To complicate matters, Al-Qaida’s Iraq branch (AQI) killed over 270 people in March alone, providing some Shi’a politicians – such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – justification for framing security force activity within a counterterrorism paradigm. In the past few days, the opposing parties have attempted to lower the tensions by curbing their activities, the army has retreated from many cities, and Sunni sheikhs and tribal leaders have tempered their secessionary demands. However, Maliki’s call for protesters to expel ‘criminals’ who target police forces, and the army’s accusation that ‘al-Qaida and Ba’athist elements’ were involved in Hawijah, threaten to again inflame the situation.
At the core of these protests are a number of dictatorial measures adopted by Maliki, leaving Sunnis disillusioned with the political process, fuelling sectarianism, and even angering other Shi’a groups such as the Sadris led by influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. In March, Sadr argued that participation in the Maliki government was a ‘sin and a fatal error’. He complained about weak parliamentary oversight, the failure to replace President Jalal Talabani – who is in Berlin recovering from a stroke he suffered in December, and that the judiciary had become too politicised. He also crossed the sectarian divide by accusing the government of marginalising Sunnis, labelling this an ‘unforgivable disaster’.
Since attaining power in 2006, Maliki has tried to strengthen his control by creating new constitutional institutions such as the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCIC), to ensure control over Iraq’s security forces; appointing loyalists to various state institutions, including the central bank and the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC); and unsuccessfully attempting to remove the two-term limit for prime ministers. Additionally, he used the 2008 ‘Justice and Accountability’ law, better known as the ‘de-Ba’athification law’, and various terrorism laws to discriminate against many Sunnis and silence Sunni politicians who opposed him. Former vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, was accused of operating hit squads, tried in absentia and sentenced to death, and two attempts have been made to arrest former finance and economics minister, Rafie al-Issawi, for allegedly planning an assassination. Both men are Sunnis. Attempts to arrest Issawi resulted in large Sunni protests over the past four months, peaceful until last Tuesday’s Hawijah incident.
Events in neighbouring Syria have also played a role in stoking sectarian tensions in Iraq. Iraqi Sunnis have been emboldened by the struggles of their Syrian counterparts, and the porous border between the two countries has allowed arms to be smuggled across. Maliki’s refusal to support the Syrian uprising and his attempt to co-opt the Syrian regime’s discourse – by, for example, accusing Iraqi protesters of being ‘Turkish- and Gulf-sponsored’ have added to tensions, leaving many Sunnis feeling threatened, and resulting in their becoming more confrontational. Maliki believes that were the Syrian regime to be overthrown, ‘jihadi’ groups from Syria would filter into Iraq, increasing instability in the country and resulting in a tenser political situation.
The 20 April parliamentary election which saw Maliki’s State and Law coalition winning only 115 of 378 seats, and losing its majority, may result in future compromises since Maliki can no longer unilaterally form local councils. Moreover, with independents having won over a third of the seats because of an amendment to the electoral law, the influence of parliamentary blocs will likely decrease, forcing new politics of bargaining and cooperation. However, Maliki’s postponing elections in Sunni-majority provinces such as Anbar and Nineha – out of fear of hostile Sunni politicians being elected – indicates that drastic policy change is not imminent. Sadr criticised the postponement, saying it indicated ‘tyranny and dictatorship’.
The clashes are likely to continue, and confrontation between Sunni provinces and the central government will probably increase in the short term. If not dealt with holistically and equitably, this could lead to Iraq fragmenting into three entities – a Kurdish state, an Arab Sunni state in the west and northwest, and a Shi’a state in the rest of the country.
To address these problems, the ‘de-Ba’athification’ law – a remnant of the US occupation – must be rethought and possibly discarded, more power should be granted to provincial authorities, and the Sunni need to feel represented in Iraq’s political and economic spheres must be satisfactorily addressed. Alternatively, as former Prime Minister Ayad al-Allawi told Russia Today, Maliki may have to resign and a new prime minister appointed to stabilise the country. In the absence of these remedial measures, sectarian tensions in Iraq will remain and could regularly flare up. A speedy resolution to the Syrian crisis – which seems unlikely – could also help inhibit Iraq’s sectarian slide. The longer the Syrian civil war persists, the more likely it is that sectarianism and instability in Iraq will increase.