Sunni protests in Iraq reopen sectarian wounds and historic fault lines

The elusive quest of enticing the disenfranchised Sunni population after the fall of Saddam Hussein plagued the Iraqi transition to democracy. The brutal civil war that peaked between 2006-2007 centred on the failure to reconcile with Sunnis and bring them into the political fold after Shiite supremacy replaced decades of Sunni rule almost overnight. The sectarian bloodshed may have declined dramatically from its peak, but realities were merely masked and the political picture never really changed.

The lack of Sunni power in government and their bitter political decline coincided with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s drive to monopolise power, break an already fragile political framework and initiate drums of war against the Kurds.

The Arab Spring has transformed the Middle Eastern political climate, and emboldened by the rise of Sunnis in Syria, Iraqi Sunnis see this as a chance to ignite their own spring and wrest control from Iranian backed Shiite domination of power.

Sentiments around lack of Sunni power in Baghdad have been worsened by Maliki’s failure to deliver basic services, improve living conditions and address high unemployment. Iraq has immense natural resources and a relatively high national budget, yet much of southern Iraq has languished behind.

Mass demonstrations continued in Sunni dominated parts of Iraqi, including in al-Anbar, a hub of the Sunni population and indeed the vicious civil war that beset Iraq. Other provinces that witnessed protests were Salahaddin, Nineveh and Anbar with the cities of Fallujah, Tikrit, Ramadi and Mosul taking center stage.  While the recent wave of protests may be new, Sunni disgruntlement is anything but that.

Sunni passions and anger were evident merely months after the withdrawal of US forces, with the arrest warranty of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, attempts to stifle Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq and more recently the raid and arrest of body guards of Rafie al-Issawi, Iraq’s Finance Minister.

Sunnis clearly perceive anti-terror laws as orchestrated to diminish their power and see the Shiite dominated security forces as sectarian biased.

As the intensity of Sunni demonstrations and its inevitable manipulation by extremists and Baathists increase, so does it role in shattering any chance of reconciliation in the government’s present form. Depending on the response of the Iraq security forces and any hard-handed attempts by Maliki to quell the protests, it may well put Iraq back to square one.

Maliki’s coalition has shown willingness to dissolve parliament and embark upon new elections to coincide with provincial elections in April. However, this is not the real solution nor will it sufficiently appease Sunnis or Kurds for that matter. Iraq has now held a number of milestone elections yet the same problems have continued to hound the Iraqi political landscape.

New elections will not dilute Shiite political domination as the major components of Iraq, nor will it address the age-old question of how to share power in a way that will appease Kurds, Sunni and Shiites. The record time taken to form the present government says it all.

Sunnis, who largely boycotted the first elections, were never happy with the outcome of the second as it meant playing second fiddle to Maliki once more. Far from enacting the Erbil Agreement and power sharing principles, Maliki assigned to himself a number of powerful “caretaker” positions and distrust with al-Iraqiya only depended.

One result is certain, unless Iraqi politics take a drastic turn for the better and Shiite and Sunni moderates as well as U.S. and foreign allies mediate effectively, the ensuing bloodshed will be even worse than before.

Such is the nature of Iraqi politics that even a caretaker government which should be led by the Presidential Council is riddled with difficulties, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is receiving medical treatment following a stroke and Vice President Hashemi is in exile and convicted of murder.

The recent surge of Sunni discomfort clearly shows that it was never just the Kurds who were at great unease over Maliki’s growing centralist tendencies and even Shiites have become increasingly weary of Maliki. The only surprise is that it took so long for all sides to wake up to the realities that have gripped Iraqi for many a year.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani should be lauded for standing up to Maliki while ironically some saw such grave national developments as “personal”. Maliki has come to the brink of war with the Kurds and has been willing to antagonise Sunnis at the same time. At the current rate, not only is war and more bloodshed inevitable but also the breakup of Iraq.

Just where Iraq goes from here is far from certain, power sharing on paper alone will not satisfy Sunni demands, and the Kurds, who have been patient while much of the implementation of the constitution has been neglected, can ill-afford to get sucked into another sectarian mayhem in Iraq or wait indefinitely for Baghdad to enact agreements such as oil sharing and resolution to disputed territories.

With new elections almost a certainty, the intense jockeying for power has already begun. Influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, heaped blame on Maliki and supported Sunnis in their demonstrations and also reached out to Christian minorities.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources:  Various Misc.

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