The US military display of the images of the lifeless face of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Iraq’s most feared terrorist, on June 8 sparked sustained applause from Baghdad to Washington. US and Iraqi officials celebrated the death of the Jordanian Sunni militant, who had aggressively promoted an anti-US and anti-Shi‘i campaign since the fall of Saddam’s regime in 2003, as a major blow to the insurgency.
While expecting the violence to carry on without him, President George W. Bush hailed the event as a major victory for Iraq and the ongoing global War on Terror. Coincidently, the news of the death of al-Zarqawi was matched with a major announcement made by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who named three key posts of defence and interior ministers for his new government, marking the much needed turnaround in Iraq since the December 2005 elections.
The wheels appear to be turning, and this time in favour of those who predicated the defeat of the insurgency and the birth of a new Iraq. With al-Zarqawi out of picture and the new Iraqi Government on the verge of forming what many hope will be the first national unity government, there is now a chance to create a momentum away from violence and toward consolidating a viable Iraqi state.
But the euphoria for the death of al-Zarqawi as a step in defeating the insurgency and bolstering the morale of the beleaguered US military and the Iraqi Government ignores the country’s most daunting problem, that is, the rising tide of sectarian and tribal warfare.
The trouble with Iraq is not the weakness or the strength of the Iraq’s insurgent forces, in particular the al-Qaida organisation, against the US occupation, but the sectarian and tribal tension which is boiling beneath the surface of the recent victory against the insurgency.
Though much of the attention has been focused on his anti-occupation activities, the most important accomplishment of al-Zarqawi, during the period he led al-Qaida in Iraq from 2002 to 2006, was the use of Iraq as a base to set off sectarian conflict and tribal divisions as a way to destabilise the US occupation.
His most significant accomplishment was the launching of large-scale attacks on soft targets in the Iraqi Shi‘i community, like the bombing of a religious festival in Karbala in March 2004 and the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006, which has unleashed a new era of sectarian warfare in the modern Iraqi history.
The Shi‘i sectarian militias, in particular the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army, who make up the bulk of the Iraqi police force, have in turn retaliated by raiding homes, torturing and assassinating Sunni Arabs in cities like Baghdad and Sammara, committing one of the worst sectarian atrocities in Iraq’s history.
The early June 2006 Sunni-Shi‘i fights that flared in the southern city of Basra are a good indicator that al-Zarqawi’s dream of a divided, sectarian Iraq is slowly being realised. Though al-Zarqawi is dead, Iraq now lives in his shadow.
But the May upheaval in Basra also signals something more problematic for Iraq. The recent clashes between the Fadhilla Sadrists, Moqtada Sadrists and the SCIRI Shi‘i organisations in the southern city of Basra highlight an expanding Shi‘i versus Shi‘i conflict, underlining an unfolding intra-sectarian tension. Here, the problem mainly lies in the factional political landscape of Basra, where the three main Shi‘i groups, the Fadhilla, Moqtada Sadrist and SCIRI, each spearheading a distinct militia organisation, continue to battle over territory and military control over the oil-rich province.
Although much of the hostilities have been between the Fadhilla and the SCIRI factions, Moqtada Sadr and his followers, which control Basra’s police force and hospitals, continue to seek influence in a province where the young cleric does not maintain much grassroot support. While he aims to expand his political authority through the shaky United Iraqi Alliance, Iraq’ ruling Shi‘i coalition, Moqtada Sadr’s ambition to play a greater role in Iraq’s political future primarily relies on his loyal militia, who have appeared to grow in number and military strength since the summer of 2004, when the Mahdi army was severely defeated by the US forces in Karbala and Najaf.
However, the intra-sectarian tension may get worse as Mr Maliki begins to assert Baghdad’s authority over Basra, where not only the Shi‘i political parties, but also tribal chiefdoms surge to claim control over the oil-rich region and tribal territories like Umm-i-Qasr and Wasit.