Is Iraq falling apart again?

The country saw its deadliest sectarian violence in five years last month

Residents gather at the site of a car bomb attack on April 25 in Baghdad that killed at least eight and wounded 23 others.
(Image credit: STRINGER/Reuters/Corbis)

With sectarian bombings and shootings on the rise, more people were killed in Iraq in April than in any month since June 2008, the United Nations reported Thursday. A total of 712 people died and another 1,633 were injured in terrorism attacks, fighting, and other violence, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq said. Most of the victims, including 434 of those killed, were civilians. The violence is still below the peak seen in 2006, when 2,000 to 3,000 people were killed every month, but, with Sunni Muslim insurgents and al Qaeda affiliates launching daily attacks to undermine the Shiite-led government, the aftermath of the costly and still-controversial Iraq war risks getting even worse.

The death toll reflects months of increasing tensions between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government and Sunni Arabs, who complain that they have been marginalized since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. "The most urgent task today is to tamp down the flames," the International Crisis Group, a think tank in Belgium, said recently, by integrating Sunnis into a truly representative political system. If Maliki's government can't bring Sunnis into the fold, says Mohammed Tawfeeq at CNN, Iraqi leaders and foreign diplomats fear the feuding between Sunnis and Shiites "could escalate and bring a return of a full-blown sectarian war.

There's no sugar-coating what's at stake, analysts say. "Iraq is spiraling out of control," says Emma Sky at Foreign Policy. Sunnis began taking to the streets in December following the arrests of Finance Minister Rafi Issawi's bodyguards. With elections looming, Maliki chose to use the crisis to "distract attention away from the lack of services and rampant corruption," presenting himself as the defender of the Shia instead of dealing with the Sunnis' frustration with their alienation, Sky says. Sunni politicians responded in kind, railing against government oppression to rally voters behind them:

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Last week, the Iraqi Army entered Hawija, near Kirkuk, to arrest people accused of attacking Iraqi Security Forces. In the ensuing violence, 200 people were killed. There are reports of desertions from the Iraqi Army. Kurds have moved peshmerga into positions in the disputed territories. Tribes are forming militias to protect themselves from the Iraqi Army. Five Iraqi soldiers were killed in Anbar — and the province has been put under curfew. Ten satellite channels, including Al Jazeera, have been banned, accused of spreading sectarianism. Bombs exploded in Shia towns. The speaker of parliament called for the government to resign and for early elections.

By seeking to eliminate his Sunni rivals, Maliki has removed the wedge that the U.S. military drove between Sunni extremists and the Sunni mainstream during the surge, at such great cost. [Foreign Policy]

But Maliki isn't the only one who needs to step up to pull Iraq back from the brink. Iraqis made progress toward genuine political pluralism in 2007 and 2008 when, as security spread during the surge, Sunnis were encouraged to work with the government, says Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador in Baghdad from 2007 to 2009, in The Washington Post. "Sunni and Shiite leaders opted to resolve their differences through accommodation rather than through violence. Their commitment survived the difficult aftermath of the 2010 parliamentary elections, in which no one party won a clear mandate." It's up to all sides — including the U.S. — to dial back the tensions.

Above all, it is imperative for the Iraqi people and their leaders to recall the commitment they made in 2007 to reject sectarian violence and to press forward to build a better Iraq for all Iraqis. It is also incumbent on the friends of Iraq to support this effort. Progress in Iraq came when coalition elements encouraged Sunni communities to work with a government in which they still lacked trust. It is vital that the spirit that animated the progress then be reinvigorated now. It has thus been good to read of the activities in recent days of the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and the U.N. mission there, calling for calm, engaging with all parties and reminding them of what they could lose: The new Iraq that they and we paid so much to create. [Washington Post]

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