For most of the last decade, Iraq has been headline news. It started with the US-led operation to rid the country of its brutal leader, Saddam Hussein, and weapons of mass destruction, which it turned out not to have, which led to an insurgency in opposition and then to sectarian killings that brought Iraq to something close to a civil war.
While violence in Iraq remains almost a daily occurrence, after atrocities peaked in 2006, a fragile order was put in place and violence has been reduced. Unfortunately, since the US formally ended its mission on Dec. 15, 2011, when President Obama declared Iraq “sovereign, stable and self-reliant,” there has been a turn for the worse, with Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki putting Iraq’s delicate power-sharing agreement at risk.
The Iraqiya party, which represents most Sunnis, carried out a short-lived boycott of parliament days after the US departure to protest what it viewed as efforts by the government to sideline Sunnis from power. Maliki accused Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi of running a sectarian death squad, which led to Hashimi fleeing to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The trigger was seemingly an explosion in front of the parliament, which Maliki declared an attempt to assassinate him, accusing Hashimi’s bodyguards of being involved. In February, a panel of Iraqi judges declared that death squads commanded by Hashimi had carried out 150 attacks against religious pilgrims, security officers and political foes over six years. Hashimi denies all charges and has accused Maliki of fueling sectarianism and of torturing his bodyguards to obtain false confessions.
Maliki, who controls all of the security agencies, has allegedly also stepped up a campaign to detain Sunnis, accusing them of sympathizing with Saddam Hussein’s now-banned Baath Party and its remnants. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch labeled Iraq a budding police state where Iraqi security forces routinely abuse protesters, harass journalists, torture detainees and intimidate activists.
It is no coincidence that this is happening at a time when the future of Syria’s Shiite president, Bashar al-Assad, is at stake. As the regime change in Iraq brought Shiites to power, the possible collapse of Assad’s regime could result in Sunnis taking up power. With the majority of Iraq’s long border with Syria being Sunni-dominated, Maliki, who is backed by Tehran, is paranoid about the emergence of a Sunni Syria. Iraq’s Shiite leadership (and Tehran) fear the entire region becoming a Sunni stronghold.
In an effort to calm the situation, last weekend leaders from nearly all of Iraq’s main political blocs called for a solution to the crisis following three days of talks in Arbil, although Maliki did not attend. It was hosted by Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish autonomous region, and included Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, as well as former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and hardline cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, both Shiites. Parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, also took part. While nobody has yet demanded Maliki resign, the fact that such a meeting with politicians from across the board took place demonstrates increased impatience with Maliki.
In fact, it was only with the support of Kurdish leader Barzani and Sadr that Maliki kept his job after his party fell far short of winning the most seats in the 2010 parliamentary elections. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya party, which is backed by the Sunni minority, won the most seats in the vote, but Maliki cobbled together a political coalition with the Kurds and Sadr’s followers, winning the right to head the government.
Yet patience is clearly running out. Barzani, who is already at odds with Maliki over a deal with energy giant Exxon Mobil over plans to drill for oil in the Kurdish region without Baghdad’s oversight, has threatened to let Kurds vote to secede from Iraq if the government crisis has not been resolved by the September regional elections. This would have serious implications for other countries in the region that have big Kurdish populations, including Turkey. Moreover, Sunni-majority provinces, which until now had rejected the idea of setting up Kurdistan-style autonomous areas, as the new constitution allows, have begun to have second thoughts.
While Maliki has so far proven to be the only leader “acceptable” to both the US and Iran, his current trajectory is very dangerous. His actions are undermining the fragile peace between the various sectarian and ethnic groups, with violence and political instability escalating. Centralizing power would face numerous obstacles simply because all parties have foreign allies, and in times of great need, will call on them. The Sunnis would look to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the Kurds to their buddies in Washington. Maliki is simply increasing instability in a region already in deep turmoil. In order to stop this crisis spiraling further, Maliki needs to engage his political foes and cede to some of their demands, move back to a democratic track and back off from authoritarian tendencies. If he does not, we may very well witness a domino effect breaking up the country, which will impact the entire region.