US pullout fans sectarian fears in Iraq
BAGHDAD: A political crisis coupled with moves for more autonomy by Iraq’s Sunnis is fanning the minority’s fears of marginalisation with all US troops having left the country, experts say.
In the past four days, a warrant has been issued against Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi; premier Nuri al-Maliki, a Shiite, said his Sunni deputy should be fired; and the main Sunni bloc has boycotted cabinet and parliament, decrying the government as a “dictatorship”.
And over the past two months, three Sunni-majority provinces in central and western Iraq have pushed for greater federalism of the style enjoyed by the Kurdistan region in the country’s north.
All of this comes with the US military having completed their withdrawal from Iraq at the weekend.
“The political establishment will face a big challenge in the time after the withdrawal, especially in dealing with this political crisis and the feelings of marginalisation by Sunni Arabs, which could push even greater demands for federalism,” said Ihsan al-Shammari, a Baghdad University professor.
“Sunni Arabs think that they won’t be able to reach top levels of power in the central government. That’s why they are looking for a kind of power in their regions. This choice could lead to more political and sectarian tension.” Authorities in Salaheddin, Anbar and most recently Diyala have all moved to achieve greater autonomy from Baghdad, drawing an angry response from Prime Minister Maliki.
The Diyala “declaration” earlier this month, in which 15 of 29 provincial councilors signed a document saying they supported increased autonomy, has triggered the most serious backlash.
Army and police units were deployed across the province as part of stepped up security measures, and hundreds of people demonstrated to voice their opposition to the provincial councilors’ efforts.
Diyala Governor Abdul al-Nasser al-Mahdawi and several provincial councilors promptly fled to the nearby Kurdish region.
“Those who call for federalism are from the minority, because they fear the control of the majority,” said Hamid Fadhel, a politics professor at Baghdad University.
“Sunnis are afraid, because they are constantly hearing about the control and despotism of the central government. Unfortunately, the government has given some justification to the provinces to call for this project,” he said, lamenting what he charged was excessive centralisation in Baghdad.
Sunni Arabs, who dominated all the regimes of Iraq from its modern creation in 1920 until Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, largely boycotted Iraq’s first post-invasion parliamentary election in 2005.
In the following two years, a violent insurgency against government forces and US troops left tens of thousands dead across Iraq.
It was only quelled when tens of thousands of extra American soldiers were sent in to Iraq, and US forces co-opted Sunni tribes which had sided with al Qaeda.
In March 2010 polls, voters in Sunni-majority provinces helped propel the Iraqiya bloc to the most seats in parliament, but after nine months of stalemate, the incumbent Maliki formed a pan-Shiite coalition that is at the centre of the national unity government he now leads.
Barely a year after the government was formed, it is now at risk.
Maliki’s call for Saleh al-Mutlak to be sacked and Iraqiya’s boycott of parliament prompted Kurdish region president Massud Barzani to warn, even before Hashemi’s warrant was announced, that the government could “collapse”.
Mutlak told AFP later on Monday evening that Iraqiya would also boycott cabinet, and branded Maliki’s government a “dictatorship”.
The uptick in Sunni interest in increased autonomy, meanwhile, is a complete about-turn for the community’s leaders, who rejected Iraq’s constitution when it was put to a nationwide referendum largely over the regions article, fearing it would lead to the eventual break-up of Iraq.
Article 119 of Iraq’s constitution stipulates that, in addition to the Kurdistan regional government, “one or more governorates shall have the right to organise into a region based on a request to be voted on in a referendum.” All that is required is that the request be approved, either by one out of 10 citizens in each of the provinces which aim to join to form a region, or a third of those provinces’ provincial council members.
According to one analyst, however, the calls for greater autonomy could be political plays in themselves, from local leaders who are failing to get the job done for their constituents.
“These demands have emerged for several reasons, including political, economic and security marginalisation,” said Aziz Jaaber, a politics professor at Al-Mustansariyah University in Baghdad.
“But we should note that the provincial councils who call for forming regions are sometimes exaggerating in listing these reasons, because they have failed to do their duty.”