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Of course, the specter of both Sunni and Shiite insurgent groups raising their terrorist profile comes at the same time sectarian tensions between the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government and Iraq’s minority Sunni populace have grown increasingly bitter.
That ongoing rift ratcheted up in intensity in early October when Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki received a tip from Libya’s interim leader, Mahmud Jibril, that newly discovered papers of Muammar Gaddafi showed that former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party were plotting a coup d’etat against Iraq’s government.
According to one Iraqi Interior Ministry official the ex-Baathists — based in Syria — were providing “logistics, finance, and intelligence” to Sunni-led insurgent groups in Iraq, including al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State of Iraq.
Despite the fact that the Baath Party — outlawed after Hussein’s ouster in 2003 — had been comprised of both Sunnis and Shiites, Shiite Prime Minister Maliki responded to the planned coup by ordering the arrest of over 600 Sunni Baathists at the end of October.
While Maliki called the arrests a “nonsectarian operation,” to Sunnis — who have become increasingly furious with being treated as an underclass since the toppling of Hussein’s regime — his actions were seen as a direct threat.
So, not surprisingly, the provincial council in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated Salahuddin province — former home to Saddam Hussein — reacted to the mass arrests by declaring in early November that Salahuddin was now an autonomous region, a symbolic act given that under the Iraqi constitution, autonomy can only be achieved through a popular referendum.
The Iraqi central government is constitutionally required to send any formal request for autonomy to the Iraqi Electoral Commission within 15 days of receipt, a deadline Salahuddin’s Governor said Baghdad has already missed.
However, it’s not too surprising that Maliki has helped delay the autonomy request, given his realization that if the Sunnis take the issue to the polls, they would more than likely approve autonomy, an action that would quickly pave the way for other Sunni-dominated provinces to follow suit.
Instead Maliki has responded to Salahuddin’s autonomy demands by alternately warning that the province will not become “a safe house for Baathists,” while at the same time pleading that any “talk of federalism would be a national disaster.”
Unfortunately for Maliki, his good cop/bad cop approach has fallen on deaf ears; not surprising given that his popularity among Sunnis has been steadily plummeting since Sunni demonstrations broke in several Iraqi cities last February protesting against Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government.
While those protests led Maliki to say he would not run for a third term in office in 2014, it hasn’t been enough to assuage Sunni anger.
That anger has only been amplified in recent weeks when the Sunni governor of Anbar Province survived an assassination attempt when a bomb blew up beside his convoy near the town of Abu Ghraib.
Sunni leaders, including Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha, a leader of the Sunni Awakening movement, accused Maliki’s Dawa Party and the Muthanna Brigade (a predominantly Shiite Iraqi Army unit stationed in Anbar) of being behind the attack.
For its part, the Anbar provincial council, which is currently debating whether to form a semi-autonomous region with other Sunni provinces in the west and northwest of Iraq, issued a statement that said the Muthanna Brigade “bears full responsibility” for the assassination attempt.
While Maliki has strenuously denied those allegations, he would be hard pressed to deny the fact that events in Iraq are quickly spinning out of control, edging that country ever closer to open sectarian rebellion.
Such an outcome would only serve to magnify and question the cost paid by the 4,485 Americans killed and the 32,226 wounded in the Iraq War since it began in 2003. Unfortunately, the answers to those questions aren’t anywhere to be found in the new US-Iraq partnership.
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