In the last two years al Qaeda has been very open about its desire to regain control of parts of Iraq that it lost in 2007-8. Terrorism deaths have increased since the last American troops left at the end of 2011, and until recently the Shia controlled government, and the Shia majority, have not retaliated against the Sunni Arab minority. But now the armed (and technically illegal) Shia militias have resumed their use of death squads to drive Sunni Arabs out of their remaining neighborhoods or even out of Iraq. In the last two months there have been over 2,000 terrorism related deaths and a growing number of the victims are Sunnis.
May was the worst month for terrorist violence in Iraq since December 2011. Most of the casualties were civilians, usually Shia killed by Sunni Arab terrorists. About 20 percent were members of the security forces (including those from the autonomous Kurdish provinces). The Sunni Arab radicals have been trying to force the Shia government to collapse. That has not been working but the Sunni Arab radicals keep trying.
Many Iraqi Sunni Arabs are driven to this violence for economic and cultural reasons. After the fall of their leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Sunni Arabs lost their economic and political power. For centuries, even through part of the Ottoman Turk Empire, the Sunni Arab minority ruled Baghdad and the Shia tribes to the south (and the city of Basra). In the north Mosul province was largely Kurd and part of Turkey proper, not a conquered province.
After World War I the victorious British, wary of the new Turkish Republic eventually trying to rebuild its empire, detached Mosul province (and all its oil wells) from Turkey and combined it with the former imperial provinces of Baghdad and Basra (and more oil fields) to form the new country of Iraq. Despite their minority status, the Sunni Arabs (about 20 percent of the population) took charge of the new constitutional monarchy (ruled by a Sunni Arab noble family chased out of the new kingdom of “Saudi” Arabia recently created by the Saud family). The Shia majority (and minorities, mainly Kurdish Sunnis and several Christian sects and others) objected but the Sunni Arab dominated security forces kept a lid on things, with increasing brutality. That was not sufficient to keep opposition in check, so in the 1950s the Sunni Arab generals slaughtered the royal family and the country became a military dictatorship that was eventually taken over by the Baath Party (a socialist, and very Sunni, group) led by Saddam Hussein. This guy was vicious, paranoid, and occasionally quite mad. But he bought the loyalty and enthusiasm of his Sunni Arab followers with most of the oil income and nearly all the political, military, and economic power. Iraqi Sunni Arabs miss that and many are willing to kill or be killed to get it back. Because of the increased violence last month, Shia radical groups, who have been largely dormant since 2008, became active again in the last two months, attacking Sunni Arab mosques and Sunni Arab civilians in general. Many of these Shia radicals want to drive all Sunni Arabs out of Iraq, killing those that resist. A growing number of Iraqi Shia agree with this solution. Most politicians do not, as trying to chase over four million Sunni Arabs into neighboring countries would bring a strong local and international reaction.
The Shia are not willing to give up power and are angry at the Sunni for their greed and growing terror attacks on Shia (especially civilians). Unused to running things, the Shia have had a hard time since 2003 building an efficient government. The corruption that has long (as in thousands of years) cursed the region does not help, but the main problem is that Sunni Arabs dominated the government and economy for centuries and were the most educated group in the area. While vicious, greedy tyrants, the Sunnis had the skills to make the government work. The Shia are still playing catch-up.
The Shia government is dealing with two main centers of Sunni resistance. In Anbar province (the largely Sunni and mostly desert west) a growing number of Sunni tribes are in open rebellion. There’s a similar situation in the Kurdish north, especially in the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, which are on the border between Arab Iraq and the autonomous Kurdish northern Iraq. Mosul and Kirkuk have oil and thirty years ago were mainly Kurdish. But then Saddam began forcing Kurds further north and giving their homes, land, and jobs to poor Sunni Arab families from the south. After 2003, the Kurds came south to reclaim the property Saddam had taken from them. The Sunni Arabs resisted and continue to resist. The claims of all the Kurdish refugees have never been completely settled and the Kurdish government of the autonomous (since the 1990s, when British and American warplanes and commandos aided Kurdish rebels in expelling Saddam’s troops and keeping them out) north threaten to take back Mosul and Kirkuk (and the surrounding oil fields) by force. This would trigger a civil war with the Arabs, which would probably end in a bloody stalemate. So the Kurds support the low-level violence against the Sunni Arab terrorist groups and the two cities remain the scene of constant ethnic (the Kurds are not Arabs) warfare.
While there is a standoff with the well-armed and organized Kurdish army in the north, the Sunni Arabs in the West are irregulars and more vulnerable to the growing strength and abilities of the Shia dominated army and police force. The radicals in the Sunni Arab community welcome more violence because they believe that if enough Sunni Arabs are killed by the Shia the Sunni governments in neighboring countries (especially Saudi Arabia and, once the Sunni rebels win, Syria) will intervene and restore the Iraqi Sunni Arabs to power. Most Iraqi Sunni Arabs understand that this would never work, but speaking up against the radicals (including al Qaeda, which has always been a Sunni supremacist outfit) can get you killed. Despite that threat, many Iraqi Sunni Arabs do fight the radicals, but that’s a war they seem to be losing as the Shia are coming to believe that all Sunni Arabs are their enemy and all should be treated roughly.
