Iraq's massive prison break made big headlines, but Baghdad has worse problems than 500 escaped jihadis.
Namely, looming civil war.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a partisan Shi'ite — tried to blame Iraq's sectarian unrest on the Syrian Civil War, but Iraq's problems run far deeper than that.
To start, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims have been feuding for more than a thousand years.
Saddam Hussein stoked those tensions with a secular, Sunni-dominated government, which cracked down on religious rights and persecuted Shi'ites.
After the fall of Saddam, sectarian in-fighting came to a tipping point in 2006.
General David Petraeus, inspired by successful grass-roots, Sunni-led security forces in the west, enlisted Shi'ite militias around the country, promising each side that if they ousted al Qaeda, they'd have a seat at the table in a new government. Although the strategy was successful in stabilizing the country for a time, it soon became apparent that it was a false peace, as described by Michael Hastings at Buzzfeed.
As the American presence dissipated, the Shi'ite majority, led by Maliki, quickly sought to consolidate power and mete out retribution on their former Sunni rulers.
Maliki's aggressive consolidation of power immediately aggravated domestic tensions. Rising to power in mid-2006, by 2007 he had staffed the higher positions of government with Shia loyalists. Then he began distancing his government from Sunni and Kurdish leaders, despite Petraeus' reassurances to Sunni leaders.
In 2009, he accused the Sunni security forces, known as the Sons of Iraq, of being infiltrated by Al Qaeda and Saddam-loyal Ba'athists — and analysts expressed worry that Maliki would actually declare war on the Sons of Iraq the moment the U.S. exited the country. This was rough treatment for the group that was largely responsible for taming Al Qaeda in Iraq and bringing peace to the restive western Anbar province.
Maliki could have reached out an olive branch to his rival, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, whose Sunni-backed, secular-Shiite coalition — called Iraqiya — represented a marginalized but relevant political body in Iraq. Instead, he turned to Iran, seeking monetary backing from the orthodox Shi'ite government.
Granted, the big worry among religious Shi'ites was a return to a Sunni-run Saddam-like government, that physically abused, killed, and imprisoned Shi'ites.
Maliki's knee-jerk fear of the Sunnis and secular Shi'ites, however, led to his creation of "extra-constitutional security bodies" designed to give him a direct chain of command over security forces, a command that conveniently side-stepped the Ministries of Defence and Interior.
Such consolidations allowed him to take an unprecedented move: what Maliki claims was an arrest, but what many call an assassination attempt on Rafi Issawi, Iraq's former finance minister and arguably the Sunni sect's highest ranking representative. Issawi, who was under the protection of the powerful Abu Risha clan, avoided his fate, whatever it might have been. That was in 2012, roughly six years following Maliki's ascendency.
The following year, 2013, would see bloody clashes between Sunni and Shi'ite clans, battling for control of Baghdad streets.
Maliki has responded to the 2013 bombings by killing dozens of opposition demonstrators and openly censoring the otherwise relatively free post-Saddam media.
Now the country is on the brink of total dissolution, the Kurds are acting autonomously, and the rise of Sunni and Shi'ite militias is more akin to 2006 than to 2013. Just this past Saturday, 11 car bombs detonated in Baghdad, bringing the year's death toll to 2,700.
As Kim Kagan notes in the Weekly Standard, “Some of the militia activity is occurring within sight of Iraqi Security Forces checkpoints,” suggesting Maliki, “is either tolerating it or has lost control over the escalation.”
Most of these militias are U.S. military-trained, and most of these bombs target mosques and holy sites.
Meanwhile one of the only groups that could stem the tide of civil war — the Sunni Awakening Council —is fleeing the countryside, trying to get away from the wave of Al Qaeda militants whom they helped America jail.
Rest assured though, there's more reason than 500 freed prisoners to flee Iraq — the country is a pile of tinder, awaiting just the right spark to turn into all-out civil war.
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