sectarian relationships in Iraq: major players, evolution of interactions

This week, my research has focused on distinguishing sectarian groups within Iraq, both political and ethnic (some with significant overlap of the two), as well as building an understanding of each group’s current and historical role within Iraq.

Broadly speaking and based on the articles and resources I have examined so far, first it is clear that there are two major governmental forces within Iraq: The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) and the government in Baghdad. The ethnic divide here is between the Kurds and the Arabs in Iraq.

The KRG, while it is a Muslim society, offers more religious freedom and has been the destination for many displaced Baghdad Christians since the US invasion in 2003. Recently, the KRG has committed to the protection of 200-300,000 Christians within the oil-rich Kirkuk region, which is currently being disputed as belonging to the Kurdistan region or the Iraq region.

With security unstable and US forces due to withdraw, the situation may become even more violent and complicated, with the possibility of sectarian violence not seen since the 2006 civil war.  This al Jazeera article offers a concise review of the situation, but due to the date of the article, (January 2011), it does not adequately take into consideration the possibility of escalating sectarian violence as US troops withdraw. Even in this more recent article, there is reference to a decade of Christians being uprooted by sectarian violence, but no additional or heightened concern directly related to the withdrawal of US troops. There is more speculation around the “questionable” motives of the KRG (whether the move is more political, in order to get more votes for the party’s next campaign in Kirkuk, or more humanitarian in nature) than what will happen to security in the region at the end of the year. It would be reasonable to predict that, if this is not due to over-sight, it is because the presence of US troops has not significantly effected the populations in question.

Outside of the current situation in the Kurdistan region, there are several sectarian groups in the Arab region of Iraq that continue to threaten regional security. These groups include the Sunni Arab insurgency, al Qaeda and affiliated jihadist groups, Shiite militias and death squads, organized criminality, the Mehdi Army, and the Badr Brigade. These groups have contributed to violence in the region at varying levels of force and influence. An Iraq Study Group published an excellent and detailed study and background account of the sectarian violence, lack of security and internal politics in the region circa 2006 (PDF here: iraqstudygroup_findings)

Violence between these groups has declined since the 2006 civil war; however, there is new concern for the possible resurgence of sectarian violence, as previously mentioned, since Obama’s announcement of the US withdrawal by the end of 2011. Aside from the very real regional and global security threat that Iran poses post-US withdrawal, there are plenty of players within Iraq that have the potential to indefinitely post-pone regional security. This NPR article helpfully discusses the imprint (or lack thereof) that the US has left in Iraq and how the withdrawal might effect the country. Ultimately, the question seems to be whether or not the US has had any of its desired effects or influences on the region–and whether or not the US is leaving Iraq in much different or better shape than before the 2003 invasion.

In relation to our larger research question and how all of this contributes to the Arab Spring throughout the Persian Gulf region, it is thus far debatable whether sectarian unrest within Iraq aligns with or “falls under” the broader ideals of the Arab Spring. Furthermore, the apparent central role that Dick Cheney claims the United States has played in facilitating the Arab Spring movement is directly contradicted by the continued existence and real threat of sectarian violence in Iraq. If anything, according to my research so far, it would appear that the US military has only managed to become another facet of violence within Iraq rather than the democracy-spreading, security-enabling force it intended to be in 2003.

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