In the Iraqi capital, the “Green Zone” has been considered a relatively safe haven from the chaos and turmoil that have plagued the nation since the US invasion in 2003. Sectarian violence has been a staple of Baghdadi life as Sunni and Shiite factions vie for control over Iraq’s government.
Early Saturday, an ISIS car bomb went off just east of the capital, killing 21 and wounding at least 42 others. The Sunni terrorist group was reportedly targeting Shiite pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Baghdad.
Meanwhile in the capital, Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s supporters gathered outside of Iraqi Parliament (located inside the Green Zone) to protest the government’s failure to pass major systemic government reforms. As the protest grew, thousands of al-Sadr supporters climbed the walls and breached the “Green Zone,” and many still remained occupying the Parliament building as of Saturday night. So far, the breach has remained relatively peaceful, with only a handful of protestors wounded by security forces attempting to maintain order.
While al-Sadr’s supporters have many legitimate gripes against the current government’s inability to reform, many Iraqi’s are quick to push back against the protestors, who represent a block that includes less than 10% of the seats in Iraq’s Parliament.
While the entirety of Baghdad was thrust into a state of emergency throughout Saturday evening, Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi announced that the situation was “under the control of the security forces.” All members of Parliament were allowed to leave, and only a small group of protestors remained inside as of the late evening.
The Green Zone
One of the key aspects of this event is the security breach in the Green Zone (officially called the “International Zone). During the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Green Zone was the center of the Ba’athist government. Saddam’s palace and the main functions of the government were based in this center section of Baghdad.
After the American invasion in 2003, Saddam’s palace was turned into a military headquarters. The Green Zone became the “safe” (green) section of Baghdad where most nations and even the U.N. set up operations and embassies.
Part of the security of the Green Zone comes from its role as the US base of operations within Baghdad during the entirety of the American occupation of Iraq. With a security barrier, large troop garrison, and strict restrictions on travel within the zone, it has served as the de facto secure section of the Iraqi capital that has had very few periods of peace since the US invasion.
The Green Zone reopened to the public for the first time since 2003 in October of 2015, yet this incident puts this policy in jeopardy once again. After Iraqi security forces proved incapable of preventing protestors from taking over their own Parliament building, this may renew fears from other nations whose embassies sit within the Green Zone. For the first time in years, the security of the Green Zone must legitimately be called into question.
The Iraqi capital – and nation on the whole – is no stranger to sectarian tensions and violence. Through March of 2016 alone, more than 2,600 Iraqi’s have died in sectarian incidents of violence – much of which has been focused on the ISIS conflict with Shiite militia groups.
Baghdad’s sectarian issues began largely with the insurgencies that arose out of the American invasion. This Vox map demonstrates the influence that the insurgencies and sectarian violence between 2003 and 2007 had on the ethnic makeup of Baghdad’s neighborhoods. Most importantly, there was a sharp Sunni/Shiite segregation that occurred over this period, leading to increased rates of violence among the ethnic groups.
While tensions appeared to have reached their peak in 2006-2007 at the height of the insurgency against the US-installed regime, the rise of ISIS has re-ignited the ethnic tensions that seem to plague most mixed Sunni/Shiite Arab nations. While ISIS has captured key sections of majority-Sunni territory in Northern Iraq, there has been fervent opposition from the Iraqi government (currently run by Shiite PM al-Abadi and Kurdish President Fuad Masum).
Sunni Muslims have been generally displeased with the governments installed since Saddam’s ousting. After the Sunni Hussein treated the Shiites and Kurds brutally, the US and much of the Iraqi population has been reluctant to give much support to hardline Sunnis. This split has actually caused many former Ba’athists to become deeply involved in the Sunni ISIS invasion. As ISIS has taken key Sunni cities in the north and central Iraq, it has found strong centers of support from Sunni Muslims fed up with the current Iraqi government.
Of course, this complicates things when a Shiite cleric (al-Sadr) whose speech condemning the Iraqi government’s inability to implement reforms sparked the protests. Al-Sadr had actually been leading protests outside the Green Zone for the past month, but his strong condemnation of the Iraqi Parliament’s decision today sent thousands of his supporters on a frenzied mission to occupy the seat of Iraqi power.
To further muddle the ethnic divides involved, reports indicate that some protestors targeted Kurdish MP’s while inside the government buildings, which sparked allegations that al-Sadr is attempting to strong-arm Iraq into policies through threats and violence.
The Iraqi government has been struggling to combat grim economic prospects (fueled in-part by low oil prices) combined with the violent ISIS invasion and threats of Kurdish secession.
On Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden made an unannounced visit to Baghdad to give support to the current government in Iraq. In addition to announcing increased US troop allocations to help combat the threat from ISIS, Biden stressed the importance of retaking Mosul.
The symbolism of this visit cannot be underscored enough. The last time Biden set foot on Iraqi soil was to commemorate the final stage of the American withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 – only weeks before US troops completely exited the nation. Biden’s return to Iraq, particularly on such an urgent note, represents the complete failure and inability of the Iraqi government to regulate and protect its own country in the wake of nearly a decade of US occupation.
While Iraq was lucky that this recent protest and breach of the Green Zone was relatively peaceful by Baghdadi standards, sectarian tensions continue to rise in the divided nation. The long-term impacts for the Green Zone itself may be unclear, but one thing is: the Iraqi government is struggling to maintain order as the nation continues to fracture and factionalize.