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Wave of sectarian strife hits Baghdad

22 March 2013


Carnage: the scene in Baghdad after the bombings on Tuesday. More than 60 people were killed across the city

Carnage: the scene in Baghdad after the bombings on Tuesday. More than 60 people were killed across the city

A NUMBER of Iraqi civil servants from the Ministry of Justice in Baghdad sought shelter in St George's Anglican Church last Thursday, during one of the most sustained terrorist attacks on government buildings in recent times. At least 22 people were killed, and scores were wounded.

Car bombs were detonated outside the Justice, Foreign Affairs, and Communications Ministries. Later, gunmen stormed the Ministry of Justice. In the ensuing battle with security forces, a suicide-bomber blew himself up. Further gunfire and explosions were heard - all in the vicinity of the Green Zone, the heavily fortified area where most government offices and foreign embassies are located.

The Chaplain of St George's, Canon Andrew White, described the bombings as "quite unbelievable. So many were killed." Several of the Justice Ministry staff "have taken refuge in the church here. The whole of Baghdad has closed down. The sky is full of helicopters and black smoke."

The sharp increase in the level of violence in Iraq coincides with the tenth anniversary of the US-led invasion of the country. The perpetrators appear to be Sunni extremists belonging to, or inspired by, al-Qaeda. Their targets tend to be government offices or members of the security forces. But the underlying theme is sectarian. The current Prime Minister of Iraq, Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia, is accused by many Iraqis of marginalising the Sunni community.

But al-Qaeda has also carried out numerous bombings in Shia civilian areas. For example, on Tuesday, the day of the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, about 60 people were killed and at least three times that number wounded in a series of co-ordinated bombings in Baghdad. Shia neighbourhoods were hit during the morning rush-hour.

The continuing success of the Sunni-dominated opposition forces in Syria appears to have given new energy to al-Qaeda, at a time when politics in Iraq is frozen by sectarian disputes. Relations between the Baghdad government and that of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north are in crisis, while Sunni groups, with the support of the Kurds, and even some Shia factions, are trying to force Mr Maliki out of office.

There have been large anti-government and anti-Shia demonstrations in recent weeks in the largely Sunni-populated provinces of Anbar and Nineveh in the west. In the light of these, the Iraqi government announced on Tuesday that provincial elections in these two regions would be postponed for six months. Elections elsewhere should go ahead as planned on 20 April.

The sectarian trend in Iraqi politics emerged from the political system set up by American administrators after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime. In order to give all groups a share of power, it was agreed that the president would be a Kurd (with Sunni and Shia deputies), the prime minister a Shia (with Sunni and Kurdish deputies), and the speaker of parliament a Sunni. But this arrangement has led to fierce contests for control of senior positions among the sects.

Canon White, in an article marking the tenth anniversary of the war, said that he had warned the American administrators years ago that "we needed to sort out religious issues, otherwise we would be faced with huge religious sectarianism." But the warning was not heeded.

Canon White believes that: "Religion has gone very wrong, and is used as the justification for gaining power. . . If we had taken seriously the issue of religion after the war, we would not be dealing with this crisis now."

Canon White's article can be read in full on http://frrme.org/news/

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