Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, one of the most frequent talking points has been speculation as to whether there will be a sectarian civil war in the country. Throughout this winter, media outlets and numerous analysts have been quick to note incidents of mass casualty attacks, pointing to an upsurge in fatalities. This was particularly the case during the month of January.
In addition, there has been a tendency to tie the increase in violence to the U.S. withdrawal and the subsequent political crisis in Iraq. The crisis followed the issuing of an arrest warrant against Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice president, on allegations of involvement in terrorism, as well as a boycott of the Iraqi Parliament by the main opposition bloc, Al-Iraqiyya, which has now ended.
Alas, if only those experts had consulted Tacitus. Commenting in his “Annals” on what he saw as a trend during his own day, the great Roman historian observed, “[T]here is perhaps in all happenings something like a cyclical pattern, so that, just as there are the vicissitudes of eras, thus there are changes in customs.”
In other words, there are some recurring trends and changes that are predictable at given times. In Iraq, the month of January over the past two years has been marked by the commemoration of the Shiite religious festival of Arbaeen, according to the lunar calendar. This involves tens of thousands of pilgrims, from Iraq, Iran and even the Indian subcontinent, descending upon the holy site of Karbala. A majority of the pilgrims travel either by bus or on foot.
Hence, it is reasonable to expect that, since they are easy targets for Sunni terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, there will be an upsurge in attacks every year around the same time. Sure enough, statistical data appear to vindicate this expectation. In December 2010, the Iraq Body Count website recorded 217 civilian deaths, compared with 387 in January 2011. Similarly, in December 2011, there were 371 civilian deaths, as opposed to 458 in January of this year.
The figures for December 2011 seem to be a high number in comparison with December 2010. That it can be explained in light of the fact that Al-Qaeda had long been planning more attacks to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal, to create the impression that it was gaining ground against the Iraqi government and security forces.
In any case, the casualty statistics for December 2011 are lower than for May and June 2011, which were recorded as 378 and 385 civilian deaths respectively. This came even as there were still tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the country, largely confined to their bases with little freedom of movement. These observations fit in with an annual cycle in which insurgents step up their operations toward the end of spring and before the onset of summer.
Sensationalist media speculation about a sectarian civil war reflects a deep misunderstanding of both the causes of the dramatic drop in violence in Iraq from the days of 2006-2007 and the nature of the insurgency today. One recent Associated Press article reporting on a bomb attack in Iraq noted that during 2006-2007 Iraq was “on the brink” of sectarian civil war.
In fact, the situation then was a civil war. It was centered on Baghdad, where Sunni insurgents, in large part angered by the de-Baathification process and driven by the erroneous belief that they were in the majority and thus could defeat the Shiites, were fighting Shiite militias such as the Mahdi Army for control of the capital. The Mahdi Army was backed at the time by the central government, which regarded the Sunni insurgency as an existential threat.
By the start of 2007, around the time of the beginning of the American troop surge, the outcome of this civil war was turning decisively in favor of the Shiites, as most of the mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad were ethnically cleansed of Sunnis. Therefore, the Sunni insurgents increasingly began to appreciate that they were not in the majority at all, their survival dependent on a willingness to work with the central government and coalition forces against Al-Qaeda.
This was the crucial factor behind the development of the Sons of Iraq movement, or the Anbar Awakening. This was a Sunni tribal initiative against Al-Qaeda that began in the western province of Anbar in mid-2006 because of disillusionment with the Islamist group’s brutality.
The overwhelming majority of Sunnis accept that they must peacefully adapt to the fact that the Shiites lead the political process. However, the remnants of the insurgency are driven by ideology, whether Islamism (Al-Qaeda) or a combination of Baathism and Islamism (the Naqshbandiya), and will continue to carry out terrorist attacks regardless of whether there is a political impasse or not.
By failing to look at the bigger picture, media outlets inadvertently help insurgent groups portray themselves to their supporters and sympathizers as gaining ground. This allows them to continue to receive financial and armed support from within Iraq and abroad.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is www.aymennjawad.org. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.