Editor’s note: Shashank Joshi is a research fellow at the London-based think tank Royal United Services Institute and a doctoral student of international relations at Harvard University’s Department of Government. He specializes in international security in South Asia and the Middle East.
London (CNN) — According to the United Nations’ mission in Iraq, 712 Iraqis were violently killed in April 2013. This is both normal and extraordinary. It is normal because it pales into comparison beside the monthly death toll in the worst years of the country’s civil war. It is extraordinary because it is the highest such figure since that civil war subsided five years ago. Understanding the violence requires grasping three confluent trends: the increasingly authoritarian streak of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the rise of both peaceful and violent protest among Iraq’s aggrieved Sunni minority (a fifth of the population), and, finally, a regional trend of worsening sectarian tensions between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Each of these strands is tightly woven together. It was the invasion of Iraq a decade ago and the subsequent empowerment of its Shia majority that sparked fears of what Jordan’s King Abdullah famously called a “Shia crescent” from Syria to Iran. Prime Minister al-Maliki spent his years of exile under Saddam in both those countries, and is widely seen as having aligned Iraq more closely to Iranian interests — for instance, allowing Iranian over-flights of arms to the Assad regime. This diplomatic shift compounded a political one. Al-Maliki has undermined political institutions that were designed to be independent, such as the central bank and election commission. He has seized personal control of key army and intelligence units, many of them CIA-backed, including the 6,000-strong Iraqi Special Forces.
Read more: Iraq at crossroads as bombs explode
Attacks highlight rising terror in Iraq
Iraq still divided along sectarian lines
U.S. Marines in northern Kuwait gear up after receiving orders to cross the Iraqi border on March 20, 2003. It has been 10 years since the American-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. Look back at moments from the war and the legacy it left behind. For more, view CNN’s complete coverage of the Iraq War anniversary.
A pedestrian looks at front-page headlines on display outside the future site of the Newseum in Washington on March 20, 2003.
Smoke and flames rise from the riverside presidential palace compound in Baghdad after a massive airstrike on March 21, 2003.
President George W. Bush meets with his war council in the Situation Room of the White House on March 21, 2003. Clockwise from foreground: National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, CIA Director George Tenet, Chief of Staff Andy Card, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers were present.
A U.S. Marine from Task Force Tarawa engages Iraqi forces from an armored assault vehicle on March 23, 2003, in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Marines walk single-file through the desolate landscape in Nasiriyah on March 26, 2003. As night falls on the city, the troops are on alert for a counterattack.
A night-vision image shows U.S. military personnel carrying Pfc. Jessica Lynch off a helicopter on April 1, 2003, at an undisclosed location in Iraq. She had been missing since March 23, when she and members of her unit were ambushed by Iraqi forces.
Members of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, storm Diyala Bridge in Baghdad on April 7, 2003.
Marines pull down a statue of Saddam Hussein, a symbolic finale to the fall of Baghdad, on April 9, 2003.
Iraqis flee Baghdad on April 11, 2003, as the capital city descended into chaos with widespread looting and lawlessness.
Marines hold a memorial service for friends killed in a battle weeks earlier on April 13, 2003, near Al-Kut, Iraq.
Iraqi National Museum Deputy Director Mushin Hasan sits among destroyed artifacts on April 13, 2003, in Bagdhad. The museum was severely looted.
Iraqi men push the head of a statue of Saddam Hussein after its destruction on April 18, 2003, in Baghdad.
Dressed in a flight suit, President Bush meets pilots and crew members of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln who were returning to the United States on May 1, 2003, after being deployed in the Gulf region.
Sailors applaud as President Bush addresses the nation aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. Standing beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished,” the president declared major fighting over in Iraq and called it a victory in the ongoing war on terrorism.
A U.S. Marine pulls down a picture of Saddam Hussein at a school in Al-Kut on April 16, 2003.
Iraqi men check a list near the remains of bodies excavated from a mass grave on the outskirts of Al Musayyib on May 31, 2003. Locals said they uncovered the remains of hundreds of Shiite Muslims allegedly executed by Saddam Hussein’s regime after their uprising following the 1991 Gulf War.
