Since Iraq’s provincial elections in April and June, however, the political landscape appears to have shifted. Hardheaded political calculations might now be driving Maliki, who faces reelection next year, to take a less sectarian approach.
Most important, Maliki no longer appears to have the support of a unified Shiite base. His party lost ground in the provincial elections, and rival parties gained control of the local governments in Baghdad and Basra, the most important city in the southern oil fields. But in the restive Sunni-majority province of Anbar, more than one-third of the votes went to parties loosely aligned with the prime minister — a sign that, despite the protests, Maliki could potentially partner with moderate Sunnis to form a governing coalition.
“There will be a political settlement with a segment of the Sunni community,” said a second close adviser to Maliki, Sami al-Askari, who is a member of parliament.
Iraqi leaders have already taken two steps to meet Sunni demands. First, a new law passed in June transferred significant powers from the central government to the provinces, appearing to answer protesters’ calls for greater autonomy from Baghdad. Second, Maliki approved a bill that would allow many former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party, whose senior echelons were mainly Sunni, to hold government positions.
“This was a radical compromise,” said Kirk H. Sowell, a political analyst and editor of Inside Iraqi Politics.
The viability of Maliki’s potential Shiite-Sunni alliance ultimately depends on many factors outside the realm of politics. Militant groups are increasingly active in Iraq, and their attacks are often designed to break open political fissures along sectarian lines. Most visibly, al-Qaeda affiliates have targeted security forces and civilians in Shiite areas.
Shiite militias, largely dormant in recent years, have remobilized for the fight in Syria, and there are many signs that they receive funding and direction from Iran’s clandestine Quds Force. Relatives of militia members, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity, said that fighters typically travel to Syria via Iran and that the bodies of those killed generally return by the same route.
If Shiite militias fully revive their domestic operations, Iraq could quickly spiral deeper into violence. During the civil war of 2006 and 2007, they carried out kidnappings and executions, used death threats to intimidate Sunnis into fleeing mixed neighborhoods and infiltrated government security forces.
Maliki appears to be trying to keep them at bay, at least inside Iraq. Some groups, including many followers of the cleric
Moqtada al-Sadr and the militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, have ostensibly put down their weapons and rebranded themselves as political groups, although they have also sent fighters to Syria. Maliki has used intermediaries to deliver warnings.
“The message is clear: ‘You are a political group, and you are not to participate in any violence,’ ” Askari said. “Their reply has been, ‘We are committed to this.’ ”
In recent weeks, however, gun battles have broken out in Baghdad as rival Shiite militias scuffle over turf. Iraqis warn friends about rumors that militias wearing police uniforms have set up fake checkpoints, screening cars for potential kidnapping victims. Families gather at funerals to mourn the fighters who have returned from Syria in coffins. And Iraqi leaders admit the limits of their influence.
“We discourage any involvement in violence,” Askari said. “But they aren’t asking us to give permission.”