ISIS attacks could reignite sectarian strife in Iraq
BAGHDAD - Suffering recent defeats at the hands of Iraqi security forces and Shia militias, the Islamic State (ISIS) unleashed bloody attacks on Shia targets in and around Baghdad in a possible attempt to reignite sectarian strife that could ultimately divide Iraq.
Shia militias, some affiliated with powerful clergy allied with non- Arab Iran, are likely ready for violent retaliation against the Sunnis, who ruled Iraq for a long time and had oppressed the Shia majority. Militias, especially those affiliated with Iraq’s Interior Ministry, have been vying to control security in the capital city of 7 million people, a role that has been traditionally limited to the army.
The attacks in and around Baghdad raised speculation that ISIS is reverting from armed confrontations in battlefronts to specific attacks involving massive explosions inflicting considerable harm on the population and terrorising civilians.
“So far, they seem to be revenge attacks to show the government that ISIS is still strong and capable of inflicting harm in Iraq,” said retired army colonel Abbas al-Taif.
Taif pointed out that ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, had favoured suicide attacks to maximise its gains. “Al-Qaeda used to hit where it hurt most, like in populated marketplaces, residential neighbourhoods and mosques — all with predominantly Shia populations,” he said. “ISIS seems to be moving in the same direction.”
ISIS used the tactics in a strike on Karrada, a commercial centre on the Tigris river. It is an affluent Baghdad district that is predominantly Shia but is also home to Sunnis and Christians.
Home to many Iraqi Jews in the 1950s, the area was spared the sectarian violence that ripped through Iraq in 2005-06.
A car bombing in the busy shopping district on July 3rd was the deadliest in Iraq’s war-weary capital since the start of the 2003 US-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein. The attack killed more than 290 people and wounded 200 others.
It sent shockwaves among Iraqis, who barely had enough time to rejoice over the victory of the security forces against ISIS in northern and western Iraq.
A few days later, ISIS militants, using mortar shells and suicide bombers, attacked a revered Shia shrine in Balad north of Baghdad, killing at least 36 people.
The two assaults took place days after Iraqi authorities announced the recapture of the militant bastion of Falluja, about 60km west of Baghdad, following a month of fighting.
Iraqi soldiers also achieved a significant victory in driving militants out of an airbase near the northern ISIS-held city of Mosul. Iraqi officials boasted that Falluja’s seizure would end the explosions in the capital and that the days of ISIS jihadists were numbered.
Baghdad resident Hilal Ahmed said the Karrada and Balad attacks show that the insurgents are, however, active and resilient.
“The recent victories (over ISIS) have little significance as long as the terrorists are still capable of penetrating the security measures in and near the capital and killing a lot of people,” Ahmed said.
Mourners at the Karrada blast site expressed anger over the situation when Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi arrived to inspect the damage. People threw shoes and bricks at Abadi’s convoy.
ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks, which analysts said serves two purposes. The first was to ease military pressure on ISIS fighters by forcing a lull in the government response as it calls for backup to prevent future attacks.
The second is to revive the sectarian war by luring Shia militias to retaliate against Sunni civilians and repeat the scenario of 2005-06 civil war.
One day after the Karrada attack, Shia militiamen fired mortar shells on a Baghdad camp for Sunni refugees from Anbar, killing three people and wounding several others. Police reported they found several bullet-riddled bodies — presumably Sunnis — in different locations in Baghdad.
Abadi warned that ISIS’s attacks on Karrada and Balad were aimed at “sowing sectarian strife among the people of Iraq”.
“Our terrorist enemy, Daesh, is trying to make up for its bitter defeat in Falluja,” Abadi said in a statement, referring to ISIS by its Arab acronym.
“By attacking a sacred shrine and innocent people, Daesh wants to create a state of destabilisation and security chaos in the country,” he warned.
He accused ISIS of resorting to “cowardly bombings” against civilians to try to show it is still powerful.
The chances of a renewed sectarian strife are likely increasing after Karrada and Balad attacks.
“People are losing faith in the state, which is failing to protect them,” said Baghdad resident Qais Mustafa. “This only serves the goals of Shia militiamen and Sunni militants, who both believe that coexistence is not possible and that justice should be served their way.”