After A Surge Of Violence, The Threat Of A New Civil War In Iraq Since the beginning of April, more than 2,000 people have died in bombings and other attacks in Iraq. NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, just back from a trip to Baghdad, explains what's behind the recent rise in violence and what's changed since U.S. troops left the country in 2011.

After A Surge Of Violence, The Threat Of A New Civil War In Iraq

After A Surge Of Violence, The Threat Of A New Civil War In Iraq

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Since the beginning of April, more than 2,000 people have died in bombings and other attacks in Iraq. NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers, just back from a trip to Baghdad, explains what's behind the recent rise in violence and what's changed since U.S. troops left the country in 2011.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

Yesterday, seven people were killed and 24 wounded in bomb attacks in Iraq as a surge of violence there continues, 2,000 dead since April; numbers that haven't been seen since the worst days of 2006 and 2007. Then as now, the fighting is largely between Sunnis and Shiites, but this time, inflamed by the civil war raging next door in Syria.

NPR foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers just got back from a trip to Baghdad and joins us now from her base in Beirut. Nice to have you back on the program.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Thanks, Neal. Good to be here.

CONAN: And how does Syria's war spark violence in Iraq?

MCEVERS: Yes, it's a bit of a long story, Neal. I won't go into too much detail, but what I will say is that, you know, what happened in Syria, we all know it started as an uprising. It was during the Arab Spring. There were people going to the streets to protest. It took awhile for this to kind of catch on in Iraq. But when it did, it was a wave of protests in mostly Sunni areas. That's because the government in Iraq is controlled now by Shiites, Shiite politicians, different Shiite political parties. And so you saw in many Sunni areas of Iraq people going to the streets to protest, demanding jobs, demanding better treatment, demanding an end to what they see as kind of a police state behavior with their people, they said, you know, unlawful detentions.

And so when you have protests in a country that's already very divided along sectarian lines, the protests are going to get sectarian pretty quickly. And they also got violent. You saw in tandem with these protests were the rise of some violent attacks, and a lot of people attribute these attacks to local insurgent groups like al-Qaida in Iraq. And then you saw sort of Shiite militias, you know, fighting back with their own attacks. And then it basically spiraled out of control.

CONAN: You mentioned al-Qaida in Iraq. This was a group that was, well, largely defeated by the Sunnis themselves, in cooperation with American and some Iraqi forces as well. But the Sunnis themselves discredited these people.

MCEVERS: Well, those part of the so-called surge, you know, a big surge of troops, American troops coming to Iraq, it was also, you know, in that program was also this idea of a Sunni awakening, where U.S. troops really paired up and partnered with some of the Sunni tribesmen as a way to say, look, al-Qaida, these guys don't - they don't represent you. They aren't you. And so the tribesmen really joined up with American forces and tried to convince their own people to kind of root out these militants and get rid of them.

What you're seeing now is a reconnection - this is what some analysts told me - a reconnection between the people and the insurgence. All of a sudden, the people see - they don't see anyone else out there in the playing field as someone who could help them sort of address their grievances with the Shiite-led government. And so while they don't think al-Qaida is going to go into parliament, you know, necessarily solve their problems with new laws, they feel like al-Qaida in Iraq or other related insurgent groups, former Ba'athists, are the only ones who can get out there and sort of fight for their grievances.

So what one, you know, former insurgent now analyst told me in Iraq was that, you know, these people are now welcoming the insurgency. Insurgents are now heroes to them. They're able to come back home where they used to be chased out of their towns.

CONAN: And this, as you say, is leading to that sort of tit for tat violence or what somebody once described as the politics of the latest atrocity. How can you possibly deal with the people who did that awful thing?

MCEVERS: Well, I mean, you know, revenge, you know, goes deep in Iraq. People remember what happened during the 2006, '07 - and '07 war - very, very keenly. You know, they're not going to forget that. So, in some ways, that's a deterrent. You know, in some ways, it means that nobody wants to go back to that kind of - that level of violence.

And so one key difference here that we are seeing from now to back in those days is that - the kind of main Shiite militia. It's known as the Mahdi Army. This is led by, you know, well-known anti-American cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr.

These guys are not involved in the fight right now. Back in the 2006-2007 war, they were openly fighting as a militia against these Shiite insurgents and openly fighting against the Americans. They are not involved in the fight. In fact, they have been told to stand down there in the midst of the ceasefire. I talked to a Jaish al-Mahdi - Mahdi Army leader, and he said, you know, we've been given our orders. We're not ready to fight. So I think that is the difference. You are seeing some smaller splinter Shiite militias behind some of this violence, but by and large, it's actually Sunni-led violence right now.

CONAN: The hope was that the government the United States left behind in Baghdad, a democratic government where people could express their grievances in courts of law and through parliament. What's happened to that?

