While tensions have risen over the past two years, the triggers for recent eruptions are clear. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, who is Sunni, arrested for alleged terrorist activities on Dec. 20 — almost exactly one year after he ordered the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi’s security detail. Hashimi fled to Turkey and is unlikely to return soon to Iraq, where he was sentenced to death after Maliki demanded his trial in absentia for murder and financing terrorism.
The threat to Issawi, a moderate technocrat from Anbar, galvanized Iraqi Sunnis, who rightly saw Maliki’s move as sectarian and an assault on government participation by Sunnis not under the prime minister’s thumb. Three days after the arrests, demonstrations broke out in Ramadi, Fallujah and Samarra. Three days after that, a large protest closed the highway from Baghdad to Syria and Jordan. The popular resistance spread to Mosul on Dec. 27.
These protests erupted during a constitutional crisis and as an expanding Arab-Kurd conflict has become increasingly militarized. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was incapacitated by a stroke on Dec. 17 and has been out of the countryfor treatment. Iraq’s constitution specifies a line of succession — but with one vice president in exile and the other a Shiite and obvious Maliki proxy, Iraq has been, in effect, operating without a president. Political processes that require presidential involvement have been paralyzed, including moving forward with long-standing efforts by Sunnis and Kurds to hold a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in Maliki.
Talabani had been the critical link holding Baghdad and Kurdistan together since tensions rose following a 10-day standoff between Iraqi army units and Kurdish pesh merga troops in October, after Maliki sent the army toward the disputed city of Kirkuk. That move followed a series of skirmishes and mobilizations along the “Green Line” separating Kurdistan from Arab Iraq and a series of attacks in the area by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The recent protests underscore the collapse of the inclusive political accommodation reached in 2007, which had been reconfirmed by the formation of a grand Sunni-Shiite-Kurd coalition government after parliamentary elections in 2010. By November 2012, Maliki had evolved to openly discussing his intention to form a “majoritarian government” that would exclude the most important Sunni representatives. In mid-December he participated in creating a Shiite grand alliance as the launching pad for that government. The principal Sunni political leaders, including Issawi, parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifiand Anbari tribal leader Ahmed abu Rishaannounced their intention to form their own coalition. In short, Iraqi politics was re-fragmenting along sectarian and ethnic lines even before the protests began.
Understood in this context, the Iraqi army’s killing of protesters in Fallujah last month is a watershed event similar to the destruction of the Askariya shrine in Samarra in February 2006, though the crisis will not escalate as quickly. Sunni-Shiite tensions have hitherto played out in political forums. The key actors in today’s crisis are not the Sunni political leaders but, rather, Anbari tribal leaders, including Ali Hatem Ali Suleiman, one of the most powerful leaders of Iraq’s largest Sunni tribe. Suleiman and fellow leaders of the Dulaim tribe were essential to engineering the Anbar Awakening in 2007 and Sunni participation in the government, for which they rejected al-Qaeda in Iraq and renounced violence against the state. They responded to the killings of protesters last month by threatening open war against the state for the first time since 2007. So far at least, they have restrained protesters and resisted violent confrontation.
For his part, Maliki has sought to deescalate the conflict and to mollify protesters. Tehran has also been working — to persuade Iraq’s Sadrists, whom Maliki has alienated in his consolidation of power, to abandon their support for their Sunni brethren. Their combined efforts appear to be working: The Sadrist Bloc, which had refused Maliki’s request for suggestions to replace Issawi and other Sunni politicians, has put forth a substitute finance minister.
These efforts, ostensibly toward political resolution, actually increase the likelihood of sectarian war by continuing the marginalization of Sunni political leaders without addressing Sunni tribes’ core grievances — and by re-creating a Shiite front that had splintered.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has already taken advantage of this situation through its front group, the Islamic State of Iraq, which deployed combat teams in Fallujah last month that targeted Iraqi army positions and killed several soldiers. The jihadists’ black flags have appeared at Sunni protests and memorial ceremonies for the fallen. The group is back in the havens it held in 2006. If Maliki does not allow proper Sunni representation in government, al-Qaeda will gain greater popular tolerance and foreign support.
Over the past year, the situation in Iraq has become explosive while sectarian sentiment and armed violence in neighboring nations have escalated dramatically. Americans have become accustomed to watching Iraq approach the precipice and draw back. But circumstances have changed with the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and Maliki’s year-long efforts to intimidate his opponents through political, judicial and military maneuvers. If Maliki does not accept many of the protesters’ reasonable demands and allow meaningful Sunni participation in government, prospects for stopping Iraq’s descent into sectarian conflict are grim.