The Iraqi forces’ current offensive on ISIS in the city of Tikrit has been taking place without the help of US airstrikes as the US seemed uneasy about the increasingly sectarian nature behind the involvement of Iranian Shiite forces. It is thought that over two-thirds of the current Iraqi forces are made up of Shiite militias and that the Iranian Major General, Qassim Suleimani, is playing an influential role in the campaign. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are also reported to be present in the fight, operating heavy weaponry. Although not confirmed, it is thought that the growing role of Iranian forces and the high volume of Shiite militia fighters may be the reason for the lack of airstrikes. However, it is evident that this conflict, which was supposed to be liberating Iraq from ISIS, is instead creating a platform for a large-scale sectarian conflict. And the coalition has been very slow to realise the severity of this situation.
Sectarian violence from Shiite militias has been rife and at times comparable to that of ISIS. Last week a video of a young boy being executed was released online. His executioners were soldiers with the Iraqi flags on their arms and they could be heard calling for others to join the Shiite militias. This is not an isolated incident and Amnesty International released a report in October 2014 on the frequent abductions and killings of Sunni civilians by Shia militias. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi has condemned and forbidden such sectarian violence but has been unable to prevent it.
Of course, the actions of ISIS have been fuelling sectarian fears and divisions. In June 2014, an ISIS twitter feed displayed pictures of hundreds of dead Shiites in Tikrit, surrounded by their ISIS killers. It is therefore inevitable that the thought of large Shia militias entering Tikrit provokes worries of vengeful, sectarian violence - particularly in the light of recent examples such as the execution of the young boy.
History seems to repeat itself in Iraq. Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath party consistently oppressed the Shiite majority and when he finally fell in 2003, a process of de-Baathification only served to polarise Iraqi politics. Since Saddam’s fall, Sunni politicians have been marginalised, particularly by previous Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki and in recent years many have been accused of terrorism – including former Vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, who was even sentenced to death although he managed to flee the country before charges could be brought against him.
Since 2003 sectarian tensions have intensified and for many Sunnis, resentment towards the government has been building. As a result there have consistently been sectarian clashes across the country, from Sunni insurgencies in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall to more recent clashes in Anbar province. Shiite military groups like Imam Ali Brigade and the Freeman of Mosul are leaving notes on the doorsteps of Sunni households with threats of an-eye-for-an-eye retribution. Regardless of whether these families are associated with ISIS, they fear becoming targets. Even some Yazidis who were ruthlessly persecuted and once co-existed peacefully with the Sunnis are pledging vengeance, quoting they will “never trust them again.”
The absence of a political process to accompany the air strikes is instead driving Sunni communities to consider allying with ISIS. However, reconciliation cannot take place without the complete removal of ISIS, the Shiites alone cannot defeat them. Some argue that if the Sunni tribes are armed then ISIS will not last a month. But there is simply no trust left between the communities.
It is for this reason that avoiding sectarian violence on the part of the Iraqi forces is of such importance. It will only serve to create further divisions and therefore give the opportunity for ISIS to be seen as protectors and liberators of the Sunni minority. It must not be allowed to descend into a sectarian civil war. If divisions continue to intensify then it could lead to a conflict that would continue long after the planned expulsion of ISIS.