Sectarian violence in northern Iraq

By Ritu Tiwari on June 18, 2014

Recently a news was published in The Times of India titled “Attacks in Northern Iraq killed 20 people” which stated that, Sunni militants (group of people who are engaged in aggressive activities) attacked the Iraqi soldiers and police in retaliation killed 20 people including militants and civilians. This type of violence is popularly known as sectarian violence. Violence between the 2 groups Sunni and Shia, started after the Iraq war, when Sunnis’ attacked one of the holiest places of Shia’s named al-Askari mosque in Samara in 2006 (Blanchard 2009). Violence decreased after 2006-07, but it rose again in 2012 when the Iraqis started anti-government protests (HAKALA 2013). The first attack in 2012 by the Sunnis’ started with the raid on Sunni finance minister’s house of Rafi-al-issawi, where they arrested 10 people (HAKALA 2013).

Escalating violence in Iraq

Since 2013, violence in Iraq has dramatically increased. The reason behind this increasing violence is said to be the government’s deaf behavior towards the protests by Sunnis’ (HAKALA 2013). Figure 1 below, shows the number of civilian’s deaths in Iraq in 2013 in different quarters. In the first quarter; number of deaths of civilians were 1110 and it  increased by 3103 in the third quarter (HAKALA 2013). Figure of deaths will continuously rise if the government of Iraq will not think about a positive resolution for the ongoing conflicts in Iraq.

Source: Policy Department, Directorate-General for External Policies, Iraq’s deadly spiral toward a civil war.
Source: Policy Department, Directorate-General for External Policies, Iraq’s deadly spiral toward a civil war.

Beginning of the conflict

The conflict between Sunni and Shia originated after the death of Prophet Mohammed, when the community leaders elected Abu Bakr as a successor of Prophet Mohammed (Blanchard 2009). Some Muslims were not ready to accept him as a successor and believed that Prophet Mohammed himself, named as Ali, was the successor. They believed that Ali was assassinated and his sons, Hussein who died in battle and Hassan was poisoned by Sunni caliph. People who supported Ali’s descendants are known as Shia’s and who accepted the legitimate of caliphate are called as Sunni’s (Blanchard 2009). Both the groups are having some common beliefs. However they are having regional conflict as well. The regional clashes stimulated the violence between Sunnis’ and Shias’.

Beliefs of Sunni and Shia

Sunnis’ are in majority all over the world in compared to Shias’. In Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and some MENA countries, Shias’ have a mainstream of 65 to 70% (Anon 2013b). Sunnis and Shias have some shared articles of faith like, both believe in god and Prophet Mohammed, heaven, hell, angels and predestination. Regional conflicts initiated due to different opinions like:

  • Visiting shrines of Muslim saints.
  • Appealing to diseased forebears
  • 10th day of the month of Muharram is also called “Ashura”, which has special significance for Shia’s because Prophet Mohammed’s grandson “Hussein” was killed on that day by Sunni caliph in a battle (Anon 2013b).

Shias’ and Sunnis’ both supposed that they are suffering discrimination against each other and strain to get their dominancy in a political environment. When Saddam Hussein was the ruler, Sunnis’ were in a political dominancy in the country. But after the fall of Saddam Hussein the dominance has diminished.

Situation in Iraq after Saddam Hussein

In 2003, after Saddam Hussein, the dominance of the Sunni declines and Shias’ become the dominant (Blanchard 2009). This was the time when the change in ruler ignited sectarian division between Sunni and Shias’. Since 2003, conflicts between both the groups started and in the attacks there have been many casualties of Iraqi soldiers and civilians. In 2006-07, the violence was on its peak and later on it declined (HAKALA 2013). Since 2008 number of civilian’s death had decreased but in 2012 violence again started with the anti-government protest in Anbar province of Iraq. Which resulted in the number of deaths of civilian deaths reaching 711 in 2013(HAKALA 2013).

Figure 2: Number of civilian’s deaths from 2003 to 2013 (Source::
Figure 2: Number of civilian’s deaths from 2003 to 2013 (

Reason behind the sectarian violence in Iraq

According to HAKALA (2013), Sunnis’ are in minority in Iraq, they believed that the dominant Shia government has created a discrimination against them. Sunnis’ feel they are marginalized after the fall of Saddam’s regime. They believe that the anti-terrorism laws are to falsely accuse and harass Sunnis’. Sunnis’ are also demanding respect for their rights and release of Sunni prisoners. Sunnis’ are waging for Sunni dominated political government in the country (HAKALA 2013). The author also stated that, previously the protests by Sunnis’ were peaceful but when they had clashes with the security forces, the protests became violent. The protests began on 21 December 2012 with the raid of finance minister’s House. Sectarian violence increased day by day but it heightened when an Iraqi officer was killed in the clashes in Hawija. The Government sieged Hawija on 19 April 2013 (Anon 2013a).

Hawija protest camp in Iraq

Hawija protest camp got famous in 19 April 2013 due to the eruption of immense violence (WEHLER-SCHÖCK 2014). According to the news titled ‘Iraq police and gunmen die in Mosul clashes‘, 53 people were killed in the clashes and by April 27, number of people killed reached 215 which included Sunni insurgents as well (Anon 2013a). In 23 April 2013, Hawija got maximum media attention due to anti-government protests which resulted in massive violence (WEHLER-SCHÖCK 2014).