2013 Iraq Update #17B: Iraq On The Edge

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Iraq continues its slide towards widespread violence. Over the weekend, the Iraqi government has issued an ultimatum to anti-government protesters following an attack in Anbar province that left five soldiers dead. In Kirkuk, the deployment of Kurdish forces into disputed areas threatens to broaden the conflict. Possible Iraqi government involvement in an airstrike in Syria may indicate the growing potential for regional spillover. As the crisis continues, political efforts to diffuse the tension have yet to bear fruit, though additional meetings are scheduled for this week.
More than 200 people have been killed in five days of clashes following the attack on protesters in Hawijah (click here for a detailed analysis of the incident and its immediate aftermath). The violence continued over the weekend when five Iraqi Army soldiers were killed outside a protest camp in Ramadi. Accounts of the incident vary. Anbar tribal leaders claimed that the soldiers were dressed in plainclothes and had run through two Sunni checkpoints and fired on a third. Government sources blamed Sunni gunmen for instigating the attack.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed that his government would respond to the incident. Authorities issued a curfew in Anbar province. The head of the Anbar Operations Command demanded that protest organizers hand over those responsible for the attack within 24 hours. Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, a prominent Anbar tribal leader, stated that the protest organizers would find and turn over those responsible for the attack; Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha alsoannounced the arrest of two individuals suspected of involvement. Their statements and actions may constitute an effort to avert further government reprisals by demonstrating tribal justice, although Sunni leaders have recently taken a more combative approach and have formed a tribal army to defend Anbar. Whether the government will follow through on its threat of a “firm response” to Saturday’s incident is unclear. On Sunday, Maliki took the ceremonious step of appearing at the funeral for the soldiers at the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad.
As the confrontation between Sunni Arabs and the government intensifies, there is also a growing danger that Arab-Kurd tensions along the Disputed Internal Boundaries may escalate into broader violence. In a provocative move, Kurdish officials announced on Saturday that Peshmerga forces would deploy to “to fill the vacuums in general, and especially around the city of Kirkuk.” This move would violate a local understanding between Kurdish and Iraqi Army forces, and potentially expand Kurdish control over disputed areas. Peshmerga forces said the move was taken to address the growing militant threat to Kurdish communities; however, Iraqi Army officials portrayed the move as a political maneuver and placed the security forces on alert. General Ali Ghaidan, the head of the Iraqi Ground Forces Command, said the Kurds were seeking to occupy Kirkuk’s oil fields.
While the Kurds may indeed be concerned about the increasing presence of Sunni insurgent groups, they may also be attempting to take advantage of the government’s preoccupation with the uprising to advance Kurdish interests along the disputed areas. At various points in recent years, Kurdish and Iraqi Army forces have narrowly averted armed confrontation over similar actions. The current crisis has already enhanced the potential for miscalculation between the two sides, making the announcement of Peshmerga deployments particularly destabilizing. Furthermore, it creates positive conditions for AQI and JRTN, which thrive on ethnic tension.
Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani are scheduled tomeet in Baghdad on Monday. The issue of security force deployments is likely to be one of the many contentious issues that the two sides will discuss. Other issues will include the ongoing dispute over oil revenue sharing, as well as Maliki’s recent effort to remove Kurdish cabinet officials.
Maliki has struggled to calibrate his response, as the protests have turned violent in the wake of the Hawijah incident. The Prime Minister has appealed for calm and offered some concessions, but he has sought to contain the current violence and address the renewed Sunni insurgent threat. Maliki has warned of a return to sectarian civil war, and he has portrayed his actions as efforts to prevent this outcome. Yet Maliki’s own policies have marginalized the Sunni within the government, and sectarianism has been on the rise in Iraq since the 2010 parliamentary election that returned Maliki to power.
