Iraq's Sunni-Shiite tensions have long been building
A trawl through US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks this year shows growing alarm over Iraq's political divides.
A wave of bombings across Baghdad today was not entirely unpredictable, given the deteriorating political situation in Iraq. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has given every indication in recent days that he's trying to freeze out his Sunni Arab political opponents from the political process.
With sectarian tensions ratcheted up by what Sunni Arabs' are convinced is a politically motivated terrorist prosecution of Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, who has fled to semi-autonomous Kurdistan for his safety, Iraq is on a dangerous precipice.
This may seem sudden, but Sunni-Shiite tensions have been steadily rising over the past few years. I recently took a look at the diplomatic cables from Wikileaks, and pulled out some bits that explain some of the backstory to today's violence in Iraq.
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Members of the Iraqi Islamic Party, headed by Tariq al-Hashemi and a major Sunni group, met with Undersecretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of Defense Michelle Flourny. IIP MP Abdul Karim al-Sammarraie told them sectarian reconciliation was going nowhere. "Regarding national reconciliation, Sammarraie asserted that some groups are not genuinely interested in reconciliation. He described a recent reconciliation conference as unsuccessful. Specifically, promises of integration for the Sons of Iraq (SOI) have been broken. He said that the SOI remain jobless and its leadership targeted by the GOI [government of Iraq]. He warned to expect more problems." The Sons of Iraq are a Sunni group that the US paid to switch sides during the troop surge, and they'd been promised integration into Iraq's security services or other jobs. Hashemi's Chief of Staff Saif Abd al-Rahman told them "Iraq is not yet a state but a 'collection of competing interests in a state-like environment.' Left alone, this situation may develop into a strong-man state. He argued that Iran understands this and is in Iraq for the long-term whereas the U.S. is only here for the short-term."
Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, currently in Kurdistan avoiding an arrest warrant issued by the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on terrorism charges, expresses alarm to US Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman over efforts to disqualify former members of the Baath party from holding seats in parliament. Interestingly for a Sunni Arab politician, who once denounced the US as "occupiers," he said: "We want to be assured that the relationship with the U.S. will continue." Hashemi also said that Saudi Arabia's relations with Iraq would probably improve once US troops withdrew ("an explanation we have not previously heard" the US diplomat wrote) and " he said Saudi officials had asked him why he and others have sat back "and let the Americans deliver the country to the Shia," implying that his continuing presence in Iraq and in the government was unacceptable. The Vice President said he had made clear that reality had to be accepted and wanted to add "Where do you want me to go? I am Iraqi. This is the reality in Iraq now." Regarding Iran, Hashemi described the neighboring country's influence on Iraqi government structures and decisionmaking as so pervasive that it fed the worst sort of conspiracy theories about how it happened and who planned it."
The US Embassy issues its internal report on Prime Minister Maliki's State of Law electoral alliance. "Despite its strong ties to Iran, SLA is perceived to be more independent from Tehran than its rival (Iraq National Alliance, another Shiite bloc). Still, Maliki has had a hard time selling his credentials as a nationalist and his coalition has yet to gain significant Sunni and minority support or participation. The coalition may face an anti-incumbent backlash across the South for its failure to deliver improved services in SLA-dominated governorates. Another weakness is Maliki's failure to improve regional relations and help facilitate economic and political integration with the Arab neighbors. Despite significant political disparities, the PM's closest advisers tell us it is likely that the INA and SLA will join forces after the election to ensure a Shi'a-led government, and to avoid blame for allowing a "pro-Ba'athist" cross-sectarian coalition to come to power. Unless SLA wins a strong plurality, it appears unlikely that Maliki will be able to retain the premiership." (A reminder that diplomats aren't always right: The secular and Sunni-supported Iraqiyya bloc won a plurality in the election, yet Maliki was able to retain his premiership).
Former Iraqi President Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite who led the most popular electoral coalition among Sunni Arabs in the last election, and members of his party met with diplomats. "Allawi said that on February 8 he received a phone call from Saudi Minister of Interior Prince Naif who expressed fear of what was transpiring in Iraq. Allawi noted that many regional leaders view the current de-Ba'athification effort as an attempt to stoke sectarianism, and suggested that U.S. ambassadors in the region reach out to the leadership in neighboring countries to address such concerns.... Allawi's delegation similarly voiced their belief that sectarian forces would work to stop the move toward secularism in Iraq, and stressed that U.S. assistance was needed to promote security prior to the national election and to engage regional partners."
A cable from the US Provincial Reconstruction Team in Diyala examines the arrests of Sunni political figures ahead of Iraq's parliamentary election. "The arrest of yet another Sunni Provincial Council member, Najim Abdullah Ahmad (Iraqqiya coalition lead for Diyala), on February 7th, is fueling cries that Sunnis are being targeted for arrest by the central government to help shape the election results in Diyala. Reports also indicated the Prime Minister's dedicated security unit, the Baghdad Brigade 8, was directly involved with the arrest," it begins. "His guilt or innocence notwithstanding, the timing of Najim's arrest one week before the start of the election campaign suggests it may be politically motivated. Moreover, Sunni leaders perceive his arrest as yet another attempt by the central government to undermine their political power in Diyala. Such actions could undermine the Sunni community's perception of the credibility and legitimacy of the elections process. The arrests also continue to cast a wide net of fear over the provincial government, and are degrading their willingness to take initiative and govern."
Saleh Mutlaq, a leading Sunni politician and currently the deputy prime minister (who Maliki is now seeking to unseat) appealed for US diplomatic help against attempts by a de-Baathification commission connected to Shiite politician Ahmed Chalabi to disqualify him from Parliament (he was ultimately successful). Mutlaq "also urged U.S. action to stop Chalabi, who he believed was intent on carrying out a malevolent agenda, inclusive of politically motivated de-Ba'athification beyond the election." In a comment at the end of the summary of Mutlaq's remarks, the US diplomat wrote: "Leaving aside the immediate issue of Mutlaq's fate, his experience and that of others indicates that the intensity of Iraqi electoral politics is stifling the judicial process and that the United States will need to be forceful in ensuring space and support for an independent judiciary."