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.