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With Iraq on the Brink, a New Sunni Insurgency Emerges

The dawning insurgency is, on one level, the result of the increasingly sectarian  policies pursued by the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in recent years, which has gathered pace since the last withdrawal of U.S. forces in December of 2011.

Maliki has targeted senior Sunni politicians, forcing Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi into exile, and harassing Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi.

The increasing marginalization felt by the Iraqi Sunni Arab minority birthed a large protest movement in mid-2013.

Maliki’s uncompromising tactics against the protest movement in turn paved the way for the re-igniting of insurgency in January and February of this year.

Elections are due to take place in Iraq in April.  Some observers suspect that Maliki’s hard line against the Sunnis is in part intended to solidify Shia support for his party.

But the emergent violence in Iraq should also be seen in broader terms.  For Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime and its replacement by a Shia-led government represented an existential disaster -- the toppling of the Sunni domination which had pertained in the area since the birth of the modern Iraqi state, and for centuries preceding its emergence.

Maliki’s clumsy policies notwithstanding, a reaction against the new Shia dominance was probably inevitable.

The Sunni uprising against the Assad regime undoubtedly provided an impetus to Iraq’s Sunni Arab population, showing that resistance was possible, even if in the Syrian context Sunni Arabs form a majority of the population, while in Iraq they constitute between 15-20% of the population.

In this regard, the Maliki government’s active and vital support for the Assad regime should be factored into the equation as an additional factor fueling Sunni anger.

Maliki has made Iraqi airspace and highways available for the transport of vital Iranian weaponry to the Assads. He has also turned a blind eye to the flow of Iraqi Shia volunteers heading to Syria to engage on behalf of the regime.

ISIS, the main component of the emergent Iraqi insurgency, operates in a contiguous area crossing the porous border between Iraq and Syria.

So in addition to its internal dynamics and origins, the Iraqi situation also constitutes a single front in a broader sectarian war.

Iraq, a decade after the western invasion that toppled Saddam, stands on the brink of renewed sectarian conflict.  The U.S. response so far has been to relate to Maliki as the legitimate government of Iraq, and to supply limited aid (including several hundred Hellfire missiles) to his "counter-insurgency."

This is a misreading of the picture.  Maliki, though elected,  is engaged in sectarian warfare no less than are his Sunni opponents.

The Iraqi situation is driven by sectarian realities, Iranian interference and the weakness of any unifying, state identity or structure. Thus the reality of Mid-Eastern dynamics, in 2014 and for the foreseeable future.