Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Conflict Fears as Iraqi Power Balance Crumbles

As American forces leave, Shia-majority politicians turn on Sunni colleagues.
By Abeer Mohammed
  • Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki addresses a press conference on December 21. (Photo: Ahmed al-Baghdadi)
    Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki addresses a press conference on December 21. (Photo: Ahmed al-Baghdadi)

Just days after the last American troops left Iraq, mounting political battles threatened to destroy the balance of power on which the country’s fragile democratic system is founded. Some fear it could lead to a re-run of the bloody sectarian warfare that the United States withdrawal was supposed to mark the end of.

Despite protestations from the government, there is a perception that with the Americans out of the way, Shia politicians have moved fast to shove Sunnis out of government.

Fears of conflict were strengthened on December 22 when a series of bombs hit the Iraqi capital Baghdad, killing at least 60 people killed and injuring nearly 200, most of them civilians, according to Iraqi officials.

No one has claimed responsibility, but the surge in violence is a clear sign that extremist groups see the security situation as weaker now that the Americans have gone and plan to exploit it.

The bombings came as Sunni politicians in top positions came under severe pressure.

On December 18, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki requested the dismissal of his deputy, Saleh al-Mutlaq.

Under a distribution of posts engineered to ensure cohesiveness, the current prime minister is from the Shia majority while Mutlaq is a Sunni Arab.

The next day, December 19, an arrest warrant was issued for Iraqi vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, also a Sunni, on terrorism charges.

On December 20, Mutlaq was prevented from entering the cabinet building in Baghdad. The same day, vehicles in which two Sunni politicians were travelling in the west of the capital came under fire, apparently from members of the Iraqi security forces.

Although Mutlaq and Hashemi are the two most senior Sunni Arabs in positions of power, the authorities insist the proceedings against them have nothing to do with sectarian politics.

State-run television last week showed what purported to be the confessions of Hashemi’s bodyguards, in which they said they assassinated health and foreign ministry officials and Baghdad police officers. They alleged that Hashemi paid them 3,000 US dollars for each attack.

Government media advisor Ali al-Musawi told IWPR that Hashemi was being pursued by the judiciary, not the prime minister.

“The warrant against Hashemi has been issued by the Iraqi judicial authorities on the basis of his bodyguards’ confessions,” he said. “Maliki has no say on this.”

Hashimi left Baghdad and went to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north after security forces raided his home and office and arrested some of his staff.

Speaking in Erbil, Hashemi denied the charges of terrorism and said he was ready to stand trial as long as the judicial process was impartial and took place in Kurdistan.

“I swear by God that I have committed no sin against the Iraqis,” he said at a December 20 press conference broadcast on Al-Jazeera TV.

As for the deputy prime minister, Musawi said Mutlaq had “violated the constitution, once when he praised Saddam and second when he made unfounded remarks about the prime minister and government”. This last was a reference to a CNN interview in which Mutlak described al-Maliki as a “dictator” who had deceived the Americans.

On December 21, the prime minister made it clear he no longer felt bound by the power-sharing agreement in which posts are shared out among Iraq’s various ethnic and confessional groups. Instead, he announced, he would be setting up a new majority-based cabinet.

“It is no shame to form a majority government. All democracies everywhere in the world work this way,” he told a press conference. “In the past we needed agreements and partnerships. Now I’m among those calling for a government to be formed on the basis of a majority, not power-sharing.”

Maliki appeared to dismiss concerns about the risk this would reignite the conflict, saying he was “very optimistic” about the future.

As prime minister, he has frequently been accused of having an autocratic style, and Sunnis in positions of power complained that they were excluded from decision-making.

This week, Iraqiya, a Sunni-led bloc of which both Hashemi and Mutlak are part, said that it was suspending its participation in parliament and that its officials would boycott cabinet meetings. This followed Maliki’s request for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Mutlak.

“The government has let us down. It has reneged on its promises not just to us, but to its partners in the political process,” leading Iraqiya figure and parliamentarian Hamid al-Mutlaq said. “People cannot trust such a government, not any more.”

While Shia politicians have not opposed the action taken against Hashemi and Mutlak, others have been outspoken in their criticism.

Iraqi president Jalal Talabani – a Kurd – said Maliki’s decisions with regard to both men had been “hasty”, in a statement issued on December 20. Iraq’s other top Kurdish figure, Massoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan, called for an emergency national conference to prevent the political process collapsing altogether.

The speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, another Sunni from the Iraqiya bloc, also called for a national conference to avert the worst.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said Washington was urging all sides to "work to resolve differences peacefully and through dialogue, in a manner consistent with the rule of law and the democratic political process".

There are few signs of this happening, however.

“Some parties have tried to mediate, but the prime minister will not compromise on the blood of Iraqis, whatever the price,” Mosawi said.

As political analysts watch developments in Iraq, they are growing alarmed at the longer-term implications.

Haider Saeid, a researcher and expert on Iraqi affairs based in Jordan, said power-sharing was the best option for the country.

He warned of the dangers of one-party rule, saying, “We tested that during Saddam’s times, and it didn’t work, so it isn’t going to work now. Iraqi democracy cannot survive if power-sharing is neglected.”

Abeer Mohammed is IWPR editor for Iraq.