Iraq’s gathering storm

As Sunni protests turn increasingly bloody, Iraq’s sectarian ozone hole is getting ever larger, writes Salah Nasrawi

The call for jihad by a cleric and leader of the Sunni protests in the Iraqi town of Fallujah during Friday prayer this week could signal further frustration and anger over what Sunnis see as the Shia-led government’s indifference to their demands to end what they see as their mistreatment and exclusion.
Yet, if the gravity of Iraq’s sectarian conflict can be gauged by the guns employed during recent protests, it is worth noting that Sheikh Ali Moheibis Al-Basri’s call for holy war to topple Iraq’s Shia-led government has also succeeded in making many Sunnis start oiling their gun barrels.
Wearing combat uniform and carried high on supporters’ shoulders, Al-Basri said Sunnis should resort to holy war to oust Iraq’s Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and expel government troops from the country’s Sunni-dominated provinces.
“We are not a minority, and we will not let him exclude or marginalise us,” shouted the cleric amid cries of “Down with Al-Maliki” from the furious crowd. 
In the nearby provincial capital of Al-Ramadi, Sunni religious and tribal leaders decided to form an army made up of tribes and armed groups to defend their areas, which have been holding anti-government protests since December.
Sheikh Said Al-Lafi, a spokesman for the protesters in Al-Ramadi, said the “Army of Pride and Dignity” would take over security from government forces in the province and urged local police to join the new force.
Top Sunni cleric Sheikh Abdel-Malik Al-Saadi, who is widely considered to be a spiritual leader of the protesters, welcomed the creation of the army of mujahideen, or holy warriors, “in defence of souls, honour and the country.”
However, the rhetoric raised fears of a return to the widespread sectarian bloodshed that pushed Iraq into civil war following the US-led 2003 invasion that toppled the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein.
On Saturday, gunmen killed five army intelligence soldiers near the main protest camp in Al-Ramadi who authorities said were returning from holiday to their units. The Iraqi media said that at least two bodies belonging to Shia soldiers were later founded mutilated.
Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, the leader of the Shia Iraqi National Alliance, described the killing as “heinous”. The attack also drew a quick response from military leaders who threatened to “take whatever [measures] are necessary to arrest the perpetrators.”
Across the Sunni-dominated provinces, army, police posts and members of a government-backed Sunni Sahwa militia came under mortar shells this week. Shias have nearly overall control of most of the army and police forces, who are often targeted by Sunni militants.
Sunni anger also exploded over the deaths of dozens in the city of Al-Haweeja in clashes with the Iraqi army and police. The incident triggered Sunni militants to seize the nearby town of Suleiman Bec and kill its small police force before a deal was struck with local tribes to let them go.
Five car bombs exploded on Monday in predominantly Shia cities and districts in central and southern Iraq, killing more than 30 civilians and wounding dozens of others, in a further sign of deepening hostility. 
The string of blasts has left nearly 300 people killed and hundreds of others wounded since the attack in Al-Haweeja on 23 April.  
Since December, tens of thousands of Sunnis have taken to the streets across Iraq to protest against the perceived marginalisation of their sect under Iraq’s Shia-led government.
The demands quickly grew to include revoking the US-orchestrated political process that they believe has empowered the majority Shias at their expense and pushing for a new constitution that they say should end their perceived neglect and marginalisation.
Though the government has made some concessions, its response to demands for drastic changes in Iraq’s political landscape that would weaken the Shias hold on power have remained negative.
The escalation in violence has prompted fears among Iraqi leaders and international powers that tensions between the Sunnis and Shias could escalate into a full-blown sectarian war with regional ramifications.
Following the escalation, UN envoy to Iraq Martin Kobler warned that Iraq was “at a crossroads” and that the country could head towards the unknown if decisive measures were not taken immediately to stop the escalating violence.
Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Al-Arabi said that any delay in resolving the Iraqi crisis would “exacerbate the situation and threaten to plunge Iraq and the region into disaster.”
The warnings are well warranted. Observers have noted an increase in the numbers of attacks targeting Sunnis over the last few weeks in a worrying sign of tit-for-tat retaliation attacks.
Last week, a bomb exploded in a popular coffee shop in the predominately Sunni neighbourhood of Al-Amiriya in Baghdad, killing at least 27 people and wounding 51 others.
Bombs blew up at Sunni mosques across Iraq amid Friday prayers, and local news outlets have reported numerous assassinations of Sunni activists by silencer-mounted guns in April.
No claims of responsibility were made, but the leader of the little-known Iraqi Hizbullah, Wathiq Al-Batat, announced that the movement had formed a new militia to defend Shias and help the government combat terrorism.
While Iraq remains mired in violence and political stagnation, the potential of the Sunni uprising to sweep through the centre and north of the country seems to have brought Iraq’s myriad factions before the hard choice of either staying in a unified nation or breaking away into three separate entities.
On Monday, the UK’s Independent newspaper reported that Iraqi politicians were becoming gloomier about prospects for keeping the country together.
It quoted Mowaffak Al-Rubaie, the former Iraqi national security adviser, as saying that for the first time he was hearing leaders in Baghdad talk seriously of partitioning the country.
In recent weeks, there has been public debate among Iraqi politicians to the effect that Iraq’s problems could be solved by the establishment of three entities in a federal Iraq based on a plan proposed by US Vice President Joe Biden.
In 2007, and while serving in the US Congress, Biden introduced a non-binding bill for “decentralising” Iraq into three entities, one Shia, one Sunni and one Kurdish. The bill was approved by the Senate by 75 votes to 23.
Iraqi news outlets have reported that the new local governments which will be formed following this month’s provincial elections could decide to form such autonomous entities, in a sign that the season of hard decisions has already arrived. 
Many politicians in Basra have been campaigning to convince their constituencies that a federal region is the best prescription for developing the oil-rich and Shia-dominated province away from the control of the central government in Baghdad.  
Also, many Sunni leaders, including the speaker of Iraq’s parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi, whose political bloc Mowahdoun has made strides in the provincial elections, have spoken in favour of federalism.
Sunnis have yet to decide on whether federalism should be an option. With no unified protest movement in existence, Sunnis seem to be divided over whether to keep their protests peaceful or risk pushing them into an open revolt against the Shias, a move which could close the door on any rapprochement and pave the way for division.
There have been signs that the Kurds, who have been running their own autonomous federal region since the US-led invasion, are already taking advantage of the Shia-Sunni standoff.
Kurdish security forces deployed this week beyond the formal boundary of their autonomous region, a move which will bolster their control over oil-rich areas larger than their own region.
Local media also suggested that the head of the Kurdish regional government, Nechirvan Barzani, who visited Baghdad on Monday, had succeeded in securing major concessions from the ruling Shia government on contentious issues such as disputed territories, oil exploration in the region, and the status of the Kurdish forces, known as Peshmergas.
The Shia coalition government has been rejecting Kurdish attempts to pass a new law on oil and gas that would allow them to sign exploration and sale contracts with foreign companies independently, hold a referendum on the future of the disputed areas, and pay the salaries of the Peshmergas forces.
If true, the move would mean that new fault lines are opening up in Iraq’s ethno-sectarian divide, as Sunnis will feel that the Kurdish-Shia reconciliation will affect their territories, reducing their chances of forcing the Shias to make concessions to their demands.
Whatever approach the rival factions take, the question remains of whether they will be able to spare Iraq from the spectre of the civil war and sectarian strife that seems to be looming over the country.

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