It has been fading from the front pages due to news fatigue, and has finally been pushed off by the continuing Israel/Hezbollah conflict, but the bloodshed in Iraq continues to grow in the absence of a media spotlight. Though it looks and smells like civil war, most outside observers are still calling it sectarian violence for now. Nevertheless, here is where the real conflict in the Middle East lies – with Iraq’s Sunnis and Shias going at it like there’s no tomorrow. (And at this rate – who knows?) Iraq’s Prime Minister, on a visit to the US Tuesday, confirmed that 100 civilians are dying every day, though he has yet to label the killings a civil war. As in the past, the active participation of 55,000 US troops in Baghdad alone hasn’t helped calm things down. (In other parts of the country, US forces are fighting fierce battles against Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.) The killings of civilians follow a familiar pattern – 50 Shias were killed near an Iraqi shrine, unashamedly random attacks (some targeting men on the streets looking for work) claimed 60 lives on July 23rd with 7 more gunned down the day before. On July 19th, 20 Sunnis were seized, a day which the Washington Post called a quiet day “with no single reported attack in Iraq claiming more than 13 lives”. July 18th claimed 53 lives, and the 17th claimed 48, and so on. The surge in violence is notable, given that the killing of Zarqawi was expected to break the back of the insurgency. Before a post-Zarqawi security crackdown, which began June 14, there were an average of 23.8 attacks daily. Since then, the average has increased to 25.2, and this upsurge may not be due to the new US-identified Iraqi Al Qaeda chief, who may be in an Egyptian jail. While Shias have been driven to defend themselves against an onslaught of al-Qaida-directed violence against them (the Sunni organization considers Shias “infidels” to be tolerated at best), Sunnis are driven by a fear of a “Shia Crescent” controlling a wide swath of the Middle East (and beyond). Despite the calls by both Ayatollah Sistani and al-Sadr for an end to the violence, Sunnis (with guns) opposed to the rebuilding of an historic Shia shrine have been targeted in return by the Mahdi army. Complicating matters for US forces in Iraq is the fact that, all sides have been unified by their opposition to Israeli actions in Lebanon – and all see the US as endorsing the violence in Lebanon. “I will continue defending my Shi’ite and Sunni brothers,” said al-Sadr. “And I tell them that if we unite, we will defeat Israel without the use of weapons.” In the meantime, Iraq risks being defeated from within – with lots of them.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.