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Iraq at crossroads as bombs explode

By Arwa Damon, CNN
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Mon May 27, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Latest violence has led to fears of sectarian war in Iraq
  • Sunnis are feeling marginalized by Shia-led government
  • Outside groups have accused Iraqi security forces of abusing their power
  • Historical Sunni ties to Syria adds to their feeling of oppression

Editor's note: CNN's senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon based in Beirut, is an award-winning journalist and also one of the network's Iraq specialists. In 2010 she investigated the state of Iraq as the U.S. moved from operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, and was in Iraq for many of the war's historic moments. Before she left Lebanon for Iraq again she spoke with CNN.com about the latest surge of violence in the country.

Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) -- The uptick in violence in Iraq has prompted fears among Iraqi leaders and international powers that the tensions between Sunnis and Shiites could escalate further and threaten to burst into full-blown sectarian war.

Who's killing whom?

In some instances it's Iraqi security forces clashing with gunmen. In others cases it seems to be pure sectarian violence targeting the civilian population in easy to reach targets to cause maximum damage; to reignite divisions that never fully disappeared.

Why is this violence escalating?

Can Iraq combat sectarian violence?
A member of the Iraqi anti-terrorism force keeps watch as civilians arrive at a polling station to cast their ballots during provincial elections on Saturday, April 20, in Baghdad's Sadr City district. Iraqis are voting in the country's first polls since U.S. troops departed, a key test of the country's stability in the face of a spike in attacks that has claimed more than 100 lives. A member of the Iraqi anti-terrorism force keeps watch as civilians arrive at a polling station to cast their ballots during provincial elections on Saturday, April 20, in Baghdad's Sadr City district. Iraqis are voting in the country's first polls since U.S. troops departed, a key test of the country's stability in the face of a spike in attacks that has claimed more than 100 lives.
Iraqis vote amid violence
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After the U.S. military withdrawal, sectarianism began to re-emerge with a vengeance, plus al Qaeda in Iraq and various other groups are trying to re-establish themselves and there is fallout from what's happening in neighboring Syria.

For those closely following what has been happening in Iraq, this is not a surprise. To a certain degree the Iraqi government and other parties have been trying to dial back these tensions, but some steps taken by the Iraqi government serve only to aggravate them. Tensions are higher now than they have been for years.

Iraq's underlying problems have never been adequately addressed. There is a growing discontent within the Sunni minority and a growing number demonstrations against the predominantly Shia government.

And it's all being aggravated by what's happening in Syria.

What is the Syria Connection?

There have been long tribal ties between Iraq's Sunni heartland and tribes in Syria. Those tribes feel they are being oppressed by Shias whether it's the government in Iraq or the Alawite sect of Shia to which Syria's President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

In some ways both nations are proxy battlefields for a longtime power struggle between Saudi Arabia, with its Sunni majority, and Shia-ruled Iran and their respective allies.

At the same time Iraq's Sunni population has its own legitimate reasons for demonstrating against the government which have nothing to do with what is happening in Syria. That being said, the conflict in Syria is throwing more fuel into an already burning fire.

What is the state of the Iraqi security forces?

Despite all the training they received from the U.S. military they are still largely not properly trained to deal with the multi-layered challenges they face.

Additionally, Iraqi security forces are viewed by some as abusing their power; viewed not as a national force protecting the country but as a force protecting the Shia government.

And it doesn't help that when driving through Baghdad you see Shia paraphernalia on the security checkpoints.

There have been accusations of security forces targeting the Sunni population. Groups like Human Rights Watch accused the Iraqi security forces of abusing their power and using too much force to quell Sunni protests.

What are the dynamics between Iraq's Sunni and Shia populations?

To simplify an incredibly complex situation some Sunnis enjoyed a number of advantages under Saddam Hussein, which have completely slipped away during the rise of the Shia-led government.

To Iraq's detriment, the government from the onset was built upon religious identity -- sectarianism -- and has failed to develop into a nationalistic entity.

Iraq, which over the last decades has seen itself ripped apart, has yet to forge its own identity as a nation. Today the country is -- as the U.N. representative to Iraq recently put it -- at a crossroads.

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