Rising Sunni Discontent Test for Iraq’s Shia Premier

After more than two hundred deaths, the government in Baghdad has to act.

It is not unusual for thousands of Iraqis to march in the streets, railing against their government. The country’s Sunnis, who dominated politics under Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, have particular grievances with Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s administration, the most important being the abolition of counterterrorism laws that they view as discriminatory to their sect.

This was how last week’s protests started. Things changed on Tuesday last week when an Iraqi army unit stormed a protest camp in Hawija near Kirkuk north of Baghdad in pursuit of suspects involved in the killing of a soldier a few days prior. By the time the operation was over, dozens of people lay dead in the carnage. When news of the incident spread across the country, protesters and insurgents in Sunni areas were quick to pick up arms in retribution. In one such incident, four Iraqi troops were ambushed at a checkpoint in Ramadi and killed by unidentified gunmen. Five more were killed in Abu Ghraib.

By Sunday, over two hundred people had died and many more wounded. The situation could get deadlier yet unless Maliki and representatives of the protest movement are able to sit down and strike up some type of accord.

The International Crisis Group warned on Friday that failure to do so would aggravate Sunni agitation and could lead to more regionwide unrest.

Only by credibly addressing the protesters’ legitimate demands — namely, ensuring genuine Sunni Arab representation in the political system — can the government ensure that the current Sunni Arab leadership not remain beholden to, or gradually be abandoned by, an increasingly frustrated street. And only by doing so can Iraq stem a rising tide of violence that, at a time of growing sectarian polarization throughout the region, likely would spell disaster.

Even if Iraq completed its third free provincial elections last week since the Western invasion in 2003 with minimal violence, the political atmosphere in Baghdad remains poisoned by the gridlock of parties that are largely formed on sectarian grounds.

Local tribal leaders, too, are raising tension. Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, the head of the Sunni “awakening” movement in Anbar Province that proved so effective against Al Qaeda when Iraq was at the height of civil war, has warned the Iraqi army that further violence against Sunnis will be met with resistance from the tribes.

Iraq has a habit of solving a looming crisis at the last minute. Maliki is a master in this regard and has proven himself an expert tactician by granting some concessions to his opponents, splintering his them internally.

Now is not the time to pursue the same strategy. When tribal leaders speak about calling the government’s bluff with force, the government needs to deescalate the standoff, return the army to barracks, prosecute the officers who gave the order to shoot protesters and meet with high level figures in the Sunni community to reduce tension.

Maliki has spoken of guarding against sectarianism and speaking with one Iraqi voice but the demonstrators will be waiting to see whether he is serious.