By Daniel R. DePetris, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Daniel R. DePetris is a researcher and a contributor to GPS. The views expressed are his own.
Sectarian animosities are nothing new for Iraqis. But what is different this time around is that they are now playing out without some of the players that were once instrumental in enforcing the rules.
While most Iraqis eventually grew tired of U.S. troops patrolling their neighborhoods, the United States was the only force strong enough to bridge sectarian divisions before they spiraled into violence. Aside from the United States, there was Jalal Talabani – a Kurd who continues to hold Iraq’s presidency and who reveled in the role as ultimate mediator of Iraq’s political disputes, often dragging the country’s warring politicians to his residence for some civilized discussion.
But with the United States gone, and Talabani’s health having deteriorated following a stroke, charges of political dominance and sectarian discrimination among Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s opponents have left some wondering whether the country is already facing the new year’s first open confrontation.
Late last month, apparently with no notice from Iraq’s security ministries or the prime minister’s office, Iraqi police scrambled into the Finance Ministry building and detained roughly 150 bodyguards who worked for Rafa al-Issawi, al-Maliki’s chief minister for financial affairs. Dozens of those guards were later released upon further questioning, but police kept nine and charged them with terrorist-related offenses.
Issawi is not only a member of a staunch anti-al-Maliki party, Iraqiya, led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, but also happens to be one of the government’s top Sunni officials. Predictably, Issawi reacted to the arrests with complete shock and some understandable anger, arguing that he was not even consulted about the sweep.
But Issawi was not the only one angry over the operation. After news broke that the Shia-led government was once again targeting the staff of a top Sunni politician, tens of thousands of Iraqis from the country’s Sunni heartland flocked to the streets in protest. The protests were so large that the major highway connecting Baghdad to Jordan and Syria was blocked, sending a symbolic message to al-Maliki that his support among the Sunni community, particularly in Anbar Province, has hit new lows.
From the Sunni perspective, the anger is justified. In fact, Iraq’s Sunni population has seen this before. About a year ago, Iraqi security forces arrested several guards who worked in the office of Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a man who at the time was the most senior Sunni politician in al-Maliki’s coalition government. Hashimi’s guards eventually confessed to plotting terrorist attacks against Iraqi Shia on the orders of Hashimi – a confession that al-Maliki critics and Sunni officials claimed were coerced through torture. The Iraqi judiciary would later issue a warrant for Hashimi based on those confessions, forcing Iraq’s vice president to flee his own country for Turkey, where he remains safe from a death sentence for ordering and financing terrorist attacks.
Whether or not Hashimi was actually guilty over the killing of Shia is almost beside the point. What is important is that a substantial segment of Iraq’s Sunni community viewed the arrest, prosecution, and sentencing as a carefully planned vendetta by a Shia-led premier against a top Sunni rival. With the detention of Issawi’s bodyguards in an operation that is eerily similar to Hashimi’s own arrest, the marginalization and alienation that Sunnis have felt since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein is being reinforced.
In the past, the Americans and Talabani could use their influence to tamp down those feelings – at least until the crisis needed mediating again. But with U.S. troops long gone and Talabani recovering from his stroke in a German hospital, Iraq needs to find someone else who can perform that difficult task. In an ideal world, al-Maliki would fill that void himself. But with protests in the Sunni heartland continuing, and the prime minister not backing down, that is not likely to happen any time soon.