Iraq is falling apart at the seams. As the fighting intensifies in Fallujah, chaos is simmering in Baghdad that threatens the Iraqi state. Protesters loyal to radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have stormed Baghdad three times during the last month to protest the ineffectiveness of the current government in dealing with corruption and the ISIS threat. Protesters have got as far as the prime ministers office before being called off by Sadr and repelled by security forces; sometimes with tear gas and live ammo.
What these protests reveal is an inherent instability in Iraq. The central government is weak and plagued with corruption. Sectarian tensions are boiling all over the country and Iraq looks increasing vulnerable There is a real danger that the current Iraqi state could collapse before the fight against ISIS ends. As I type this, Moqtada Al-Sadr’s “Peace Brigades”, a 50,000 man army, are preparing to enter Baghdad for the stated purpose of protecting civilians from ISIS terrorist attacks.
To alleviate some of this political vulnerability, the Iraqi government has launched a 30,000 man assault on Fallujah, the last major ISIS bastion in the south. With this operation, they hope to end the the stream of suicide bombers plaguing Baghdad and take some of the pressure off of the government.
ISIS however, plans to use the Fallujah offensive to ignite sectarian tensions in Baghdad. Many on the Sunni side feel (justified or not) that the assault on Fallujah will turn into a massacre and ethnic cleansing of the city’s Sunni citizens. To exaggerate these fears and stoke tensions, ISIS is planning to frame Shia soldiers for war crimes by blowing up mosques and executing prisoners dressed as Shia militiamen. They also plan to use human shields to increase civilian causalities.
All of these tactics are aimed at spiking tensions in Baghdad to crisis level. The Shia already feel under threat and are losing trust in the government, which many feel is incapable of controlling the security situation. A wave of attacks fueled by Sunni anger could be just the justification Sadr needs to send in the Brigades and for tensions to reach a boiling point.
If tensions boil over and Sadr sends troops to protect Shia civilians, his forces will be in dangerously close proximity to Iraqi security forces, government organs and the Sunni population. This would no doubt turn Baghdad into a powder keg. Six people have already been killed by security forces since the weekly protests started this month and there is a high likelihood that it will again spill over into violence. This time, either between the Peace Brigades, Iraq security forces and Sunnis .
While some Iraqi units (like special forces) are competent and are currently spearheading the assault on Fallujah, many are not, and it’s doubtful that they would be able to control escalation inside the city. If fighting breaks out the possibility of a coup by Sadr’s army is likely. Even if Sadr does not have a formal political position, he controls both the Peace Brigades and a small coalition in Iraq’s parliament. If his forces drive Iraqi government forces out he could be handed de-facto control.
Violence against the Sunnis is also likely. A heavy handed response against the Sunnis to further terrorism could lead to sectarian clashes between Sunni and Shia civilians and Sadr’s forces.
In either case, it would split the nation. As weak as the Iraqi government is, it is still a banner that all of the Iraqi factions can fight beside. Sunnis, Kurds, and Iranian backed militias might not feel motivated to fight a under the rule of nationalist Shia Cleric and abandon the Iraqi state, essentially breaking up the fragile inter-Iraqi coalition.
A Sunni revolt or massacre would have a similar effect, alienating Sunni tribesmen fighting for the Iraqi government and making it nearly impossible to retake the Sunni dominated parts of Iraq that ISIS still holds.
This is what ISIS is hoping for. If the government-led coalition collapses it would severely disrupt their ability to combat the terrorist group, allowing ISIS to regroup and preserve their territory in Iraq.