THERE has been a troubling rise in sectarian tensions in Iraq. In the last few weeks, members of the Sunni community have taken to the streets in large numbers to protest what they say is the discriminatory attitude of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government. But a number of bombings have also taken place targeting Shia pilgrims. Mr Maliki has made conciliatory gestures, such as releasing prisoners, yet these have not been enough. What is more, opposition to the Maliki government is not limited to Sunnis; influential Shia leader Moqtada al-Sadr has also criticised the Iraqi premier. It is a fact that governance in Iraq is poor and Mr Maliki is accused of displaying autocratic tendencies. Shia-Sunni relations in Iraq have also been exacerbated by the civil war next door in Syria, which has taken on an increasingly sectarian colour. Along with religious tensions, ethnic divisions also exist in Iraq, with fragile Arab-Kurd relations. The Kurds run a practically independent region in northern Iraq.
Communal relations in Iraq have been increasingly volatile ever since the 2003 US invasion and the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein. A vicious sectarian war was sparked after the bombing of Samarra’s iconic Al-Askari mosque in 2006. Given Iraq’s recent history, statesmanship and better governance are required on Mr Maliki’s part. Instead of alienating communities, the Iraqi leader must work for the benefit of all religious and ethnic groups in his country; a relapse into communal warfare will have far-reaching consequences. Troubling winds are blowing across the Middle East, with religious passions running high in places like Lebanon, Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia. If sectarianism is unleashed in Iraq, there is a fair chance the conflict might spread to other states in the region, while the greater Muslim world will not remain immune either.