MCEVERS: I mean, there are still politics going on in Iraq. There is still a parliament. There is, you know, it's a place where people stand up and argue and try to fix some of these problems. I mean there is a political process going on. I think the one result to the protests has been violence. Another result has been, well, let's say, a robust political debate and discussion that's going on. I think the Shiite-led government understands that it has to make some concessions to the Sunni community. I think it's trying to find moderate Sunnis to work with, you know, people who aren't sponsoring these more violent groups. I think that's happening on some level. You've seen a rapprochement between, you know, the government in Baghdad and the Kurds. There've been lots of troubles between the two of them. There's been some talks, now. I mean, so there is a political process going on.

It got really bad in April when some Sunni protesters in the northern Iraqi town of Hawija were actually attacked by Iraqi forces and dozens were killed during a protest. This was called a massacre by the Sunnis, and it was a real low point for Iraq. I think everybody was very worried at that point. You know, Iraq's allies in the region, American officials were very worried that the place was going to implode, and it didn't, you know? I mean, I think there was a lot of backroom dealing, a lot of, you know, negotiations going on, a lot of different leaders at different levels telling their people to calm down, and they calm the situation down. I'm not saying the situation in Iraq is good. It is not good. Things are definitely coming apart at the seams, but there is politics in Iraq.

CONAN: Another thing that was hoped, was that this country, wealthy in oil, would develop its economy, provide jobs and, well, that would calm things down. How is the Iraqi economy doing?

MCEVERS: It's doing OK. I mean, you know, they've projected that oil production will increase next year. I think one of the biggest problems that Iraqis would tell you is that they're not necessarily seeing the benefits of those oil revenues trickle down into everyday life. You know, electricity is till an issue. Basic services are still an issue, so I think some people in Iraq are benefiting quite well from this - from the oil sector - but others are not.

CONAN: And as we look ahead to the situation, you mentioned the negotiations with the Kurds, northern Iraq is pretty much an autonomous region. It makes its own policies and has very much irritated Baghdad by selling oil produced in the north on its own and shipping it through Turkey.

MCEVERS: That's right. I mean, this is an ongoing debate between the Kurds and the central government of Iraq, you know? What percentage of the revenues do we get? That's basically the question for the Kurds. There's currently an agreement whereby there's a certain percentage of the national budget that the Kurds get, because they do have some of the oil in the north. They think that percentage should increase. And when they lost that fight, they just basically started exporting the oil on their own. This is something the central government of Iraq doesn't want to see happen. This is something that the Americans don't want to see happen. Everybody, you know, involved and interested in Iraq right now wants Kurdistan to remain a part of Iraq.

But, you know, you have to realize that like the Sunnis in Iraq, even though they're a minority, the Kurds see what's happening in Syria, and they're emboldened too. You know, there is a very large Kurdish population in Syria. Some say about 20 percent of the population. They also have risen up against the government. They have gotten some more autonomy in this uprising in Syria. They have armed their own militias on either side of the divide. You know, so I think the Kurdish leaders are looking - of Iraq - are looking to the future and saying, you know, maybe we're going to be able to posture ourselves in a different way and maybe, you know, maybe not in this generation but the next - Independence is, you know, in the future.

CONAN: We have seen, of course, Lebanese go into the Syrian civil war on both sides, most notably Hezbollah, the big Shi'a force militia in Lebanon, openly siding, now, with the forces of President Assad in Syria. A lot of Lebanese Sunnis also are getting involved in the fighting. What about Iraqis? Are they going into Syria to fight?

MCEVERS: Well, we're going to have a story about this on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED this evening, Neal. We actually talked to some Iraqi Shiite fighters who said, yes, we're very happy to tell us about the eight or nine months that they've spent fighting in Syria, showed us videos of the fights that they've been in, the battles they've been in, of the weapons they unwrapped from the brand-new plastic to use to fight in Syria.

This is a very new and very worrying development in the region, frankly. You know, this is really the first time we've seen a kind of regional Shiite jihad, for lack of a better way to say it. You've got fighters from one sect coming from all over the region to fight in one place, much like, you know, insurgents did in Afghanistan in the 1980s or came to Iraq to fight against the U.S. in 2003, 4, 5 and 6.

Now, it's Shiite fighters going to Syria, and the difference is they're going to fight fellow Muslims. They're going to fight the other sect. They're going to fight what they see are extremist Sunnis who they believe are now leading the rebellion in Syria. It's a very worrying development because you've got the people themselves in these countries, not just the fighters, but the people in Iraq, the people in Lebanon, very much behind this. You know, 500 Iraqi fighters - that's what I was told - and thousands of fighters from Lebanon going in to fight somebody else's war.

CONAN: On the other side, on the Sunni side, the al-Nusra Front openly allies with al-Qaida in Iraq.

