Iraq today – The failure of the US and an emerging Shia/Sunni war


Iraq is with no doubt a nation with many sides that awakens curiosity which ever time period one chooses to study. Its rich history, with Mesopotamia and Euphrates and Tigris, the colonial heritage, the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, the oil economy, the war with Iran and the Kuwait crisis, are all good reasons for observation.

Today Iraq is naturally characterized by the ousting of Saddam Hussein’s terror regime, but things are far from fine; a serious political chaos is still plaguing the country. The exceptionally conflict-incapacitated situation originates from the failed policies of the US-led coalition after the invasion, but also from the seemingly endless conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims, an enormous tearing force that is continuing to poison the whole region.

The US’ and its allies’ war against Iraq had devastating consequences, with hundreds of thousands of killed and millions made refugees; the degree of cruelty and suffering we can hardly imagine. Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship was ousted in May 2003 and immediately various Sunni Muslim rebel groups popped up, containing national and foreign Jihadists including Al-Qaeda and “Baahtists”, i.e. Sunnites connected to Saddam’s old military and security service.

A nearly uncountable number of Sunnite (and a few Shiite) militias were created in connection to Saddam’s downfall, all with the purpose of conducting armed resistance against the coalition forces – and against each other. Consequently, the blood bath would continue with undiminished strength for years to come.

The US’ dissolution of the Baath regime and the Iraqi army and its refusal to allow Baath politicians to take part in the Iraq Governing Council, destabilized the country since the Baathists had to choose armed resistance and terrorism as methods for gaining influence.

The Shiite Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) emerged in March 2004 as the US military closed down the newspaper of the Sadrist Movement (a Shiite political party) due to alleged anti US propaganda. The movement was led by the religious leader Muqtada Al-Sadr who is said to be a distant relative to Prophet Mohammed.

Following a deal with the US to cease all armed resistance Al-Sadr got to keep his freedom and continue the political process. Skirmishes kept occurring on several occasions however, also after Sadr’s departure from the movement’s armed branch.

At last the remaining warriors put down their guns, but left were the large number of Sunnite rebel groups, one more politically extreme than the other. Iraq, that during the Saddam years didn’t contain any Islamist terrorism at all, had now become one of the largest terrorist hubs in the world.

Thus, following the ousting of Saddam Hussein the coalition forces got tangled up in a full-blown civil war. City by city they had to conquer through massive military interventions, from Basra in the South to Kirkuk in the North, through Nasiriya, Najaf, Fallujah, Samarra and Tikrit. The operations resulted in heavy coalition losses while the rebels lost even more troops. But as always, it was the civilian population that had to suffer the greatest number of deaths in the combats for control of the Iraqi cities.

In June 2004 the US installed a Shiite-led interim government according to the Shiite majority in the country, and this increased the armed resistance from Sunni groups even further. In May 2005 a transit government was shaped following public elections and its main task was to create a new constitution. The constitutional committee was dominated by Shiites but also contained Sunni parties. In May 2006 it was finally replaced by the first permanent Iraqi government since the invasion and it was installed after the public elections that had taken place in December 2004.

The armed Shiite resistance basically ceased during 2005 while the disparate Sunni rebels continued their armed struggles. Deadly attacks also occurred between Shia and Sunni groups, clashes that had been going on ever since the fall of the Saddam regime, and in 2006 the full-blown civil war between the groups finally broke out.

The escalated sectarian conflict was a direct result of the US-led invasion and Saddam Hussein’s fall, where the power vacuum after the Baath regime provoked a sensationally bloody war that entirely followed sectarian lines. Saddam’s Sunni regime (1979-2003) maintained a system of extreme repression against the Shiite majority, punitive tactics that had created a strong animosity towards the Sunnis.

The incident that actually ignited the war was the destruction of an important Shiite holy place in Samarra, an attack that was carried out by a Sunni militia that is believed to be linked to Al-Qaeda. The incident triggered numerous Shiite counter attacks against Sunnis and death squads murdered hundreds of Sunni Muslims throughout Iraq, events that in their turn provoked further Sunni counter attacks. The spiral of violence was a fact and the US military had clearly lost control of the situation. In the coming months, the civil war killed 100 people per day in Bagdad alone. Most victims were civilians with a total of some 30 000 killed and 370 000 turned refugees in the large-scale ethnic cleansing that took place all around the country throughout the war.

At last, by the end of 2007 the violence had diminished and the reasons were several: the ethnic cleansing of Sunni and Shia areas reduced the possibilities for clashes, new tactics from the rebel groups that meant avoiding open confrontations with the US military, and a unified effort from the Iraqi and US militaries that strongly increased their number of troops in the country.

Iraq on its way towards a new civil war

Today the sectarian violence is again on the rise and several sources conclude that Iraq once again is on its way towards a full-scale civil war. The tensions have been provoked by the Shiite-dominated government’s hard policies towards Sunni Muslim groups, like for instance the imprisonment of the Sunni finance minister and his staff, and the helicopter attack against Sunni demonstrators in April this year (2013) that killed 56 people.

In May this year alone hundreds of people were killed in attacks with sectarian features, and Shia and Sunni Muslims are now avoiding each other’s neighborhoods. The Daily Star Newspaper in Lebanon stated in May that 1500 Iraqis had lost their lives so far this year.

