As Iraq approached its most recent election, four years ago, it “seemed poised to cast off its divisions,” as Ned Parker writes in the New York Review of Books. Now, however, as another national election approaches, such hopes apparently have been dashed. The “Arab Spring” uprisings and protests that took place in other parts of the Middle East never took hold in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s security forces and non-uniformed thugs instead responded to calls for freedom and justice with sticks and knives.The country is as divided as ever. Al-Qaeda is resurgent, and extremist violence occurs regularly, a tool of Sunnis as well as Shiites and government soldiers as well as sectarian militias. Will the April 30 election herald a new era, or more of the same?Most media coverage has focused on violence in Baghdad and the western province of Anbar, where al-Qaeda has taken over whole cities. But the violence and instability is not exclusive to those areas. The case of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, a rising Shiite group in Basra that enjoys close relations to the government, is illuminative, Parker writes.
Asaib is headed by Qais Khazali, a one-time aid to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr who the US military believes masterminded the kidnapping and execution of five US soldiers in January 2007. Jailed soon after, Khazali was released by US forces two years later under pressure from Maliki. But Khazali promptly reconstituted Asaib, which many Iraqis say has since carried out racketeering, kidnapping, and executions. Asaib and other Shiite militias have been suspected of a wave of killings in Basra that are reminiscent of the darkest days in Iraq’s civil war. At least seventeen Sunnis were assassinated, with some estimates putting the number as high as fifty between September and December. Letters were left on the doors of families from Basra’s main Sunni tribe, the Sadouns, warning the “killers of Hussein” to leave. The UN estimates at least fifty-nine families left Basra and its neighboring province Nasiriya for the north.
Take the time to read the whole thing. Iraq’s troubles didn’t end when U.S. forces withdrew, and instability there means a lot for the region.