U.S. Army 101st Airborne troops investigate a house where Saddam Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusay were killed in Mosul, Iraq, on July 23, 2003. The house, in an affluent neighborhood, was the scene of a fierce gunbattle.
Army Cpl. Curtis Laymon of the 101st Airborne Rakkasan regiment is reflected in a pool of oil from the Iraqi-Turkey pipeline in Iraq’s Ninewa province on October 29, 2003. The pipeline was blown apart by saboteurs two weeks earlier.
An Iraqi police lieutenant’s stars lie in a puddle of blood after a car bombing that targeted a police station in Baquba on November 22, 2003.
A construction worker removes debris from a destroyed building in Baghdad on December 11, 2003.
Saddam Hussein’s picture is taken December 14, 2003, after his capture a day earlier. U.S. troops found Hussein hiding near his hometown of Tikrit.
The entrance to the “spider hole” where Saddam Hussein was hiding in Ad Dawr is seen from the inside on December 15, 2003.
A bound Iraqi informer, with his name inked in English across his back, crouches beside soldiers in the 4th Infantry Division after providing outdated information during a morning raid in in Samarra on December 19, 2003.
Eman Mohammed, 7, stands in the Kurdish refugee camp in Kirkuk on January 7, 2004. Since 2003, thousands of internally displaced Kurds have returned to Kirkuk.
Laborers work on a hotel in Baghdad on January 15, 2004.
A worker turns a valve at the Shirawa oil field outside the northern city of Kirkuk on January 19, 2004. The security of Iraq’s oil infrastructure had improved, but exports through the region’s main pipeline had yet to resume.
A boy stands at the scene of a car bombing in front of the Shaheen Hotel in Baghdad on January 28, 2004.
Mourners carry coffins in Karbala on March 3, 2004. A day after a series of bombs killed dozens and injured hundreds during the Ashura ceremony in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, Shiite Muslims began burying their dead.
Iraqi insurgents wave their national flag as they celebrate in front of a burning U.S. military tanker they hit with rocket-propelled grenade on April 9, 2004. The attack took place on the road from Baghdad to Fallujah.
Photographs depicting detainee abuse inside Abu Ghraib prison at the hands of U.S. troops were released in late April 2004. The fallout was immediate, and the images gave anti-war protesters ammunition to rally people to their cause.
Iraqis look at rows of graves at an overflowing cemetery built in a soccer arena in Fallujah on May 3, 2004.
At home in Baghdad with his new prosthetic leg, Ahsan Hameed, 20, sits while his aunt looks it over on July 17, 2004. He lost his left leg above the knee to a stray bullet in April.
Construction workers weld beams at the Ministry of Transportation building in Baghdad on July 21, 2004. The building was being rebuilt after it was gutted by a fire.
Iraqi national guardsman Ridha Abdulkarim lies in a hospital bed after a car bomb detonated at a checkpoint in Baquba on August 3, 2004. The bomb killed six guardsmen and wounded six others, Iraqi authorities said.
Shiite militia members prepare to fire during clashes with U.S. forces in Najaf on August 7, 2004. It was the third day of continuous fighting in the holy city.
An Iraqi militia member injured in a U.S. airstrike in Najaf is assisted by one of his comrades on August 24, 2004. They were walking past the shrine of Imam Ali to make their way to a militia hospital.
Iraqi Shiite faithful gather in Najaf on August 27, 2004, to mark the end of a battle. Rebel leader Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his fighters to lay down their arms in a peace deal brokered by Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Anti-war protesters in New York carry mock coffins draped with U.S. flags on August 29, 2004. Thousands took part in demonstrations outside Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Republican National Convention.
Members of the Iraqi Intervention Forces listen to last-minute instructions before heading out with U.S. troops to begin a major offensive on the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah on November 8, 2004.
Marines search houses in Fallujah for insurgents on November 10, 2004.
Marines rest and check a map in a house during an offensive in Fallujah on November 11, 2004.
Iraqi men are arrested during a house raid in Fallujah on November 13, 2004.
Marines take position on a roof in the restive city of Fallujah on November 13, 2004.
U.S. Army medics treat a wounded Jordanian fighter in Fallujah on November 14, 2004.
A U.S. Marine and a soldier from the New Iraqi Army process a detainee during operations in Fallujah on November 17, 2004.
