Iraqi authorities are going for the trifecta. They are finally forming a new government, nine months after the March parliamentary elections, to be headed by incumbent Nuri al-Maliki at the head of a Shiite-Kurdish coalition. They have finally gotten UN sanctions on Iraq, implemented after the 1990 occupation of Kuwait, lifted. And they are increasingly in charge of their own security arrangements, as US troops draw down, to depart altogether next year this time according to al-Maliki and the Status of Forces Agreement.
In the latter regard, Baghdad announced Friday that security teams had arrested nearly 80 Sunni Arab radicals from 14 terrorist cells in Diyala province, a few of them accused of planning roadside bomb and other attacks on Shiite pilgrims making their way to Karbala for the commemoration of Ashura. This holy day is held in honor of the martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Husayn, who was cut down with his followers as they protested oppression at the hands of the Umayyad kingdom in 680 CE [“AD”]. Diyala, an ethnically mixed province abutting Iran where Sunnis have organized to resist rule by hard line Shiite groups, has been the scene of persistent violence since 2003. Al-Hayat reports in Arabic that Sunni young men there have organized themselves into “Youth of Heaven” (Fityan al-Jannah). Only two of those arrested are explicitly accused of planning suicide bombings against Ashura pilgrims, and a lot of the arrests probably involved sweeps against the usual suspects.
Nearly 2 million pilgrims are assembling in Karbala, 1 in 8 of them from abroad, and in past years the Sunni radicals eager to destabilize the new Shiite order in Baghdad had carried out massive bombings and other attacks on this special occasion. This is the first year that the Iraqi security forces are virtually on their own, with no US help on surveillance and intelligence (since the US has stopped actively patrolling, and no longer flies helicopter gunships routinely on missions, US intelligence must have dropped off sharply, and it is the Iraqi security that has the best idea from where threats might emerge). So far, some 17 pilgrims have died in disparate small attacks.
In a nightmare for radical groups with a Sunni background, the Shiite government of Baghdad is now offering to give help to Iran in fighting bombings carried out by Salafi revivalists cum sub-nationalists in Iranian Sistan and Baluchistan. Baluch are mostly hard line Sunnis and some chafe at Shiite, urban Persian rule. (Sistan and Baluchistan is among the poorest and most disadvantage of Iran’s provinces.)
Iran blamed the US and the UK for the Dec. 15 bombing of a Shiite mosque by Baluch activists, called Jundu’llah or the Army of God, which killed 38.
The events in Karbala and Baluchistan demonstrate the ways in which contemporary Sunni-Shiite divides are increasingly politicizing the mourning rituals of Muharram (the month in which Ashura falls). But what is interesting is that although there is talk of transnational security cooperation, and suspicions of transnational guerrilla cooperation, in fact these are highly localized struggles pivoting on demands for ethnic autonomy; it is not even clear that religion is the most important issue in them.