Will Iraq burn again?

A decade after the US-led invasion, could Syria, Iran, and sectarian fury destroy a hard-won peace?
April 24, 2013

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February: a Sunni anti-government protest in Fallujah calling for the ousting of the Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. The placards bear images of protestors killed on a previous march © Azhar Shallal/AFP/Getty Images

Abu Ahmed was an unshaven ruin of a man with a chin that rolled downward to meet his rising gut at chest level, a coating of uneven steel grey stubble that ran across his face and scalp in a patchy No 2 cut, and bloodstained eyes so shot by shisha smoke that the irises somehow infused outwards into the whites. A Baghdadi cab driver, somewhere between 55 and 65 years old, I knew nothing more about him than that name, and had hired him merely for the return journey to the Iraqi capital from Ramadi, provincial capital of al-Anbar province.

He owed me nothing but the ride. I still owed him his fare, however, at the point when we were arrested together by Iraqi troops on the highway outside Fallujah. Passed quickly out of the hands of regular grunts and into those of military intelligence officers, I realised that things were taking a turn for the worst when they muttered the word “spy,” took my mug shot, opened a case file, consigned my passport and phones into a police evidence bag, and arrested me pending further interrogation at Baghdad’s intelligence headquarters.

Noticing that my fortunes were on the wane, and regarding himself as a purely accidental detainee with better things to do elsewhere, Abu Ahmed interrupted an interrogating officer to ask me for immediate cash settlement of his fare. The request made the officer laugh in a knowing, unsettling kind of way, implying I was not going to be freed any time soon.

Yet for all his physical decay and barefaced financial sangfroid, Abu Ahmed said something magnificent I shall never forget. There came a point in the whole arrest shenanigan when a general, the commander of the Iraqi army’s 1st Division, became involved. He was a compact, grizzled figure and swaggered around, hands held behind his back, with the kind of special self-delighting arrogance peculiarly unique to generals.

“You, man!” he barked suddenly, addressing Abu Ahmed, who sat slumped in a chair staring abstractedly at the proceedings. “Are you Sunni or Shia?”

For the first time in our acquaintance I saw some kind of emotion ripple across Abu Ahmed’s face. It began as surprise, ran through to anger and then settled close to contempt. His back straightened and his chins reared like those of an antagonised sea lion. A few seconds passed before he answered, during which time he stared evenly into the general’s eyes.

“With respect, general,” the taxi driver eventually replied, with the tone of strained patience awarded by a parent to an unruly child, “that is the wrong question to put to an Iraqi!”

I could have kissed him.


It would be grossly unfair to use an arrest in Iraq in March as a frame upon which to hang the profile of the entire country. As arrests go, it was just a 24 hour affair that ended the next morning when we were handed over to British diplomats in Baghdad. Yet every detail—the intense suspicion shown by the military over basic interviews I had conducted among local Sunni communities the previous day, the nakedness of the general’s question, the top level intervention needed to secure our release—illuminated an apparatus in which arrest and interrogation were still the default settings of a centralised, authoritarian system that was quick to incarcerate but slow to free. Moreover, “Iraqi,” the binding term of identity for the tribes of Mesopotamia, seemed to have been slain somewhere in the wings.

Ten years after the US-led invasion, these issues go to the heart of the questions hanging over the country’s future. There is much that is far better now than it ever was under Saddam Hussein. Yet two shadows loom long over Iraq. The first is cast by the authoritarianism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which threatens to strangle Iraq’s democratic aspirations and could lead it back into a new era of totalitarian rule. The second, larger and darker, is thrown by the threat of another civil war erupting between Sunni and Shia communities, triggered by the Syrian conflict and inflamed by Iran’s growing sway over the region.

Contrary to the widespread perception among western publics that the war in Iraq was “wrong” and that all that has happened since is therefore likely to be “wrong” too, the lot of a clear majority of Iraqis today is measurably improved. Many have a better quality of life, greater freedom of expression and more opportunity than during Saddam’s era.

