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Widening sectarian rift in Iraq as US troops pull out

With the last of the US combat troops gone, the fractures at the intersection of security and political faultlines in Iraq appear to be flaring.
Last modified: 19 Dec 2011 10:18
Photo by Reuters

In the calculation of what was won and lost in this war, Ahmed Hassan lost almost everything.

Sitting in front of the trailer that is now his home in a compound for displaced people, the former shopkeeper explains how he lost three sons within months of each other in 2006.

Two were shot and the other killed by a bomb planted near his car in the city of Khalis in Diyala province. The family left their home after that, along with tens of thousands of Iraqis forced out by sectarian violence.

The elections that were the country’s biggest achievement, with voters proudly dipping their fingers in ink to show they had voted, are small compensation.

“We sacrificed our sons for that purple finger,” Hassan says.

With the last of the US combat troops gone, the fractures at the intersection of security and political faultlines here appear to be widening.

“My fear is that pressures are building and there could be a spark,” said US Army Colonel Richard Welch as he packed up to leave. “We have not yet reached a phase where things are irreversible.”

Welch worked in Iraq for seven years – the longest time spent in Iraq by an US officer –trying to persuade Sunni armed groups and Shia fighters to put down their weapons and take part in politics.

After an election last year in which no single group won a majority, the main Sunni-based party, Iraqiya, joined a coalition with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia bloc and the Kurds to form a government of ‘national unity’.

The power-sharing that Iraqiya and its supporters expected never happened. Instead critics say, Prime Minister al-Maliki consolidated his hold on power, creating new security services to answer directly to him, replacing army commanders with party loyalists and using the pretext of suspected coup attempts to arrest political opponents.

The political bloc, Iraqiya, said on the weekend it was suspending its participation in parliament and in cabinet until it was given a role in decision-making.

“Last year in the 2010 elections many on the Sunni side or the Shia fringes joined the Iraqiya list,” said Welch, adding “many in the group are wondering whether the democratic process is going to work for them and they are deliberating that right now.”

Outside of Baghdad, tension seems to be running even higher.

In Diyala, a province with a Sunni majority but a large Shia minority, Shia fighters set fire to the governor’s house after a push by provincial council members to demand autonomy for the region.

Syria going Iraq way?

Adding to the worries are fears that violence in neighbouring Syria could reignite sectarian tension in Iraq if the unrest spreads. More than 5,000 Syrians have been killed in the government’s crackdown against an uprising.

“In Syria there is definitely a sectarian dimension to the fight and this is a fact,” Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, told Al Jazeera. He said Iraq was working to persuade the Syrian government to implement an Arab League initiative to stop the violence and open talks with the opposition.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad along with key leaders and many of the senior military officers are from Syria’s Allawite minority, an offshoot of Shia Islam. Most Syrians are Sunni.

Zebari, who says Iraq came to the brink of all-out civil war five years ago, warned that if unchecked, Syria could go the same way.

“It has a strong dimension of sectarian conflict…these things can develop into civil war unless they are checked.”