December 21, 2011
A political crisis coupled with moves for more autonomy by Iraq’s Sunnis is fanning the minority’s fears of marginalisation with all US troops having left the country, experts say. In the past four days, a warrant has been issued against Sunni Vice President Tareq Al Hashemi; premier Nouri Al Maliki, a Shiite, said his Sunni deputy should be fired; and the main Sunni bloc has boycotted cabinet and parliament, decrying the government as a “dictatorship”.
And over the past two months, three Sunni-majority provinces in central and western Iraq have pushed for greater federalism of the style enjoyed by the Kurdistan region in the country’s north. All of this comes with the US military having completed their withdrawal from Iraq at the weekend.
“The political establishment will face a big challenge in the time after the withdrawal, especially in dealing with this political crisis and the feelings of marginalisation by Sunni Arabs, which could push even greater demands for federalism,” said Ihsan Al Shammari, a Baghdad University professor. “Sunni Arabs think that they won’t be able to reach top levels of power in the central government. That’s why they are looking for a kind of power in their regions. This choice could lead to more political and sectarian tension.” Authorities in Salaheddin, Anbar and most recently Diyala have all moved to achieve greater autonomy from Baghdad, drawing an angry response from Prime Minister Maliki.
The Diyala “declaration” earlier this month, in which 15 of 29 provincial councillors signed a document saying they supported increased autonomy, has triggered the most serious backlash. Army and police units were deployed across the province as part of stepped up security measures, and hundreds of people demonstrated to voice their opposition to the provincial coucillors’ efforts.
Diyala Governor Abdul Al Nasser Al Mahdawi and several provincial councillors promptly fled to the nearby Kurdish region. “Those who call for federalism are from the minority, because they fear the control of the majority,” said Hamid Fadhel, a politics professor at Baghdad University.
“Sunnis are afraid, because they are constantly hearing about the control and despotism of the central government. Unfortunately, the government has given some justification to the provinces to call for this project,” he said, lamenting what he charged was excessive centralisation in Baghdad. Sunni Arabs, who dominated all the regimes of Iraq from its modern creation in 1920 until Saddam Hussein’s overthrow in 2003, largely boycotted Iraq’s first post-invasion parliamentary election in 2005.
In the following two years, a violent insurgency against government forces and the US troops left tens of thousands dead across Iraq. It was only quelled when tens of thousands of extra American soldiers were sent in to Iraq, and US forces co-opted Sunni tribes which had sided with Al Qaeda. In March 2010 polls, voters in Sunni-majority provinces helped propel the Iraqiya bloc to the most seats in parliament, but after nine months of stalemate, the incumbent Maliki formed a pan-Shiite coalition that is at the centre of the national unity government he now leads.