Examining Iraq's Latest Upsurge In Violence

Sectarian violence has flared in Iraq a year and a half after the departure of American forces. The U.N. reported that more than 1,000 people were killed there in May, the deadliest violence since the height of the insurgency during the U.S. occupation. For more on what's causing the chaos, Linda Wertheimer talks with Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Iraq is experiencing some of the worst violence the country's seen since the height of the insurgency during the U.S. occupation. According to U.N. figures, more than a thousand Iraqis were killed in May, mainly in sectarian violence, making that the deadliest month there in five years.

To understand what's behind this, we're joined by Joost Hiltermann. He's an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group.

Joost Hiltermann, welcome back to our program.

JOOST HILTERMANN: Thank you very much.

WERTHEIMER: Now, could you tell us about this violence? Who is being targeted? Does it seem to you to be a very dramatic escalation?

HILTERMANN: It is definitely an escalation. Well, we have seen a steady pattern of violence since the end of the surge in 2007, 2008, and since the end of that more sectarian active civil war that took place. Now, we are seeing a spike in the violence, and I think it is due because the parties in Iraq - meaning the government, which is controlled by a Shiite Islamist party headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and insurgents who are mostly Sunni - they are looking towards Syria, and they're seeing that what's happening there will affect them in the future.

It's already affecting them today. And they think what will happen in Syria might either raise or reduce their chances at power in Iraq itself.

WERTHEIMER: Now, Iraq has been off the radar for most Americans since the U.S. pulled troops out at the end of 2011. Could you just give us a quick capsule about what remains of the government that the United States had such hopes for in Iraq?

HILTERMANN: Well, the government is still there. Now, on paper, it is a power-sharing government. In reality, the various groups in Iraq are indeed in the government. But effectively, it's the prime minister who rules, and the other parties are essentially opponents to the prime minister and trying to oust him. And they've tried so on several occasions through a no-confidence vote in parliament, and they failed.

There have been numerous rumors of plots to oust him. I think none of them would have any real basis, but whatever. They didn't succeed, either, if they existed. And the only real way for Maliki's opponents to get rid of him is going to be the elections next year, the national elections. And the real question is going to be: Are these going to be free and fair elections?

Meanwhile, there is huge frustration about the lack of services, you know, the poor governance, the very deep divisions that exist between Maliki and the people he represents and the Kurds, and between Maliki and the Shia on the one hand, and then the insurgents and the political representatives of the Sunni community on the other hand. And so it is a very unhappy situation, which could continue for some time, except for the Syria crisis, which is looming.

WERTHEIMER: With all of this tension, all of this internal tension about the leadership in Iraq at this moment, is the government in any position to sort of put a cap on this violence to stop it?

HILTERMANN: Under normal circumstances, you could think that with steady institution-building, this could happen. But, unfortunately, the situation in the region is not normal. Since 2008, you had relative stability, but since the outbreak of the Arab Spring - or the Arab Awakening, whatever you want to call it - things have turned violent in Iraq, as well - not to the same extent as in other countries, because there was no dictatorship here to overthrow. But all the same, the same issues of lack of governance and, you know, deep divisions between the youth and the older generation is certainly there. And so now that is coming to a head.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much.

HILTERMANN: My pleasure. Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: Joost Hiltermann is the chief operating officer of the International Crisis Group. He's a long-time Iraq analyst.

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