Iraqi PM Maliki 'worse than Saddam Hussein'
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Baghdad was rocked by 14 deadly bomb blasts on Thursday which killed at least 67 people. The attacks come amid a widening rift between Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sunni political leaders that threatens to tear the country apart.
“The Saddam of the Shiite Muslims,” is how one political commentator described Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week.
The comparison made by Tarek al-Homayed, editor and columnist of the influential Arab newspaper Arsharq Al-Awsat, will be a particular affront to Maliki, who spent much of his life opposing the former Iraqi dictator.
But Homayed is not the first person to condemn the Shiite prime minister's alleged authoritarianism. Earlier this month, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Moutlak, a Sunni Muslim, appeared on Iraqi television denouncing Maliki as “worse than Saddam Hussein”.
His outburst underscores the mounting sectarian tensions between Shiite and Sunni political leaders that have crippled the year-old national unity government and are threatening to tear the country apart.
The rift is boiling over just as the last US troops cross the border into Kuwait, ending their nine-year occupation of Iraq. No group has claimed responsibility for Thursday’s bomb attacks but many will point the finger at disaffected Sunni insurgents.
In further evidence of how far apart the factions have grown, Tariq al-Hashemi, the most senior Sunni politician and the country’s vice president, has sought refuge in the country's Kurdish north with an arrest warrant on terrorism charges hanging over his head.
'Lets have our own Arab Spring'
The long-standing tensions between Shiite and Sunni leaders came to a head earlier this month when the Sunni political group Iraqiya, which makes up the second biggest group in parliament, announced a boycott of the national unity government.
Iraqiyya then released a stinging statement denouncing the prime minister’s “dictatorship” and announcing it was suspending its participation in parliament.
Maliki was quick to respond to the show of defiance. At a news conference on Wednesday he said representatives from Iraqiya would simply be replaced if they did not return to parliament.
“This is not the first time Maliki’s camp has orchestrated a campaign of intimidation against Sunni political leaders,” said Karim Sader, a political analyst and Arab world specialist, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
According to Sader, the Shiites in power are trying to send out a warning message to their Sunni rivals, who have sought increasing autonomy from a Shiite-dominated central government.
After the arrest of members of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party in October, the province of Salahuddin, whose population is also predominantly Sunni, declared its intention to seek regional autonomy, as the country's new constitution allows.
Two other Sunni-majority provinces, Anbar and Diyala, have since declared their intention to follow suit. “The Sunnis say ‘since Baghdad is in the hands of Shiites, lets have our own ‘Arab Spring’ and regain our autonomy!’,” explained Sader.
But the Prime Minister is against any move towards regional autonomy and in the last two months he has stepped up the number of arrests of Sunni Muslims, citing reasons of national security.
To many observers, the political crisis in Iraq, which has worsened since the recent withdrawal of American troops, was predictable.
“Reconciliation between the Sunni and Shiite communities has never taken place,” said Michel Goya, research director at IRSEM – the research wing of Paris’s Military Academy.
“The current challenge is to determine the place of Sunni Muslims both in the country as a whole and within the country’s democracy, which is far from perfect,” he added.
But Goya, author of “Iraq – the armies of chaos” says Maliki is simply adding fuel to the flames and heightening the feeling of marginalisation among Sunni Muslims.
“Maliki’s rule is becoming more and more authoritarian,” said Goya. “It is unlike 2006, when he was known as the man of compromise and was still trying to assert his political dominance.”
According to political scientist Karim Sader, Maliki is “a dictator, whose methods are on a par with those of Saddam Hussein”.
“The Shiites are reluctant to share power with other communities and Maliki is playing a dangerous game that could lead to civil war and the partition of the country,” added Sader.
The clear increase in sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites is worrying the United States. On Tuesday US Vice President Joe Biden spoke with Maliki by telephone, calling on him to use “dialogue” to repair the rift that threatens to tear the government – and the country – apart.
“Iraq is facing the classic dilemma between falling into a dictatorship which would silence dissent from minorities or slowly move towards the break up of the country,” concluded Sader.