“The economy is good,” he said, as hordes of religious tourists made their way through the labyrinth-like shopping arcade adjacent to the shrine. “We have jobs, trade — it’s the best it’s ever been.”
This side of Iraq stands out as an unlikely success story in a nation where an estimated 120,000 civilians were killed during the past decade.
The new Iraq looks far bleaker in the predominantly Sunni regions in the west, the capital and provinces north of Baghdad — once the heart of the insurgency. Sunnis have seen their clout erode sharply over the past two years as they have gotten squeezed out of national politics and the government, by far the country’s leading employer.
As the last American troops were leaving Iraq in December 2011, Maliki’s security forces set out to arrest the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, whom authorities had accused of running death squads. Hashimi barely managed to flee the country and has resettled in Turkey, prevented from returning home by a death sentence imposed after his conviction in absentia on terrorism charges.
This past December, security forces arrested bodyguards of another prominent Sunni politician, Rafia al-Issawi, on terrorism-related charges, forcing him to take refuge in his native Anbar province in the west. The case against the former finance minister set off a wave of protests across the country, raising the specter of an Arab Spring-like uprising.
Security forces have largely avoided clashing with the demonstrators, although they have killed a handful of protesters. Authorities have worked assiduously to stifle the movement in Baghdad, blocking access to Sunni neighborhoods on Fridays, when prayers and protests are held. This past Friday, Iraqi troops blocked traffic to the Adhamiyah neighborhood, one of the protest hubs.
“We are trying to show the world that people here are suffering from injustice,” said Mohamed al-Ani, 63, a resident of Adhamiyah who has joined the demonstrations. “If the government continues to prevent people from claiming their rights, the situation will boil over.”
Many in a community that had become largely resigned to its postwar fate are galvanized. Sunnis are calling for the repeal of an anti-terrorism law that the government has used to detain Sunnis en masse and for expanded employment opportunities.
In Arab provinces north of Baghdad, the situation is even more tense. In addition to Sunni protest movements that have taken root there, provincial officials and tribal leaders have become increasingly wary about an escalating dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdish region over a 300-mile swath of contested territories.