The crisis flared after the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki leaked plans Saturday to arrest a Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, on charges of terrorism. Hashimi’s mostly Sunni Iraqiya bloc responded by announcing a boycott of the national parliament.
Frantic telephone calls involving President Jalal Talabani, Maliki, Sunni politicians and U.S. Embassy officials appeared to resolve the issue. A judicial committee was formed to “thoroughly investigate” the terrorism charges, a solution that seemed to allow time for negotiations to unfold.
But on Sunday, tensions soared again when Maliki asked parliament to hold a no-confidence vote that would enable him to dismiss another top Sunni official, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak.
Mutlak says he is certain that the move springs from comments he made in a CNN interview last week calling Maliki the “biggest dictator ever.” He says that he stands by the comment, and that the boycott will be upheld until Maliki takes steps to fully share power with his Sunni partners in Iraq’s coalition government.
Hashimi and Mutlak flew to Kurdistan on Sunday night, ostensibly to seek the intervention of Kurdish leaders but inevitably fueling speculation that they were seeking refuge.
While similar disputes have erupted in the past, only to be smoothed over by lengthy negotiations, this one seemed in the minds of many ordinary Iraqis to acquire ominous overtones in the wake of the departure of the Americans. There have been more soldiers and armored vehicles on the streets of Baghdad in recent days, they say. Tanks have been deployed outside the homes of Hashimi, Mutlak and a third Sunni politician, their guns pointed toward their gates. A convoy of trucks laden with ammunition queued for access to the fortified Green Zone on Sunday, adding to the jittery mood.
The crisis is dividing Iraq along sectarian lines, threatening a revival of the tensions that erupted in widespread bloodletting in the middle of the past decade. Sunnis detect a plot by Maliki to crush his rivals and cement his authority now that U.S. forces have departed. Shiites think that Hashimi and other Sunni politicians may be behind some of the acts of terrorism that have abated but not disappeared from Baghdad’s streets.
“I think there’s going to be a coup,” said Muwafak Mohammed Ali, 47, voicing one of the many theories swirling as the long-simmering feuds among politicians erupted into full view even before the last convoy of American soldiers crossed the border into Kuwait early Sunday morning. He wasn’t sure by whom.