Al Arabiya is reporting that Iraq’s Christian members of parliament are demanding to be allowed to form an autonomous area in the northern province of Mosul. This may seem like it’s a good idea. In the past several months, Christians have been targeted in a number of attacks–the height of which was the October 2010 hostage crisis at a Syriac-Catholic Church in Baghdad, where some 58 were killed. Moreover, strictly in terms of numbers, this move would be of relatively small significance. Iraq is home to roughly 400,000-600,000 Christians in a total population of some 29 million (down from an estimated 1.4 million before the war). But in a country known for volatile ethnic and religious divisions, this call for self-segregation is a dangerous move. Sectarianism is a serious and growing threat to stability in Iraq, and Christians are not the only group with demands.
Iraqi Shi’ites have recently united in protests supporting their Bahraini brethren. Non-sectarian demonstrations in Bahrain against government corruption and inefficiency have spurred Iraqi Shia to rally around a shared religious identity. Whether or not the Bahraini demonstrators are exclusively Shia, violence and suppression in Bahrain has clearly affected the sectarian politics of Iraq.
As both Christians and Shi’ites clamor for more benefits for their respective communities, the Sunni population is feeling increasingly disaffected. Largely left out of the ruling government under Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, there is widespread and growing discontent amongst Iraqi Sunnis. This discontent could quickly become more intense and result in gains for al Qaeda or a resurgence of the Sunni insurgency that ripped through the country in 2006.
This pattern of ethnic and religious division is part of a wider and more troublesome trend of growing sectarian tension–in Iraq and in the region more broadly. However, the US does retain some influence in Iraq. We should make sure that when we use that influence, we take into account the increasingly complex sectarian situation in the country and work to reduce unnecessary friction when possible.
— Jordan D’Amato