On 22 February, 2006, at 6:44 AM, two bombs ripped through the Al-Askari Mosque, destroying its golden dome and ultimately triggering a civil war.
Content warning: massacres, terrorism, kidnappings, bombings, and sectarianism
When the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, it set the ideal conditions for civil unrest. As Iraqis witnessed destructive and murderous campaigns carried out by US forces, their anger with these occupiers who arrived as so-called "liberators" intensified.
The humiliation, destitution, destruction, and brutality unleashed upon Iraqis led to the early formation of resistance groups. Taking advantage of the instability and widespread discontent, insurgents recruited unemployed Iraqi men and gradually absorbed smaller militias.
By late 2003, suicide bombings and attacks on occupation forces became commonplace. The Bush administration understood that the situation was worsening, but they feared the release of this information to the media and, of course, the public.
To avoid backlash for the war and secure a 2004 re-election, the administration spread the thought that US forces had the situation under control. It resorted to blaming all violence on foreign fighters from Al-Qaeda, deliberately ignoring the growing animosity Iraqis held.
However, by early 2006, the government could no longer keep this facade up. Following the destruction of the Al-Askari Mosque, a holy Shia Muslim site housing the tombs of two Imams, sectarian violence ripped through the nation.
While this disputed attack amplified sectarianism, strife between the Shia and Sunni Arab populations already existed due to historical and developing relations.
For many Shias, resentment towards Sunni Arabs was rooted in the decades of massacres, repression, and marginalization they faced under the former Ba’athist government of Saddam Hussein, as well as the more recent violence they were subject to by Sunni extremist groups.
Moreover, for many Sunni Arabs, resentment towards Shias was rooted in their circumstances following the invasion. The once privileged group witnessed significant disenfranchisement, institutionalized discrimination, and targeted violence that Shia politicians were complicit in.
Despite alleged attempts by government and religious leaders to ease tensions, sectarian violence ensued. On the first day, Shia militias mobilized and carried out attacks on Sunni mosques in Baghdad, killing civilians and three clerics.
Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr condemned the attacks and advised his followers to protect Sunni areas, yet his militia, Mahdi Army (Jaysh Al-Mahdi), continued to be at the forefront of sectarian campaigns against Sunni Arab civilians.
Similarly, on the day of the bombing, Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei urged his followers to refrain from taking revenge, yet the Iran-backed Badr Organization paramilitary also infamously operated death squads against Sunni Arab civilians.
The next day, kidnappings and attacks continued, as 47 Sunni Arab men with their hands tied together were found shot dead in a Baghdad ditch. Sunni increased their attacks, kidnapping and killing journalists and media members for reporting on the Al-Askari Mosque bombing.
Sunni insurgents from Al-Qaeda also proceeded to bomb a funeral procession for Atwar Bahjat, one of the journalists killed in Samarra. Then, Sunni fighters kidnapped the children of an Islamic Da’awa Party member and detonated bus bombs in majority-Shia cities.
President Jalal Al-Talabani warned that Iraq was on the brink of a civil war, but little did he know it had already begun. Warring militias had already attacked 21 mosques and killed hundreds of civilians. Chaos only furthered.
By the end of the week, ethno-sectarian cleansing campaigns were already underway. Shia civilians fled the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib after threats and violence from Sunni extremists. The government reported that sectarian violence killed 379 people in a span of six days.
It still didn’t end there. Extreme levels of sectarian violence continued throughout 2006 and then resurged in early 2007 after the execution of Saddam Hussein. Just in the capital, as many as 3,000 Iraqis were killed a month directly as a result of sectarian conflict.
The nonstop violence prompted a swift demographic shift in the capital. Here are maps of the religious distribution of Baghdad before and after the 2006-2007 sectarian violence. Note the decrease in areas with a mixed population.
Militias set up checkpoints, engaged in armed street fights, carried out car bomb attacks, and cleansed swaths of Baghdad along sectarian lines. In an attempt to alleviate tensions, the government erected blast walls throughout Baghdad, dividing the city into fortified enclaves.
Often neglected from the conversation are minority groups, who also greatly suffered during this period. In August 2007, a faction of Sunni extremists that later came to be known as ISIS detonated four car bombs in two northern towns, killing 796 Yezidi civilians.
Trapped between warring militias with little to no protection, thousands of Christians and Mandeans were killed, kidnapped, or exiled from Baghdad. After all the terrors they faced, around 90% of Assyrian Christians and Mandaeans fled the nation.
At that time, Baghdad essentially turned into a battleground for warring sectarian militias and a deathcamp for its residents. The sight of scattered bullet casings, body bags, and armed fighters on the streets was far too common.
Almost all Iraqis living then can name at least one family member, friend, or colleague they lost in all this senseless killing, yet some still proceed to use the same sectarian rhetoric that has perpetuated the country’s plight.
Iraq continues to be ruled by these same sectarian militias and corrupt politicians that inflicted or disregarded this traumatizing ravage. Some of have fallen victim to their empty messages and promises, completely forgetting or excusing the crimes they’re responsible for.
However, most Iraqis haven’t. Every few years, mass protests erupt across the country in opposition to the government. Defenders of leading parties try to minimize these movements as simple protests for services. Respectfully, they’re lying or are seriously blinded.
Thousands of men and women don’t just risk their lives for electricity and employment. They’re demanding an Iraq for Iraq’s people, not one for the status-quo to pillage or for foreign governments to exploit. They want a homeland where they can feel protected, accepted, and free.
While elections are never free or fair in Iraq, go renew your election cards and and vote. It is an opportunity to hinder these destructive parties’ efforts by expressing our defiance towards them. Their time must eventually come to an end. #صوتك_وطن

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