The departure of U.S. forces has brought little relief to Iraq. With monthly attacks increasing by 124% between 2011 and 2013, and the withdrawal of the insurgency’s common enemy, Iraqi violence has turned in on itself.
Iraq’s sectarian tensions, by no means a new development after decades of Sunni-dominated rule, are now being fuelled by the autocratic policies of Nouri Maliki’s government. Persecution of political rivals, cronyism, and accusations of attacks on civilians have dogged Maliki’s premiership.
Since 2008 Maliki’s small circle of Shia allies has recentralised power, disregarding the checks on executive power put in place before the U.S. withdrawal.
State responsibilities such as control of federal courts, the central bank, and the selection of military commanders are now under the control of the Shia-led cabinet, all at the expense of their Sunni rivals.
An autocratic regime
Only days after the U.S. exit, Maliki issued a politically motivated warrant for the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, charging him with coordinating bomb plots and operating various terrorist cells.
After fleeing for the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, al-Hashemi claimed Iraq’s political system was "drifting from building democracy to building an autocratic regime," and comparing Maliki’s centralisation of power with that of the Saddam era. After fleeing to Turkey, where he now resides, al-Hushemi was tried in absentia and sentenced to death.
The situation deteriorated further after the arrest of finance minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards in December 2012. Allegations of torture and use of forced confessions surround the arrests, with Hashemi’s office claiming at least two of the bodyguards in custody have died as a result of their treatment.
That both al-Hashemi and al-Issawi were members of the rival Iraqiya coalition, Maliki’s main opposition in the 2010 elections, gives weight to claims that Maliki is using his new executive powers to side-line political rivals.
Demonstrations against the government’s treatment of Sunni’s, sparked by the treatment of the ministers in Maliki’s coalition, began in Fallujah last December. While initially peaceful, similar to other protests associated with the Arab Spring, such rallies have since faced a violent crackdown.
On April 23, 44 people were killed after army police, including SWAT forces answering directly to Maliki, opened fire on up to a thousand demonstrators in the Sunni village of Hawija. A preliminary report for the Iraqi parliament suggests the order for the assault came directly from Maliki and his defence minister, Saadoun al-Dulaimi.
The report claims deputy PM Saleh al-Mutlak and member of parliament Falah Zaidan met with the defence minister hours before the assault to resolve the dispute. Dulaimi, linking protesters to extremist cells, allegedly responded, “Let who is going to be killed be killed. They are terrorists and the important thing is the nation’s authority.”
The ministerial committee, despite recommending the prosecution of officials responsible for the raid, claims it is unable to finish its investigation. Facing inadequate resources and a lack of cooperation from security forces, the Maliki government is unlikely to be held responsible for its actions.
By meeting the grievances of the Hawija protesters with violence, the government is driving Sunni radicalisation. The assault on Hawija has quickly becoming a rallying cry for organisations such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Naqshabandi Army, a Sunni group led by a former Saddam deputy, eager to use the unrest to their own advantage.
By continuing to meet legitimate grievances and peaceful protest with violence, Iraq’s Sunnis are left with no other outlet for their frustrations but to turn to these extremist groups.
After the post-invasion purge of Baathist party members from government, including those in apolitical roles such as teachers and engineers, thousands of Sunnis not only lost their jobs, but also their pensions and prospects for future employment.
This decade-long economic exclusion, as well as the struggle of Sunnis to find a voice in a government that persecutes their leaders, is contributing to the escalating violence seen in Iraq today.
"Iraqi politics may be on the verge of relapsing into a period of sectarian violence, where a new power-sharing deal between the parties is likely needed to reset communal relations," said Ramzy Mardini of the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies.
Some Sunni’s are suggesting that if the government continues to disregard their rights, they may demand a federal Sunni region along the lines of the Kurdish autonomous zone. The Kurdistan region has its own constitution, parliament and army, and enjoys a degree of independence from centralised control.
“We don’t demand such a region at this time,” said Qasim Kerbuli, a member of the organizing committee behind the protests in Anbar province. “Our priority is that Mr Maliki has to step down. We are not ready to live under Maliki’s oppression. Our options are very clear: change of prime minister or a federal region for Sunnis.”
If Baghdad were forced to establish autonomous regions along ethnic lines, Iraq as a political entity would lose relevance to many Iraqis. Why should Sunnis and Kurds, totalling nearly half of Iraq’s population, pledge loyalty to a central government that isn’t interested in protecting their interests?
The Maliki administration insistence on concentrating power at the expense of political and sectarian rivals is a familiar story in the history of the post-WWII Arab states. Iraq and Syria, with their borders drawn according the interests of the post-imperial powers, are still dealing with the results of decades of power imbalances between their ethnic communities.
Iraq is repeating the age-old story of a paranoid ruling class, aware of their repression at the hands of old regimes, relying on autocracy to ensure its survival. As long as Maliki’s government continues to repress the many in the interests of the few, Iraq’s cycle of violence is doomed to continue.