Even Baghdad, though still a troubled city, is alive again with crowded restaurants, bazaars, the occasional bar, liquor stores and, yes, bordellos too. Ignore the checkpoints and hideous traffic congestion and you could almost be in any other Middle Eastern city. Businessmen claim more freedom of movement than ever. They can borrow from international creditors and transfer money abroad with greater ease than at any time before or after Saddam’s downfall.

The killing has stabilised. Figures collected by Iraq Body Count, a project which has compiled a database on civilian deaths through violence in Iraq, give a total of 4,573 for 2012. That is down from more than 29,000 civilian deaths in 2006, and the trend suggests an entrenched low level war, focused on a few specific provinces, that has changed little in intensity since 2009.

In the north, the Kurds have never had it so good. Their regional capital, Erbil, is now the fifth biggest centre of investment in the whole of the Middle East and their economy is booming. The Shia areas of southern Iraq are at the edge of a similar economic renaissance. Proven Iraqi oil reserves of 150bn barrels suggest that, providing the government manages to link improved oil production with greater distribution of oil wealth, the future for most Iraqis could be very rosy indeed.

The arrogance, cruelty and ineptitude of the occupation has left scars but, with both foreign occupiers and Saddam gone, Iraqis are now finding that many of the problems they face are home grown rather than related to decisions made by George W Bush or Tony Blair a decade ago.

Yet despite the peace and prosperity in the north and south, the centre and west of Iraq remain sick, blighted by a malaise that could yet plunge the country back into a new era of crippling instability: sectarianism.

“Shia or Sunni?” No wonder Abu Ahmed was roused to such indignation. Unusually among Arab countries, the majority of Iraq’s population—about 60 per cent—belongs to the Shia branch of Islam, but under Saddam was run by an elite drawn from the Sunni community, less than a third of the total. When Saddam was toppled, and Shias realised that they would form the majority of the new government under the constitution drawn up by the US, the abrupt reversal of roles ignited savage violence. The current government, predominantly Shia in composition, includes a cabinet in which Maliki personally runs the defence and interior ministries in the absence of filled posts, exacerbating charges of autocracy and sectarianism.

It was no coincidence that we were detained driving on our way back to Baghdad after visiting al-Anbar. Historically a Sunni heartland resistant to outside authority, this enormous governorate—Iraq’s largest—spreads westward from Fallujah to the country’s borders with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Between 2004 and 2005 the Americans nearly lost control of al-Anbar altogether, such was the ferocity of the fighting. By the time they eventually left Iraq in December 2011 more than 1,300 US soldiers had been killed trying to quell the Anbari insurgency.

Paradoxically, al-Anbar was also pivotal to the eventual success of the US “surge” of troops. In late 2005 leading Sunni sheikhs, angered by the radical Takfiri ideology imported by foreign jihadist fighters entering Iraq, began to turn their tribes against al Qaeda militants. Forming the “Anbar Awakening,” the sheikhs developed a coalition of Sunni militias that for the most part stopped killing US troops and instead attacked fighters belonging to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The movement spread across Iraq. Combined with the US surge between 2007 and 2009 it dramatically reduced the insurgency tempo and allowed America to withdraw in 2011, leaving Iraq in a position of relative stability.

Now, however, trouble is brewing in al-Anbar again; the province that has for so long presaged Iraq’s future has become the fault line of new tension between Sunnis and Shia.

The unrest began late last year with a wave of protests after the alleged rape of a Sunni woman in jail and the arrest of a Sunni politician’s bodyguards. Thousands of Sunnis gathered in Fallujah and Ramadi, demanding an end to corruption, detention without trial, human rights abuses and government sectarianism that they felt made Sunnis second class citizens. The protests spread to other provinces, and became a focus for every Sunni complaint against the Maliki government.

