December 1, 2010

The deadly attack by Al-Qaeda-linked militants on a Catholic church in Baghdad, followed by an even deadlier spate of coordinated explosions targeting Shi'a neighborhoods and a series of bombings targeting Christian homes, has plunged Iraqis of all stripes into new despair. These atrocities bode ill for Iraq's chances of putting such bloodletting in the past. They make clear that the security gains of the past couple of years may soon prove to be temporary if Iraqis and their international allies don't press urgently for the changes necessary for a more lasting end to the bloodshed.

Al Qaeda's plans for Iraq are all too easy to comprehend. Even before George W. Bush led the invasion against Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda sought to capitalize on the coming war and the resentment among Sunni Muslims it was sure to create. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who became the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq until his death in a June 2006 airstrike, is believed to have entered Iraq from Afghanistan in 2002 and joined the scattered remains of the Kurdish Islamist movements.

As intercepted communications between al-Zarqawi and Al Qaeda later showed, al-Zarqawi drew up a battle plan so nihilistic and extreme that even Al Qaeda's Number Two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, expressed his reservations in a 2005 letter. The following year, al-Zarqawi provoked all-out bloodshed between Sunni and Shi'a by attacking and destroying one of the holiest Shi'a shrines, the Al Askari Mosque in Samarra, in 2006.

Al-Zarqawi and his fellow Al Qaeda militants were able to draw support from significant segments of the Sunni community because of the marginalization of the minority Sunnis, who had enjoyed almost unchecked political and economic power under Saddam Hussein and predecessor governments. The legitimate Sunni grievances -- along with the legitimate grievances of Kurds, Shi'a, and the minority communities of Iraq -- form the fault lines that must be addressed, or there is next to no chance for peace in Iraq.

The gradual return to violence of former Sunni insurgents is a disturbing trend. Members of the pro-government Awakening Councils, cobbled together by the Americans during the height of the surge, are abandoning their councils and rejoining the Sunni insurgency. They are frustrated by the political deadlock in Baghdad that is likely to continue despite the agreement, finally, to establish a coalition government, the continued marginalization of the Sunni community, and the failure by the Shi'a-dominated security institutions to integrate the Sunni-dominated Councils into Iraq's security apparatus. The Sunni extremists are growing bolder, warning the remaining Awakening Council members to stop fighting them or risk their own lives and those of their families.

To reassure the Sunni leaders that it is in their interest to keep working with the Iraqi security forces -- and indeed to gain the trust of all Iraqis -- those security structures must be accountable and free from sectarian control. In April, Human Rights Watch interviewed detainees transferred from a secret prison at Baghdad's Muthanna airport that housed some 420 detainees from northern Iraq, controlled by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's military office. The detainees described systematic brutality. All too often, American-trained security forces in Iraq have been implicated in operating death squads and other unacceptable abuses.

Without confidence that such criminal conduct within the security forces has ended, it is unlikely that much trust can be built even with the majority Shi'as, much less the Sunnis and other minorities. Iraq's government should urgently integrate Awakening Council members into the country's security apparatus, properly train all police, army, and criminal justice officials in human rights and establish effective monitoring and accountability mechanisms. The government also needs to open independent and impartial Investigations into all allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and discipline or criminally prosecute those responsible at all levels.

Among the most explosive issues is the status of the oil-rich "disputed territories" in northern Iraq, whose ownership is contested by the Iraqi Kurds and the central Iraqi government. Saddam Hussein systematically removed Kurds and other non-Arabs from these disputed territories, and brought in Arabs to populate their villages. This "Arabization" policy culminated in the 1988 "Anfal" genocide campaign against the Kurds.

The war in 2003 rapidly reversed the process, as Kurdish fighters took control of much of the disputed territories and the Arabs brought north by Arabization fled many villages. A tense stand-off remains in place across a strip of territory from Iraq's Syrian border to the border that with Iran. The disputed territories amount to nearly one-tenth of Iraq's land -- hardly a minor issue -- and could explode into open war if left unresolved. Thousands of Arabs who lost their homes in 2003 when the Kurdish fighters returned are left seething, many of them homeless, since they lost their original lands when Saddam Hussein moved them north.

The battle for control of the northern "disputed territories" is not just between Kurds and Arabs. Squeezed in between is Iraq's largest concentration of religious minorities. Yazidis, Shabaks, and Chaldean and Assyrian Christians have called the Nineveh Plains surrounding Mosul their home for thousands of years.

The church attackers in Baghdad were striking at not only these worshippers but at Iraq's long tradition of religious tolerance and co-existence. The country is home to some of the world's oldest religious communities. The Chaldeans, Assyrians, and other Christians of Iraq practice a faith that can be traced directly to the era of the Apostles, an antiquity only matched by other Iraqi religious minorities like the Yazidis, and the Sabian Mandaeans, who follow the teachings of John the Baptist. Now, many fear that they are the last of their faith in Iraq, soon to be hunted to extinction by the extremists.

The Kurdistan Regional Government has pressured the religious minorities by means of arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and violence to support its claims to the region. And Sunni Arab extremists have waged a deadly campaign of mass murder against the religious minorities, describing them as "infidels" and "crusaders."

A fair resolution of the "disputed territories" issue would recognize that these lands are neither exclusively "Kurd" nor "Arab," but rather a multi-cultural patchwork that should be at the core of Iraqi identity, as it once was. Stability will only come if Iraqis reject ethnically exclusive claims to the disputed areas and agree to protect the rights of all those living there on the basis of equality.

Time to head off yet another round of deadly bloodshed is short, but not yet lost. Most Iraqis are exhausted by conflict and disgusted with the bloodshed of the past few years. But the failure of Iraqi's high-paid politicians to live up to their responsibilities to their people and work toward resolving the core issues facing the country -- or to show up for work at all -- is putting Iraq once again in mortal danger. Very tough issues need to be addressed. The recent attacks have again reminded us that they won't go away just by ignoring them.