Escalating Sectarian Divide Threatens Post-American Iraq

As Iraq’s Shia consolidate power under Nouri al-Maliki, Sunnis may again revolt.

The fragile political power-sharing arrangement imposed by American forces during the Iraqi occupation is at a renewed risk of collapse. Recent moves by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite backers have considerably threatened the state’s sensative coalition structure, which couples a Shia prime minister with Sunni and Kurdish deputies, a Sunni parliamentary speaker with Shia and Kurdish deputies, and a Kurdish president with Shia and Sunni vice presidents.

When American troops left Iraq less than a week ago, the long disgruntled Sunni establishment was on the defensive almost immediately, as deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, was issued a stop work order Monday by Maliki’s office. Citing only “administrative irregularities” and the ambiguous charge of traveling without informing the government, Mutlaq is now effectively barred from entering the cabinet.

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

While Prime Minister Maliki called Wednesday for Kurdish authorities to hand over 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 nine ministerial posts and 82 parliamentary seats, suspend its participation in national unity cabinet meetings.

Iraqiya members have claimed for months that government security forces are arresting hundreds of their members, accusing them 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 from Maliki and his State of Law party and last week called him a “dictator” who is undermining the sensitive the power-sharing agreement that keeps Iraq from plundering into full blow sectarian war.

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 Maliki’s government in Baghdad, submitted to the cabinet 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 have likewise called for the establishment of regional status for Tuz Khormato in Salah ad Din Province and Tal Afar in Ninawa, as hysteria over regional power dynamics grows.

Added recently to the list of disgruntled Sunni opponents of Maliki is the emir of Iraq’s largest and most powerful tribe, the Dulaimi. Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman, whose influence spans much of Anbar Province, once a bulwark of the insurgency, has called for a massive tribal conference to discuss the replacement of 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 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.

A spokeswoman for the United States Department of State 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, many of the country’s most important Sunni leaders are now exiled, and observers fear the Sunni establishment could react by withdrawing further from parliamentary functions.

Such a move could not only bring down the government but would likely lead to increased Shia control of the state as new appointments would be made by Maliki directly. In this scenario, with the country’s northern population firmly supporting the Sunni-led uprisings in neighboring Syria, the potential for a populist revolt will be increasingly dependent on the outcome of this renewed political stalemate.