MCEVERS: That's actually kind of a complicated relationship. One week they'll say they're aligned with each other, and the next week they won't. And then you'll see the head of al-Qaida - the larger al-Qaida organization, Ayman al-Zawahiri - say, you know, let's try mend fences. So it's not completely clear whether they are formally allied with one another. But, yes, they do. They share resources. They've obviously been fighting alongside one another in Syria with many reports that, you know, the very early days of this, you know, sort of extremist wing of the Syrian rebellion was armed and fostered by the Iraqis themselves. And, again, these guys are definitely gaining prominence in the Syrian rebellion as the whole thing becomes more extreme on both sides.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR's foreign correspondent Kelly McEvers in Beirut, just back from a visit to Baghdad, about the increased sectarian fighting and tension in Iraq. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Kelly, I have to ask you about the role of the United States and the role of Iraqi government in some of this. The United States has been asking the Iraqi government to halt the flow of Iranian arms to Syria. They over-fly Iraqi territory, and the United States has been asking the Iraqi authorities to say bring those planes down for inspection.

MCEVERS: That's right. I mean, I think you see with the involvement of Iraqi fighters and Lebanese fighters in Syria, I think you see Western diplomats and Western officials from all over really telling both of these countries that it is in their interest to stay neutral in the Syria fight, that the more that either side take sides, the more trouble it's going to get in. The Iraqi government says that it does not, you know, in any way, sponsor these fighters going into Syria, these Shiite fighters.

But many people on the ground told us that the government basically turns a blind eye. We hear the same thing here in Lebanon. No one's stopping those Hezbollah fighters at the border. The Lebanese army, certainly, isn't stopping them from going into fight in Syria. This is where it gets very dangerous because you have, you know, if you just sort of do the numbers, if you look at the various powers that support Shiites, for instance, they are outnumbered in the region that is dominated by Sunnis - just sheer numbers.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey being the major Sunni powers in the region. So if they do start taking sides like that, it's going to start to turn into a much larger conflict, I think, not just between Sunnis and Shiites on the ground, but between the great powers at the top.

CONAN: And as this conflict in Syria continues with no end in sight - lately, the government forces have been enjoying some important successes. And we'll have to see what happens in Aleppo. But Qusair, just a couple of weeks ago, an important victory for them. Nevertheless, there doesn't appear to be an end in sight. And as these developments continue, is there any way to keep these other countries of the conflict?

MCEVERS: Right. The more these people get involved, the more they feel justified to get involved. Again, these fighters, like I said, are very much supported by the people on the ground. So the more you see Shiite fighters going in, you see Shiites communities backing them with, you know, celebrations and posters. There are songs going around on ring tones, on people's phones, you know, talking about how we're going to cut your heads off, you evildoers. You know, one side accusing the other. The more one side does it, the more the other side is going to do it in retaliation. So you just really can't see an end to that.

You mentioned Aleppo. I think the next battle, everybody agrees, will be in that city. It's the largest city in Syria. It's in the north of Syria. Lots of reports that, you know, Lebanese militia fighters from Hezbollah are alongside the Syrian army. I was told by the Iraqis that they're there too to fight - to take back half of the city that is controlled by Syrian rebels now. That's not going to be a small fight.

CONAN: And as you talked about the politics that does continue in Baghdad, in Iraq in the midst of all of this crisis and tension, is the fight in Syria openly part of the conversation in Baghdad? Are the Sunni parties, and they are Sunni parties. There aren't any, you know, bi-sectarian parties that have any influence to speak of. Are the Sunni parties saying we support the Sunnis in Syria, are the Shia party saying we support the government in Syria?

MCEVERS: One of the most interesting things to do in Baghdad right now is to actually watch television. And you can clearly see that there are, you know, pro-Shiite stations, pro-Iraqi government stations, stations that support, you know, the Syrian army. And then there's the other side, the pro-Sunni stations that are pro-Syrian rebellion and pro, you know, the Sunni protests in the streets in Iraq. It's interesting, though. Sectarianism is still actually a very sensitive topic in Iraq, you know, and in Syria.

I think if you sat someone down, almost to a man, they'll say, I'm not sectarian. It's those guys. It's them. They're the ones who started it. We stretched out a hand in peace. You know, we wanted this. We didn't want this to go this way. So whenever you watch one of these stations, you hear the criticism of the other side. You know, it's not so much that we support the rebellion in Syria. It's that we criticize the government of Syria. And that's always how you can tell what side somebody is on.

CONAN: Kelly McEvers, we'll look forward to your piece this evening on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MCEVERS: Thank you.

CONAN: NPR correspondent Kelly McEvers joined us from Beirut. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY with a look at whether the United States is losing its edge in science and innovation. And we'll see you on again on Monday. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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