Marines use explosives to open rooftop doors while searching houses in Fallujah for insurgents on November 22, 2004.
Marines clear a home in Fallujah after four insurgents staged a bloody counterattack, killing one American and wounding many others, on November 23, 2004.
Spc. Franklin Smith pulls away as a mortar blast is fired from the edge of the U.S. airbase in Tal Afar on January 17, 2005. U.S. teams would frequently fire “harassment and interdiction” mortar fusillades toward suspected enemy positions.
Iraqis look over their ballots on election day in the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad on January 30, 2005. It was the country’s first multiparty election in half a century.
Election officials count ballot papers at night on January 30, 2005, in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. Despite threats, thousands of men and women cast their votes.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Troy Hawkins is tended to after getting wounded during a firefight while on patrol with an Iraqi army unit in the Haifa Street neighborhood of Baghdad on February 16, 2005. Afterward, he continued to fight in the narrow streets.
An Iraqi soldier stands watch at a teahouse while on patrol with U.S. soldiers in Baghdad on February 23, 2005.
President Bush shakes hands with former Sen. Charles Robb, left, and Judge Laurence Silberman during a news conference in Washington on March 31, 2005. The co-chairmen of the Iraqi Intelligence Commission issued a report indicating that U.S. intelligence agencies were wrong in most pre-war assessments about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Iraqi Shiite demonstrators loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr burn a U.S. flag during a protest in Baghdad on April 9, 2005. The rally was called on the second anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, with protesters demanding an end to the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
People gather at the scene of a car bombing near a busy market in eastern Baghdad on May, 12, 2005.
A resident makes a phone call in the aftermath of a double suicide car bombing that struck civilians living near the blast walls that protect the Hamra Hotel in Baghdad on November 18, 2005.
Sgt. Thomas Gaines kisses his wife during a welcome-home ceremony in Fort Stewart, Georgia, on May 11, 2006. About 280 members of the Georgia National Guard 48th Brigade returned home from a year-long deployment to Iraq.
A British Royal Air Force gunner waves to a goat herder during a patrol of northern Basra province on July 26, 2006.
A British armored vehicle is illuminated by traffic during a patrol of Basra on July 27, 2006.
Ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein addresses the court during his trial in the heavily fortified Green Zone of Baghdad on October 17, 2006. Hussein and six co-defendants were on trial for mass killings in the Anfal campaign against Kurdish rebels in the late 1980s.
A Palestinian woman watches the news of Saddam Hussein’s execution at her home in the West Bank town of Jenin on December 30, 2006. Hussein was hanged for his role in the 1982 Dujail massacre, in which 148 Iraqis were killed after a failed assassination attempt against the then-president.
U.S. Marines prepare for a military operation at Camp Ramadi in Anbar province on January 14, 2007.
American forces in Ramadi watch President Bush deliver the annual State of the Union address on January 24, 2007. The president announced plans to increase the size of the U.S. military by 92,000 troops.
An American Apache helicopter provides air support while a Marine takes aim after being fired upon by insurgents near the Euphrates River in Ramadi on February 2, 2007.
Iraqi children watch U.S. Army soldiers climb to the roof of their school to get a high vantage point in Baghdad on April 15, 2007.
U.S. Marines sleep at their patrol base in the area known as Zaidon in Al Anbar province on May 12, 2007.
Mary McHugh mourns her fiance, Sgt. James Regan, at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington on May 27, 2007. The American Special Forces soldier was killed by an IED in Iraq in February.
U.S. soldiers and an Iraqi contractor build a concrete wall between Sunni and Shiite areas of the south Dora neighborhood of Bagdhad in the early hours of July 4, 2007.
Iraqi army commandos teach junior soldiers during a combat training course in Baquba on July 18, 2007.
Medics treat Army Spc. Jose Callazo after his mine-detecting vehicle hit a buried IED in Hawr Rajab on August 4, 2007.
An American soldier prepares to search a home for illegal weapons in the Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad on September 9, 2007.
Relatives help an Iraqi man at a hospital in Baghdad on September 20, 2007. He was injured when Blackwater security contractors opened fire on civilians on September 16, killing 17. The company lost its contract to guard U.S. staff in Iraq after the country’s government refused to renew its operating license.
