Since the withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011, an uneasy semblance of peace has settled over the country. Statistically, bombings and attacks on foreigners have decreased significantly from peak levels in 2006-2007 and continue to drop. Relations between the two largest ethnic groups, the Sunni and Shia, have calmed. The new Iraqi government shows signs of successful power sharing and limitation, as a Shia Prime Minister and a Kurdish President must authorize executive decisions and have those decisions approved by a Sunni speaker of parliament and the Iraq Council of Representatives. This federalist model of government does little to smooth over the ethnic divides so prominent in the politics of the country, but it allows for each ethnic group to preserve its autonomy, protect vital interests, and provides the inclusive representation necessary to support the nascent Iraqi government.
Despite the encouraging lull in overt ethnic conflict, the historical and stubbornly pervasive cultural and political rifts remain a potential minefield. Iraq’s main political parties clearly reflect the major ethnic fault lines that threaten the country’s long-term stability: the Sunni-backed Iraqiya party, the Kurdish bloc, and the two Shiite factions. In 2006, the main source of ethnic tension that erupted into violence was the Sunni-Shia divide. This ethnic rift was engrained in the country’s political landscape by the historical split that occurred over religious dispute, the conspicuous 20th century inequality of representation and government participation favoring the Sunnis, and Saddam Hussain’s regime, which enforced Shiite subordinancy. Over the course of the US-Iraq war, street violence, bombings, and ethnically fueled domestic terror attacks caused the Sunnis and Shiites to self-segregate into neighborhoods to escape interethnic violence. Mixed neighborhoods were prevalent sources of interethnic conflict during the war, and fear of the opposing group drove many Sunnis and Shiites to leave their homes and move to more ethnically homogenous blocks. Despite the decrease in potential for day-to-day conflict between Sunni and Shia, this ethnic tension remains one of the two most potentially unstable divides within Iraq, the other being the split between Kurd and Arab.
The Kurdish-Arab divide is growing as a source of potential violence between the Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish government. The most salient causes of conflict are the dispute over unclaimed Northern territory, and the disagreement over the distribution of oil revenue and acceptance of foreign oil company contracts. During the US troop occupation, armed forces within the disputed territory were composed of Kurdish, Arab, and American soldiers. However, when US troops withdrew in 2011, the buffer between Arab and Kurdish soldiers disappeared, leaving the mixed military units more prone to conflict.
In addition to the brewing conflict in Northern Iraq, the beginning of 2014 saw an increase in violence and potential outbreak of war in Western Iraq. As of January, the Sunni Al Qaeda branch in Iraq has been trying to reclaim territory within the Anbar province. In response, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met with the regional Sunni tribal leaders who oppose Al Qaeda in an attempt to strengthen relations with local powers in Anbar.
In 2012, relations between the Iraqi National Government and the Sunni leaders in Anbar were far from cooperative, with most of the tension arising from Sunni protests against the national government. These protests were fueled by Sunni anger at the government for what they believe was a failure to provide unbiased security and judiciary institutions for Sunnis.
This conflict reflects the historic political tensions between the Shia and Sunni and the security dilemma that is present today. The Shia, long disenfranchised and living under the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein are unwilling to let go of political power for fear of returning to a time of oppressive Sunni rule. In addition, the Sunni, so long in power and accustomed to well-enforced political and judicial rights demand fulfillment of the new government’s promise of equal security and justice provisions. Though they are beneath the surface, these tensions are the foundation of the recent protests sparked by changes in government, external forces of Al Qaeda, and domestic territory disputes. The most obvious trigger for recent protests is the unjustified imprisonment of thousands of Sunni by the national government. Protests called for the release of Sunnis jailed without cause, and initially the Sunni leaders gained ground when Maliki reviewed imprisonments and began granting freedom.
However, many protestors believed Maliki was not actually making reforms that would ensure future Sunni security, and protests continued into mid 2013, demanding egalitarian security from the National Government. Inadequate government transparency and policy honesty have persistently raised discontent in Iraq, and continue to destabilize the relationship between the people and the Iraqi administration.
The peoples’ distrust of the Iraqi National Government, particularly in Anbar, has set the stage for future politically fueled ethnic conflict. Perhaps the most apparent example of this is the militant actions of Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar during Al Qaeda’s encroachment on their territory in the winter of 2013. The Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), began arming itself to wage what was rumored to be a massive war on the Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar in an attempt to capture the Anbar territory. The tribal leaders found themselves stuck in a thorny diplomatic position: place military trust in the National Iraqi government, whose security provisions could be far from neutral towards Sunni, or risk invasion from Al Qaeda forces. In both cases, there was potential for brutal attacks on non-Al Qaeda Sunni and a looming fear that the Sunni would lose their foothold in Anbar.
Taking the most rational step to ensure their own security, Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar began to arm themselves—against Al Qaeda and, more covertly, against the Iraqi administration. In the winter of 2013, the unease between the Anbar Sunni and Iraqi administration erupted. Maliki sent in national troops to shut down the protest camps in Anbar and fortify Western Iraq from Al Qaeda invasion, but Sunni armies confronted the troops and Maliki was forced to withdraw.
This was a blow to Anbar-Baghdad relations, and triggered an upswing in ISIS influence within Anbar and among the Sunni population. As long as distrust remains between the people and the government, this type of conflict inspired largely by uncertainty will persist in Iraq.
For now, the overarching diplomatic relations between Shia and Sunni in Anbar can be described as an uneasy series of alliances based on the mantra “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. The Sunni tribesmen in Anbar feel threatened by Maliki’s government and the National Iraqi security forces, which pushes them away from cooperating with the national military to confront Al Qaeda. However, Sunni in Anbar remain fearful of the potential for Al Qaeda to seize territory in Anbar, which pushes them towards future cooperation with the National Iraqi government. Until recently, Maliki had previously been unwilling to work with Sunni tribesmen in Anbar because he believed they had close affiliations with Al Qaeda. However, Maliki’s new attempts to bolster relations with Sunni in Anbar in order to counter the growing Al Qaeda threat may begin to soften the political tension between the Sunni tribesmen and Iraqi government. The situation in Iraq, while showing signs of improvement, remains volatile largely due to lack of government transparency and distrust between the National Iraqi government and the people.