Iraq's future begins
With the last American combat troops on their way home from Iraq, the world is turning its attention to the country's uncertain future, writes Salah Nasrawi
As the last US combat troops crossed into neighbouring Kuwait early on Sunday, ending Washington's nearly nine years of occupation of Iraq, the violence-plagued nation plunged into a deepening political crisis as rival Sunni and Shia leaders wrangled in a renewed power struggle.
Endless deadlocks have already bogged down Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki's coalition government, and the latest escalation threatens to set off a fierce sectarian conflict and possibly reignite the bloody civil war that followed the 2003 US-led invasion
It could even leave Iraq vulnerable to intervention by Sunni Arab neighbours, Turkey or Shia Iran.
The first piece of bad news came when Al-Maliki asked the Iraqi parliament on Sunday to fire his Sunni deputy Saleh al-Mutlaq.
The next blunder came hours later when Iraqi security forces arrested three bodyguards attached to the Sunni vice-president Tariq Al-Hashemi on suspicions that they had taken part in a string of assassinations and bombings.
Later, the Iraqi authorities issued an arrest warrant for Al-Hashemi on terror charges and banned him from travelling abroad. Al-Hashemi left for the Kurdish region on Sunday, before the arrest warrant was announced. On Wednesday, Al-Maliki urged the Kurdish authorities to hand over the Sunni vice-president and warned that giving him refuge or letting him travel abroad "will lead to problems".
Al-Mutlaq and Al-Hashemi are both senior members of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya parliamentary bloc, which has accused Al-Maliki of tightening his grip on power and marginalising the country's Sunnis.
The sensational developments came a day after Iraqiya, which controls 82 of the 325 seats in parliament and nine ministerial posts, announced that it would be leading a parliamentary boycott protesting against what it described as government troops' harassment of its leaders.
However, the bloc said that it would not pull out of Iraq's national coalition government.
Al-Maliki called for a parliamentary vote of no confidence in Al-Mutlaq, saying that he lacked faith in the political process.
In unusually blunt remarks made to the US network CNN on Saturday, Al-Mutlaq warned that Iraq was entering dangerous waters and that al-Maliki was rapidly emerging as a dictator.
Al-Mutlaq, who was accused of being a supporter of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's outlawed former ruling Baath Party in the run-up to the 2010 elections, from which he was barred from standing, warned that Iraqi Sunnis were "most likely going to ask for the division of the country."
Al-Hashemi and several of his bodyguards were stopped by Iraqi security forces loyal to Al-Maliki from boarding a plane at Baghdad airport on Sunday, allegedly because some of the guards were wanted on terrorism charges.
Al-Hashemi's guards were then taken in for questioning in connection with a 28 November car bomb explosion outside parliament, which Al-Maliki claimed was an attempt to assassinate him.
The Sunni parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Najafi said the bomb had been targeted at him, also alluding to Shia involvement.
On Monday night, Iraqi state television aired footage of men claiming to be Al-Hashemi's bodyguards who confessed to the killings and bomb attacks, saying they had received orders from the Iraqi vice-president.
A judicial committee decided hours later to prevent Al-Hashemi and a number of his guards from travelling abroad due to issues related to terrorism.
Iraqiya leaders said the judges' order was politically motivated, and the movement said on Saturday that it would be boycotting the parliament in protest against the government's actions, which it claimed included stationing tanks and armoured vehicles outside the houses of its leaders in Baghdad.
Iraq's Sunni minority have increasingly been complaining of authoritarian control by Al-Maliki's Shia-led coalition government.
Provincial councils in three Sunni-majority provinces north and west of Baghdad have moved to take up the constitutional option of autonomy similar to that enjoyed by the Kurds in northern Iraq.
Al-Maliki has thus far blocked these moves, saying they are aimed at dividing Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines.
In one province, Diyala, Shia opponents of the bid for autonomy have taken to the streets, blocking highways and roads with cover from security forces loyal to Al-Maliki.
The confrontation between the prime minister and his deputy and the vice president of the country has deepened Iraq's political crisis as it faces a political and security vacuum left by the US troop withdrawal.
The crisis has prompted Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani to call for calm, urging the two sides to resort to "judicial rather than political means" to resolve the crisis.
The country is already gripped by incendiary disputes centering on a range of issues, including power-sharing, security concerns, territorial disputes and the sharing of Iraq's vast oil wealth.
There have been speculations that with the Americans out of the country, Iraq's shaky coalition government might now collapse and ignite sectarian violence.
Al-Maliki's latest muscle-flexing has fueled fears that the country's Shias might try to press ahead with their own agenda following the Americans' departure.
Tension in many parts of Iraq persists, with many Shias believing that Sunni insurgents will now resume their attacks following the Americans pull-out.
Some Sunnis are worried that Iraq's Shia prime minister is planning a crackdown on Sunni insurgents, such as former Baathists taking shelter in Sunni-populated provinces.
They believe that a campaign of this sort would be aimed at reprisals against Sunnis now that US troops are no longer present in Iraq, sparking a new round of a sectarian violence.
Al-Maliki, who is also the commander-in-chief of Iraq's armed forces and in charge of the interior ministry that controls the police, wields enormous power in this regard.
Iraq has some one million men in uniform, most of them Shias, all at his command. The Iraqi army is composed of some 196 combat battalions, in addition to several special-operations forces and counter-terrorism battalions.
The Iraqi media reported this week that Al-Maliki is planning a reshuffle of key army and police posts following the American withdrawal.
They suggested that he intends to replace top Sunni officers, appointed under an American-sponsored reconciliation plan, with Shia officers.
Over the past year, Al-Maliki has sought to consolidate his power and to strike against any perceived threat to his authority, leading many, especially those allied to Iraqiya, to complain about his heavy-handed rule.
In October, government troops arrested hundreds of sympathisers of Saddam's former ruling Baath Party, many of them Sunnis.
Al-Maliki's moves against his Sunni partners in the government were blessed by other Shia leaders in his National Alliance bloc.
The breakdown in relations among Iraqi leaders is nothing new, but the current confrontation seems to reflect deep disagreements about the future of Iraq.
The bottom line is that the political consensus forged under the American occupation, based on distributing power and influence according to ethnic and sectarian quotas, is flawed.
The current conflict between Shia and Sunni factions in Iraq is the result of this artificial system, with both sides now thinking that the American withdrawal could provide an opportunity to redefine the system to their own advantage.
While the Shias, who outnumber the Sunnis, feel that they have to consolidate the power they acquired after the collapse of Saddam's regime, the country's Sunni minority feels it is time to fight back in search of greater recognition.
Another darker reality also looms, since the present confrontation in Iraq could widen the geopolitical schism that has resulted from sectarian issues in the country.
Shia Iran, Sunni-led Arab nations in the Gulf, and Turkey are all influential players in Iraq, and they will be watching closely to see how the country's new sectarian conflict develops, especially in the light of the crisis in neighbouring Syria.