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'Mostly They Kidnap Sunnis': Iraq's Sectarian Abyss

14/10/2014 16:39 BST | Updated 14/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Despite ISIS and despite the suicide bombings and incessant carnage, one of the things we've been hearing a lot from Western politicians in recent weeks is how things in Iraq are better than they were because an "inclusive" government now exists under prime minister Haider al-Abadi.

The desirability of Iraq having a "non-sectarian" administration has become one of the political commonplaces of our times. Hammond, Cameron, Hague and countless UK politicians have mentioned it over and over again in recent months. There was a time a few weeks back when it seemed the phrase was tripping from the lips of every Iraq pundit on the radio.

I wonder what's meant by this mantra though. Are its purveyors referring to a need to end discrimination against Sunnis under the predecessor Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki? Is it perhaps an implicit acknowledgement that politics in Iraq have been skewed in a pro-Shi'a, anti-Sunni direction for years (right back to the highly controversial "de-Ba'athification" policy of the US-proxy body, the Coalition Provisional Authority?) Or is it even a recognition that one of the many ills of Iraq in recent years had been the overweening power of the country's Shi'a militias - many of whom are little more than death squads, though death squads with murky links to key political circles?

Who knows? We don't really get any depth of analysis from the politicians (sometimes it seems all we get is soundbites and bombs). Anyway, I'll infer from the incessant parroting of the stuff about inclusivity that all of the above is intended by these gnomic remarks. In which case ... well, it's about time. Indeed, maybe it's already too late. Here are three quick snatches from a new Amnesty briefing on Iraq's Shi'a militias:

  • A resident of Kirkuk told Amnesty: "we Sunnis are regarded with suspicion and treated as if we are all members of ISIS"
  • Last month a member of the 'Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq militia manning a checkpoint north of Baghdad was heard to say: "If we catch 'those dogs' [Sunnis] coming down from the Tikrit area we execute them; in those areas they are all working with ISIS"
  • "Some militiamen are thieves as well as killers and try to get money from their victims' families, before killing them. Those who are kidnapped by these have little chance of survival, no matter how much their families pay. And then there are militiamen who kidnap only to make money, and they can target everyone, Christians, Kurds, and even Shi'a. I am Shi'a and I know of several Shi'a who have been abducted and released on payment of ransom. They were abducted in areas which are militias' strongholds, where it would be impossible for ordinary criminals to operate in such a way. But mostly they kidnap Sunnis, because the victims can easily be labelled as terrorists and nobody is going to do anything about it" - a government official resignedly explaining to Amnesty the grim reality of sectarian life in present-day Iraq

Among the Shi'a militias believed to be behind a recent wave of abductions and killings are 'Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, the Badr Brigades, the Mahdi Army, and Kata'ib Hizbullah, but none of this is new. The Mahdi Army, for example, has been planting bombs and carrying out shootings for the past ten years, some of it with the connivance of the Iraqi police force. (Is there any reason to imagine its reconfiguration as Saraya al-Salam [Peace Brigades] will mean an end to its operations?) Similarly, as long ago as 2006 US forces in Iraq were speaking with some amazement (naivety?) over how anti-Sunni death squads linked to the Badr Brigades were operating semi-openly within Iraq's interior ministry.

Well-informed commentators like Patrick Cockburn have long warned of the sectarian divide ripping Iraq apart (it "percolates into every corner of Iraqi life", right down to who gets a manager's job in a hospital or who gains control over selling black market petrol in a certain community). Why has this been articulated by Western politicians only now? Presumably it's because ISIS's defeat of the Iraqi army in and around Mosul in June jolted Western capitals into an appreciation of how disastrous the Sunni/Shi'a cleavage has become and that even worse could be about to happen.

But, having sown some of the seeds of sectarian hatred in the first place, what do Washington, London and others see as the solution to the present calamity of Iraq? If, as seems likely, it's going to be a campaign of air attacks combined with the loan of specialist military training personnel, you wonder just how serious all those warnings about "sectarianism" will end up being. For instance, will US Apache helicopter pilots or RAF crew in UK Tornados hold back from operations which might assist Shi'a militia units from 'Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq or from Kata'ib Hizbullah? Probably not. As the Economist observes, such is the near-panic over hitting back at ISIS that operations are almost certainly going to involve working quite closely with Shi'a militia fighters, and many of these will have blood on their hands.

We need a non-sectarian Iraqi government and a non-sectarian response to ISIS - so say the politicians, all singing from the same hymn sheet. But it's easier said than done of course. Not least when powerful Shi'a politicians in Iraq continue to shield their religious brethren with the AK47s and a record of using them against Sunni civilians. I think we'll only know that Messrs Cameron and Hammond are serious about their "inclusive" soundbite when they publicly call on Abadi's government to start arresting militia leaders for war crimes. But we may be in for a long wait for that to happen.