In December 2011, the last G.I. left Iraq, ending nine years of occupation. The Americans leave behind them a profoundly divided country, beset by violence and in the grip of a political crisis. Our reporters went to meet the Shiites and Sunnis to guage the tension between the two communities.
One hundred and fifty seven US troops now remain in Iraq. Initially both the American and Iraqi governments wanted US instructors to stay until 2014 and oversee the training of the countries’ security forces, but they couldn’t agree on their legal status. NATO wanted immunity for its personnel, Nuri al-Maliki’s government refused. The American page is definitely turned in Iraq. Now the time for a full-blown political crisis has come.
Tension is high between the Shiite government led by Nuri al-Maliki and the Iraqiya bloc, the secular opposition, supported by the Sunnis, which accuses the Prime Minister of monopolising power and is now boycotting parliament.
The pressure rose a notch just forty-eight hours after the US withdrawal. The interior minister called for a press conference during which he announced that an arrest warrant had been issued against the Iraqi vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni. The government says it has evidence he plotted terrorist acts. Several people described as members of his security forces appeared before the press, and gave detailed confessions about bombings and assassinations they allegedly committed on behalf of their boss. Tareq al-Hashemi is currently in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Whether this episode is a political manoeuvre or is based on genuine investigations, it speaks volumes about the political state of Iraq. It also makes any negotiations to end the crisis that much more difficult.
A country on the verge of breaking up
In the provinces of the Sunni triangle, the governors feel increasingly marginalised. According to them, the central government deliberately blocks their decisions, and denies them posts in Baghdad. On October 27th, Salah el-Din was the first of the three Sunni regions to declare its autonomy, soon followed by Diyala. The Shiite government immediately turned down these bids for autonomy.
The entourage of Nuri al-Maliki said the Sunni governors were conspiring against the government, breaking up the country, and creating a heaven for former Baathists and insurgents.
The political crisis and the bid for autonomy by Sunni provinces are causing tensions to flare between the Shiite and Sunni communities. Each side has its militia and is ready to fight - an explosive situation that could plunge Iraq into a violent sectarian war.