Could Iraq descend into a civil war again? (VIDEO)

The scars of Iraq's painful bloodletting are deep, and a powerful disincentive against a return to open warfare. But Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is moving against Sunni Arabs, his political enemies.

It's been less than three days since the last US combat troops left Iraq. But in the interim, the cold war in Iraq's parliament between the main Sunni Arab political bloc and the coalition of Shiite parties behind Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has veered toward open political combat and dramatically heightened the risk of a full return to civil war. Whatever restraining influence the US once had appears to be gone.

Iraqiyya, the largely Sunni bloc of Iyad Allawi, has withdrawn its legislators from parliament, armored personnel carriers manned by loyalists of Prime Minister Maliki have been stationed outside the homes of some of his political opponents, and the government has leveled serious terrorism charges against one of the most prominent Sunni politicians in the country – Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlak, a fellow Sunni, has also been targeted to be ousted from his post by Maliki's allies in Parliament.

Desperate negotiations are currently under way to head off what could easily become Iraq's most serious political crisis in years. Vice President Hashemi's plane was held on the tarmac of Baghdad's airport for a few hours on Sunday, with the government insisting he was barred from leaving the capital pending the outcome of a terrorism investigation. He was eventually allowed to fly to Irbil, in Kurdistan, where Kurdish leaders are trying to ward off a political collapse that could push Iraq back to open warfare.

Yesterday, the government issued a warrant for Mr. Hashemi's arrest, accusing him of running a death squad that targets security officials. Speaking to reporters in Irbil today, where he's now in de facto exile from Baghdad, Hashemi called the charges "fabricated.... Maliki is behind the whole issue ... all the efforts that have been exerted to reach national reconciliation and to unite Iraq are now gone."

Hashemi, an Islamist rather than a former Baathist, said he'd be willing to face trial in Kurdistan – an indirect charge that the federal judiciary is tainted by political manipulation. Iraqi TV carried footage of guards of Hashemi "confessing," though torture and coerced confessions have been commonplace in Iraq for years. 

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The irony that the independence-minded Kurds like Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, repeatedly victimized by Saddam Hussein's Sunni Arab-dominated Iraq, are now being asked to shore up Sunni Arabs, should be lost on no one. But it's just one measure of how dangerous the situation has become, with the minority parties growing increasingly alarmed at the power Maliki is accruing for himself and the failure of Iraq's putative political institutions to rein him in. While the Kurds put group interests in front of national ones, they'd prefer a balancing of powers in the rest of Iraq, rather than the emergence of a single, strong Shiite Arab leader who might make their prerogatives his next target. 

Sunnis have also been testing the promise of federalism – greater autonomy within Iraq – in the federal Constitution. The local legislatures of three majority Sunni Arab provinces – Salahuddin, Anbar, and Diyala – have said they want a referendum on greater independence, though Maliki's central government has taken no steps to allow that yet. After a slim majority of local legislators in Diyala supported increased autonomy earlier this month, the central government mobilized the Army and police inside the province. Diyala Governor Abd al-Nasir al-Mahdawi, a Sunni supporter of increased autonomy, and a number of legislators have since fled to the relative safety of Kurdistan.

Governor Mahdawi has repeatedly complained of increased Iranian influence and Shiite militias in the province in recent years. In December 2009, he privately told US officials that the province's security forces were overwhelmingly Shiite and alleged that most detainees were held under false pretenses and that Iran was exercising direct influence over the police.

To be sure, the Kurds may not be reliable friends to Sunni Arabs. As Reidar Vissar, a scholar of the region and a keen observer of Iraqi politics, writes: "So far the Kurds have a track record of hosting Iraqiyya in a friendly manner and then ultimately betraying them in bilateral deals with Maliki."

What we're witnessing is an effort by Maliki to consolidate power for his own confessional group against two of the major representatives of Sunni Arabs in Parliament, something that rank and file Sunnis, frightened and angry about what they see as Maliki's growing power and alliance with Iran, are watching with horror. "Who's next?" will be the question on the mind of almost any official who has past ties to Saddam Hussein's Baath party or Sunni interests more generally.

That's exactly the frame of mind that fed both sides of the Iraqi civil war, which claimed at least 100,000 killed in Iraq since 2003. Politics was seen as a zero-sum game, and if you didn't fight, you could only lose. While horrific suicide attacks were carried out by Sunni jihadis well outside the Iraqi mainstream, they were enabled by a broader Sunni community willing to look the other way as attacks were plotted against their confessional enemies. On the Shiite side, death squads targeting former Baathists and Sunnis operated with near impunity, with many Shiites tolerating the killing as justifiable payback for decades of abuse under Saddam.

While the war mostly wound down after 2008, after the US surged in additional troops and adopted a strategy of cash payments to former Sunni fighters while promising to smooth the way for a political transition in which their position in Iraqi society would be protected, no meaningful sectarian reconciliation ever took place. The fact that Maliki was able to outmaneuver Allawi's Iraqiyya after the last parliamentary election – the mostly Sunni bloc won a plurality of the vote, but Maliki was able to form a larger Shiite coalition to take the premiership – has helped set the stage for the current trouble.

After months of wrangling over cabinet posts, in which the terms of Iraq's Constitution appeared to have been breached, a compromise was reached in which Maliki promised to distribute power fairly to other groups, and also said that major security posts would be distributed to his confessional opponents in order to ease mistrust and tensions. But now, more than a year later, no distribution of power has taken place. The Defense Ministry and the powerful Interior Ministry, which controls the police, remain in Maliki's hands alone.

Mr. Vissar wrote Sunday: "Perhaps the most troubling aspect in all of this is that Maliki is targeting people with a record for compromise. Both Mutlak and Hashemi have at times taken chances with their own constituencies for the sake of cooperating within the Iraqi political system. Back in 2009, Mutlak led a rapprochement attempt toward Maliki, whereas Hashemi was vice-president in the previous parliamentary cycle despite opposition from many Sunni Muslims. When Hashemi was labelled “Baathist” by the Sadrist Bahaa al-Aaraaji in autumn 2009, the revulsion against Aaraji in parliament included many Shiite Islamists and Kurds."

Neither Hashemi or Mutlak are angels – nor is Maliki. Iraq's post-Saddam politics have been as violent and corrupt as they were under him. The former two men certainly had a sort of fellow-traveler status with Sunni insurgents during the height of Iraq's sectarian civil war, and elements of Maliki's Shiite Islamist Dawa Party were running death squads at the time. That strong evidence exists against any of these men can't be discounted.

But as a practical political matter, the timing of the move so close to the US withdrawal can't be ignored. Nor can the fact that targeting of political rivals for prosecution or ouster will be taken – however fairly or unfairly – as a sectarian move that will bring Iraq further, not closer, to the often promised and not yet reached reconciliation.

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