Some of these were the complaints of any Iraqi, sick of high-level graft, excessive bureaucracy and the failure to provide infrastructure and amenities adequately reflecting the $58bn spent by the US on reconstruction. Ministerial rackets and extortion are endemic, hobbling efforts to rebuild: in 2012 Iraq ranked a dismal 169th out of 176 countries in the index collated by Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organisation.

Other resentments were voiced in sharp partisan bitterness. Among those I met in Ramadi were two brothers, Sunnis who had fled Baghdad a week earlier after their 24-year-old sibling, Othman Ahmed Hamadi, was murdered by a Shia death squad. He had been gunned down in al-Jihad, a predominantly Shia suburb of the capital that had been the frequent scene of sectarian killings during the US occupation. An envelope containing a Kalashnikov bullet and a note bearing the insignia of the Shia Jaish al-Moqtar militia, with the word “LEAVE” written above it, had been delivered to the family’s shop a few days before. The family reported it to the local police but nothing was done. Then one morning a taxi cab pulled up outside containing three masked men. They shot Othman six times using silenced pistols and left him dead on the shop floor.

“The killers drove through an army checkpoint to kill Othman,” the dead man’s brother, Ammar, insisted. “The soldiers there were all Shia. They let it happen. The army has become just like another militia. How can we have any faith in them?”

However, that accusation of complicity, common among protestors, ignores the fact that the Shia still suffer the worst casualties in Iraq’s violence. Although the politically-related death count has fallen this year, averaging around 250 victims a month in the first three months, casualties are still more likely to be Shia civilians killed by Sunnis than vice versa.

Moreover, despite the shooting of five Sunni protestors in Fallujah by troops in January, Maliki’s Shia-dominated forces have so far responded to the Sunni protests with a restraint unimaginable during Saddam’s era, when tanks and machine guns would have instantly wiped out the tented protest camps set up in al-Anbar, Nineveh and Saladin.

Better evidence of Iraq’s new authoritarianism lies in the widespread accounts of summary arrest and extra-judicial detention. After nightfall in Ramadi I met Sheikh Farkhar Khalifa Mohammed, a Sunni religious leader, who claimed to have documented 3,078 ongoing cases of illegal detention in government jails, the majority involving Sunni men.

He opened a file and ran his finger down lists of names, which he alleged included every illegal detainee, and provided the locations of five detention centres in which torture, including electrocution and suffocation, was used systematically on prisoners. One of his cases involved a university professor from Ramadi sodomised in jail by guards with a truncheon.

“In Saddam’s era torture was no secret,” he told me. “It was part of the regime’s image and was conducted in prisons; everyone knew about [it]. Now it goes on in a more hidden fashion, part of a system including special courts and masked statistics.”

If his numbers are impossible to verify, official statistics are similarly opaque, muddled by a justice system that—10 years after the invasion—foreign diplomats still describe as “a shambles.”

According to Iraqi government figures, as of 31st December there were 20,634 prisoners in Iraqi jails both awaiting trial and under sentence. These supposedly included 4,630 on insurgency-related charges, but no political prisoners. However, critics claim that Article 4 of the contentious anti-terrorism law, the provision most frequently invoked by the Iraqi judiciary, is open to political abuse.

Its detractors describe it as a tool for the Shia repression of Sunnis; its supporters say it is essential legislation in containing the Sunni insurgency. It has certainly been used to issue warrants against leading Sunni officials in a number of highly politicised incidents. Iraq’s former vice-president, Tariq-al-Hashemi, a vocal critic of Maliki, was sentenced to death in absentia last September for alleged terrorist offences under Article 4. Just three months later, Article 4 was again cited in the arrest of bodyguards belonging to Sunni finance minister Rafi al-Issawi, another critic of Maliki, who subsequently resigned during a protest in Ramadi, saying that the government had “no respect for Iraq’s blood or people.”

A few days after I met Farkhar, Amnesty International released an 82-page report, “Iraq: A Decade of Abuses,” which confirmed that since Saddam’s overthrow the Iraqi government has become one of the world’s leading executioners and presides over a prison system in which arbitrary arrest, detention without trial, torture and forced confession are systemic.

