Yet another round in the 1,200 year old war between Shia and Sunni Islam is being fought in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. This round of the ancient succession dispute (over who should rule the entire Islamic world) kicked off in the 1980s, when Sunni Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein saw an opportunity as the Shia clergy in Iran overthrew the monarchy. It was a messy revolution and Saddam thought he could seize several major Iranian oil fields just across the border. That land grab failed and turned into a decade of war that caused over two million casualties and put the Shia clergy firmly in control of the Iranian government (which was supposed to become a democracy after the monarchy fell). The Iranian clerics saw this as an opportunity to cut the Sunni (80 percent of Moslems are Sunni and Saudi Arabia is sort of their leader) down to size. The Saudis had long feared this and that was why they supported keeping the Sunni minority in power in Iraq.
In 1990, the Saudis demanded that the American coalition organized to drive the Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait, not invade Iraq. This promise was no secret, but it made little sense to most Westerners (who knew little of the Sunni-Shia conflict). Thus the Saudis were not pleased when the Americans went into Iraq in 2003 and deposed Saddam and his Sunni dictatorship. After 1990, the Saudis agreed that Saddam was bad and said they would ease him out. After more than a decade of effort (and financing over a dozen assassination plots or coup attempts) Saddam was still in power. The Saudis thought if they could replace Saddam with another Sunni strongman all would be well but Saddam was extremely resilient. So were his Sunni followers, who kept fighting after 2003. But now Iran had an ally, rather than an adversary, in Iraq, where the Shia majority voted itself into power in 2005. For the first time in over five centuries the Shia were running this area once more.
Meanwhile, the new Iranian religious dictatorship had taken advantage of the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon to turn most of the Shia minority into a lethal pro-Iran militia and terrorist organization (Hezbollah) that came to dominate Lebanese politics. Neighboring Syria, where a secular dictatorship was run by a Shia minority and constantly at odds with Saddam’s Iraq, became an ally (and client) of Iran in the 1980s. Syria had been a sanctuary for Arab terrorists (secular or Islamic) since the 1960s and was the main support base for the 2003-7 Iraq Sunni terrorist campaign. That one was crushed, but not destroyed, when the Sunnis, fearing expulsion from Iraq, turned on the terrorists. That did not bring all the material benefits (government jobs and a larger share of the oil income) many Sunnis expected, and that enabled the Sunni terror groups to continue recruiting and killing. In Syria, the Sunni majority noted the persistence (if not success) of the Iraqi Sunni terrorists and were advised by Iraqi Sunnis how to organize to fight a hated government. That led to the current civil war in Syria. That, in turn, has reignited the civil war in Lebanon (where Arab Christians are the largest minority, followed by Shia, Sunni, and several smaller groups). The Arabian Peninsula states (all of them Sunni run but with a lot of Shia subjects) were alarmed at this Shia expansion to their north. In effect, there was a “Shia wall” up there and the Iranian clerics were talking openly about how much better off Islam would be if Shia (led by Iran) protected (and administered) the most sacred Moslem holy cities of Mecca and Media instead of the Sunni Saud family. So yes, there is very much another Sunni-Shia war going on and Iraq is right in the middle of it.
The terrorist violence in Iraq has been steadily increasing since the Americans left in 2011. In the first six months of this year over 3,000 were killed. That’s far from the 2007 carnage, where over 3,000 a month died, but it is still a big jump from only a year ago. If the current death rate continues, this year will suffer about a third of the losses inflicted during the worst years of the terror attacks (2006-7). What is likely to prevent that is growing anger among the Shia majority and the increased activity by Shia terror groups and their death squads that simply kill any Sunnis they can find. The Shia terrorists can usually find the Shia run security forces willing to look the other way. The Shia militias were defeated by Iraqi security forces in 2008 and officially went into semi-retirement. But in the last few years thousands of these Shia gunmen have come out of retirement. First they were used to add additional security to Shia neighborhoods that were being hit by Sunni terrorists. This would usually work, because the Sunni terrorists scouted potential targets and if the security was too tight and incorruptible, they would go elsewhere. In addition, Iran has been offering good pay to go off and support the Assad government in Syria and over 2,000 Iraqi Shia have gone in the last year. This has slowed the revival of the old (2005-8) Shia death squads.
As usual, most of Iraq is free of the violence, which is concentrated in areas where there are some Sunni Arabs. Thus the Kurdish north and the mostly Shia south have been at peace. Throughout Iraq the big problem has been corruption and its corrosive effect on the economy. Despite rigged elections, the current Shia government is losing electoral strength, and the only question is will the successors be any less corrupt. It’s not just the politicians who are corrupt, it’s the culture of corruption that is found everywhere.
About half the terrorist carnage is in Baghdad, with the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul accounting for most of the remainder. Those two cities are where al Qaeda in Iraq is strongest because it’s a battlefield between the Sunni Arabs Saddam brought north over two decades ago to replace Kurdish troops and secret police had killed or driven out. The Kurds have returned and are willing and able to fight for control of those cities and nearby oil fields. Al Qaeda in Iraq is in some danger at the moment because so many of their members have gone to Syria to fight with the rebels. In doing that the Iraqi al Qaeda leadership has got into a rapidly escalating feud with the Syrian al Qaeda leadership over who is in overall charge of al Qaeda forces in Syria. This might lead to fighting between Syrian and Iraqi al Qaeda.
While more and more Iraqis side with anti-corruption groups, the corrupt practices are well entrenched and very resistant to change. The terrorism in Iraq also makes it difficult to battle corruption because the terrorists often offer police and army commanders the choice of taking bribes or being subject to terrorist assassination efforts. Another aspect of the corruption is the “oil curse”. In most nations with oil wealth the rulers will tend to use most of the oil income to get rich (steal much of it) and stay in power. The easiest way to maintain power is to stuff the bureaucracy with loyalists. If you support (as in willing to do anything he asks) the ruler, you get a job. Otherwise, you are suspect and barely tolerated. Thus, little of the Iraqi oil income goes for the public good (infrastructure, economic development, and so on). The competition for government jobs means entrepreneurs are seen as potential victims (of extortion or whatever) rather than economic spark plugs. It’s a perverse system that is all too common in nations with a lot of oil income.