Decoding Iraq's Sectarian Rivalries

Baghdad's Political Blocs Threaten to Split Apart

By many accounts, Iraq appears to again be in the throes of sectarian conflict. Last month, the country’s judiciary issued an arrest warrant for its Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, for his alleged involvement in terrorism. At the same time, Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite Prime Minister, sought to remove another high-profile Sunni official from office, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, who had accused Maliki of being a dictator. Critics accuse the prime minister of deliberately targeting his Sunni political opponents to consolidate his power.

But Iraq is not suffering traditional sectarian strife, whereby political disagreements among the elite lead to bloodshed on the streets. Rather, it is afflicted by what could be called intra-sectarian conflict, as rivals within both the country’s Shiite- and Sunni-dominated parties reposition themselves amid the political fray. On the one hand, several members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc have defected, suggesting political, not sectarian, motives; on the other hand, two former militant Shiite factions, the Sadrist Movement and the League of the Righteous, have exchanged threats, which could escalate into armed conflict.

The current Iraqi government was created in December 2010, after nine months of pained negotiations produced an unstable power-sharing agreement between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, and the Kurdish President Masoud Barzani. The exact terms of the agreement remain unpublished, but the main sticking point is the creation of the National Council for Strategic Policies. That body that was supposed to be headed by Allawi, who refused the position because of Maliki’s willingness to accord it only advisory, not executive, power. Each man blames the other: Allawi claims the terms of the agreement are not being implemented and Maliki claims it is because the agreement, as understood by Allawi, is unconstitutional. In any case, the tenuous power-sharing coalition unraveled when Maliki moved against Hashemi and Mutlak, two high-profile figures in the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.

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