|Political Tension Rises Against Backdrop of Ongoing Terrorism
Only days after the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Iraq, continued violence and high-level political instability are shaking the country’s government and challenging the ability of Iraqi Security Forces to provide for the nation’s security. On December 19, one day after the withdrawal of American forces, the Iraqi government issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi for allegedly running an assassination squad that killed Iraqi officials. Hashimi has denied the charges and is seeking refuge in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has also called on parliament to take up a no-confidence vote for Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq for his comments that Maliki was becoming a dictator worse than Saddam Hussein. Both Mutlaq and Hashimi are Sunnis and are part of the Iraqiyya political bloc headed by Ayad Allawi, Maliki’s chief rival. Iraqiyya has suspended its participation in parliament in protest of Maliki’s perceived autocratic tendencies. The Sadrist bloc in parliament has also criticized Maliki’s excesses and called for new elections.
This political brinksmanship takes place against a backdrop of renewed violence in Iraq. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) has claimed credit for a series of bombings on December 22 throughout Baghdad that killed 60 people and wounded more than 200. AQI followed up with another suicide bombing of Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior on December 26 that killed seven people and wounded 37. Though Iraq is no stranger to political intrigue or terrorist violence, Maliki’s gambit against prominent Sunni politicians threatens to further divide this already fragmented country and open the door to increased violence, just as the United States has ended its military mission in Iraq.
The Danger of Sunni Exclusion
Maliki’s latest maneuvers have done little to counter popular perceptions that he has steadily sought to accumulate political power. With no top appointments for the Interior and Defense Ministries 21 months after the March 2010 elections, Maliki remains in charge of these key ministries that control the police and military. In October, Maliki arrested 615 people on charges of membership in the outlawed Ba’ath party, and other alleged Ba’athists have been fired from government jobs. Because of Maliki’s efforts to consolidate political power and his perceived hostility toward Iraq’s Sunnis, leaders in the predominantly Sunni provinces of Diyala and Salahuddin recently threatened to form their own autonomous provinces within Iraq. Though this may be mere rhetoric designed to extract concessions from Maliki, when seen alongside the Sadrist bloc’s call for new elections, Maliki is looking increasingly isolated, though he remains the most powerful man in Baghdad.
Maliki’s moves against Hashemi and Mutlaq will serve to confirm Sunni fears that Maliki is headed in a dictatorial direction and that Sunnis will not find support in addressing their grievances with the Shi’a-dominated government in Baghdad. If more steps are taken against other Sunni politicians, Sunnis will feel further disenfranchised, and be more inclined to seek autonomy from the central government. Maliki has threatened to replace the current “unity” government with a majority one composed mostly of Shi’as from Maliki’s State of Law coalition if Iraqiyya continues to boycott parliament. This would supply another grievance for Iraq’s Sunnis, some of whom may decide their interests can be pursued only outside of politics, and with force.
The driving force behind the violence that killed tens of thousands in Iraq between 2005 and 2007 was the exclusion of Sunnis from Iraq’s state apparatus, which they had dominated under Saddam Hussein. At the height of Iraq’s civil war, many Sunnis ended their opposition to the Iraqi government through the Sons of Iraq (SOI) program that brought Sunnis into government-supported militias that combated insurgent groups. As funding for this successful program has largely ended, it is unclear what will become of those who fought AQI and other groups as part of SOI. Some of these Sunnis have transferred into civilian positions in government, but many more remain uncertain as to their prospects for government employment. Some SOI members complain of no longer receiving salaries and being targeted by AQI and militias supported by Iran for their cooperation with the U.S. military. If the Sons of Iraq are not successfully integrated into the Iraqi military or otherwise provided for, Sunni frustration with the central government could escalate further, raising the specter of sectarian conflict in Iraq once more.
Implications for the Private Sector
U.S. government officials have identified Shi’a militias as the most significant security threat in Iraq, and it is unclear how recent political developments will affect these groups. Sunnis will be impacted most strongly by the developments outlined above, and Shi’a groups may be empowered politically depending on how events proceed. One group that previously targeted Americans in Iraq, the Iran-funded Shi’a militia Asa’ib al-Haq, signaled its willingness to lay down arms and participate in the political process now that U.S. forces have left. Continued Shi’a empowerment coupled with the withdrawal of USF-I could diminish the threat posed by some Shi’a groups against the private sector. This Shi’a empowerment could coincide, however, with increased Sunni frustration and isolation, in turn increasing the threat posed by Sunni terrorist outfits such as AQI and the Jaysh Rijal Tariqah al-Naqshabandi (JRTN). The extent to which violence from radical Sunni groups increases will depend in large part on whether Iraq’s political leaders can navigate the political squall engulfing Baghdad and subvert a full-blown crisis.
- Report: Minister cancels US-Iraq-Turkey counterterrorism meeting (theromangate.wordpress.com)
- Iraq’s Shi’a PM Maliki Issues Warrants for Senior Sunni Politicians (waronterrornews.typepad.com)
- Sunnis who aided U.S. in Iraq finding they’re in vulnerable spot (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Bloc ends Iraq parliament boycott (bbc.co.uk)
- You: Fugitive Iraq VP says ball is now in PM’s court (france24.com)
- Iraq’s Sunni-backed lawmakers return to parliament (foxnews.com)
- Iraq Sunni bloc returns to parliament (nation.com.pk)
- Iraqi Sunni-backed lawmakers end parliament ban (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Deputy for Iraq’s decision is likely to resolve the mass return of ministers to the meetings of the Council of Ministers soon (thecurrencynewshound.com)
- Iraq Political Impasse Ends as Bomb Kills Iraqi Civilian (waronterrornews.typepad.com)