Army Brig. Gen. Nolen V. Bivens presents an American flag to Maribel Ferrero during the funeral of her 23-year-old son, Army Pfc. Marius L. Ferrero, in Miami. He was killed by a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq.
A U.S. soldier blindfolds an Iraqi man during a raid in Mukhisa on December 3, 2007. Seven men were detained after multiple assault rifles were found in the house.
U.S. soldiers sit in a home damaged by fighting in Baghdad on March 11, 2008, near the five-year anniversary of the war.
Commanding Gen. David Petraeus, center, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on April 8, 2008. In reporting on the success of the surge in Iraq, Petraeus said the number of U.S. troops in the country should not drop below 140,000.
A U.S. soldier with 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, stands on a kiln overlooking more than 150 brick factories in Narwan on July 1, 2008.
A boy looks out from his family shelter at a Narwan brick factory on July 1, 2008.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama flies over Baghdad with Gen. David Petraeus during a tour on July 21, 2008.
Maj. Gen. John Kelly, left, and Anbar province Gov. Maamoun Sami Rashid al-Alwani sign papers during a handover ceremony in Ramadi on September 1, 2008. The U.S. military turned over security control of Iraq’s biggest province, once a stronghold of the Sunni insurgency.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki tries to block a shoe thrown at President Bush during a news conference in Baghdad on December 14, 2008. The Iraqi journalist who threw the shoes missed the president but could be heard yelling in Arabic, “This is a farewell … you dog!”
Pfc. Jeremy Tomlinson, who was wounded a year before in Iraq, waits with fellow soldiers to greet returning comrades in Fort Carson, Colorado, on January 28, 2008. About 3,800 soldiers were coming home after a 15-month tour of duty.
A poll worker helps a member of the Iraqi National Police cast his ballot in Baghdad on January 28, 2009. Polls were opened early to members of the Iraqi security services, many of whom would be working during the provincial elections.
An Iraqi soldier searches a boy at a polling station in Baghdad on January 31, 2009. People across the country voted to fill 440 provincial council seats.
President Barack Obama delivers an address on February 27, 2009, at the largest Marine post on the East Coast, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. In his speech, Obama outlined plans for the gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iraqi army special forces patrol Baghdad’s al-Fadel district on March 30, 2009. U.S.-backed Iraqi forces clashed with anti-al-Qaeda militants known as the Awakening Council, or Sahwa, after fighting erupted following the arrest of Adel Mashhadani, a Sahwa leader.
A U.S. Air Force team carries a flag-draped transfer case containing the remains of Army Spc. Omar M. Albrak of Chicago at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on May 12, 2009, just over a month after the U.S. government lifted its ban on media coverage of the returning war dead. Albrak was killed while serving in Iraq.
Army Sgt. Donald Lewis from the 1st Cavalry Division is greeted by his wife, Nicole Lewis, after his brigade arrived home in Fort Hood, Texas, on November 10, 2009, after a year of deployment in Iraq.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates speaks with soldiers at a forward operating base in Kirkuk on December 11, 2009.
An Iraqi woman votes in parliamentary elections in Kirkuk on March 7, 2010.
U.S. soldiers salute during a handover ceremony of the entry points of Baghdad’s Green Zone, now referred to as the International Zone, to Iraqi control inside the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad on June 1, 2010.
A string of bullets lies across photographs of women adorning the armor of a Stryker vehicle north of Jalaulah on June 11, 2010.
An Iraqi explosives expert gets into a special suit for bomb disposal during a training session organized by his U.S. counterparts at the Warhorse military base near the restive city of Baquba on August 17, 2010.
Shiite worshipers pray during an Ashura commemoration ceremony at the Kadhimiya shrine in Baghdad on December 6, 2011. Ashura marks the death of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, the revered Imam Hussein.
A technician works on a prosthetic at a factory in Baghdad on December 13, 2011. Iraqis have faced a shortage of prosthetics due to a spike in war-related injuries over the years.
Iraqis gather at a women’s art exhibition in a posh Baghdad neighborhood on December 14, 2011.
Gen. Lloyd Austin retires the United States Forces-Iraq flag during a casing ceremony at the former Sather Air Base in Baghdad on December 15, 2011.
