Levels of sectarian violence are increasing exponentially in Syria and are likely to continue to grow whether or not we see the fall of Bashar al Assad. Meanwhile the increasing intensity of sectarian bloodshed in Iraq has almost gone under the radar. On Monday 30th September, a wave of bombings hit Baghdad which according to the BBC, took the death toll to more than 5,000 people for this year. More than 800 of that number lost their lives in the month of August alone. The attacks on the 17th are the latest in a string of attacks across Iraq.
Unrest has been building between the Shia majority and the minority Sunni community. Much of the blame for Sunni discontent lies with the Shia-government led by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, which remains crippled by a stalemate that has led to no significant legislation being passed since March 2010. The Sunnis also cite what they believe to be deliberate exclusion from the decision-making process as well as abuses from government security forces. Indeed, Prime Minister Maliki has also been accused of not devoting enough attention to increasing anti-Sunni attacks, such as the 13 September attack on a Sunni mosque near Baquba.
Divides in Iraq are not solely centered on the Sunnis and the Shias. The larger Kurdish community in the North of the country currently enjoys a degree of autonomy from a central government lacking firm control. However, Sunday saw Irbil, usually a stable Kurdish city, hit by a series of bombings on Sunday 29th September. The attacks have been linked to fighting between jihadist groups and Kurds in neighbouring Syria. Jabhat Al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sharm (ISIS) have clashed in recent weeks with the Kurdish People’s Popular Protection Units (YPG) on secular grounds. The fear is that a cycle emerges in which ongoing events in Syria will further fuel Iraqi sectarianism, which in turn will only worsen the issue across the border. Indeed, increasingly influential armed groups in Syria actually have direct links to Iraq, such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sharm (ISIS).
Perhaps the most indicative sign of the rising tensions in Iraq is that the Shias are now attacking the Sunnis. Ali al-Sistani has spoken out many times in the past against sectarian conflict, instead pledging for unity amongst all Muslims. Has Al-Sistani hardened his stance in the wake of the increasing anti-Shia attacks (which continued on 21 September in three attacks that killed over 70 people)? Alternatively, the changing trend towards anti-Sunni strikes could indicate that the Shia community is now beginning to operate out of Al-Sistani’s control as it looks to defend itself in the continuing Iraqi sectarian war.