Grudges against the post-Hussein government have long simmered in Salahuddin, the Sunni-majority province of which Tikrit is capital. But in recent months, a series of moves by the country’s political leadership and security forces have brought resentment to a head, threatening sectarian coexistence in Iraq at a crucial time for the region.
People in the province and neighboring Sunni-majority areas say they were targeted by a wave of arrests and the dismissal of scores of people for links to Hussein’s regime at the end of last year. Their political representation in Baghdad has also been weakened as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who leads a Shiite coalition, has moved to sideline the Iraqiya political bloc, for which most Sunnis voted in 2010 elections.
Amid the deepening sectarian rift, local officials late last year formally requested a referendum on federal status for the province, a change that would allow them more control over their budget and security. The Sunni-majority province of Diyala, to the east, has made a similar request.
“Salahuddin is marginalized 100 percent,” said Sheik Mohammad Hussein al-Jabbour, from one of the largest local tribes, complaining that thousands of people in the province — many of whom held high positions in the former regime — had been fired and that Shiite security forces operating in the province treat Sunni residents unfairly.
A challenge to Maliki
Calls for more local control over the province, discussed intermittently for years, began to gather momentum a year ago when a leading Iraqiya politician, Osama al-Nujaifi, hosted a gathering of provincial leaders from all over Iraq and encouraged them to resist central control from Baghdad.
The move challenged a growing concentration of power in Maliki’s hands, said Marina Ottoway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I think Nujaifi sees the provinces as the new battleground, where power can be wrested away from Maliki,” she said.
In early October, at least 100 people, including academics of decades’ standing, were forced to leave Tikrit University because they had been identified as high-ranking members of Hussein’s ruling Baath Party by a government committee charged with preventing leading Baathists from holding official positions. More than 600 people were arrested nationwide the same month and accused of plotting a coup against Maliki. Many in Salahuddin were among those detained.
Ottoway said that it was unclear whether those incidents were a direct response to Nujaifi’s push for federalism or part of a wider struggle between Maliki and his opponents. But the dismissals and arrests were swiftly followed by formal requests from Salahuddin and Diyala for referendums on federal status. Maliki denounced those moves as sectarian, saying on Iraqi television that Salahuddin’s local politicians were seeking to create a “safe house for Baathists.”