Gunmen storm Iraqi government building as Maliki shops for US helicopters

World leaders are urging Prime Minister Maliki to look beyond military means to resolve Iraq's crisis, that has killed more than 900 in January alone. 

Karim Kadim/AP
Civilians gather at the site of a car bomb attack in the Shula neighborhood in Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014.

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The Shiite-led Iraqi government, which is struggling to expel Al Qaeda-linked militants from Anbar Province and to calm sectarian attacks throughout the country, faced a direct challenge in Baghdad today when gunmen stormed a government building and took workers hostage.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, but government buildings have been previously targeted by Sunni militants. Iraqi security forces have since freed the transportation ministry civil servants, with three of the eight attackers being killed in the operation, the interior spokesman told the BBC. 

Also in Baghdad today, bombings near a market and a restaurant killed six people, officials told Al Jazeera, tipping January's death toll past 900. 

Last year was the most violent year in Iraq since 2007, according to the United Nations, with the death toll reaching 8,868. Casualties have continued to rise in the new year, and the government faces a prolonged conflict with Al Qaeda-linked fighters in western Anbar Province.

Iraq has repeatedly requested greater military assistance from the US, and earlier this week, the US announced plans to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters to the US at a cost of $4.8 billion, Agence France-Presse reports. But foreign leaders, including the US, have also urged Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki to address the Sunni community's grievances.

A lack of political representation for Sunnis has left them feeling marginalized and created sympathy for Sunni insurgents, including Al Qaeda-linked fighters who took over the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Anbar earlier this month. 

Iraq requested the helicopters more than a year ago, Foreign Policy reports, but the "lobbying campaign" has ramped up in recent months in response to growing concerns about Al Qaeda. Some congressmen initially balked at the possibility of the sale because of concerns that the helicopters would be used in a crackdown on Iraq's minority groups.

But Mr. Maliki is still in a tight spot, because construction of the helicopters hasn't begun yet, and even the six helicopters leased on top of the 24 purchased will not arrive until the summer, according to Foreign Policy. Already 140,000 have been displaced by the fierce fighting in Anbar, AFP reports. If Maliki is banking on the Apache delivery to help him put an end to it, he has several months to wait. 

The Iraqi leader has also turned to local Sunni tribesmen in Anbar, saying there is no limit to the amount of weapons they will send. A government spokesman told the Washington Post that the cabinet has approved $3.4 million in payments and more than $17 million for infrastructure projects in the Province. 

The support is a desperate attempt by Maliki to reassert control of Anbar by reviving a wilted initiative — the organization of Sunni tribes and former insurgents into the so-called Awakening movement — that the United States used to dramatically weaken al-Qaeda in Iraq during in the final years of the Iraq war.

But the effort faces major challenges. The ranks of the paramilitary movement have dwindled since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011, and Maliki is facing insurrection from parts of the country’s wider Sunni minority, who complain of mistreatment and subjugation at the hands of his government.

With the government wary of arming tribesmen who may turn against it, trust is lacking on both sides. Still, some observers say a revival might be the best chance Maliki, who has ruled out sending the Shiite-dominant Iraqi army into Sunni-majority Fallujah, has to pacify Anbar.

“No one can face the terrorists without the help of the Sunnis. The Americans couldn’t eliminate them without the Sunnis, and nor can the government,” said Dhafer al-Ani, a spokesman for the Sunni Mutahidun political party.

But tamping down the current violence will take more than guns and money, because its roots are political, The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy explained recently:

But much of the current hatred revolves around very recent political choices. Most of the Shiite Islamist politicians who lead Iraq today lost multiple friends and family members in a crackdown, brutal even for the Hussein regime, on underground Shiite political movements after the first Gulf War. Today they view securing the political and military ascendancy of their sect as the top priority.

The Sunni Arabs of Anbar, who were bought off with state largesse during the Baath years, are viewed by Maliki and other leading Shiites as a potential threat to this goal. His government's systematic persecution of prominent Sunni Arab political figures is a key reason that ISIS has such a strong opening in Iraq right now.

With April parliamentary elections approaching, the Iraqi central government has an opening, Mr. Murphy writes in a follow-up. 

… What's happening in Iraq at the moment is not some atavistic expression of "ancient" hatreds and irreconcilable cultural differences. Instead, it's a function of the failure of politics and power sharing in the modern era. And that's the kind of failure that can be rectified if Iraq's leaders, starting with Mr. Maliki, decide to change course from the politics of marginalization and exclusion. 

[T]he ideal of Iraqi nationalism remains potent. A fairer share of oil wealth, jobs in the bureaucracy, and guarantees of political autonomy in places like Anbar could go a long way to containing this crisis.

Of course, whether Maliki will make that choice is far from clear; his track record doesn't inspire great optimism. But this is not an intractable conflict, nor one that Iraqis don't have the tools to sort out themselves, were they to choose to try.

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