Sectarian Violence: Radical Groups Drive Internal Displacement in Iraq

Ashraf al-Khalidi and Victor Tanner
Victor Tanner Consultant on Humanitarian Issues; Faculty Member, Johns Hopkins SAIS; Co-author, <i>The Internally Displaced People of Iraq</i> (Brookings report, 2002)

October 18, 2006

The sharp rise in sectarian attacks, abductions and killings that followed the bombing of the holy Shi’a shrine in Samarra’s Golden Mosque in February 2006 has presented Iraq with an explosive problem: sectarian-induced displacement. September figures from Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration indicate that sectarian violence by Sunni and Shi’a extremists has forced circa 39,000 Iraqi families—234,600 individuals—to flee their homes since the Samarra bombing. Many displaced have found refuge with relatives and are thought not to have registered, which means that actual figures may be far higher.

This paper builds on four weeks of field research by Iraqi researchers across the country to present a bottom-up view of the violence and the ensuing displacement. Here are some of the findings:

Leaders on both sides say they view the violence and ensuing displacement as part of historical trends. Sunni leaders see it in the light of what they perceive as the oppression of the Sunni minority by the Shi’a majority since 2003. Shi’a leaders see the violence as the continuation of the policies of Saddam Hussein and notably his attempts to create a Shi’a-free belt around Baghdad.

At the same time there is a strong yearning for law and order in Iraqi society. Many ordinary people still do not think in terms of civil war, so long as it is not neighbor against neighbor, but armed thugs attacking civilians. Yet intolerance and mistrust are spreading, especially among the youth. Street slang is violent and dehumanizing. Another worrisome issue is that the tribes on both sides seem to be growing restless—open tribal conflict between tribal groups would add an organized, popular and rural dimension to the sectarian violence.

The violence is neither spontaneous nor popular. Displaced people view the most extreme religious fronts—the Office of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) on the Shi’a side, and the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) and the Islamic Party on the Sunni side—as the main drivers of sectarian displacement. The displacement clearly helps further the political agenda of these extremist groups. The groups all share in fact common goals: to consolidate their territory, to maintain some of ‘their’ people in the territory of the ‘other’ and, in the context of a feeble government, to pose as both protector and provider.

The displacement may also play into internecine struggles within the sectarian communities. For instance, the Sadr Office is likely to benefit when poor, urban Shi’a displaced from Baghdad—people who are likely to support Sadr—settle in areas like Najaf and Kerbala, where Sadr militias are locked in struggle with SCIRI. The displaced become pawns in this bloody political fight.

There are few voices of moderation. The radical armed groups call for national unity in the same breath that they vow total war on the other side. The pleas for calm and restraint by mainstream politicians are feckless. The current government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has so far proven unable to stem the violence. The US government talks about the need to stop the violence but is unwilling to commit the political capital and troops necessary to do so. The only national leader to have consistently and powerfully spoken out against the violence and specifically against displacement is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. But his influence seems to be waning as that of radical Shi’a groups and younger, hard-line leaders grows.

For copies of the report contact:
The Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement,

[email protected]

or (202) 797-6168