It wasn’t the most deadly day of bombings in the Iraqi capital but it was certainly one of the most ominous.
A string of 15 bombings that killed at least 70 people tore through several of Baghdad’s mostly Shia neighbourhoods Thursday, days after the last U.S. combat soldiers had flown out.
More telling, the blasts came just three days after an arrest warrant was issued for the country’s Sunni Vice-President, Tareq al-Hashemi. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, alleges that Mr. al-Hashemi, a Sunni, had plotted assassinations against Shia government officials.
Given the unmistakably sectarian nature of these events, the Sunni populations of Baghdad and other Iraqi centres are girding for retaliatory attacks in what amounts to a power struggle at the helm of Iraq’s political leadership.
More than that, the conflict has gotten the attention of regional powers Iran and Saudi Arabia. Tehran backs Mr. al-Maliki and his Shia governing partners; while Saudi Arabia has long supported former prime minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite and leader of the Iraqiya party, the majority of whose supporters are Sunni and of which Mr. al-Hashemi is a leading member.
Mr. al-Hashemi, denying the allegations against him, has taken refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. So far, the Kurdish leadership has refused to comply with Mr. al-Maliki’s demand that he be returned to Baghdad to stand trial.
“We have warned long ago that terrorism will continue against the Iraqi people unless the political landscape is corrected,” said Mr. Allawi this week. He called for “an inclusive political process” and “nonsectarian institutions.”
Mr. Allawi was referring to what he describes as Mr. al-Maliki’s unwillingness to live up to power-sharing promises made a year ago under which Mr. Allawi and other senior party members were to have positions of authority in a powerful security council that would oversee significant government measures. (Mr. Allawi’s Iraqiya party won the largest number of seats in last year’s parliamentary election, two more than Mr. al-Maliki’s State of Law party.) Instead, Mr. al-Maliki appears to be making an attempt to rule himself, with support from the country’s Kurdish leaders.
The last time such a situation existed – in the wake of the inconclusive 2005 elections – and Iraq’s Sunnis were left out of any sharing of power, the country lapsed into a vicious sectarian conflict throughout 2006-07 in which thousands were killed.
Mr. al-Maliki has defended his actions, insisting that it is the country’s judiciary that has ordered Mr. al-Hashemi’s arrest following confessions given to the police by some of the Vice-Presidents’s bodyguards. But the confessions, broadcast on state-run television, were fabricated, say Mr. al-Hashemi’s defenders.
The whole thing “smacks of political vendetta,” says Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and an expert on modern Iraq.
“The reputation of the Iraqi judiciary is already in tatters after a series of rulings of a rather blunt pro-Maliki character,” Mr. Visser wrote on his blog Wednesday. “On the whole, the atmosphere seems reminiscent of the arbitrariness and outright terror that characterized the pre-election de-Baathification process in early 2010.”
In that case, several prominent candidates of the Iraqiya party were ruled ineligible to run for parliament because they had once been members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party (even though many had resigned from the party decades ago). Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlak was one of those people. He was formally exempted from the de-Baathification proceedings in December, 2010, as part of the government-formation compromise.
But this week he once again became yet another target of Mr. al-Maliki. The Prime Minister has asked parliament to dismiss Mr. al-Mutlak, his own deputy, allegedly for “incompetence,” but more likely because Mr. al-Mutlak, in a U.S. interview, likened the Prime Minister’s style of governing to that of Saddam Hussein.
In view of these attacks on leading members of Iraqiya, and because of the general failure to implement the year-old agreement on government formation, Iraqiya’s members and ministers are boycotting parliament.
In response, Mr. al-Maliki said Wednesday he will appoint others to take the Iraqiya ministerial places and will install a new vice-president and deputy prime minister.
“He seems to indicate that he has the power to do these things without parliamentary consent,” wrote Mr. Visser, author of A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010, in his blog. Such an act “is a clear violation of article 78 of the constitution.”
For his part, Mr. al-Maliki says Thursday’s bombings speak for themselves.
“The timing of the crimes and the choice of their areas confirms again to all those in doubt the political nature of the objectives that these people want to achieve,” the Prime Minister said in a statement on his website.