The report noted that while the current situation is not comparable to the abuse in Iraqi prisons during Saddam’s era, the practice of mistreating and sometimes killing detainees has now become an entrenched part of the Iraqi detention system. At least 237 Iraqis died in custody between 2008 and 2011, mostly of causes that could not be officially determined. Many of these are suspected of being tortured to death. A total of 447 prisoners have been hanged since Iraq reinstated the death penalty in 2005, including 129 executions in 2012, and Amnesty noted that currently “hundreds” of Iraqis are on death row.

“Is this really the democracy we deserve?” mused Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman al-Dulaimi, the crown prince of al-Anbar’s largest tribe. Formerly a key figure in the Awakening movement against al Qaeda, Ali Hatem is now a central figurehead in the protests against Maliki. “No security, no political stability,” he continued. “Unemployment, arrest, abuse.”

Ali Hatem had once been close to Maliki, but later accused the government of exploiting him as a Sunni to make their coalition appear less sectarian. Now the relationship is openly hostile. “He wouldn’t have the balls to arrest me,” Ali Hatem told me of Maliki, “but he might send a suicide bomber to kill me: it’d be easier.”

We sat talking in a reception room in his compound in Ramadi, regularly interrupted as a succession of men appeared with whispered messages. Ali Hatem listened carefully to each. It appeared that he was being updated on an ambush the previous day, in which Sunni insurgents in al-Anbar had killed 40 Syrian soldiers who had fled from fighting across the border, and were in the custody of Iraqi security forces. “Honestly, we don’t need to be involved in the Syria issue,” he said. “We are for the peaceful resolution of our demands. But, under Maliki’s pressure, these situations are pushed together. There will inevitably be more incidents like this.” It seemed a slightly disingenuous remark, given that the Dulaimi tribe straddles the border with Syria and has a major stake in the outcome of the war there. Nevertheless, the combination of civil unrest in al-Anbar and cross-border overspill from the Syrian war is an explosive mix, regardless of whichever entity was “pushing them together.”

Indeed, the Syrian civil war—and Iran’s role within that conflict—threatens Iraq’s future more than the rest of the country’s ills put together, hardening Maliki’s authoritarianism and fermenting sectarian hatred. Without Syria’s impact, Iraq’s Sunni and Shia could probably rub along together, the majority too horrified and exhausted by the savagery of the sectarian violence during the US occupation ever to wish to return to it.

Syria, though, threatens to rend the country once more, its own sectarian rifts inflaming those in Iraq. Unlike Iraq, the majority of its people are Sunni—though it is ruled by a Shia minority from the Alawite sect, headed by President Bashar al-Assad. Hundreds—probably thousands—of Iraqis have already gone to Syria to fight: the Shia on behalf of the Assad regime, the Sunnis on the side of the rebels. Iraq’s veteran foreign affairs minister, Hoshyar Zebari, warned me in March that if Assad falls in Damascus Iraq will probably become a battlefield again.

Within Iraq, a storm of reciprocal accusations shows how much Syria is now inflaming existing wounds. Maliki’s government lumps disaffected Anbaris, Jabhat al-Nusra and al Qaeda in the same category. One Iraqi intelligence officer told me that he was convinced that Ali Hatem himself had travelled to Syria to enlist support from the rebels against Maliki. In April, the leadership of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” al Qaeda’s latest embodiment in the country, announced a merger with Jabhat al-Nusra, further muddying the waters. In turn, many Anbaris denounce Maliki’s government as the stooge of Iran, a predominantly Shia country, whose direct military involvement in Syria further complicates Iraq’s chances of stability.

“Our main enemy is not Maliki, but Iran!,” spat Ali Hatem with a rare flash of anger. “Maliki is just a tool in the hand of Iran.” And in many ways, he is right.

