Iraq bombings, political crisis raise concerns of renewed civil war

Bombings in Iraq targeted two Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad today. The violence, coming amid a Sunni-Shiite political crisis, threatens to inflame the tensions that led to civil war in 2006-07.

Karim Kadim/AP
Iraqi security forces and people, seen through smashed glass of a damaged vehicle, gather at the scene of a bomb attack in Sadr City, east of Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 5. A wave of explosions struck two Shiite neighborhoods on Thursday, killing and injuring dozens of Iraqis, police said, and intensifying fears that insurgents are stepping up attacks after the U.S. troop withdrawal that was completed last month.

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At least 50 people were killed today in two predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, underlining Iraq's tenuous stability as a political crisis threatens to inflame stark sectarian divisions.

There were at least four explosions across Baghdad. The first attack took place in Sadr City, in northeast Baghdad, and killed at least a dozen people. A half-hour later, another bomb went off nearby, killing one, the Guardian reports. The neighborhood of Kadhamiya, home to an important Shiite shrine, was blasted by a pair of almost simultaneous bombs two hours later. Yesterday there were a series of attacks on the homes of police officers and a member of a Sunni militia with ties to the government.

No group has claimed responsibility for the bombings yet, but The New York Times reports that they "appear similar" to previous attacks carried out by the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq. On Dec. 22, AQI staged a series of explosions throughout the capital that killed more than 60 people. 

Two days before those attacks, the Monitor's Dan Murphy warned of the growing parallels between trendlines of violence today, and the situation at the height of Iraq's civil war. 

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.

The current political crisis erupted just days after the US military completed its withdrawal in mid-December, with lawmakers from the main Sunni bloc, Iraqiya, boycotting the parliament and cabinet. Shiite Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki accused the top Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, of organizing death squads against political opponents. Sunnis, a religious minority, accused Mr. Maliki of blocking them from participating in the US-backed powersharing government that is intended to ease sectarian tensions. The Guardian reports that Iraqiya's participation is considered crucial to preventing another civil war like the one that broke out years ago, at the height of the US invasion.

In late December, Maliki issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Hashemi, on terror charges. Hashemi denied the charges but fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish north.

In a Foreign Policy interview with Uri Friedman, Hashemi said Iraq's prime minister had turned from building a democracy to building an autocratic regime and implied that Maliki is becoming a new Sadaam Hussein.

"Now everything is in his hands: the ministry of defense, the ministry of the interior, intelligence, national security," Hashemi claimed. He wants his case transferred to Kurdistan because he doesn't think Iraq's judicial system is independent. Instead of judiciary authorities responding to his appeal, the vice president notes, Maliki himself shot down the request during his press conference yesterday, calling instead for Kurdish officials to hand over Hashemi. "The judicial system is really in his pocket," Hashemi argued.  

The Kurdish north, far removed from the chaos of the rest of the country, is anxiously watching the political posturing in Baghdad, The New York Times reports from Irbil.

The end of the American military role here is an anxious turning point for the Kurds, who were protected by the United States for 20 years, beginning after the Persian Gulf war of 1991, with a humanitarian operation and no-fly zone that halted Saddam Hussein’s killing machine. Now, the consolidation of power by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki evokes painful memories of Kurdish suffering at the hands of a powerful central government in Baghdad. It also places the Kurds in the delicate position of acting as peacemakers between warring Shiite and Sunni Arab factions, a battle in which their own future is at stake. Iraq is still plagued by a deadly Sunni Muslim insurgency and Shia militias nearly nine years after the US-led invasion.

Mr. Murphy wrote that the Kurds are being looked to as potential allies of Iraq's Sunnis, at least as a way of balancing out the growing power of Iraq's Shiites under Maliki. 

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. 

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