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 The exact terms of the agreement remain unpublished, but the main sticking point is the creation of the National Council for Strategic Policies.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.

The charges against Hashemi further raised the odds of ethnosectarian strife when he fled to Kurdistan, where central government forces have no jurisdiction to enforce the arrest warrant. The Kurdish regional government refused to hand him over to Baghdad, and the Kurdish interior ministry made it clear that it was not going to enforce the warrant. Maliki was furious. He warned the Kurds that there would be “trouble” if they did not honor judicial orders. Meanwhile, Maliki’s allies pointed out that Baghdad pays the salaries of the regional Kurdish army yet has little or no say in matters of security in Kurdistan. A member of Maliki’s governing State of Law coalition threatened to cut the funds allocated to the Kurdish interior ministry in the yet-to-be-approved 2012 budget.

But talk of a looming Arab-Kurdish conflict in Iraq is both premature and misleading. For Kurdish officials, the priority is securing and protecting their autonomy. The Kurds view both Maliki and Allawi warily and are treading a fine line between these two centrist-minded politicians amid uncertainty with the federal government over oil revenue sharing as well as over disputed territories in Kirkuk and Mosul. In other words, the parties are positioning themselves based on political interest, not ethnic or sectarian makeup. The Kurds, by participating in the power-sharing government yet sheltering the wanted vice president, are trying to increase their influence and bargaining power in future negotiations.

As for Maliki and Allawi themselves, they have as much as to worry about within their own coalitions as they do outside them. Both their respective blocs -- the National Alliance and Iraqiya -- were formed on shaky grounds and contentious issues such as the Hashemi warrant have exposed these cracks. In this fractious game of politics, Maliki is doing extremely well: not only has he managed to chip away at Allawi’s support but he is also keeping his own allies at bay. In the government formation process that took up much of last year, Maliki managed to drive a wedge between two powerful movements in southern Iraq: the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Ammar al-Hakim, and its former military wing, the Badr Organization, led by Hadi al-Amiri. Both ISCI and Badr are part of the Shiite-dominated National Alliance. By enticing Amiri with a position as minister of transport last November, he frustrated Hakim and created confusion within ISCI and Badr -- a move that strengthened Maliki because he brought Badr to the table while ISCI remained reluctant in backing Maliki.

Now, Maliki is using a similar intra-sectarian ploy against another rival power base: the Sadrists. Under the pretext of national reconciliation, he is bringing the League of the Righteous (Asa’ib Ahlil Haq) into the political process. The League leader, Kais al-Khazali, was a former spokesman for Muqtada al-Sadr but the two split in 2006, when Khazali decided to work independently of the Sadrists and instead coordinate directly with Iran. Perhaps one of the most well known of the Iranian-backed Special Groups, the League has reemerged in Najaf, under the auspices of Maliki, and is now engaged in war of words with the Sadrists. The two groups have skirmished in the past, and it possible that violence could break out again.

In both these cases, the factions that Maliki is bringing toward him are thought to have close ties to Iran, leading many analysts to conclude that with the United States out of Iraq, Tehran is increasing its influence over Baghdad. This may be true, but it is by design: Maliki recognizes these fissures and is playing on them as a means to survive. The Sadrists initially reacted against the arrest warrant on Hashemi, and their parliamentary bloc leader even talked about dissolving the parliament. Now, however, Maliki’s moves have paid off, as the Sadrist rhetoric is more in line with the prime minister’s own tone. The Sadrists now say that Hashemi should be put on trial in Baghdad and that his case should not be politicized.

Allawi has not been as lucky as Maliki in weathering the country’s political storm. Members of his party, Wefaq, part of the larger Iraqiya bloc, have defected in large numbers in several provinces. Political allies in Najaf, Babil, Dhiqar, and Basra have left Wefaq and formed their own party, the Sons of Iraq for Change. Although most of these defections have come in Shiite-majority provinces, some have also occurred in Sunni-majority provinces such as Diyala and Ninewa.

When parliamentarians withdrew from Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition last summer, Allawi managed to control the damage by winning over the centrist Wasat bloc that includes both Islamist and secular parliamentarians. But with the atmosphere so tense now, it’s not clear whether he can hold his coalition together. In December, when Iraqiya called for the boycott of parliament after the Hashemi warrant, the speaker of parliament, Usama al-Nujaifi, from Allawi’s own coalition, stayed on. Nujaifi was not willing to compromise his political position simply because his bloc leader, Allawi, decided to walk out. Maliki and Nujaifi have held talks to prepare for the national conference that aims to address the crisis. This inter-sectarian rapprochement will be key in destabilizing the conflict.

As well as suffering defections, Iraqiya was dealt a blow when several Iraqiya parliamentarians ended their boycott and returned to parliament. They re-styled themselves as the Nationalists bloc but hoped to remain under the broader Iraqiya coalition. Instead, Allawi kicked them out; they retaliated by claiming that Islamists within Iraqiya have hijacked the party platform. The episode revealed an intra-Sunni conflict that revolves around political ideology and not sectarian identity. To make matters worse for Allawi, even some government ministers from his coalition have defied his boycott and resumed their cabinet meetings. Allawi realized that the boycott was counterproductive and cost him politically; Iraqiya members have now returned to parliament, although not to the cabinet.

All eyes are now set on the national conference that is planned for mid-February. As with everything else in Iraq, nothing goes quite according to plan: the political parties seeking to diffuse the crisis cannot even agree on the time, location, and agenda of the conference. Allawi’s allies suggest that no form of compromise should be off the table, including a political solution to the judicial case against Hashemi. Maliki’s allies, however, refuse outright to entertain the idea of a political solution, such as transferring the Hashemi case to a different court. A 14-member preliminary session is now being scheduled to iron out the conference proposal. It will be a key test to see how the much larger conference will play out. Iraqiya have preconditions of their own, and the disagreements are seen as an impediment to the peaceful resolution of the crisis. If Maliki’s allies fail to curb his dictatorial tendencies and if sectarian rapprochement derails, Iraq could be headed toward violence -- but for now, the sort of open sectarian conflict that has plagued the country in recent years remains far off.

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  • HAYDER AL-KHOEI is a Researcher at the Centre for Academic Shi’a Studies. He is also a Postgraduate Student at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
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