A document for peace signed by Iraq’s rival politicians last week suggested that there were signs of a thaw in the tense relationships between the country’s feuding communities.
Taken at face value the document, officially known as the Social Peace Initiative, amounted to a signal that Iraqis might be finally ready to work together.
However, a closer look at the situation in the war-weary country shows that peace is still far from the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, as the violence spirals and the country’s sectarian and ethnic factions remain deadlocked in a lingering government crisis.
To many Iraqis, the initiative, proposed by the Shia group in the government, seemed to be a last-ditch effort to prevent the country from sliding inexorably towards a disastrous all-out sectarian war.
Iraq is now struggling with the worst wave of sectarian violence in years, with almost daily bombings reminiscent of the bloody scenes witnessed during the civil unrest after the US-led invasion in 2003.
The bombings have been targeting mosques, funerals, markets and the country’s security forces. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq since April, including 804 in August alone, according to the United Nations.
Only this week, car bombs ripped through Baghdad, part of a series of explosions across Iraq that left hundreds dead and triggered calls for revenge from the families of the fallen.
On Saturday, two suicide bombers detonated explosives among mourners in a Shia part of Baghdad. The police said that more than 70 people had been killed and more than 100 wounded.
The bombings came hours after Sunni insurgents launched a suicide attack on a police headquarters in the city of Beiji and a police convoy station in Mosul, killing nine policemen and wounding 24 others.
On Sunday, a blast hit Sunni mourners attending a funeral in the Dora district of Baghdad, killing 16 people and wounding 35 others.
In recent weeks, the number of targeted assassinations by gunmen with silenced weapons has also increased, including shootings in houses and the killing of entire families.
In another grim testament to the chaos now roiling the Iraqi capital, dozens of decomposing bodies were found piled up in abandoned areas in Baghdad and elsewhere last week.
On Thursday, the corpses of 10 unidentified young men were discovered in an abandoned building in eastern Baghdad. The victims had been killed by gunshots to the head, and all the dead bodies were handcuffed and blindfolded.
Iraq has recently witnessed incidents of sectarian cleansing, including killings at false checkpoints, executions and people being driven from their homes, neighbourhoods and cities.
Dozens of families belonging to a key Sunni tribe were forced to leave their homes in the southern provinces of Basra and Nasiriya this month.
These attacks and the wider intimidation campaigns against the Sunnis bear the mark of Shia militias that have been dormant since the bloody days of the 2006-2007 civil war but may now have reawoken.
The Sunnis say the militias are being backed by Iran.
Haidar Al-Mullah, an outspoken member of the mainly Sunni Al-Iraqiya List, said that Assaeb Ahl Al-Haq, one of the Shia militias, was linked to Iraqi Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s Daawa Party and that members of the militia had been holding cabinet identity cards when they carried out the attacks.
In reply, Al-Maliki has accused foreign countries of “hatching conspiracies” and “stirring up sedition” in Iraq. In a speech in Nasiriya on Saturday, Al-Maliki specifically mentioned Saudi Arabia as being responsible.
Many Iraqis now regard the tit-for-tat violence as a curtain-raiser for Iraq’s next round of sectarian strife.
Reports have recently surfaced to the effect that three Shia militias plan to join ranks to counter the Sunni insurgency and that the Shia-led government has given its blessing to the new single force, tasking it with protecting Shia neighbourhoods.
Other reports have suggested that the government is secretly building three new army battalions whose Shia soldiers are being trained in counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare.
The violence in Iraq has escalated steadily since the last US troops pulled out of the country in December 2011.
Tensions spilled out onto the streets in December, when tens of thousands of people started a protest across the country’s Sunni provinces, demanding an end to what they perceive as the marginalisation of the Sunni sect.
The Sunni-Shia political and social divide has undermined a power-sharing pact forged after the elections in 2010 between Iraq’s Kurds, Shias and Sunnis.
For months, the Iraqi government has been stalled amid internecine conflicts.
The civil war in neighbouring Syria, which has contributed to the resurgence of sectarian tensions across the Middle East, has also exacerbated discontent in Iraq’s minority Sunni population.
Now the question is whether the new initiative will be able to bring about a lasting solution in the violence-ripped country and in particular whether it will be able to find a solution to the Shia-Sunni divide.
The violence is largely sectarian and has been fuelled by many complicating factors, including the political deadlock in Baghdad.
The Initiative, sponsored by Iraqi Shia Vice President Khudair Al-Khozaei, contains a number of components, including measures “to confront the militias and terror groups and to dry up their resources”.
It also states that signatories will set up a follow-up committee that will suggest measures to solve the problems of former members of the former ruling Iraqi Baath Party, which ran the country under former president Saddam Hussein.
Such people were banned from public service after the Shia empowerment following the ouster of the Saddam regime.
The initiative says that this committee should make recommendations to ensure equal opportunities in public-service jobs and to combat corruption in the government.
However, the deal is flimsy because it will be very hard to enforce, critics describing it as merely “ink on paper” and warning that its prospects are bleak.
Some believe that the plan is designed to boost Al-Maliki’s credentials ahead of the elections in 2014. They describe it as a smoke-screen to portray the Sunnis as stalling on reconciliation, allowing Al-Maliki to present himself as the defender of the Shias.
The initiative comes two weeks before an expected trip by Al-Maliki to Washington, where he is expected to be urged by the Obama administration to bring about reconciliation with the Sunnis.
Al-Maliki hopes to convince the US administration to give the green light to billions of dollars worth of US arms sales to Iraq that his government has requested and has supported by portraying Al-Maliki as a peace-maker.
Few Sunni leaders have signed the document, however. Prominent Sunni leaders such as Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutleq have refused to sign, arguing that the plan is a whitewash.
Some have even said it will only inflame sectarian tensions.
All previous national reconciliation efforts between Iraq’s ethno-religious communities, seen as imperative to stemming the country’s sectarian violence, have failed.
The polarisation and turmoil that have afflicted Iraqi politics and society have grown out of a number of underlying problems that have not been addressed.
Unless genuine efforts are made to convince Iraqi Sunnis to buy into a power-sharing agreement, it is hard to believe that the current levels of internecine fighting will come to an end.
A few of the plan’s elements, including de-Baathification and the release of Sunni detainees, have been implemented, but nothing of substance has come of them.
In his speech in Nasiriya, Al-Maliki renewed his rejection of such demands, saying that a “sea of blood” still separated his government from the Sunnis, whom he described as a “deviated and straying faction”.
Speaker of the Iraqi parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi promptly fired back by accusing Al-Maliki of backtracking on the Initiative. “This is the last nail in the coffin of the Peace Initiative,” Al-Nujaifi said in a statement on Sunday.
Given that the Iraqi factions care more about controlling state resources and power than they do about solving the crisis in the country, the peace plan has grossly underestimated the mismatch between Shia expectations and Sunni grievances, and it is therefore more likely to prolong the crisis than resolve it.
Conflict over the shape of the future Iraqi polity can only be resolved by the negotiation of a new social contract, and this seems to have thus far eluded the country’s political class.