A gold shop in Erbil, northern Iraq, March 2013. The city is now the "fifth biggest centre of investment in the whole of the Middle East" © Peter Nicholls/The Times

Bush and Blair cannot be held responsible for Iraq’s current levels of corruption, the government’s authoritarianism, the sectarian composition of every major political party, or the Syrian civil war. In one major respect, though, their actions in toppling Saddam created a strategic source of instability for the country they were attempting to rebuild. By taking power from a Sunni minority and handing it to the Shia majority it was inevitable that the US-led coalition would also hand Iran a hugely enhanced power base in the region.

Today Iran has more influence in Iraq than any other foreign power. Posters of its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Baghdad’s Shia districts are more than merely symbolic. Considered alongside the huge number of casualties—perhaps as many as 375,000 dead—suffered by Iraq during its eight year fight against Iran, they are truly revolutionary manifestations.

Other signs of Iran’s influence are more subliminal. One evening in Baghdad in February I met Amer Taei, a leading figure in an Iranian-backed Shia militant group in Iraq, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. The group is responsible for a number of high profile attacks against British and US forces which included shooting down a British Lynx helicopter and an RAF Hercules. In 2007 the group seized IT consultant Peter Moore and his four British bodyguards in a raid on the Iraqi finance ministry. Only Moore, freed in December 2009 in exchange for the release of the militia’s imprisoned leadership, survived his captivity. The group still boast of Moore’s kidnapping as a triumph.

“We held five British hostages. Four died so we used the bodies to release many. With the bodies we made the US and Britain kneel before our demands,” boasted Taei, who was himself traded from prison for the body of one of Moore’s bodyguards. Ostensibly Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq are now part of the political mainstream in Iraq, having eschewed violence for politics. Yet they maintain close links with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Iraqi government insiders say the group has never decommissioned its weapon caches.

The links between Maliki’s government and Tehran have recently attracted public criticism from western diplomats, angered by Baghdad’s consent to the use of Iraqi air space by Iranian flights taking military personnel and equipment to Syria. Tehran has dramatically escalated military support of Assad this year and much of this air traffic passes over Iraq. Diplomats say that Iran Air and Mahan Air, both blacklisted by the US Treasury for supporting Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, are the principal offenders and that the flights continue to use Iraq’s airspace despite Baghdad’s assurances to the contrary.

But if these links cause discomfort for the western powers that supported the invasion and thought that Iraq’s new government would back their aims, many Sunnis in al-Anbar see Baghdad’s involvement with Iran, combined with Tehran’s military support of the Syrian regime, as provocation already worthy of a new war.

“We’ll avoid war with the US or any of our neighbours, except Israel,” Ali Hatem told me, his jaw tight. “But we welcome the war with Iran!”


It was the morning after that conversation that I was arrested, waved down at a highway checkpoint barely an hour after leaving Ali Hatem’s residence. By nightfall we were being driven as detainees towards Baghdad for further questioning at the capital’s central intelligence headquarters.

“Better for you that you don’t know where you are going”, a leering intelligence officer kept repeating in the car, between reminding us of just where that would be. The mention of the place had reduced both Abu Ahmed and my interpreter to misery.

“Welcome to the new Iraq,” the latter murmured beside me as billboard portraits of Maliki emerged one after another in the vehicle’s headlights, then fell back into the gloom. Just then, as if any reminder of the reach of the prime minister’s power were needed, the officer’s phone rang. It was Maliki’s office, who had been alerted to our plight by the British embassy. Rather than spend the night in an interrogation cell, a ministerial aide ordered that we were instead to be held in an army barracks at Fallujah and handed over to British diplomats in Baghdad the next day.

Abu Ahmed fell instantly asleep in our shared barrack room. He snored thunderously and I hissed at him many times in the darkness. Somehow, though, I never could bring myself to ask such an old school Iraqi the question which had been playing on my mind ever since the general first asked it of him. Maybe I feared his contempt too much, or perhaps I did not want to buy in to the country’s sectarian paradigm too. Even so, it made me curious.

Was he Shia or Sunni?