Residents gather at the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad's Hussainiya… (SAAD SHALASH/REUTERS )
BAGHDAD — A recent tide of sectarian tensions that erupted into the worst violence seen in Iraq in five years is testing the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ability to contain the crisis could hinge on a conflict raging beyond his control in Syria.
The prospect of a regional power shift driven by the bloody civil war next door, where a mostly Sunni rebel movement is struggling to topple the Shiite-dominated regime, has emboldened Iraq’s Sunni minority to challenge its own Shiite government and amplified fears within Maliki’s administration that Iraq may soon be swept up in a spillover war.
Sectarian bombings and assassinations targeting both Sunnis and Shiites increased last month after government forces raided a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq, killing more than 40 people. Bombings continued Wednesday and Thursday, leaving more than 30 people dead in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s embittered Sunnis say the successes of the Syrian rebels have given them the confidence to challenge what they call worsening government discrimination and abuse against the minority that once ruled this country under Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s Sunnis have been staging a growing wave of anti-government demonstrations in Sunni-majority provinces across the country for five months, raising tensions that some say could reignite the civil war that peaked in 2006. The combustible situation, underpinned by what critics call mistakes of the decade-long U.S. occupation that enshrined sectarianism, has been aggravated by Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian policies, analysts say.
The government has labeled the protest movement a project of Hussein’s former Baath Party and of al-Qaeda, an allegation denied by Sunni participants, who say they represent a cross section of Iraqi society.
They list among their key grievances laws and practices codified under U.S. occupation that bar former Baathists from participating in public life and authorize the use of secret informants — many of them originally cultivated by the U.S. military — whom human rights groups say Maliki uses to target Sunnis.
But the April 23 assault on the Sunni camp in Hawijah, coupled with increasingly antagonistic rhetoric from clerics and political leaders on both sides, has injected an ominous militant tone into what had been a largely peaceful protest movement. Last month, tribal leaders in the Sunni heartland of Anbar province announced the formation of a “tribal army” to protect demonstrators; residents say the force has drawn heavily from jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq.
Meanwhile, at least two powerful Shiite militia leaders have rallied followers to crush the protest movement, which they, like the government, say is dominated by terrorists. On Thursday, government forces raided the home of a leading protest leader in Ramadi.
Some government officials and Sunni tribal leaders have made conciliatory gestures to pull Iraq back from the brink of a sectarian war, the kind that destroyed families and divided neighborhoods less than a decade ago. A parliamentary committee launched an investigation of the Hawijah raid, and several prominent Shiite officials called it a mistake. Last week, a group of Sunni sheiks in Anbar sent aid to flood victims in Shiite-majority areas of Iraq’s south.
Early last month, in a bid to appease protesters, Maliki’s cabinet proposed legal reforms that included amendments to weaken the laws that Sunnis say are used to discriminate against them. But the legislation has stalled in parliament amid fierce Shiite opposition.
Syria’s pivotal role
The muted state of unease, after the strife last month, may be a “false peace,” said Erin Evers, a Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Sunni protest leaders and some officials close to Maliki said that they remain pessimistic about the prospect of a long-term solution and that the war in Syria could become the deciding factor.
Inside a dust-battered tent at a protest camp in Fallujah last week, tribal leaders in white robes described the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as inescapably intertwined. Many here view Maliki as a puppet in a conspiracy by Shiite-majority Iran to achieve regional domination, and they say Syria’s Iran-backed regime is no different.
“Maliki’s intentions for the Sunnis are the same as Iran’s: They want to ‘Shii-ify’ the country,” said Mohamed al-Bajari, a spokesman for the protest movement in Fallujah. Bajari served as an officer in Hussein’s intelligence service.
At a rally last Friday on a highway that cuts through Fallujah, where the old flag of the Hussein-led Iraq fluttered above the crowd, one banner read: “America: You gave Iraq to Iran, and then you left.” Another, directed at Maliki, read: “If you don’t understand it in Arabic, we’ll say it in Persian: Leave.”
A rebel victory in Syria could benefit Sunnis in Iraq, Bajari said.