On Sunday, Iraqi officials announced the suspension of ten satellite channels, including Al-Jazeera, on grounds that they were inciting sectarian agendas. Nine of the ten stations are owned or operated by Sunni Arabs. All the stations have been critical of Maliki, and several, such as al-Jazeera, are linked to the Gulf States. This suspension may be a move by Maliki to combat what he believes is an effort by regional Sunni states to incite sectarian violence in Iraq and neighboring Syria. The announcement that the border with Jordan would be closed on Tuesday may be another step by Maliki to cut off support for the protesters. The move is likely to further anger Sunni Arabs, however, and exacerbate their feelings of persecution and marginalization in Maliki’s Iraq.
Maliki is expressing deep concern about spillover from Syria. In a speech on Saturday, the Iraqi prime ministerfingered the violence in Syria as the cause for the renewed sectarianism and recent unrest in Iraq. Maliki has frequently warned that the toppling of Assad in Syria may result in the spread of civil war to Iraq. An unusual incidenton Saturday may indicate the Iraqi government’s willingness to act more directly to forestall such an outcome. Activists in Syria’s eastern city of Deir ez-Zour reported that military aircraft flew into Syria from Iraq and carried out airstrikes. Syrian rebels blamed the Maliki government, but this accusation could not be confirmed.
Others have suggested that the plane was a Syrian MiG fighter that crossed into Iraqi airspace before turning back into Syria. This is plausible considering that Iraq has had difficulty controlling its airspace since the departure of U.S. forces in 2011. The Maliki government, however, has not commented on the airstrike or on the potential violation of Iraqi airspace. At the very least, this silence suggests Maliki’s support for the attack. If Iraqi planes were involved, it would be a significant escalation in the Maliki government’s support for Assad. 
Political efforts to resolve the crisis continue, but with little success thus far. Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi attempted to hold a parliamentary session to discuss the Hawijah incident, but he was forced to downgrade it to a “confidential consultative meeting” due to a lack of quorum. No Members of Parliament (MPs) from Maliki’s State of Law Alliance were present, and there were reports of a verbal altercation between Nujaifi and a Sadrist MP over the Hawijah attack. Nujaifi has called for another parliamentary session tomorrow. It will be difficult for any side to negotiate a political solution to the crisis as long as violent clashes persist.
The situation in Iraq is fast evolving. Various factors will determine whether and how Iraq’s security and politics will continue to unravel. Continued and increased clashes in Sunni areas might indicate whether Sunni Arabs will seek violent solutions to address their grievances and if Sunni insurgent groups like a-Qaeda in Iraq will capitalize on Sunni protests to perpetuate violence. It will also be important to watch if Maliki will exercise restraint or react more forcefully in response to continued clashes by closing protest camps, shutting the border, deploying Iraqi Security Forces, or broadening ISF arrests. For example, Iraqi security forces recently arrested a tribal leader in Mosul who had helped organized the protest movement. Maliki will likely react to the Kurdish Peshmerga deployment with similar movements of Iraqi Security Forces. On Saturday, a SWAT team was dispatched from Diwaniyah to Salah ad-Din in response to earlier violence in the province. Maliki may move additional troops into Kirkuk to check Kurdish expansion.
It will also be important to watch how the Shi’a respond to the crisis. It is possible that Iraqi Shi’a may mobilize in support of the Maliki government as they did in response to the early weeks of the Sunni protest movement. A demonstration was held recently in al-Amarah, Maysan province, where protestors voiced their support for Maliki and the Iraqi Security Force and denounced sectarianism. The Maysan demonstration was rather small. Rapid growth in the size and geographic scope of pro-government protests may indicate broader Shi’a mobilization. Attacks upon Shi’a communities and holy sites may also indicate a deliberate intent to incite a violent Shi’a sectarian response. The reaction of Shi’a political blocs to the crisis will also be important to watch. As politics become more polarized along sectarian lines, the Shi’a may decide to act in unison to boycott certain parliamentary meetings in order to stymie efforts by Sunni political leaders. The outcome of the current crisis is very much in doubt, but the events of the next week may offer important indicators on whether and how Iraq’s security and politics will continue to unravel.

Marisa Sullivan is a Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.