Military personnel lower their heads during the flag casing ceremony in Baghdad on December 15, 2011. The ceremony officially marked the end of U.S. military operations in Iraq.
A U.S. soldier prepares to fly out of the Sather Air Base in Baghdad on December 15, 2011. The last U.S. forces left Iraq and entered Kuwait on December 18, nearly nine years after launching a divisive war to oust Saddam Hussein.
100 moments from the Iraq War
When the last American troops left Iraq at the end of 2011, al-Maliki pounced. Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, the most senior Sunni figure in the government, was forced to flee Iraq and was later sentenced to death. A year later in December 2012, hundreds of bodyguards and staff of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, another senior Sunni, were arrested, triggering major protests. And on April 23, the situation worsened when Iraqi forces backed by helicopters killed dozens of peaceful Sunni protesters in the town of Hawijah. The town was seen by nearby Kurds as a conduit for suicide bombers, and the government claimed that the protesters were harboring militants from a Sunni militant group called the Naqshbandia Order.
Maliki established a ministerial committee to look into the Hawijah episode and has made a few other concessions, but the damage was done: a previously peaceful movement has grown angrier and, in places, more violent. Taken together, Maliki’s heavy-handed and sectarian actions have fanned flames that were never really extinguished. The result is a powerful sense of Sunni victimhood with many policies, such as de-Baathification (the removal of Saddam’s party loyalists from positions of influence), seen as little more than collective punishment of Sunnis.
The new wave of Iraqi protest embodies this trend. The protests are concentrated in Sunni-majority provinces. Protesters frequently excoriate Iran’s influence in Iraqi politics and acclaim the Sunni-majority Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting the neighboring Assad regime. Sometimes, their slogans are nakedly and belligerently sectarian. This naturally alienates many Iraqi Shias, who resent being associated with a foreign power and see the FSA as retrograde, Saudi-backed jihadists rather than freedom fighters. They are also likelier to see Maliki’s various power-grabs as necessary steps to bring order and security to Iraq in the face of a growing regional and domestic threat from Sunni extremists such as al Qaeda and its ideological brethren. Iraq’s increasingly autonomous Kurds, buoyed by potentially vast oil reserves, share some of these fears and sit in uneasy alliance with Shia political groups.
Indeed, the Syrian civil war has widened Iraq’s sectarian divisions and created a source of major instability. In March, around 50 Syrian soldiers who had fled into Iraq were ambushed and killed. The single most powerful Syrian rebel group, Jabhat al-Nusra, is an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq, and its personal and logistical networks run across the Syria-Iraq border. If al-Assad were to fall, this would have a catalytic effect on parts of Iraq, amplifying Sunni militancy and resulting in a flood of weapons of fighters across the border.
Does this mean that Iraq is fated to return to the dark days of 2006-2007, when death squads were run in the heart of government and Baghdad faced waves of ethnic cleansing? It is important to note that while Iraq itself bleeds, the Iraqi state is strong. Al-Maliki is vulnerable in Sunni-majority areas where the Sunni militias of the al-Sahwa movement provide security, but his large and cohesive security forces serve as a buffer against wider chaos. Moreover, many Sunni groups are eager to keep the violence in check, having previously suffered greatly at the hands of al Qaeda in Iraq. It is certainly too early to talk about the country’s break-up.
Next year’s parliamentary elections will be a pivotal moment. At the last elections in 2010, the Sunni-dominated but secular Iraqiya bloc won more seats but couldn’t form a government, and eventually let Maliki take the top spot.
This time round, it will be harder for Maliki to outmaneuver his political rivals: they have learnt that power sharing is a sham, and the Kurds are in a stronger position. In provincial elections held last month, Maliki’s coalition saw its vote share decline, with many of his harder-line Shia Islamist rivals faring better.
Another victory for Maliki under contested conditions would produce severe political instability, especially if present levels of violence continue. The imperative is for political accommodation, reconciliation, and compromise. Yet Maliki is unlikely to opt for this route as long as he feels he can keep his grip on power with the help of his swollen army, paramilitary, and intelligence apparatus. There is no obvious way out for Iraq.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Shashank Joshi.