Sunni Islamic terror groups continue to be the major cause of violence in the country, although there is also the growing threat of civil war between the national government and the Kurds. These Sunni terrorist organizations sustain themselves by exploiting the fears of many Sunnis that Shias, and other religious groups, are out to get them, along with non-Arab Kurds (who are Sunni, but that’s not enough). One of the most contentious issues is Kurdish control of the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. These used to be the major cities of the ancient Turkish province of Mosul. When the Ottoman Turk Empire was dissolved by the victorious allies after World War I (1914-18), Mosul province was taken from Turkey (to prevent them from having any oil) and given to the new country of Iraq. Most of the people in Mosul province were Kurds and these Kurds did not get along well with Arabs. This led to Saddam Hussein forcing thousands of Kurds out of Mosul and Kirkuk and giving their property to Arabs (as an inducement to move north). The Kurds have controlled most of the old Mosul province since 1991, when they drove out Saddam’s troops and managed to keep them out with the help of British and American warplanes stationed in Turkey. After the U.S. and Britain invaded Iraq in 2003, the Kurds moved south and began forcing Arabs out of Mosul and Kirkuk, in part to regain the stolen property of the expelled Kurds and also to make these cities mostly Kurd again and incorporate them into the autonomous Kurdish state that had been established in the rest of the old Mosul province. The Arabs have resisted this, both the new Iraqis government and Sunni Arab terrorists. Many Kurds believe the Shia dominated government is not doing all it can to suppress the Sunni Arab terrorism in Mosul and Kirkuk (that is mostly directed at Kurds) and are threatening to take over these areas by force and eliminate the Sunni terrorism. The Kurds have been successful at this in the rest of the Kurdish controlled north.
The major problem with the Kurdish north is that it is not only autonomous it is also, in many respects, independent. The Kurds have their own army, which they and the Arabs down south agree could defeat the Iraqi Army if it came to a fight. The Kurds have a foreign policy and their own envoys with neighboring countries. In particular the Kurds have managed to turn Turkey into an ally against the Iraqi government. This annoys the Arabs a great deal but the Kurds and Turks are unbeatable militarily, at least when fighting Arabs. Moreover, the politicians in charge of the Kurdish north are more energetic and decisive than their Arab counterparts running the Iraqi government.
The pro-Iran Shia government continues to support Iranian efforts to ship personnel and weapons to Syria, but Iran has apparently decided the Assad dictatorship in Syria is a lost cause. The Assad’s are part of a Shia minority that has ruled a largely Sunni Arab population since the 1960s. While Iran does not want to lose Syria as a compliant client state, it appears to have done the math and concluded that the Assads are in a death-spiral. Iraq has played this both ways, by not interfering with the largely Sunni Arab tribes of western Iraq (Anbar province) from helping their fellow Sunnis across the border. The two years of violence have sent over 60,000 Syrian Sunnis into Iraq and over a 100,000 Iraqis who had fled to Syria in the last eight years to escape the Shia death squads. Those killers have been pretty quiet for the last four years, and the rebellion in Syria made going home an even more attractive proposition.
December 13, 2012: The Iraqi and Kurdish governments agreed to move their troops out of contested areas around Mosul and Kirkuk. That would happen once local militias were organized to provide security. Both sides would have to agree that the new militias were capable of maintaining order before troops were withdrawn.