March 19, 2013

Iraq torn between progress and chaos

The politics of Baghdad are undercutting Iraq's quest to regain a seminal position in the region.

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An Iraqi woman carries a bag of recyclable materials at a garbage dump in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, on Sunday. According to the manager of the dump, the people who salvage plastic and aluminum make an average of $8 per day re-selling the materials. The intractable nature of Baghdad politics has widened the country’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines.

The Associated Press

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The new Iraq looks far bleaker in predominantly Sunni regions in the west, the capital and provinces north of Baghdad – once the heart of the insurgency. Sunnis have seen their clout erode sharply over the past two years, as they have gotten squeezed out of national politics and the government, by far the country's leading employer.

As the last American troops were leaving Iraq in December 2011, Maliki's security forces set out to arrest the country's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, whom authorities had accused of running death squads. The Sunni politician barely managed to flee the country and has resettled in Turkey, prevented from returning home by a death sentence imposed after his conviction in absentia on terrorism charges.

In December, security forces arrested bodyguards of another prominent Sunni politician, Rafi al-Issawi, on terrorism-related charges, forcing him to take refuge in his native Anbar province in the west. The case against the former finance minister set off a wave of nationwide protests, raising the specter of an Arab Spring-like uprising.

Authorities have worked assiduously to stifle the movement in Baghdad, blocking access to Sunni neighborhoods on Fridays, when prayers and protests are held. Last Friday, Iraqi army soldiers blocked traffic to the Adhamiyah neighborhood, one of the hubs of the revolt.

"We are trying to show the world that people here are suffering from injustice," said Mohamed al-Ani, 63, a resident of Adhamiyah who has joined the protests. "If the government continues to prevent people from claiming their rights, the situation will boil over."

Many in the community are now galvanized. Sunnis are calling for the repeal of an anti-terrorism law the government has used to detain Sunnis en masse and for expanded employment opportunities.

TENSION ON THE KURDISH BORDER

In Arab provinces north of Baghdad, the situation is even more tense. In addition to Sunni protest movements that have taken root there, provincial officials and tribal leaders have become increasingly wary about an escalating dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdish region over a 300-mile frontier of disputed territories.

Last year, Maliki bolstered Baghdad's military presence along the disputed territories, drawing protest from Kurdish officials, who have sought to expand their domain southward in recent years with the goal of fully controlling the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Tension between Baghdad and the Kurds has soared over plans to build a pipeline connecting Kurdistan and Turkey – a step that would give the autonomous region greater independence from the central government and possibly pave the way for complete sovereignty.

Wassfi al-Assi, a tribal leader in Kirkuk who has been active in the protests, said Sunni Arabs in the north are as unnerved as they are disillusioned, fearing they will bear the brunt of the two conflicts.

"Iraq used to be one of the developed countries of the region," he said. "Now we're seen as a Third World country. There are many calls for dividing Iraq, even more than during the occupation time."

A RESURGENCE OF INSURGENTS

In nearby Nineveh province, which also borders the Kurdish region, disenchantment with the government and hardening sectarian and ethnic positions are bolstering the insurgency, said Abdullah al-Yawar, a powerful tribal leader.

Insurgent movements "grow when people feel that their lives are bad," Yawar said, noting a recent string of attacks against candidates running for seats on the provincial council. "When people feel that the government humiliates them, those are the conditions under which they can work."

Bombings and other attacks remain far less infrequent than during the peak of the war, but violence has worsened in recent months, according to the latest report on developments in Iraq by the United Nations mission here, released Monday.

Between mid-November and Jan. 31, 741 civilians and 311 members of the Iraqi security forces were killed, according to the report, which noted a rise in suicide and rocket attacks, as well as resurgence of "mass casualty" strikes that aim to stoke sectarian tension.

The last big bombing in Baghdad happened Thursday. As Rabab al-Maliki, 45, was leaving her clerical job in parliament, the first blast thundered.

Maliki dashed into a concrete bunker left behind by the U.S. military and braced for what has become routine: secondary blasts. Three more followed, making her shudder and shake. Gunmen had bombed nearby government buildings, seeking to detonate explosives inside the most loathed one: the Justice Ministry. After the fourth blast, she hurried back to her office, frazzled.

The war, she said, cost her her marriage. Maliki, a Shiite, was married to a Sunni, but sectarian tension made the union unsustainable, she said, and robbed her of her will to live.

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