Nineveh is rapidly becoming the epicenter for ethno-sectarian conflicts of interest in Iraq. Two primary foci of tension exist; the first is Sunni-Shiite and the second is Arab-Kurdish.
This is not particularly new as tensions between the three factions have existed for a long time. However, recently there has been a spike in verbal attacks exchanged among them. This wave of tensions first started on the Arab-Kurdish front in the aftermath of provincial elections in January and the subsequent hegemonic activities by the winning Arab bloc.
What makes this episode alarming is that this Arab-Kurdish tension has been complicated by a resurgence of terrorist attacks in the province. These attacks seem to have caused tensions between Sunnis and Shiites to build up after a period of relative calm.
The rising tensions are manifesting themselves in the political debate in Iraq, in various forms. Since the country is headed for elections, each faction is using the situation to sell certain perceptions to its respective constituency.
On the Shiite side, and after not achieving much by traditional means, ISCI and smaller groups are using fear politics. Their attempts to glue the Shiite alliance back together have met with little if any success so far. Their relations with PM Nouri al-Maliki are steadily deteriorating. In fact, Maliki, presenting himself as a national leader, seems more interested in recruiting Sunni Arab allies than rebuilding the Shiite alliance.
Now those groups are blaming the Ba’ath Party for the violence, Saudi Arabia for supporting the Ba’ath Party, and PM Maliki for his reconciliation efforts. They consider the latter the catalyst that allowed the Ba’ath Party to regroup and resume activity.
It is true that the Ba’ath Party still exists and perhaps has significant role in recent violence. However, it is absurd to think it could ever have enough power to impose its rule on the country once again. The parties wanting to rebuild the Shiite alliance need a rallying cry to get the support of their constituencies in order to have a chance in the elections. Unfortunately, while the declared enemy is the Ba’ath Party, the victim would be political reconciliation.
Buratha News is quoting unnamed “diplomatic sources in Brussels” who are concerned about “security deterioration in Iraq due to Saudi Arabia’s support to bombings that target the Shiite”. The report goes on to add that the sources also stated “serious information reached several European capital about a Saudi Arabian plot to carry out terrorist attacks against the Shiite, especially in Mosul and Diyala, to cleanse these regions off this sect’s members”.
Another Shiite-affiliated website is also quoting those mysterious “European sources in Brussels” and offers even more details about the alleged Saudi plot: “There is a Saudi attempt to support a secret plan codenamed ‘Cleansing the Nests’. The goal is to carry out terrorist attacks against the Shiite, especially in place like Mosul and Diyala to make Iraqi cities and provinces Shiite-free. This comes after the sectarian plot of 2004-2005 failed to make Baghdad a Sunni-dominated capital….Saudi Arabia has allocated financial resources to execute ‘Cleansing the Nests’ in Mosul, in order to make Mosul a Sunni city with no Shiites at all”.
Now Saudi Arabia might very well have been supporting (directly or indirectly) some insurgent activity in Iraq, so accusing Saudi Arabia is not what concerns us here. What concerns us is that the report continues to claim that the Ba’ath Party has reestablished its organizations in Mosul and that “Many Ba’athists and sectarian extremist work in the ISF in Mosul. They provide protection and cover for the Ba’ath organization. They leak information about security operations to the Ba’ath and even present manipulated reports and misinformation to Maliki’s government about security in the city”.
The interesting thing is that this report, which we have not seen in any credible news source, is spreading like wildfire among websites and forums affiliated with Shiite parties. There are even columns that commented on this report barely a few hours after it first appeared. One such column on Sot al-Iraq website (Voice of Iraq) is worth noting. The author of the piece essentially argues that the Shiite have been fooled into making concessions to other factions and that “reconciliation was a well-prepared booby-trap”.
The Sunni Arabs in Nineveh are pointing their fingers, not at Shiites, but at their immediate rivals in the vicinity, the Kurds. Arab officials in the province are not-so-implicitly blaming the worsening security there on the regional authorities in neighboring Kurdistan and their Peshmerga militia.
Yesterday, reports came that the provincial government in Nineveh asked Baghdad to help “put an end to the deterioration in security”. The first demand of the Sunni Arab-dominated provincial government was to “Deploy army and police forces to the province and to have the Federal Police secure the regions along the administrative borders of Nineveh province with Kurdistan prior to March 19th 2003”. The provincial government also asked the presidency, cabinet and parliament to “Evict Peshmerga paramilitaries from regions belonging to the province and put those regions under the control of the armed forces that answer to the central government”.
Kurdish politicians aren’t making much effort to calm the situation either. They too are using fear politics to improve their standings vis-à-vis a stronger opposition bloc. Al-Ittihad (the newspaper of President Talabani’s PUK party) has excerpts from an address by Masoud Barazani, the president of the Kurdish region, to the people of Kurdistan marking the success of recent elections in the region. Barazani’s key line was that the Kurdish leadership “will pursue the constitutional rights [of Kurdistan], restore the regions that were excised from Kurdistan, reinforce Kurdistan’s stature at home and abroad and protect the higher interests of the federal Iraq”. The message will undoubtedly be seen as provocative by the proponents of a strong central government, particularly Sunni Arabs in Nineveh. Note that Barazani did not use the term “disputed territories” which is how the constitution refers to some regions in Nineveh, Diyala and Kirkuk. Instead he referred to them as territories that “were excised from Kurdistan”. Sunni Arabs do not approve of the former, let alone the latter.
In another statement, the spokesman of Kurdistan regional government condemned Monday’s double bombing in a Nineveh village. The statement accused some Hadbaa officials (Hadbaa is the majority Arab bloc in the province council) of power monopoly and of endorsing “an extremist racist ideology similar to that of terrorists”.
All that said, the danger here is that al-Qaeda’s tactics seem to be working and the political factions are taking the bait. The recent terrorist attacks are fomenting suspicion and tensions along both sectarian and ethnic fault-lines.
Such political ammunition is attractive and maybe even irresistible during election season. Al-Qaeda would be more than glad to keep the supply coming and the political parties might ignorantly keep using it. If this does not stop, it will likely end badly.
There are however, signs that invite a less pessimistic assessment of the situation. On the Sunni-Shiite front the reactions have been limited to political rhetoric and attempts to improve popularity at the expense of rivals. We have not seen anything similar to reactions to the spectacular attacks of 2005-2006. On the Arab-Kurdish front, despite the aggressive tones we see that both sides demand that the constitution be the judge between them. Neither side has taken up arms yet, which is good. However, we need to stay vigilant as we do not know where the critical threshold might be.