Violence is on the rise in Iraq. Hostilities between Sunnis and Shiites are at a peak: The number of victims is higher than it has been for years, and the upcoming election campaign may well make things worse.
Last weekend in Baghdad was a particularly bloody one. More than 40 people died in ten car bomb attacks that targeted a bus stop and Shiite-majority areas in the Iraqi capital on Sunday (27.10.2013.) Sunni extremists are believed to have been responsible. Attacks in other parts of the country on the same day left another 20 people dead.
The number of victims of religiously or politically motivated attacks has surged dramatically in recent months. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) says that more than 5,200 people were killed between April and the end of September this year.
Iraq has experienced innumerable such attacks since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. But in the last few months the number of booby-traps, car bombs and targeted killings has reached a five-year peak.
"What's new this year is the frequency of the attacks, the geographic expansion and, above all, increasingly improved coordination," says Falko Walde. The Jordan-based expert at Germany's Friedrich-Naumann Foundation told DW that more than 600 people were killed in October alone.
Attacks cement religious strife
The surge of violence has pushed the country deeper into chaos. Every bomb that hits a Shiite neighborhood, every murder of a Sunni representative, magnifies the gulf between the two groups. Under Saddam Hussein, the Shiite majority was marginalized. Now they are in power, and Sunnis feel excluded. Christians in the country are caught in the middle. Numerous churches have been torched. In northern Iraq, the Kurds are struggling to secure more autonomy from the government in Baghdad, but they are steering clear of the sectarian conflict.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, on the other hand, clearly is getting involved in the conflict. He is turning on Sunni rivals, even within his own government. He persuaded Interpol to issue a worldwide alert for the arrest of former Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi, who fled into exile. Al-Maliki also had employees and bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafi Al-Issawi arrested for alleged involvement in acts of terrorism.
A 'new dictator'
"He is a despot, and he's trying to keep the reins in his hands," says Berlin-based Kadhim Habib, a former head of the Arab-European Institute for Research and Communication.
According to Habib, Shiite and Sunni leaders are not directly involved in the terrorist attacks; however, they are taking advantage of the tensions to unite their supporters ahead of parliamentary polls in April 2014. This, he says, contributes to an atmosphere of mistrust and insecurity, adding that foreign meddling further exacerbates the tension: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and several Gulf States support Sunni groups, while Iran supports the Shiites.
The conflict in neighboring Syria also adds to the escalation. "The civil war in Syria is a proxy war. It's about the Sunni-Shiite balance of power in the region," Walde says. The Iraqi Sunnis sympathize with Syrian opponents of the regime, but the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is sceptical about a possible change of power in Damascus. The Syrian government is a close ally of Shiite Iran.
In Iraq itself, however, the conflict is not simply a struggle between two camps. There are hostile groups even within the various factions. Shiites could easily be the target of Shiite attacks. Sunnis too could be targeted by others within their own group.
No silver lining
In order to stop the spiralling violence, Walde says, the government would have to include the religious and ethnic minorities in the political process instead of excluding them. He suggests that the election campaign ahead of the polls in April 2014 should focus on party programs, and address voters across ethnic and sectarian lines. This, according to Walde, would be a chance to stabilize Iraq,
At the moment, though, this is an unlikely scenario. In previous elections, leaders have deliberately played on religious affiliations to mobilize their own clientele. Walde warns that this could now cause things to spin out of control: Even Kurdish northern Iraq, seen so far as being relatively secure, is starting to get sucked in. Walde fears the attacks will continue, and the number of victims will rise. "Unfortunately, there is no indication at the moment that this trend will be reversed," he says.