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January 9, 2012

Escalating sectarian divide threatens fragile Iraqi government

Trevor Westra

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The fragile political power-sharing arrangement imposed by US forces during the Iraqi occupation is at a renewed risk of collapse.

Recent moves by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite backers have considerably threatened the state’s provisional coalition structure, which positions a Shia Prime Minister against Sunni and Kurdish deputies, a Sunni Parliamentary Speaker against Shia and Kurdish deputies, and a Kurdish president against Shia and Sunni vice-presidents.

When US troops left Iraq less than a week ago, the long-disgruntled Sunni establishment was on the defensive almost immediately, when Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, was issued a stop work order Monday by al-Maliki’s office. Citing only ”administrative irregularities” and the ambiguous charge of travelling without informing the government, al-Mutlaq is now effectively barred from entering the Council of Ministries.

More recently, Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, former general secretary of the country’s largest Sunni Islamist bloc, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), has fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish north after being issued an arrest warrant for allegedly running a hit squad targeting government officials. Al-Hashimi has called the allegations "absurd" and describes them as a smear-campaign led by al-Maliki and his Shia backers, who control the state’s Interior Ministry.

While prime minister Nouri al-Maliki called Wednesday for Kurdish authorities to hand over al-Hashimi for trial, the Sunni leader thanked Iraq’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani on Tuesday for a promise of security as he weighs leaving the country.

The move puts Talabani in the middle of a renewed sectarian divide that has already seen the powerful Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which controls 9 ministerial posts and 82 of the 325-member Iraqi legislature, suspend its participation in national unity cabinet meetings.

Iraqiya members have claimed for months that government security forces are arresting hundreds of members of their political base, accused of being members of Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Ba’ath Party.

Despite winning national elections in 2010, Iraqiya leaders have been unable to take the post of prime minister away from al-Maliki and his State of Law party, and last week called him a “dictator” undermining the sensitive the power-sharing agreement observers suggest keeps Iraq from plundering into full-blow sectarian war and national fragmentation.

A lesser-known contributing factor to the current crisis are the increasing claims for semi-autonomous status from regions across the country. Most recently, councilors from Diyala, citing “unjust measures” including exclusion and disregard from the al-Maliki government in Baghdad, submitted to the Council of Ministries a request for the Iraqi High Electoral Commission to declare the province an independent administrative and economic region. Turkmen in the Shia-dominated Iraqi National Alliance (NIA) have likewise called for the establishing of regional status for Tuzkhormato in Salahdin province and Talaafar in Ninewa, as hysteria over regional power dynamics is growing.

Added recently to the list of disgruntled Sunni opponents of the al-Maliki government is the emir of Iraq’s largest and most powerful tribe, the Dulaimi. Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman, whose influence spans much of the former insurgent-dominated Anbar province, has called for a massive tribal conference to discuss the replacement of al-Maliki, who he has publicly threatened with setting on fire.

Meanwhile, sectarian violence in Anbar is on the rise.  Last month, a convoy of security forces sent by al-Maliki from the Shia holy city of Karbala to investigate the murder of Shia pilgrims were killed execution-style after begin taken hostage.  Officials have blamed their deaths on the tactics of al-Qaeda linked Sunni militants.

US State Department spokeswomen Victoria Nuland has expressed concern over these developments, urging rival political groups “to work out their differences peacefully, politically, through dialogue, and certainly in a manner that is consistent with democratic political process and international standards of rule of law.”

However, because many of the country’s most important Sunni leaders are now in exile, observers fear the Sunni establishment may panic and react by withdrawing further from parliamentary functions. Such a move could either could bring down the government or lead to increased Shia control of the Iraqi parliament.

Additionally, with the country's northern population firmly supporting the Sunni-led uprisings in neighboring Syria, the risk of a similar populist revolt seems increasingly dependent on the outcome of Iraq’s renewed political stalemate.

Trevor Westra is a Canadian geopolitical analyst specializing in the Middle Eastern and South Asian religious historiography. He serves as Contributing Analyst for strategic planning and risk management consultancy Wikistrat Inc.

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