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Iraq Reels Under Intensifying Political Divide

  • Selah Hennessy

Tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Iraq in the last month, rallying against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Many of the Sunni protesters accuse their Shi'ite prime minister of marginalizing their sect and consolidating power.

Rising anti-government protests, mostly by Sunnis, have rocked Iraq since December. Many Sunnis are calling for Shi'ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down. They also want the release of detainees they say are being held without trial -- and the suspension of an anti-terrorism law they say targets Sunnis unfairly.

Maliki’s Shi'ite supporters have also taken to the streets, in what is becoming escalating sectarian strife.

In London, analyst Chris Doyle says Sunnis have long felt sidelined by the country’s Shi’ite-led government. “They feel like they are second class citizens -- that the government of Nouri al-Maliki, the State of Law Party, essentially is a Shi’a nationalist government that has not in any way, in their view, looked after their interests,” he said.

The protests began in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province after the army arrested the bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafa al-Issawi.

He is the most high profile Sunni Cabinet member since Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi was dismissed from office, accused of running death squads. A death warrant has been issued against Hashemi in absentia He says the charges are trumped up for political reasons.

Influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a rival to Maliki, has shown support for the protesters -- and told Alhurra TV that Iraq’s sects must be united.

He says as long as the demonstrators make clear demands this is a democratic and peaceful expression. He says everyone should deal with it in a civilized way.

Maliki has taken some steps to stem the unrest -- including a promise to release 700 female prisoners.

Middle East expert Jamie Ingram says Maliki may be facing an uphill struggle. “I think he has been quite taken aback by this. He’s attempted to calm down the situation but also things like closing the border crossing with Jordan to try to put greater economic pressure on the protesters -- that is probably going to backfire,” Ingram stated.

The Arab-led central government also remains embroiled in a dispute with the largely-autonomous Kurdish north over oil and land. And both Kurdish and Sunni ministers have boycotted Cabinet meetings in support of the protesters.

One year after U.S. troops left Iraq, observers say the fragile network of Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds may be unraveling.

“It is a crisis that is just getting worse and worse and we are seeing protests and if there is not a resolution of these tensions then it could obviously escalate into a greater crisis,” said Doyle.

Provincial elections are set to take place in April and analysts expect the unrest to continue until then.