Iran lurks behind the rise of sectarian violence in Iraq

Published by The Hill

By Heshmat Alavi

In the heat of the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, a Sunni extremist group that has invaded large parts of Iraq and Syria, a recent report by Amnesty International gives a stark warning that not addressing extremism in its entirety and making the wrong decisions can lead to the deepening of the sectarian rift in Iraq and eventually trigger an irreversible disaster.

The document, which is based on thorough research in war-torn areas in Iraq, gives horrendous accounts of crimes recently committed in Iraq by Shiite extremist groups against the background of the fight against the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS or ISIL). Groups sanctioned, backed and funded by the Iranian regime, and agents of the administration of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been targeting the Sunni community seemingly in reprisal or revenge for Islamic State attacks and at times also to extort money from the families of those they have abducted.

In most cases, victims are arrested under broad daylight by militiamen wearing uniforms, and are murdered when huge amounts of cash are extorted from their families. Their bodies usually turn up in morgues a few days later, with their hands tied behind their backs and bullet wounds to the head.

Where not directly involved, government forces have mostly facilitated the crimes and allowed the groups to act with impunity.

Although the report only accounts for events that have taken place in past months, what it contains is nothing new and is reminiscent of the 2006-2007 sectarian conflagration instigated by the Iranian regime’s terrorist Quds Force, which engulfed Iraq for more than a year and brought the lives of thousands of innocent civilians to a violent end. It also resembles crimes committed directly by Iraqi security forces during the brutal suppression of the peaceful protests in the town of Hawija in 2013. The murders and abductions are also similar to the brutal September 1, 2013 massacre, in which Iraqi special forces stormed Camp Ashraf in Diyala province, murdering 52 Iranian refugees residing in the camp and abducting seven others. According to an independent probe, the heinous crime was planned and coordinated by the highest authorities in Iraq’s Prime Ministry Office and the Iranian regime’s embassy in Baghdad.

This is a reminder that the mirror image of the violence caused by the Islamic State is the savagery and brutality of Iran’s proxy terrorist militias in Iraq and its agents within the Iraqi political and security structure. It also proves once again that, regardless of any professed commitments or propaganda by its authorities and agents, the Iranian regime has no intention of seeing a durable and lasting peace established in Iraq – or in any other country in the region, for that matter – and it is following an agenda that is in total conflict with the goals of the international coalition currently fighting the Islamic State. There are already troubling reports about the Iranian regime trying to sneak its way back into the Iraqi government through paid agents and longtime servants.

The first sectarian conflict in Iraq was only brought to an end by a large effort involving the surge of a large contingent of U.S. troops and local Awakening forces. But in 2010, after Maliki secured his second term as Iraq’s Prime Minister with the help of Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds force and enforcer of Iran’s foreign policy in Iraq and Syria, Maliki gave unprecedented leeway to the Iranian regime, empowering Iran’s Shiite proxy terrorist groups and officially integrating them into the government. Violence against the Sunni community became a common trait of Maliki’s domestic policy, enforced through militia groups and Iraqi security forces (which were gradually purged of Sunnis after Maliki assumed power).

The widening of the sectarian gap eventually created the perfect environment for the Islamic State to establish its roots and flourish and subsequently wreak havoc in regions that had fallen out with the central government.

Iraqis despise the Islamic State and its outdated and brutal mindset, but when forced to select between being dominated by either Shiite or Sunni extremists, they will be left with no choice than to flock to groups that are less likely to harm them, a situation that will exacerbate the sectarian divide and push the country deeper into internal strife. Therefore, a lopsided campaign that will only address half of the problem will not remedy the situation; weakening one extremist group to the benefit of other extremist and fundamentalist elements will at best patch things up temporarily, but will in the long run yield disastrous results and bring us back to square one.

The U.S.-led coalition must make the right choice while it can and target sectarianism and extremism in Iraq as a whole, which means Iranian regime and its proxies must be considered aspart of the problem, not the solution. Iran-backed militia groups in Iraq must be reined in and dismantled in tandem with the fight against the Islamic State, and the Iranian regime must be ultimately evicted from Iraq. Otherwise the current international effort will only end up putting power back into the hands of Shiite extremists who are no less savage than their “apparent” Islamic State rivals, bringing Iraq back to the beginning of the cycle that gave rise to the Islamic State. In that case, the international community and the Iraqi people will be forced to pay a much bigger price, both in resources and blood, to set things right again.

Alavi is an Iranian political activist and analyst who has recently fled the country. He tweets at@HeshmatAlavi

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