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Sectarian Violence Rises Sharply In Iraq


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. It's easy for us to overlook, given the violence elsewhere in the Middle East, but violence in Iraq has risen sharply. Since the start of April, more than 2,000 people have been killed in car bombings and other attacks. Iraq has not seen that level of killing since the worst of the sectarian war back in 2006 and 2007. NPR's Kelly McEvers reports.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It took a while for Iraq to have a protest movement, like the protest movement next door in Syria. But when it started, it was almost immediately sectarian. The protests in Iraq were in mostly Sunni areas against a Shiite-dominated government. And as many predicted, it eventually got ugly.


MCEVERS: In April, government forces went to clear a protest encampment in the northern Iraqi town of Hawija. This amateur video was taken at the time. At some point Iraqi forces fired on protesters. Dozens of people were killed. Sunni protesters and tribesmen across the country took up arms in revenge. And the number of attacks around Iraq skyrocketed. Officials say most of the attacks are being led by Sunni insurgents like al-Qaida in Iraq and a group of former Baathists.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: This Iraqi analyst used to be an insurgent himself. He doesn't want to give his name. He says protests in the Sunni strongholds of Iraq laid the ground for al-Qaida in Iraq by re-connecting people with insurgents.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Before they were chased as outlaws, they didn't have their families. They couldn't come back to their children, their houses. Now they can. Now they have the freedom to move back to their places.

MCEVERS: He says some aggrieved Sunnis see insurgents as the only ones who will fight for Sunni rights.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) More than a year ago, you know, it was a stigma for someone to be called al-Qaida member. Now it's no longer like this.

MCEVERS: Now, he says, it's an honor. Since Hawija, the Shiite-dominated government has been trying to work with moderate Sunnis to answer some of their grievances. But still, most analysts say, once hardline insurgents come out into the open, it's hard to put them back into the box.


MCEVERS: And so the violence continues, especially in poor Shiite neighborhoods like this one in southern Baghdad. A resident describes a recent attack.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) As you can see, the shops here have been all burned down and the owner of one of the shops got killed along with another passerby by a car bomb explosion. A car was parked here, killing those two people and injuring a number of people here.

MCEVERS: There are differences between now and the civil war of 2006 and 2007. Back then, powerful Shiite militias like the Mahdi Army were fighting back against al-Qaida and its affiliates. While some small Shiite militias are behind some of the recent violence, the Mahdi Army so far has remained on the sidelines.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (speaks Arabic)

MCEVERS: This Mahdi army commander says his leader, the well-known anti-American cleric, Moqtada al Sadr, preaches not to fight against Sunnis. They are not just our brothers, he says, they are us. Ramzy Mardini is an Iraq analyst based in Amman, Jordan. He says Iraq now may be in midst of another civil war. It just doesn't look like the last one.

RAMZY MARDINI: Civil war in Iraq is, you know, not likely to look like the wider, communal conflicts of the past. Civil war may look like this cycle of clashes.

MCEVERS: Many analysts blame Iraq's troubles on the U.S., for turning away from Iraq after U.S. troops left in 2011.There is a concerted U.S. diplomatic effort underway to keep Iraq from imploding. But Mardini says the U.S., in particular the White House, could do more.

MARDINI: I think what Iraq needs is the president himself. He needs to be involved behind closed doors and making the phone calls to Iraqi leaders. Because it's the only way for, you know, to signal to Iraqis that the U.S. is serious about being there as a credible arbiter in helping the Iraqis steer the conflict towards some kind of resolution.

MCEVERS: That said, if the conflict in Syria gets worse and gets more sectarian, that resolution will be harder to achieve. What happens in Iraq, he says, ultimately depends on what happens in Syria. Kelly McEvers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelly McEvers is a two-time Peabody Award-winning journalist and former host of NPR's flagship newsmagazine, All Things Considered. She spent much of her career as an international correspondent, reporting from Asia, the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. She is the creator and host of the acclaimed Embedded podcast, a documentary show that goes to hard places to make sense of the news. She began her career as a newspaper reporter in Chicago.
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