Escalating Tensions in Iraq
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed for calm from Iraq's Sunni community and warned of a sectarian civil war following days of clashes between Sunni militants and Iraqi security forces. This escalation in Sunni militancy in Iraq in parallel to the growing Sunni rebellion in Syria is in line with our forecast. This week's clashes carry particular significance as it appears that Sunni nationalists and jihadists are now developing common cause to challenge the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad.
Over the past year, Iraq has seen Sunni protests against the al-Maliki government spread from Iraq's Sunni-majority western provinces eastward throughout the country, along with a steady stream of jihadist attacks against both Shiite and Sunni targets. As the Syrian rebellion developed, and as the flow of militants and weapons increased along the Syrian-Iraqi border, it was really a matter of time before these two strands of Sunni resistance fused together.
This is exactly what we've seen this past week, when Sunni militants attacked a police and army checkpoint to provoke a crackdown in a Sunni protest camp in the small, destitute town of Hawijah, where the population is overwhelmingly Sunni. Since the Hawijah clashes, Sunni tribal and religious leaders have called on their followers to take up arms and force the Iraqi army out of their territory. The Naqshbandi army is the most active group in Kirkuk province where a lot of these clashes have been taking place. Made up of jihadist types as well as former Sunni Baathists, this group is using attacks on security checkpoints to elicit more crackdowns and thus garner more support from the Sunni community at large.
These types of provocations and clashes have continued in Kirkuk, Ninawa, Salah ad Din and Diyala provinces. Energy infrastructure in Salah ad Din, a major transport and refining hub in the north, is also likely to come under threat, as was illustrated April 25 when an oil pipeline transporting crude from Kirkuk to the Turkish port at Ceyhan was attacked just north of Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein.
Al Maliki has so far been relying on deep divisions within the Sunni community to manage this resistance through direct payments, limited security crackdowns and various forms of political appeasement. However, should we see Iraqi Sunni nationalists follow the call of their tribal and religious leaders to take up arms, al Maliki's options to contain this threat will become severely constrained.
This conflict is not confined to Iraq either. A broader Sunni resistance is developing in reaction to the rise of Iran and its Shiite allies in the region over the past decade. Many of the Sunni calls to take up arms point to Iran as a key culprit and are demonstrating their solidarity with the Sunni rebels in Syria. A prominent Sunni cleric from al Anbar province, Abdul Malik al Saadi has openly called on Sunni officers in the army and security forces to throw down their arms like their brothers of the Syrian army did and join the resistance. The thing to watch now is signs of the army fragmenting and any evidence of outside support, as neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia will be keen on exploiting this opportunity to weaken Iran's foothold in Baghdad.