Largely ignored by the global media, Iraq today stands on the brink of a renewed Sunni insurgency. The emergent insurgency in Iraq is following the same sectarian pattern as the civil war in Syria and the growing violence in Lebanon. It also involves many of the same local and regional players.
The rising violence in Iraq is not, however, simply the result of a spillover from the Syrian war. It derives also from internal Iraqi dynamics. But these are themselves in significant ways comparable to the Syrian and Lebanese situations.
Over 9000 people were killed in fighting in Iraq in 2013. This is not yet up to the levels of violence just prior to the surge, in the very worst days of the insurgency against U.S. forces and the sectarian bloodletting that accompanied it. But it’s the highest since 2007. This year, more than 2000 people have already lost their lives as a result of political violence in Iraq.
As of today, a coalition of Sunni insurgent groups control the city of Fallujah in Iraq’s Anbar province west of Baghdad. The city of Ramadi remains partially in insurgent hands, though its southern districts have been re-conquered by government forces in recent days.
Nor is the violence confined to Anbar province. Rather, car bombings have become a near daily occurrence in Baghdad, and insurgent activity against Iraqi security forces and non-Sunni civilians is taking place in Nineveh, Mosul, Kirkuk and elsewhere in areas of high Sunni Arab population.
So who are these insurgents, and why have events in Iraq reached this crisis point?
As in Syria, a myriad of insurgent groups have emerged. But there are two main forces. These are ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and the Naqshbandi Army.
ISIS emerged in Iraq in 2004, and for a time constituted the official franchise of al-Qaeda in the country. Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who was killed by U.S. forces in 2005, it became renowned for its brutal methods.
ISIS experienced a resurgence during the Syrian civil war, and today it controls much of Raqqa province in eastern Syria, including Raqqa city.
In February, 2014, ISIS was “expelled” from al-Qaeda because of its insanely brutal methods in northern Syria, which have included, for example, execution of civilians for smoking, and for swearing.
This movement is now an active force on the insurgent council that now governs Falluja. Its fighters also rove freely in the vast deserts of western Anbar, making the desert highways unsafe for travelers and government forces.
The Naqshbandi Army is a very different, and somewhat bizarre group. It is headed by Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, a former high official in Saddam Hussein’s regime. Many of the Naqshbandi commanders and fighters are former officials or members of the Ba’ath party.
The Naqshbandis somewhat bizarrely combine their Ba’athist and pan-Arabist outlook with support for the Naqshabandi Sufi Muslim sect of Iraq, from which their name derives.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a UK based Iraqi researcher who has emerged as a leading analyst on the emergent Iraqi insurgency, cautions against dismissing the Naqshbandi outlook as a “total farce.”
Tamimi said in a recent interview that the Sufi orientation served to differentiate the Naqshbandi from the jihadi outlook of ISIS and other salafi groups. But he noted that the Ba’athist and Pan-Arab element is the dominant one, with the religious coloration perhaps an acknowledgement of the extent to which Iraqi society has become more religious in recent years.
In addition to these two groups, a variety of smaller militias are operating, including, notably, tribal forces previously associated with the “Sahwa” (Awakening) movement. This was the anti al-Qaeda trend whose emergence was a key element in the relative success of the U.S.-led surge in reducing violence after 2007.
So what lies behind the eruption of Sunni violence? I’ll explain on the next page.