Baghdad bomb ratchets up worries about slide into sectarian violence (video)

Deadly Baghdad bombings today, which followed an arrest warrant for a top Sunni official, comes just days after the final US troops left the country.

Hadi Mizban/AP
Iraqi security forces gather the scene of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, Iraq, Dec. 22. A wave of bombings ripped across Baghdad on Thursday morning killing and wounding hundreds of people, Iraqi officials said, in the worst violence Iraq has seen for months.

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A series of bombings in Baghdad today has bolstered fears of a return to the sectarian violence that tore apart Iraq during its civil war. The attacks come just days after the last US troops left the country.

More than 60 people were killed in the explosions, which spanned a two-hour period at the height of morning rush hour in Baghdad and included car and roadside bombs. Another 185 were injured, CNN reports. According to CNN, the explosions hit a number of the capital's mixed Sunni-Shiite neighborhoods. But the Associated Press reported that the bombings "bore all the hallmarks of Al Qaeda's Sunni insurgents," saying that most appeared to hit Shiite neighborhoods, although some Sunni areas were also targeted.

This is the first incident of what many fear will be a wave of violent incidents since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, issued an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on Tuesday for alleged terrorism activity. Just before the arrest warrant was issued, nine members of Mr. Hashemi’s Iraqiya parliamentary coalition suspended their participation in parliament under threats from Mr. Maliki that he would take away cabinet seats held by the largely Sunni Iraqiya bloc and replace them with members of his own Shiite alliance, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

With Iraqiyya being politically hounded, a return to open civil war in Iraq is a real possibility. The group effectively represents Sunni interests in the country. Sunni voters turned out enthusiastically in 2010 after past electoral boycotts, and the group was in effect an experiment in whether they could gain a real political voice in the country through the ballot box. The failure of that experiment will send a worrying message.

Hashemi, a Sunni Islamist, heads the Iraqi Islamic party, a part of the Iraqiya bloc. Several of his family members were killed during the civil war, and he had ties to the insurgency, but he has denied the arrest warrant's charges of terrorism and running a death squad. Earlier this week, he fled to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan. Maliki has threatened the Kurdish region with “problems” if they don’t hand over Hashemi, the Monitor reports.

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The powersharing government, cobbled together during the worst of the sectarian violence and propped up by the US presence, is under significant strain and a return to open civil war in Iraq could happen, The Telegraph reports. 

During the worst of the sectarian violence that followed Saddam Hussein's downfall, Iraqi leaders and the Americans put together a political settlement of sorts. Shia Iraqis, who comprise about 60 per cent of the population, were allowed to hold the prime ministership, the most powerful office in the country. But this was balanced by awarding the presidency to a Kurdish politician and the speakership of parliament, along with the vice-presidency, to a Sunni Arab. This settlement – remarkably similar to the national compact in Lebanon, where sectarian divisions are even more complex – is now under immense strain. With the Americans gone, Mr. Maliki is trying to break the restraints on his power. 

Today’s violence and Maliki's maneuvering this week to bolster the Shiite-led governing majority come amid a security vacuum created by the US exit. “They have known for the best part of a year that US forces would depart at some point in December 2011.  The scale and complexity of Thursday’s attacks – with 14 bombs exploding across Baghdad – strongly suggests a long period of preparation,” according to The Telegraph. 

The domestic reactions to Hashemi’s arrest warrant illustrate the still-strong sectarian divides in Iraq. While many Sunnis, represented for the first time in years by the shared government, are worried about losing that political leverage if Maliki succeeds in destabilizing their parliamentary bloc, there were also demonstrations in support of the warrant. 

Alsumaria, an Iraqi television network, reports that citizens in Babil Province, just south of Baghdad, were in the streets Wednesday protesting in favor of a maximum penalty for Hashemi. The province has large Sunni and Shiite populations, and witnessed extreme sectarian violence during the civil war.

“Many of my relatives were victims of terrorism during these last years, which is why I am calling for maximum penalties against Vice-President Hashemi and his bodyguards,” demonstrator Mahmoud Ibrahim told Alsumaria. Demonstrators reportedly held signs comparing Hashemi to Osama Bin Laden.

The arrest warrant was issued Dec. 19 after the Iraqi Interior Ministry revealed confessions by Hashemi’s bodyguards stating that he “personally charged them to execute assassinations and bombings in Baghdad” in exchange for money, Alsumaria reports. 

Monitor reporter Dan Murphy, who reported from Iraq during the war, notes that “’confessing" through torture and coerced confessions have been commonplace in Iraq for years.”

Mr. Maliki is "playing with fire," The Telegraph reports. “Unless Mr. Maliki draws back, this could be immensely dangerous. … Violence only abated when the Sunnis were included in the country's political settlement. But if their leaders are hounded out of office by Mr. Maliki, many Sunnis may conclude that peaceful politics is a waste of time. A return to violence would then be their only option.”

One of the 14 reported blasts this morning occurred outside the “Integrity Commission” offices, the body charged with anti-corruption investigations in Iraq, , the Associated Press reports.

No one has claimed responsibility for this morning’s attacks, which were among the worst since August, when a series of bombs exploded across 17 Iraqi cities.   

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