Iraq War anniversary attacks signal escalation of Sunni-Shia strife

People look at the remains of a car bomb explosion near the fortified 'Green Zone' in the capital of Baghdad, on March 19, 2013. A wave of attacks and explosions in Iraq killed more than 50 people and officials delayed provincial polls, highlighting security concerns on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the US-led invasion.
Sabah Arar

A coordinated series of attacks targeting civilians in Shia Muslim areas of Baghdad is the latest deadly example of sectarian violence consuming Iraq 10 years after the US-led invasion.

Recent reports place the death toll of the 12 bombs planted near restaurants, bus stops and work sites at more than 56 people, with more than 200 injured. Sunni extremists, part of a tiny group of Iraq's second-largest religious sect, have been blamed for the attacks. 

The violence is creating further instability in Iraq's already shaky democratic system.

"Officials announced that they would delay provincial elections scheduled to take place next month in Anbar and Nineveh, two predominantly Sunni provinces that have become hubs of unrest and protest in recent months," reported the Washington Post.

Scholars and analysts attribute the rise of Sunni attacks on Shias to a disruption of the power balance between the two main Muslim sects following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, who had long suppressed the Shia, favored the Sunni and managed to keep religious conflict largely in check with his regime's brute force.

“For the first time in the history of the region, the strongest dictator was removed from power,” Iraqi historian Saad Eskander told GlobalPost's Jane Arraf. “It changed the balance on many levels. One, the Shia-Sunni balance became an imbalance — for the first time Shia come to power by the virtue of a foreign invasion.”

Now many Sunnis are concerned about their place in Iraq, and al-Qaeda has stepped in to fight against the Shia in a perceived 'holy war.' Indeed, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) claimed responsibility for last Thursday's suicide attack on Baghdad's Justice Ministry, which killed 22 people.

An AQI statement referenced a "blessed invasion in the series of special operations in retaliation for the free Sunni women in the prisons of the apostates." Eleven Sunni women being held on various charges by the Shia-dominated government were ordered released in January after a surge of anti-government protests by the Sunni minority.

The historical roots of the Sunni-Shia rift are deep, tracing back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632 and becoming a bitter, centuries-long debate about who his rightful successor should have been.

A toxic mixture of anti-Americanism and religious fundamentalism in Iraq is fueling the sectarian attacks, but the Sunni-Shia antipathy is also fed by a regional conflict between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shia-dominated Iran.

"Failing to appreciate the depth of sectarian feelings, the US-led push for democratic elections facilitated the rise to power of a Shia government and the spread of Iranian influence in this key Arab country," wrote GlobalPost correspondent Caryle Murphy as part of a Special Report titled "In the Land of Cain & Abel."

Now the Obama administration must navigate a region where Sunni-Shia conflict is becoming the dominant paradigm, from Syria to Bahrain to Pakistan.

“It is rapidly becoming the axis around which much of Middle Eastern politics is organizing," a US State Department official told Murphy. "What’s interesting is that the dynamic is becoming important even in some countries where there aren’t any Shia.”