Sunni protests in Iraq
Protests by Iraqi Sunni leader Iyad Allawi at the new US envoy to Baghdad have underlined Sunni discontent at US policy in the country, writes Salah Nasrawi
The leader of the Sunni-led Iraqiya bloc, Iyad Allawi, has lashed out at the United States for nominating a new envoy to the country whom he accuses of siding with Iraqi Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, signaling a Sunni loss of faith in US efforts to rebuild the country after the withdrawal of its troops last year.
US President Barack Obama last week nominated Brett McGurk, a former member of George W Bush's national security staff who helped negotiate the 2008 accords that set the terms for the withdrawal of all US forces from Iraq, to be the next US ambassador to Baghdad.
In a surprise move that could cast doubt on the nomination, Allawi attacked McGurk as being "biased" and "unfit" for the position, warning that members of his Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc could boycott the new American envoy.
Allawi, whose Iraqiya bloc is entangled in a turbulent crisis with Al-Maliki, said he had sent a letter to the US Congress urging the American legislators to bloc McGurk's nomination on the basis that he was backing the Iraqi Shia leader.
Allawi previously led the Iraqi National Accord in his US exile, a group which played a key role in making the case for invading Iraq in 2003 and toppling the Sunni-dominated regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
He was later named Iraq's first prime minister by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the US-led transitional government led by US Ambassador Paul Bremer.
In Iraq's 2010 parliamentary elections, Allawi, himself a Shia, headed the Iraqiya bloc, a Sunni-dominated political coalition meant to be a strong secular contender to Al-Maliki's Shia National Alliance.
Although Iraqiya had the edge over Al-Maliki's coalition in the elections, Allawi was not nominated as prime minister, with Iraqiya leaders implicitly blaming the United States, at the time still occupying Iraq, for favouring Al-Maliki as a gesture of appeasement towards Iran.
"He [the ambassador] has adopted hostile stances towards Iraqiya, and we have informed the US Congress that we are opposed to his nomination," Allawi told Baghdad Television on Saturday.
Allawi's unprecedented criticism of the US administration comes amid signs that Iraqi Sunni leaders are seeking support from Sunni neighbours to increase pressure on Al-Maliki and the country's Shia coalition.
McGurk, who is currently senior advisor to US ambassador in Iraq James Jeffrey, was reported by The Washington Post to have "a very good relationship" with al-Maliki and considerable experience in Iraq.
He was a legal advisor to the CPA, which took over the country soon after Saddam was ousted, and later to the US embassy in Baghdad. He also served in Baghdad as senior advisor to two previous US ambassadors, Ryan Crocker and Christopher Hill.
The Washington Post said that McGurk's good relationship with al-Maliki was important given the substantially diminished US influence in the country.
Other commentators have noted that despite his closeness to Al-Maliki, McGurk, only 38 years old and graduating from university in 1999, has no experience in running the Baghdad embassy, the largest US embassy in the world, suggesting that his confirmation will face opposition in Congress.
The row has caused more than a few raised eyebrows and has led to questions about the role Washington plays in Iraq following the December troop withdrawal. It also underscores how much the war-battered country has been turned into a playground for foreign actors.
Iraqi media outlets reported that in his letter to Congress Allawi accused McGurk of "meddling in Iraq's internal affairs," including in efforts to weaken the bloc's negotiating position with Al-Maliki.
The letter detailed how McGurk had managed to convince about a dozen mostly Shia members to quite the Iraqiya bloc, a move that led to criticisms that it was a purely Sunni group and denied it the character of a secular alliance.
McGurk's nomination also comes as Iraq is facing one of its worst political crises since the US-led invasion, triggering a wave of violence across the country including bombings that have killed hundreds of people.
The crisis has been sparked by Al-Maliki's government accusing Iraqi Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi of running death squads targeting the country's Shias. Al-Hashemi, Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni official, has denied the charges but nevertheless sought refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region shortly before an arrest warrant was issued against him in December.
On Sunday, the bickering intensified after Al-Hashemi left for Doha, capital of the Gulf state of Qatar, apparently with the approval of the Kurdish government whose leaders have repeatedly refused to send him back to Baghdad.
The trip raised tensions between Baghdad's Shia-led government and Sunni-ruled Qatar, with Al-Maliki's deputy, Hussein Al-Shahristani, saying on Monday that Qatar's hosting of Al-Hashemi was "unacceptable" and calling on Doha to hand him over to Baghdad.
Doha's ties with Baghdad were already tense after Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al-Thani accused Al-Maliki's government of mistreating Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority.
Like other Sunni Gulf monarchies, Qatar is wary of the close ties Iraq's government has forged with Shia Iran, which Sunni Arabs traditionally view as a regional rival.
Iraq's prime minister is also embroiled in another dispute with the Gulf countries that is also fraught with sectarian tensions, since he has disagreed on how best to respond to the year-long crackdown orchestrated by Syria's Allawite-dominated regime on protests in Syria, rejecting Sunni-ruled Qatar and Saudi Arabia's stance on arming the Syrian rebels.
In protest, several Sunni-led Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia and Qatar, sent only low-level officials to an Arab League summit hosted by Iraq in Baghdad last week.
Iraq's Sunnis have also been exploiting the schism between the Al-Maliki government and Sunni regional powers, including Turkey, to increase the pressure on Al-Maliki.
On Sunday, Allawi travelled to Istanbul for talks with Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu amid increasingly strained relations between Iraq's Shia-led government and neighbouring Turkey.
The visit came amid reports that Turkey, which also fears Iran's increasing influence in Iraq, is pushing Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds, also Sunni Muslims, to forge a political alliance to counter Al-Maliki's ruling Shia coalition.
Such high-level treatment of one of Al-Maliki's rivals and rumbling about a possible new alliance have irked Iraq's Shia authorities, leading Baghdad to warn Ankara against meddling in Iraq's internal affairs.
On the surface, Allawi's attempts to prevent the new US ambassador in Baghdad from moving closer to Al-Maliki and the moves by Iraqi Sunni leaders to enlist the support of neighbouring Sunni countries seem separable.
But a closer reading reveals that this is a double-track strategy aimed at bringing Washington and the Sunni countries closer together as part of efforts to increase the pressure on both Al-Maliki and Iran.
As a result of a push from outside, Allawi's logic goes, Al-Maliki will be further isolated and there will be a window of opportunity for Iraq's Sunnis to take back their control over the country's central government.
However, things are yet more complicated. With deadlock over a proposed national conference to end the current political and sectarian disputes, Iraq is entering a new phase in its lingering crisis, and it would be a mistake to believe that a breakthrough can come about through foreign pressure alone.