Sectarian bombings and assassinations targeting both Sunnis and Shiites increased last month after government forces raided a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq, killing more than 40 people. Bombings continued Wednesday and Thursday, leaving more than 30 people dead in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s embittered Sunnis say the successes of the Syrian rebels have given them the confidence to challenge what they call worsening government discrimination and abuse against the minority that once ruled this country under Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s Sunnis have been staging a growing wave of anti-government demonstrations in Sunni-majority provinces across the country for five months, raising tensions that some say could reignite the civil war that peaked in 2006. The combustible situation, underpinned by what critics call mistakes of the decade-long U.S. occupation that enshrined sectarianism, has been aggravated by Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian policies, analysts say.
The government has labeled the protest movement a project of Hussein’s former Baath Party and of al-Qaeda, an allegation denied by Sunni participants, who say they represent a cross section of Iraqi society.
They list among their key grievances laws and practices codified under U.S. occupation that bar former Baathists from participating in public life and authorize the use of secret informants — many of them originally cultivated by the U.S. military — whom human rights groups say Maliki uses to target Sunnis.
But the April 23 assault on the Sunni camp in Hawijah, coupled with increasingly antagonistic rhetoric from clerics and political leaders on both sides, has injected an ominous militant tone into what had been a largely peaceful protest movement. Last month, tribal leaders in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province announced the formation of a “tribal army” to protect demonstrators; residents say the force has drawn heavily from jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq.
Meanwhile, at least two powerful Shiite militia leaders have rallied followers to crush the protest movement, which they, like the government, say is dominated by terrorists. On Thursday, government forces raided the home of a leading protest leader in Ramadi.
Some government officials and Sunni tribal leaders have made conciliatory gestures to pull Iraq back from the brink of a sectarian war, the kind that destroyed families and divided neighborhoods less than a decade ago. A parliamentary committee launched an investigation of the Hawijah raid, and several prominent Shiite officials called it a mistake. Last week, a group of Sunni sheiks in Anbar sent aid to flood victims in Shiite-majority areas of Iraq’s south.