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Bomb attacks, shootings and an incapable government characterize the current situation in Iraq. The state of affairs has worsened significantly since US troops pulled out in December. Fear of a civil war is growing.
The friendly stranger in the southern Iraqi city of Basra first handed out cookies to men, women and children. Then he blew himself up, killing at least 53 people and wounding over 130. The victims were all Shiite pilgrims on their way to a mosque to celebrate the end of Arbaeen.
The bloody explosion on January 14, 2012 was just one of several attacks in the past days and weeks. The bombing terror can hit anyone: Shiites or Sunnis, civilians or officials. Hundreds of people have been killed already.
However, the new wave of violence and the renewed destabilization of the country are not primarily the result of the US pull-out from Iraq, says former German diplomat and Iraq expert Günther Joetze. Rather, they are the result of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's "politics of confrontation," he said.
Maliki's ulterior motives
Maliki is a Shiite, as are some 60 percent of Iraq's population. The percentage of Arab Sunnis is about 20 percent, in addition to Kurdish and Turkmenian Sunnis. Under dictator Saddam Hussein, the Sunnis controlled the country.
After the 2010 elections, the ethnic and religious groups signed a power-sharing agreement in Erbil. But Maliki appeared to have other plans from the outset. Formally, a joint government does exist.
"But the Sunni representatives have been systematically disempowered," Joetze said.
Maliki did not name a defense minister, for example. The post was actually earmarked for a Sunni. At the same time, he filled central positions with his own party supporters or just took them over himself.
"Maliki's goal is to push through his sole reign," said Iraqi political economist Kadhim Habeb, who lives in exile in the German capital Berlin. "He is a little despot."
Vice-president as a scapegoat
The most recent example of Maliki's striving for power is the arrest warrant for vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi. The prominent Sunni has been accused of ordering and financing bomb attacks and assassinations. Hashemi has rejected the allegations by the Shiite-dominated interior ministry. He fled to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and was thus able to evade arrest.
Joetze said he wouldn't rule out that the accusations against Hashemi are justified. In the past years, practically all Iraqi politicians used violence as a political means. This was also the case for Maliki himself. These accusations against Hashemi were "a possibility to oust a prominent Sunni politician," Joetze said.
The Kurds have so far refused to turn Hashemi over to the central government. Representatives of the Kurdish president said that Hashemi will voluntarily return to Baghdad only when a secure and fair trial is guaranteed. The Kurds do not want to be pulled into the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites.
Fear of division
Hashemi's entire Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc has meanwhile pulled out of its collaboration with the central government and the Iraqi parliament.
"The process which is supposed to bring democracy to Iraq has de facto led to a one-party and one-person rule," said high-ranking Sunni politician Salek al-Mutlak. "The longer Maliki stays in power, the greater the probability of a divided Iraq." Should Maliki not give up his position, it could also lead to a violent uprising by the Iraqi people.
"The likelihood that the provinces with a Sunni majority attempt to become autonomous is great," said Joetze.
Habeb sees the situation even going a step further. "It could also lead to civil war," he said.
Little hope for new policies
Habeb still travels to Iraq on a regular basis. The economics professor spent time in prison under Saddam Hussein.
"The country's main problem is the division of power on the basis of religious and ethnic affiliation," Habeb said. This basis will always lead to violence and deaths, he said. Habeb said he wished that non-denominational parties existed which acted on the basis of an Iraqi identity.
But Iraq's reality looks different. The conflict between the ethnic groups has apparently lasted for too long and the wounds of the past years are evidently too deep. New elections - which Habeb and Joetze suggest would offer a way out of the current crisis - are unlikely. Prime Minister Maliki would most likely not voluntarily allow new polls to take place.
The only thing that could bring him around would be pressure from abroad. But US possibilities to influence Maliki have diminished.
"The United States is no longer the major force in Iraq," said Habeb. "Iran is stronger."
Iraq's neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia have little interest in a stable and independent country. Both want to maintain their sphere of influence in Iraq. So they support the conflict parties: Iran the Shiites and Saudi Arabia the Sunnis. They therefore also support extremism, at least indirectly. The victims are innocent men, women and children like the Shiite pilgrims in Basra.
Author: Nils Naumann / sac
Editor: Rob Mudge