One thing most Sunni Arabs can agree on is the need to be united in dealing with the Shia dominated government. The growing violence has made the idea of an autonomous Sunni Arab government in Anbar (the province that comprises most of western Iraq) more popular among Iraqi Sunni Arabs. The government will not allow that as long as Sunni Arab terrorists find sanctuary and support in Anbar. As far as the Shia are concerned, they have been very generous with the Sunni Arabs, with the understanding that the Sunni Arab community would respond and help in suppressing Sunni Arab terror groups. The Shia consider the Sunni Arab community to have failed in this regard and must either make a better effort to calm down their own radicals or face the consequences.
Then there are the conspiracy theories that are so popular in Arab culture. Some Shia politicians are openly accusing Turkey of backing Sunni protestors and terrorists as part of a conspiracy to regain their lost (because of the British action after World War I) Mosul province (the northern third of Iraq). The Turks deny this and there’s no “regain Mosul” movement in Turkey. The Turks are negotiating deals with the Kurdish government of northern Iraq in order to keep things quiet up there and to help suppress the Kurdish separatist radicals in Turkey (the PKK).
The growing violence inside Iraq has distracted Iraqis from the civil war raging in neighboring Syria. There the death toll is higher but Iraq is catching up. Three months ago there were over eight times as many people killed each month in Syria, now it’s more like two- to-one. The areas just across the border from Iraq are largely controlled by Sunni Arab rebels or separatist Kurds. The Iraqi Shia fear that a Sunni Arab government in Sunni will provide sanctuary for Iraqi Sunni terrorists. Then again, the current Shia minority Assad government in Syria also provided sanctuary for Sunni Arab terrorists for decades, especially during the Sunni Arab terror campaign in 2004-8 (that, at its height, was killing over 3,000 people a month).
There is only one part of Iraq where there is a Sunni Arab majority, and that is in the thinly populated western Iraq (Anbar province). But even here the Shia death squads can get in and use suicide bombers. The Anbar tribes have branches in Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia and have called on those foreigners for help in the past and received it. The more radical Iraqi Sunni Arabs have long sought to generate enough violence by killing Shia and provoking Shia death squads to strike back in order to force neighboring Sunni states to invade Iraq. That failed in 2007, when the U.S. persuaded most Sunni Arabs to back the Shia dominated government and that government was able to shut down the Shia militias and their death squads.
The Sunni terrorists are pushing this plan again because last time there were over 100,000 U.S. troops in the country and Sunni Arab neighbors were not going to overcome that to take down the Shia death squads and the Shia Iraqi government. This time the American troops are gone (although there are several thousand former U.S. military personnel working as trainers or security operatives). The Sunni Arab plan is still flawed, mainly because of the growing hostility between Shia Iran and the oil-rich Sunni Arab states across the Gulf. These nations are mostly majority Sunni. The United States is the most powerful ally these Sunni states have and they are not interested in driving the Americans out. Not with Iran on the brink of obtaining nuclear weapons.
The Iraqi Sunni Arab terrorists see themselves as champions of righteous Sunni Islam against Shia heretics. Iran, as self-appointed head of the Shia (and the largest Shia majority nation) sees itself as the leader of a movement to reestablish the Shia form of Islam as the dominant one. This would mean converting (with force if necessary) over half a billion Sunni Moslems. Currently, about ten percent of Moslems are Shia and over 80 percent are Sunni.
This animosity between Sunni and Shia has festered for centuries, but now al Qaeda and Iran are pressing for a violent resolution. Most Sunnis and Shia are not interested in yet another war over the matter (there have been several in the past). There is also the ethnic issue. The Iranians (along with the Kurds) are Indo-European people who have long despised and mistreated the Arabs. Now the Arabs have oil wealth and powerful allies and less fear of being rolled over by the Iranians. It's a dangerous situation and Iraq is still ground zero.
Iraq's Sunni neighbors (including Turkey) have condemned the recent surge in Sunni terror attacks against Shia. The Turks have centuries of experience dealing with this, as well as an often hostile Shia Iran on the eastern border of the Ottoman Turkish Empire. While the empire is long gone (dissolved in 1918, after World War I), memories of the constant strife between Sunni and Shia are still there. The Sunni Arab neighbors of Iraq, particularly Saudi Arabia, want to maintain Arab unity against Iran. But on the ground ancient Sunni hatred for Shia still survives and often thrives because of radical clerics.
Iran continues to contribute cash and technical specialists to Shia Islamic radical groups in Iraq. This turns religious schools into training centers for Islamic terrorists. The Iraqi government is reluctant to crack down on this because some of the schools are approved by prominent Shia clerics.
Since 2011 Iraq has continued to be the scene of 10-20 percent of the world’s terrorist attacks. Most of the rest occurred in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of the victims, and nearly all the perpetrators, were Moslem. Iraqis want this to stop, but as long as militant Iran and nostalgic Iraqi Sunni Arab fanatics are around, the violence will continue.