Before fleeing Iraqis could escape into Syria but with the ongoing civil war there they no longer have anywhere to go. The two conflicts are deeply intertwined since the Iraqi Sunni minority has been inspired by the Sunni revolt in Syria, and many Sunni Iraqis have crossed the border to fight with the rebels against President Assad. Simultaneously many Iraqi Shiites are fighting on the regime side on Syrian territory. Elements among Iraq’s politicians and Western media now state that Iraq is on its way towards a new abyss, towards a civil war similar to that 2006-07 or even worse towards the complete catastrophe that afflicted Syria.

Today the Iraqi government has no one to negotiate with, there is no serious part that is ready to mediate and the regime is itself deeply involved in the conflict, in Iraq but also in Syria. The last the increasingly authoritarian government wishes for is a power seizing of an extremist Sunni rebel group in the neighboring country, and therefore it actively supports Assad in the war against the rebels.

The whole region can thus be on its way towards a sectarian war where Syria, Iran, Iraq and Russia stand on one side with Iraqi/Syrian Sunni rebels on the other, backed by the rich Gulf States and the Western powers. In order to solve the conflict in Iraq the International Community must think in wider terms than limiting itself to just Iraq and start to involve the region as a whole. This is necessary since the conflicts are highly intertwined; almost every nation in the realm supports this rebel group or that only to favor its own interests, activities that pour even more fuel on the fire and that lead to further escalation of the local conflicts.

Since the American soldiers have left Iraq an extensive foreign peacekeeping force might be needed to stabilize the country, if not a changed attitude can be percieved from the Iraqi government as well as from the armed groups very soon. This would demand unity and political will from the big powers, i.e. the permanent members of the UN Security Council, but this seems unlikely today. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the militias that favor Jihad including Al-Qaeda would ever accept a development towards democracy and economic development in Iraq.

But a military solution alone is not likely in the long run. Even if the Iraqi government could be pressured into showing will and effort to develop its country towards democracy, pluralism and economic development for all its ethnic groups, a negotiated solution is currently looking distant.

A lasting solution for Iraq’s (and the whole region’s) conflicts thus demands a combination of good wills and positive factors that involve all the parties on the ground, the regional players and the big powers in the UN Security Council. Consequently, a solution must be worked out synchronized and involve all levels – local, regional and global. This sounds like a utopia but is certainly an absolute necessity to reach success in ending the war, in Iraq as well as in the Middle East as a whole.

Iraq war

Filip Ericsson


New York Times:



The Week:

The Independent:

International Crisis Group:


Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi): Shiite; led by the religious leader Muqtada Al-Sadr (relative to Prophet Muhammed). The militia is the military arm of the political party the Sadrist Movement that emerged as the US-led coalition closed down the party’s newspaper due to alleged anti US propaganda in 2004. Resumed the political process after deal with the US.

Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq: Shiite; Iraqi militia/resistance movement. Fought against the US following the invasion 2003, supported by Iran.

Kata’ib Hezbollah: Shiite; Iraqi militia/resistance movement. Fought against the US following the invasion 2003, supported by Iran.

Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura: Sunni; rebel/terror group. Waged war against Shiites through attacks against civilians and politicians, and against the occupation forces.

Foreign Jihadists: Sunni; Several groups of holy warriors from neighbouring countries.

”Baathists”: Sunni; Several groups containing previous army officers during Saddam era and Jihadists. Started armed resistance following Saddam’s fall. Allied to Al-Qaeda.

Al-Qaeda: Sunni; Iraqi arm of the terror network that was created by an Iraqi extremist (al-Zarqawi). Got killed in an American air raid in 2006. Waged war against “all” Shiites and the US.



Islamic Army in Iraq (Al-Jaish Al-Islami fil-Iraq)

Jaish al-Mujahideen

Mujahideen Battalions of the Salafi Group of Iraq

Islamic Salafist Boy Scout Battalions (Kataab Ashbal Al Islam Al Salafi)

Mohammad’s Army (aka Jeish Muhammad)



Islamic State of Iraq (till Nov ’06, Mujahideen Shura Council)

Jeish al-Fatiheen (Conquering Army)

Jund al-Sahaba (Soldiers of the Sahaba)

Katbiyan Ansar Al-Tawhid wal Sunnah (Brigades of Monotheism and Religious Conservatism)

Jeish al-Taiifa al-Mansoura (Army of the Victorious Sect)

Monotheism Supporters Brigades

Saray al-Jihad Group

al-Ghuraba Brigades

al-Ahwal Brigades

Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (ceased?)

Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna

Ansar al-Islam

Black Banner Organization (ar-Rayat as-Sawda)

Asaeb Ahl el-Iraq (Factions of the People of Iraq)

Wakefulness and Holy War

Abu Theeb’s group

Jaish Abi Baker’s group


Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (Naqshabandiya Army)

Fedayeen Saddam (”Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice”)

The Return (al-Awda)

General Command of the Armed Forces, Resistance and Liberation in Iraq

Popular Army

New Return

Patriotic Front

Political Media Organ of the Ba‘ath Party (Jihaz al-Iilam al-Siasi lil hizb al-Ba’ath)

Popular Resistance for the Liberation of Iraq

Al-Abud Network


Abu Deraa’s Mahdi Army faction

Badr Organization (originally Badr Brigade/Bader Corps)

The armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (SCIRI).

Sheibani Network

Soldiers of Heaven

Promised Day Brigades

Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Brigades)


Awakening groups

1920 Revolution Brigade

Jaish al-Rashideen

Islamic Front for the Iraqi Resistance (al-Jabha al-Islamiya lil-Moqawama al-Iraqiya – JAMI)

Hamas of Iraq


Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK.

Kurdistan Freedom Falcons or TAK.

Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan or PJAK.


Qaraqosh Protection Committee (Assyrian)

Malik Al-Tawus Troop

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