Since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, one of the most frequently recurring talking points has been speculation as to whether there will be a sectarian civil war in the country. Throughout this winter, the media at large and numerous analysts have been quick to note incidents of mass casualty attacks, pointing to an upsurge in fatalities, particularly in the month of January.
In addition, there has been a tendency to tie the increase in violence to the U.S. withdrawal and the subsequent political crisis that entailed the issuing of an arrest warrant against Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice-president of Iraq, on allegations of involvement in terrorism, as well as a boycott of the Iraqi parliament by the main opposition bloc al-Iraqiya, which has now decided to end its boycott.
Alas, if only those experts had consulted Tacitus, who, in commenting on what he saw as a trend in his own day towards greater parsimony- in contrast with other Roman authors who regarded contemporary society as corrupted by extravagance- speculated that "forte rebus cunctis inest quidam velut orbis, ut, quemadmodum temporum vices, ita morum vertantur" ("there is perhaps in all happenings something like a cyclical pattern, so that, just as there are the vicissitudes of eras, thus there are changes in customs" - Annals III.55).
In other words, there are some recurring trends and changes that are predictable on a given time basis (e.g. annual or seasonal). In Iraq, the month of January over the past two years has been marked by the celebration of the Shi'a religious festival of Arba'een according to the lunar calendar.
This involves tens of thousands of pilgrims, whether from Iraq, Iran and even the Indian subcontinent, descending upon the holy site of Karbala. Indeed, the majority of these pilgrims travel either by bus or on foot.
Hence, it is reasonable to expect that, since they are easy targets for Sunni terrorist groups like al-Qa'ida, there will be an upsurge in attacks every year around the time of Arba'een, which took place this year on January 14th and in 2011 on January 25th.
Sure enough, statistical data here vindicate this expectation. In December 2010, the Iraq Body Count recorded 217 civilian deaths, compared with 387 in January 2011. Similarly, in December 2011, there were 371 civilian deaths, as opposed to 458 in January 2012.
The figures for December 2011 seem to be a high number in comparison with December 2010, but it can be explained in light of the fact that al-Qa'ida had long been planning attacks to coincide with the U.S. withdrawal and give the impression of gaining ground against the Iraqi government and security forces.
In any case, the casualty statistics for December 2011 are lower than for May and June 2011, which recorded 378 and 385 civilian deaths respectively, even while there were still tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the country, largely confined to their bases with little freedom of movement. These observations fit in with an annual cycle in which insurgents step up their operations towards the end of spring and the onset of summer.
Sensationalist media speculation about a sectarian civil war reflects a deep misunderstanding of both the causes of the dramatic drop in violence in Iraq from the days of 2006-7 and the nature of the insurgency today. One Associated Press article reporting on a bomb attack in Iraq declared that in 2006-7, Iraq was 'on the brink' of sectarian civil war.
On the contrary, the situation back then was a civil war, centered on Baghdad, where the Sunni insurgents, in large part angered by the de-Ba'athification process and driven by the erroneous belief that they were in the majority and thus could supposedly defeat the Shi'a, were fighting the Shi'a militias like the Mahdi Army (backed at the time by the central government, which saw the Sunni insurgency as an existential threat) for control of the capital.
By the start of 2007, around the time of the beginning of the surge, the outcome of this civil war was turning decisively in favor of the Shi'a, as most of the mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad were ethnically cleansed of Sunnis. Therefore, the Sunni insurgents increasingly began to appreciate that they were not in the majority at all, with survival now depending on a willingness to work with the central government and coalition forces against al-Qa'ida.
This was the crucial factor behind the development of the Sons of Iraq movement from the Anbar Awakening- a Sunni tribal initiative against al-Qa'ida that began in the western province of Anbar in mid-2006 because of disillusionment with the Islamist group's brutality.
Thus, whereas the overwhelming majority of Sunnis accept that they must peacefully adapt to the fact that the Shi'a lead the political process, the remnants of the insurgency are driven by ideology, whether Islamism (al-Qa'ida) or a combination of Baa'thism and Islamism (the Naqshibandia), and will continue to carry out terrorist attacks regardless of whether there is a political impasse.
Failing to look at the bigger picture, the media inadvertently help these insurgent groups by allowing them to portray themselves as gaining ground to supporters and sympathizers, thereby ensuring that they can continue to receive financial and armed support from within Iraq and abroad.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and an adjunct Fellow at the Middle East Forum.