The patterns of conflict in Iraq have grown steadily more complex with time, adding sectarian and ethnic conflicts to what began as a largely Ba’athist dominated resistance in mid-2003. There are now five major patterns of violence:
Sunni Islamist extremist insurgents , where Al Qa’ida plays a major role along with at least two other movements. These are the primary source of suicide attacks, car bombings, and attacks on Iraqi and Coalition forces.
Iraqi Arab Sunni versus Arab Shi’ite conflicts , where Shi’ite militias and death squads play a major role, and where sectarian violence, threats, and pressures are forcing the segregation of many areas, leading to displacements, and creating ethnic “cleansing.”
Iraqi Arab versus Iraqi Kurdish ethnic conflicts center around the “ethnic fault” line, where control of Kirkuk and the oil fields around it have become a major source of tension and potential conflict that extends to the West to the area around Mosul. The future of the Turcomans and other minorities is directly affected by the outcome, as is national unity. This ethnic struggle also interacts with similar Kurdish ethnic tensions and struggles affecting Turkey, Iran, and Syria.
Arab Shi’ite on Arab Shi’ite struggles for political control and power, particularly in Southeastern Iraq. Each of the three major Shi’ite parties is a rival for power along with smaller parties that play a major role in key cities like Basra. Clashes between Shi’ite factions and militias have so far been limited, but the struggle for control of the Shi’ite shrine cites and the oil-rich provinces in the Southeast may have only begun.
Arab Sunni on Arab Sunni violence now concentrated largely in Al Anbar but spreading eastwards into Diyala. This is partly a struggle for tribal control of given areas, but also a struggle between Sunni Islamist extremist elements like Al Qa’ida in Iraq. These struggles ease the pressure on the ISF and Coalition to some degree, but the enemy of an enemy is not necessarily a lasting “friend.”
These divisions, however, tell only part of the story. Many Iraqis have divided or multiple loyalties, and the patterns of violence in one area may well differ from another. This becomes far clearer from the detailed results of a recent public opinion poll by ABC News, USA Today, the BBC, and ARD. This poll provided important insights into the overall trends in Iraqi “hearts and minds,” but it also provided an important window into just how much Iraqis differ by major city and province. It also shows that any successful effort at counterinsurgency and conciliation must carefully consider all of the patterns in Iraqi perceptions and civil conflict.