Iraq crisis: Fears grow that Baghdad could be engulfed in sectarian violence

Both sides are using well-publicised massacres to encourage the changes they want

Share

Iraq is slipping over the edge into a future dominated by sectarian massacres and counter-massacres amid evidence that 63 Sunni prisoners were killed by either Iraqi police or Shia militiamen during an insurgent attack.

The killings took place in Baquba on the north-eastern approaches to Baghdad when an attack by Sunni militants threatened to overrun a police station where the captives were held.

A government defence spokesman, Colonel Qassem Atta, claimed the men had been killed by insurgent shells. But morgue officials say the dead were young men who had been shot repeatedly at close range.

Over the weekend, Isis showed pictures of the bodies of what they said were 1,700 Shia servicemen who had been executed in Tikrit.

The potential for mass killings is greater today than during the sectarian civil war between Sunni and Shia in 2006-07 when assassinations and executions were usually carried out by individuals. But in the conflict raging across northern Iraq isolated pockets of Sunni or Shia are being suddenly captured before their inhabitants have time to escape. Baquba, which is an entry point to Baghdad, is in the mixed Sunni-Shia-Kurdish province of Diyala, once famed for fruit-growing but today notorious for sectarian slaughter.

Tension is high because the Sunni revolt led by Isis shock troops is getting ever closer to Baghdad, amid fears that the capital itself may soon be engulfed by the violence. It has a substantial Shia majority but is surrounded by a ring of Sunni towns and villages. Both sides encourage demographic changes to their own advantage by well-publicised massacres of their opponents.

The battle lines appear less fluid north of Baghdad than they did a few days ago, but Isis has captured the Turkoman-Shia town of Tal Afar with a population of 200,000, west of Mosul. The government said that it had sent elite forces to win it back, but its loss on Sunday, 10 days after the Isis offensive began, is ominous because the government can no longer plead surprise or treachery as a cause for its defeat. Its 350,000-strong army has yet to win a clear victory on any front since Mosul fell, and this is having a demoralising effect on Shia, who make up 60 per cent of Iraqis.

 

The government plays down or does not mention its defeats, and the first time an Iraqi television viewer or newspaper reader may know that more territory has been lost to Isis is when there is news of a heroic counter-attack. Of Tal Afar, one widely read newspaper in Baghdad, had a headline saying the women of the city had joined the battle against Isis.

An inhabitant of Tal Afar reached by phone had a grimmer story to tell of the fall of the town. He said they had been bombarded for 24 hours by artillery seized by insurgents from the government, and there were not enough soldiers to hold all four entrances to the town against 3,000 Isis fighters while peshmerga, Kurdish soldiers, who had been near the town, disappeared. The eyewitness had fled with his family to Sinjar, a Kurdish area further west.

If the Iraqi army could win a few of these small battles, it would do much to quell fears that the military is dysfunctional despite vast expenditure for almost decade. Instead, Iraqis watch uncheckable claims of success on government television channels and in the pro-government newspapers. “Watch enough government television and pretty soon you would decide there is not a single member of Isis in the country,” said one observer.

Spurious or exaggerated accounts of Iraqi army success serve only to depress the popular mood. Film on television of government air strikes and exact numbers for the enemy’s losses skate over the fact that the government has very few fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters. One soldier fighting in Anbar province said: “The troops are not even getting enough food to eat.”

A better pointer to official expectations published in one Baghdad newspaper is the number of senior officials who have left the country.

The paper, called al-Mashriq, says that 42 members of the Iraqi parliament and seven ministers have moved to Amman, the Jordanian capital, with their families.

Dhia’a al-Assadi, an MP who has stayed in Baghdad and is one of the leaders of Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, said: “We expect terrible days to come. They will be decisive in deciding if the country will remain united.” He did not foresee the fall of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because most Shia would rally behind him in the present crisis which they see as an attempt to rob them of the power that is their right as the majority of Iraqis long subjected to Sunni domination. Moreover, he did not think that Iran would allow Baghdad to fall into the hands of an anti-Shia counter-revolution.

Expectations about the actions of Iran and the US play an important part in determining the way Iraqis see the crisis. The Iranian border is very close to Baghdad, and Iranian ground forces could swiftly get here, but the Iranians have always preferred to act through proxies and advisers in Iraq. A problem is lack of time: Shia have volunteered to fight Isis in large numbers but, as one observer put it, many of them “have only fired a pistol in the air at weddings and will need to be trained”.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An expanding business based in ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - Scotland

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - North East Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales - Business Broker - South West Region

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As an award winning and leading...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The Top Ten: Words In Christmas Carols That Ought To Be Revived

John Rentoul
Polish minister Rafal Trazaskowski (second from right)  

Poland is open to dialogue but EU benefits restrictions are illegal and unfair

Rafal Trzaskowski
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas