forces, killing scores of people every month.
The Sunni resistance differs from the old Sunni insurgency. It has no prominent leaders or bold manifestoes; it has moved from dozens of tribal, Ba'athist and army movements to a reasonably unified entity of nebulous leadership and uncertain size. It generally eschews firefights and ambushes - commonplaces during the insurgency - in favor of bombs. Puzzlingly, it only rarely attacked US troops, though they were prime targets during the insurgency.
The new resistance's coherence and discipline suggest considerable indigenous political organization and also substantial foreign support - almost certainly from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh cautioned Washington angrily that ousting Saddam would lead to Shi'ite and Iranian ascendance, and it now seeks to contain or even roll back their power.
The conflict coming to a head in Iraq, then, is not simply a conflict between indigenous Sunnis and Shi'ites. Amid concern over Iran's nuclear ambitions and Shi'ite restiveness in Sunni-ruled countries, it has become part of the geopolitical contest between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Prospects for a Sunni insurgency
Though outnumbered three to one in Iraq, the Sunnis have strengths and resources that could make the impending sectarian strife protracted and costly. Many of their assets stem from ties to Saudi Arabia, most of which are relatively recent.
The largest of the Sunni tribes is the Dulayim of central and western Iraq, whose martial skills and outlooks did not fade over the many decades of change. The Dulayim were mainstays of Saddam's army and security forces but retained a strong tribal identity that led to a ferocious insurrection against him in 1995 when some of its generals were mistreated.
As sheiks lost patronage and revenue from Saddam's state and young men were unceremoniously demobilized from the army, Dulayim tribal networks played important roles in the anti-US insurgency of 2006-2008, providing recruits and leaders and supply links.
Those networks are nor confined to Iraqi soil. Fellow Dulayim in Syria supported the insurgency; fellow Dulayim in Saudi Arabia did the same but later were helpful in calming the insurgency during the "surge".
Dulayim men remain skilled in light infantry weapons and tactics, though bomb-making is especially useful at present. They can fight in conventional formations with Sunni units in the new Iraqi army should these revolt or as guerrillas in irregular warfare and insurgency.
Sunni regions also have a formidable Salafi presence. The Anbar province town of Fallujah has long been a center of that austere and militant form of Islam, which is an unappreciated reason for its importance in opposing the US occupation.
After the humiliating defeat in the First Gulf War (1991), Salafi thought spread through Saddam's army. Soldiers saw the crushing loss as the result of personal impiety and looked to Salafism as the path to personal and national regeneration.
When Western powers became occupiers of Iraq, Salafists saw their duty. During the peak of the insurgency, when Saudi and other volunteers had arrived in numbers, Fallujah was virtually a Salafi theocracy with Wahhabi-like morality police roaming the streets, menacing the unbearded and unveiled.
Fallujah and Anbar have been taken from Salafist control, but the consciences and aspirations of Iraqi Salafis have not been eased. The intellectual and financial wellspring of Salafism is Saudi Arabia, which has encouraged its study as a means of spreading its influence through young militants. In this respect, Salafism links various nationalities not only to Saudi religion but also to Saudi geopolitics.
Salafist hostility to Western values is well known - so well known that it may overshadow its hostility to Shi'ism, which it sees as an exceptionally loathsome corruption of Islam. Salafis in Iraq share Riyadh's hostility to Shi'ism in general and also to Shi'ism's political incarnations in Tehran and now in Baghdad. They are the the most ideologically motivated soldiers in the anti-Shi'ite forces coalescing in Iraq.
They mesh well with the anti-Iran states that Riyadh is coordinating among the Gulf States. Anti-Shi'ite forces in Iraq will not lack funds or safe havens - or plausible denials of foreign support.
Prospects for a regional war
A sectarian conflict in Iraq with one side backed by Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia will be extraordinarily difficult to contain within the borders of Iraq. The conflict could be used to (further) intimidate Iran or even as a pretext to attack it.
All three principals - Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia - have large hydrocarbon deposits; the latter two are key oil exporters, the other soon will be. An enemy's oil fields, pipelines, and export terminals would naturally be tempting targets with immense significance in world capitals and exchanges.
Granting the Iraqi Sunnis ambition for autonomy might seem a judicious or at least an appealing way to defuse a dangerous situation, but two problems readily stand out.
First, Sunni and Shi'ite regions are not cleanly divided, not even after the murderous fighting of recent years, and the two faiths are interspersed in many parts of central and southern Iraq.
Second, a Sunni autonomous region would, given the present regional alignments, remain a haven for attacks on Shi'ite and Iranian targets. Neither Iraq nor Iran wants another enemy, especially one with promising though undeveloped hydrocarbon wealth and a slew of Sunni allies.
Events taking place in Syria are already shaping events in Iraq. The overthrow of the Shi'ite Assad regime and the advent of a majority Sunni government would bolster the Iraqi Sunni drive for autonomy and perhaps lead to their integration into a Sunni-dominant Syria.
Alternatively, Iraqi Shi'ites may come down hard on the Sunnis and drive large numbers of them into Syria where they may gladly help to overthrow the Shi'ite regime there. The Saudis will be eager to assist in either scenario.
The looming conflict comes close on the heels of the US withdrawal from Iraq, which left little goodwill for the US save in the Kurdish north - happily but warily aloof from events to its south.
The Sunnis see the US as a foreign power that arrogantly and unwisely ended their domination of the country. The Shi'ites see the US less as the power that ousted Saddam and made Shi'ite rule possible, rather more as benefactor of the Sunni tribes since the surge, as well as an enemy of Shi'ite militias, ally of the House of Saud, and a linchpin of an anti-Iranian coalition with Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Though US foreign-policy makers cling to ideas of intimidating Iran and aligning Iraq with the West, the Americans might well be fortunate that Baghdad has shown them the door.
Brian M Downing is a political/military analyst and author of The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at email@example.com .