Sheik Mohammad Hussein Mohammad al-Jabbour,chairman of a sheik's council in Tikrit, says thousands of people in Salahuddin province have been fired and that Shiite security forces operating in the province treat Sunni residents unfairly. (Alice Fordham/The Washington Post)

Nine years after the fall of its most famous son, Saddam Hussein, the city of Tikrit is a decrepit, angry place, and its mostly Sunni population, feeling alienated from the Shiite-led central government, is calling for more independence.

Sectarian tensions are also being exacerbated, here and across Iraq, by the chaos in Syria. Support for the mainly Sunni uprising there is growing among some Sunnis, while the Baghdad government has carefully refrained from calling for President Bashar al-Assad, from the Shiite-offshoot Alawite sect, to step down.

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.”

The government has not acted on the provinces’ requests, which Iraqi federalism expert Reidar Visser said violates the constitution.

The Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc saw its influence eroded when leading politician Tariq al-Hashimi was charged in December with terrorism offenses, while Maliki called for Saleh al-Mutlaq, also with Iraqiya, to be fired for referring to the prime minister as a dictator. The moves prompted Iraqiya to walk out of parliament, precipitating a political crisis, but the group returned at the end of January, without Mutlaq or Hashimi.

Some in Salahuddin say they are disappointed in Iraqiya, seeing the bloc as weak and unable to fight for them in Baghdad. “We feel it’s a long distance between us and the parliament. We feel neither the parliament or the government is for us,” Jabbour said.

Fears over Syria

While the constitution allows for federal regions, and the Kurdish federal area in the north is safe and thriving, a push for federalism in Sunni provinces raises the specter of an Iraq split into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish areas.

A similar plan was proposed during the worst of the sectarian fighting in Iraq, five years ago, and enthusiastically supported by Vice President Biden, then a senator. But, especially with regional tensions increasing, many fear that dividing Iraq could create a dangerously factionalized country.

“Everybody’s worst fear is that we’re going to see the country divided up along sectarian lines,” said a Western diplomat in Baghdad, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The ongoing crackdown on an increasingly violent opposition in Syria seems to be deepening the divisions here. Although the Iraqi government has trod a careful line, in several Sunni areas there have been enthusiastic rallies in support of the opposition, especially in Anbar province, which borders Syria.

“Clearly, there are some indications that the Syrian situation is leading to greater sectarian polarization,” Visser said. He pointed out that the Iraqi government has strongly supported the opposition in Bahrain, which has been rocked by pro-democracy protests by a Shiite majority against a Sunni ruling elite, but that it has been far less supportive of a mostly Sunni opposition in Syria. To some Iraqis, he said, that seems a contradictory policy motivated by sectarian loyalty.

Iraqi officials also worry about what would happen if Assad were to fall and be replaced with a Sunni religious leadership. “If there would be an Islamic fundamentalist regime trying to support Sunni Arab provinces that are bordering Syria, there would be sectarian confrontation,” Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, said in an interview this month.

Nostalgia for Hussein era

Last week in Salahuddin, many tribal leaders, academics and ordinary people expressed resentment of Maliki and increasing support for more independence.

“People believe that with federalism, they will be able to keep their businesses and jobs, they will remain free, there will be no more arrests, and the influence and intervention of the central government will decrease,” said one academic from Tikrit University. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared dismissal from his post.

Others cannot help but feel nostalgic for a time when they felt respected. Marwan Naji, a poet and television presenter, showed pictures of his tribal ancestors near Tikrit and described their role in Iraq’s history. He used to recite poems for Saddam Hussein, he said, and attended his funeral.

“Whatever they say about Saddam Hussein in the media,” he said, “he was able to keep Iraq stable through so many crises.”