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Quilliam Researcher on jihadism in Syria and Iraq, Charlie Cooper, explores why the international community must treat terrorism at the hands of Iraqi Shi’ite militias just as seriously as it does the crimes carried out by Islamic State (IS).

Amid last week’s media frenzy over the identity of “Jihadi John”, the alleged killer of James Wright Foley, reports emerged on Friday of a terrorist attack in Iraq’s Diyala province that targeted a Sunni Muslim mosque. Currently, it is estimated that 68 people lost their lives. At this stage, it seems the culprits were not, as one could probably be forgiven for assuming in light of recent events, Isil. Rather, they were believed to be members of one of Iraq’s many Shi’ite militias, responding in kind to an Isil bombing of one of their recruitment rallies in the region.

This is an extremely troubling development and something that Isil will thrive off. Baghdadi’s supporters were quick to popularise horrific videos from inside the mosque across the internet via Twitter and Facebook, alongside claims that it is yet more evidence of the global war against Sunni Muslims.

A large-scale attack like this is exactly what Isil has been working towards for some time. Indeed, for months now, it has been all too apparent that they are seeking to exploit the already fragile sectarian politics of Iraq and initiate a full-scale civil war between the country’s many religious groups, plunging it back into the uncontrollable sectarian turmoil of 2006-7. For years, reigniting such a war has been one of Isil and its forebears’ principal objectives.

The evidence that Isil wants such an outcome – and has done for some time – is replete. In the last few months alone, propaganda videos depicting in high definition the summary executions of alleged militiamen and drive-by shootings of Shi’ite civilians have been at the forefront of its sophisticated media campaign. Now, it seems, these efforts have paid off. Retaliation has come.

To make matters even worse, it has been reported that Diyala’s state police force provided the Shi’ite militia suspected of carrying out the attack with a hit list of Isil targets in July. These reports have, perhaps unsurprisingly, been denied by the Iraqi state in the strongest of terms, which has instead placed the blame on Isil militants who, they claim, were carrying out a false flag operation.

Whatever the case, it is imperative that there is international condemnation of this act. As yet, none has been forthcoming. If the states currently providing assistance to the Iraqi government do not denounce this attack and express deep concern at the Baghdad’s alleged tacit acceptance of it, Isil will emerge yet more ideologically powerful. What’s more, it is imperative that those same countries make use of their formidable leverage on the Iraqi state to ensure that there is not a repeat of such an incident.

As has all too dramatically become clear in the last few months, Isil thrives in political turmoil. If this event is a harbinger for more attacks against Iraq’s Sunni population, then there is a real chance that Isil will get what they wished for – a war that will render the much-needed reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi’ites a distant hope. Already, retaliation has come in the form of a bomb attack against Baghdad’s Imam Ali Mosque on Monday, and another at a busy crossroads on Tuesday.

After months of impatiently waiting for al-Maliki to relinquish the reins of power in Baghdad, Iraq’s fate as a contiguous state hangs in the balance. Certainly, this month’s restructuring of the government is encouraging news, but it is by no means a guaranteed safeguard from ethno-religious war. More reform is required from Baghdad, and fast. Indeed, the only thing that will bring a halt to this evermore pervasive violence is profound and far-reaching political restructuring, not military intervention. It is short-sighted to imagine otherwise.

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