Progress toward political accord and pluralism first came to Iraq in 2007 and 2008 when, as security spread during the surge, Sunni and Shiite leaders opted to resolve their differences through accommodation rather than through violence. Their commitment survived the difficult aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections, in which no one party won a clear mandate. It survived last year’s arrest of the bodyguards of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on charges of terrorism, as well as his subsequent trial in absentia and death sentence.
And although domestic political issues galvanized Sunni areas of the country over the past four months, both the Iraqi Security Forces and the protesters exercised considerable restraint. Sunni leaders took concrete steps to keep demonstrations peaceful by searching protesters for weapons. Even after eight Sunni protesters were killed in Fallujah in January, both sides managed to de-escalate.
That all changed last week. It began in the town of Hawija, near Kirkuk, where Iraqi Security Forces said Sunni protesters were harboring insurgents who had killed soldiers at a government checkpoint. The protesters denied there were any insurgents in their camp and failed to turn over any individuals. On April 23, the security forces launched an action in the camp — and a violent clash ensued, leaving scores dead and injured. Now Sunni Arab sheikhs who had been urging restraint are calling for war. Some reports say that the tribes are gathering former insurgents and preparing to fight. Violent incidents have already taken place, with more than 40 people killed in one day in Mosul alone.
This has the gravest implications for Iraq’s security and stability. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has already begun to reestablish itself in areas that Iraqi and U.S. forces cleared at enormous cost over the past five years. And Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda in Iraq’s front group in Syria, is attempting to hijack the secular resistance to Syrian President Bashar alAssad. These developments threaten not only to unravel the gains made since 2007, but also to energize the forces of violent extremism in the heart of the Arab world, already burning in Syria.
The country’s leaders need to de-escalate the crisis and address the concerns of those who are aggrieved. One new grievance in particular, the delay in provincial elections in Anbar and Ninewah Provinces, must be addressed rapidly. Most of Iraq voted for provincial leaders on April 20th, but security issues delayed the vote in Anbar and Ninewah until May 18, and then until July 4 — exacerbating the sense of sectarian marginalization. It is important that those elections go forward as scheduled.