Iraq's downward path
More than six years into the job, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is beset by myriad challenges. How long can he continue, asks Salah Nasrawi
Click to view caption|
Iraqi security personnel inspect the site of a car bomb attack outside a French consular building in Nassiriya, south of Baghdad
Despite repeated boasts of having defeated a Sunni-led insurgency and restored peace and stability in Iraq following last year's US troop withdrawal, much of the talk about Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's Shia-led government nearly nine months later is of disappointment.
Political deadlock, spiraling violence, sectarian tensions, growing abuse of personal freedoms, rampant corruption, a decline in state power and a lack of basic services: all of these issues have been on the lips of Iraqis.
Al-Maliki's failure to lead Iraq into a new era of peace, tranquility and prosperity more than six years after taking office again manifested itself in recent days, when Iraq seemed to be going ever more swiftly downhill.
A wave of bombings and shootings killed and wounded hundreds of Iraqis this week, the attacks coinciding with an Iraqi court sentencing the fugitive Sunni Vice President Tarek Al-Hashemi to death on charges of terrorism and running death squads.
The government had accused Al-Hashemi, the most senior Sunni Muslim politician in Iraq, of masterminding some 150 bombings, assassinations and other attacks from 2005 to 2011, most of them allegedly carried out by his bodyguards and other employees.
According to the government, the attacks targeted Al-Hashemi's political foes, as well as government officials, security forces and Shia pilgrims. Al-Hashemi on Monday denounced the death sentence against him as "unjust and politically motivated," urging all Iraqis to oppose Al-Maliki, whom he accused of stoking sectarian tensions.
In addition to the bombings across Iraq that targeted the security forces and markets in Shia cities and neighbourhoods, gunmen on Monday also shot dead three Sunni anti-Al-Qaeda fighters manning a security checkpoint north of Baghdad.
An Al-Qaeda front organisation, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility on the Internet on Monday for this week's wave of more than 30 attacks around the country. It said the bombings and shootings had been in response to the "campaign of extermination and torture against the Sunnis," raising concerns that the group could unite Sunnis who feel disenfranchised by the political process.
In a separate statement, Al-Qaeda said it carried out 131 attacks in Iraq during the holy month of Ramadan, which ended on 20 August. The news agency Agence France Presse has recorded that 409 Iraqis were killed and 975 wounded in Ramadan, while other sources, such as antiwar.com, counted at least 711 fatalities in Iraq from 21 July to 18 August.
Nevertheless, Shia officials and lawmakers accused Al-Hashemi of being behind this week's wave of attacks. Taleb Al-Hassan, governor of Dhi Qar where some of the bombings occurred, told a news conference on Monday that 18 suspects arrested in connection with the bomb attacks were linked to Al-Hashemi.
The fallout over Al-Hashemi's sentencing has sparked a new political crisis in Iraq and has fuelled Sunni Muslim and Kurdish resentment against Al-Maliki, accused of trying to monopolise power.
The main Sunni grouping the Iraqiya List blasted the verdict as "a deviation of justice" and claimed that the confessions made by witnesses in the trial had been made under duress. It called on all Iraqi political groups to resist Al-Maliki's government.
The Kurdish president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, regretted the verdict as a move that could create "a crack in national unity". President of the Iraqi Kurdish region Masoud Barzani also condemned the verdict and warned that it could "deepen Iraq's political crisis and perhaps prepare the ground for bitter sectarian conflict."
Externally, the sentence has raised tensions with Turkey, which has provided shelter for Al-Hashemi since his flight from an arrest warrant in December. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Al-Hashemi could remain in Turkey for as long as he wanted, the two countries having been gridlocked in a dispute over the Kurds, oil and the uprising in neighbouring Syria.
Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Gulf states are also concerned about Al-Maliki's links with Shia Iran and the Alawite Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. They are believed to be aiding the Iraqi Sunnis and are not expected to accept the verdict.
In the meantime, Al-Maliki's government has also been embroiled in a dispute with the United States over breaking sanctions with Iran and reports that Iraq has been allowing Iran to use its airspace to supply the embattled Syrian regime with military equipment.
Many in Washington have been pressuring the Obama administration to use its "soft power" over military supply contracts to stop Al-Maliki from allowing Iranian overflights to Syria.
Al-Maliki is also facing other problems. Last week, Iraqi army soldiers raided dozens of Baghdad nightclubs and bars and beat up customers and staff, the onslaughts coming as nightlife in Baghdad has been trying to reestablish itself after years of conflict and violence.
Commentators blasted the raids as an attempt by Al-Maliki's government to impose an Iranian-style Islamic government in Iraq.
Days before, the police imposed a ban on young women not wearing abayas -- long, loose black cloaks that cover the body from shoulders to feet -- from appearing in public. A ban was also imposed on young men wearing certain kinds of clothes or sporting spiky haircuts.
The bans came after some Shia clerics had mobilised the "moral police" to crackdown on skimpy styles of dress in the name of protecting Islamic values.
In Khadhimya, a Baghdad district which hosts a Shia holy shrine, women have been forced by police at checkpoints to remove their makeup before entering the district.
In some neighbourhoods warning posters show a red X painted over pictures of women wearing trousers. Other banners praise women who keep their hair fully covered beneath a headscarf.
Earlier this year, dozens of young people identifying themselves as so-called "emos" were killed after being accused of being gay. Human rights groups said some of the victims were bludgeoned to death by militiamen, who smashed in their skulls with heavy cement blocks.
Violations of more open social norms have grown in recent months, Baghdad newspapers suggesting that Al-Maliki may be under pressure from Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahrudi, an Iran-based cleric who is widely believed to be Al-Maliki's Al-Daawa Party's spiritual mentor.
Shahrudi, whose ancestors lived in Iraq, belongs to Ayatollah Khomeini's school of Shia theology which is bent on establishing a theocracy in Iraq not very different from that in Iran.
Attempts to "Islamise" Iraq in this way are dispiriting many of Al-Maliki's Shia supporters, and they will exacerbate sectarian tensions with the Sunnis, Kurds and Turkomans and Iraq's religious minorities, such as the Christians, Yezidis and Mandaeans.
As prime minister, it falls to Al-Maliki to resolve the problems that have crippled Iraq and to bridge the country's political gulf, restoring regional and international confidence in the fledgling political system.
Instead, he has tried various tactics to stamp out political rivals and induce disgruntled Iraqis to accept his "all is well" narrative.
Iraq's political deadlock has thus become a battle between a prime minister who is increasingly authoritarian and an opposition that is united by its dislike of Al-Maliki but divided over everything else.
For now, Al-Maliki seems to be winning, but if Iraq's turbulent history is anything to go by, this could be for only a little while.