Written by Ryan Mauro
Yesterday, Iraq was hit with another wave of bombings as sectarian strife continues to dramatically increase following the withdrawal of U.S. forces. At least 70 Shiites were killed, presumably by Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Across the Middle East, tension and bloodshed between the region’s various communities is increasing, prompting Turkey to warn of a new Cold War.
Three of the explosions took place in Sadr City, the Shiite stronghold in Baghdad of Moqatada al-Sadr. Another two explosions happened in Kadhimiyah district and near Nasiriyah, targeting Shiites celebrating the holiday of Arbaeen by traveling to Karbala. On December 22, 60 Iraqis were killed in terrorist attacks in Baghdad.
The attacks come as the Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is locked in an intense political struggle with his Sunni rivals. Al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, accusing him of being involved in terrorism. He also called for the sacking of Deputy Prime Minister Saleh el-Mutlaq, another Sunni, after he accused al-Maliki of acting like a dictator worse than Saddam Hussein. Al-Hashimi is now avoiding arrest in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The al-Iraqiya bloc, led by secular Shiite Iyad Allawi, is allied with the Sunnis and is boycotting parliament. Al-Maliki is threatening to replace its representatives in the parliament. Some of al-Maliki’s opponents are calling for his replacement. Moqtada al-Sadr’s bloc, which supports al-Maliki, wants parliament to be dissolved and new elections to be held.
One concern is that Moqtada al-Sadr will make good on his threat to reassemble his Mehdi Army militia, which would prompt the Sunnis to act in a similar fashion. The Iranian-backed cleric has threatened to target any American personnel remaining in Iraq this year, including contractors. In an interesting twist, he iscriticizing another militia, Asaib al-Haq (League of the Righteous), accusing it of killing Iraqis and being an Iranian puppet. The group just agreed to give up violence and pursue its aims solely through political means.
Sectarian tension is increasing in Syria at the same as it is in Iraq. The Bashar Assad regime draws its top officials from the Allawite minority, generally estimated to be about 13% of the entire population. This minority is sticking by the regime, likely fearing that it will be massacred if it falls. The Christian minority, about 10% of the population, is doing the same. The failure of the Allawites to turn on the regime is enraging the rest of the population that supports the revolution. An opposition figure named Mamoun al-Homsi angrily stated on December 20, “If the Allawites do not renounce Bashar Assad, we will turn Syria into their graveyard.”
The city of Homs is experiencing tremendous sectarian violence. Last month, 36 bodies were found dumped along the border of the Sunni and Allawite areas of the city. Some of them were decapitated and appeared to have been tortured. Opposition activists are reporting a cycle of murders and kidnappings. On December 20, five Iranian “engineers and technicians” were kidnapped in Homs, as were two more the following day. It is widely reported that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are playing a direct role on the ground in fighting the uprising.
The overall violence in Syria is increasing. The regime’s thugs, led by Allawites, often kill dozens of protesters and political opponents each day. The Free Syria Army, a force based in Turkey consisting of military defectors, carries out daily attacks. On Monday, the Free Syria Army captured two checkpoints and attacked a third, reportedly killing and captured dozens of regime loyalists. On December 23, two bombings in Damascus took place at headquarters for the security services, killing 44. It is unclear who the perpetrators were.
In Saudi Arabia, the Shiite minority in the oil-rich Eastern Province continues to demand better treatment. The Saudi government just issued arrest warrants for 23 more Shiites, accusing them of working for Iran. In Bahrain, the Shiite-majority population is again challenging the Sunni royal family. On Sunday, hundreds protested at the funeral for a protester who was killed that was only 15 years old. Clashes followed that included the use of rubber bullets and Molotov cocktails.
Senior Muslim Brotherhood theologian, Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, condemns the Bahraini Shiite protesters, saying, “There is no people’s revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one,” and that it is backed by “foreign powers,” meaning Iran and Hezbollah. In Yemen, Salafists and Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis often battle, with one clash killing 14 last month. In Syria, the Iranians back the regime while the Muslim Brotherhood backs the opposition. A split between the Islamist Sunnis and Islamist Shiites is very identifiable.
The sectarian clashes are catching the attention of the government of Turkey, which backs the Syrian opposition. Turkey seems to blame Iran for it. “Let me openly say that there are some willing to start a regional Cold War,” the Foreign Minister stated. “We are determined to prevent a regional Cold War,” he vowed.
“Sectarian regional tensions would be suicide for the whole region,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said.
It’s a frightening time to belong to an ethnic minority in the Middle East, and these tensions could quickly erupt as foreign powers jump in to support their brethren.