By Tom Walker, Director, Assaye Risk
Sectarian violence has continued this week in Iraq, but at a tempo somewhat reduced from the previous weeks. With the number of high impact attacks and skirmishes waning fatalities this week fell to approx. 146, bringing the yearly total to approx 1966.
In line with the recent weeks reporting April was Iraq's bloodiest month for almost five years, with over 750 people killed in bomb attacks and other violence, the United Nations Iraq mission reported on Thursday. With neighbouring Syria influencing Iraqi politics and sectarian feelings, tensions are undoubtedly at their highest since U.S. troops pulled out in December 2011. This combined with recent electoral results and the attacks on the Sunni protest movement these tensions have boiled over into widespread skirmishing and unrest.
On Saturday it was confirmed, somewhat unsurprisingly, that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's coalition came top in provincial elections two weeks ago, but failed to win a majority in any district, meaning it will need alliances to form new alliances to hold onto senior provincial posts, a proposition that Maliki would have liked to avoid as his power base has once again been challenged and eroded. Despite this it remains a bitter pill to swallow for the majority of Sunnis, especially when it confirms their most basic fears. Namely, that they have little influence over governmental policies and little chance of repealing key anti-terror statutes; all of which have contributed heavily to unrest over the past months and have a direct effect on the country wide security situation.
The recent surge in violence and wider domestic security issues have confirmed an uncomfortable reality for international diplomats in Iraq, who are scrambling to contain the crisis: at the core of Sunni grievances is a set of laws and practices imposed by the United States in the earliest days of the occupation. At the heart of the troubles are the antiterrorism tactics promoted by the United States, which have been continued by the current Shiite-led government, often casting a wide net around Sunnis, ensnaring the innocent and guilty alike.
The events of the last two weeks will continue to galvanise the Sunni and Kurdish communities against these statutes and by association central government unless, in the wake of an election victory, Maliki will be prepared to be gracious in victory and somewhat more sympathetic to genuine grievances.
This remains to be seen and currently many Sunni communities, especially in Al-Anbar, see a prolonged mobilization as the only option available. Protest leaders in Anbar have urged Sunni tribes to provide 100 armed men each for a self-defense "army" for the province, mentioned in last weeks reporting - "We do not accept to live as second-class citizens. We are the sons of Iraq," said Sheikh Abdul-Rahman al-Zubaie, a tribal leader in Ramadi, the provincial capital. “We have rights ... and when the government denies them, the only way to prove our dignity is through the barrel of a gun." This dialogue was reinforced in a typically fiery session of Friday Prayers where, wearing military fatigues with his cleric's turban, Sheikh Ali Muhaibes brought Friday prayers in the Sunni heartland to a climax with chilling words for the Shi'ite-led government.” If you want jihad, we're ready. If you want confrontation, we're ready. And if you want us to go to Baghdad, we're coming," he roared to the crowd in Eastern Al-Anbar.