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Iraqis Fear Renewed Sectarian Violence

Brutal killings and political polarisation leave many anxious about the return of civil conflict.
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A series of deadly attacks and bitter political disputes have Iraqis concerned that the violent sectarianism that wracked the country after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime may return.



Bombings and assaults left at least 23 people dead across Iraq this week. In one brutal attack, a Shia family of eight, including six children, was murdered in their home in the Shia-majority town of Wehda, south of Baghdad. Local media reported some of the victims had been beheaded, a method of execution that was once the signature of al-Qaeda in Iraq.



Among the other reports of violence were the fatal shooting of a mother and her three children in a Shia district of Baghdad, and the discovery of two bullet-ridden bodies in a Sunni neighbourhood. Conflicting information has been released about the motives for the attacks, but observers said the killing methods were similar to those commonly used in the bloody Sunni-Shia warfare that culminated in 2007.



“All the recent events - bombs, beheadings, assassinations - are obvious indicators of the return of sectarian violence. These are signs that sectarianism still exists in the country," said Noraldeen al-Hayali, a Sunni member of parliament and candidate with the Unity Alliance of Iraq, a mostly secular group led by the Shia minister of interior, Jawad al-Bolani.



"There is still fire under the ash; there are hidden sectarian hatreds and we expect more sectarian violence ahead of the election and even after it," Hayali continued.



The spike in violence comes as a campaign to ban politicians with links to the outlawed Baath party has dominated Baghdad's political debate ahead of March 7 parliamentary elections. The removal of several prominent Sunni and secular politicians from the ballot has brought charges of sectarian bias against the majority Shia government.



"We are afraid that the Sunni street may feel that the banning wasn't aimed at disqualifying one person, but targeting them as a faction and an important component of Iraqi society," said Haider al-Mulla, a senior member of the Sunni-led National Dialogue Front, NDF.



The party's leader, Saleh al-Multaq, is the best-known politician banned by the Accountability and Justice Committee, AJC, the state-sanctioned de-Baathification body. The NDF had intended to boycott the election, but announced on February 25 that they would take part despite the continued ban on their leader, a decision which may ease concerns that some Sunnis might boycott the poll.



"Sunnis are worried that the next government could be based on sectarian quotas and will force people to live along sectarian lines," Mulla said.



Mutlaq told IWPR he feared a "chaotic situation on the Iraq street”.



"Banning people from running in the elections may spark a crisis,” he said. “Things could get out of control as people's patience is running out.”



Former prime minister Iyad Allawi, who heads the Iraqiya coalition which includes the NDF, told Reuters news agency on February 8 that the ban on Mutlaq and other politicians "will put Iraq in the box of sectarianism and the route to civil war".



His prediction sparked deep public concern and launched a bitter debate among politicians.



Rival politicians, such as lawmaker Rida Jawad Taqi of the Islamic Supreme Council, dismissed Allawi's statement as a publicity stunt aimed at drawing sympathy from the international community. The government has denied all accusations that the AJC expelled candidates because of religious or political affiliations.



"We don't think the dangerous method adopted by Allawi is justified,” Taqi said. “This claim [of civil war] is not responsible in any way. This is a move to create fear from parties that are about to collapse. They are rallying the street in the wrong direction, and this is dangerous for everyone.”



Members of Allawi's coalition, however, have rushed to his defence. Jamal al-Battiq, a senior Iraqiya party leader, said the fears of a Sunni backlash were realistic due to the shift in power that has reduced their role in politics since 2003.



"Sunnis have endured a lot of discrimination and marginalisation,” Battiq said. “That’s why Allawi’s statement is realistic and based on the facts that the security situation is still fragile and sectarianism still exists. In addition, there are existing Shia and Sunni armed militias that may start fighting among themselves at any time.



"All these factors made Allawi fearful of civil war which might be difficult to extinguish.”



Sami al-Askari, a member of parliament in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Rule of Law coalition, denied that the de-Baathification purge had anything to do with sectarianism, pointing out that many of the 145 banned candidates were Shia.



"Some of the banned politicians, including Mutlaq, played the sectarian card after losing everything. Their cause is sectarianism; there is no need for this obsession. The Iraqi people are united in solidarity and they have become well aware that it is not possible for sectarian violence to return," Askari said.



Fadhel al-Amari, a political science professor at Baghdad University, told IWPR that the pressure was on the government to reassure the Sunni population that the next government will be representative of all.



"Fears and obsessions [of sectarian violence] do exist and they are legitimate. The new attacks and the demonstrations in the southern provinces are serious warnings of the return of sectarian tension," Amari said.



"The Sunni street has seen the banning of candidates as a sectarian issue targeting [them] because most of them mistrust the constitution and the AJC. That being said, the political leaders have to come up with the right decisions to make sure all segments of society are involved in this election so that there is wide participation that will make the results legitimate."



The political debate, coupled with recent attacks, has confused and frightened a public eager to avoid the political turmoil and widespread violence of recent years.



"What we are hearing and seeing in the media by various politicians point to the possibility of the return of sectarian violence. This is actually a terrifying thing; it would ruin everything," said Mohammad Ali Hamza, 24, a merchant who lives in the Shia-majority Hurriya district of Baghdad.



"No one is going to be safe from it. And what did anyone gain from this in the past? Did any party prevail on the other? No. Everyone was a loser, and the same will happen again."



Ali Kareem is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.

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