The marginalization experienced by Iraq's Sunni Arabs under the current Shiite-ruled government is leading to more demands for an autonomous region like that of the Kurds.
"He is everywhere, it is impossible to escape his penetrating gaze in the streets of Baghdad."
Yarub, a 23-year-old medical student, is referring to the Imam Ali. Prophet Muhammad's son-in-law - revered by the Shiites as his legitimate successor - stares from a myriad of banners and flags. They hang from tea houses and minarets; government buildings and street checkpoints. They're even visible on the antennas of police and army vehicles.
"In theory it is forbidden for any official building or vehicle to boast any religious symbol, but here laws are interpreted as the Qur'an: everyone has their own version," Yarub tells DW.
Yarub, who studies at Baghdad University, is the son of a Shiite from Najaf and a Sunni from Mosul. Despite the sectarian atmosphere that strangles Iraq today, "mixed" marriages have always been a common currency in Iraq.
"Until 2006 nobody cared if you were Shiite, Sunni or Christian," he explains."This sectarian hatred is being fuelled by the political parties in power to divert attention from the country's real problems: corruption and authoritarianism."
True or not, the country's Sunnis have been complaining of increasing marginalization since 2003. One source of discontent is Iraq's "obscure" demography:
"After the invasion, the Americans spread the false idea that Sunni Arabs make up 20 percent of the population and Shiites 60 percent. According to our statistics, we are not less than 40 pecent of the population," Ahmed Al Alwani, a member of the Iraqiya list opposition party, tells DW from his residence in Ramadi, Anbar region's administrative capital.
"Discrimination starts at school. Have you heard about the raided school in Tikrit?" Al Awani is talking about the assault by Iraqi soldiers on a school in Saddam Hussein's hometown, on Jan. 25. It resulted in the arrest of seven students aged between 13 and 14 years who were taking their semester exams. The government has not yet given any clarification about the incident.
Two months earlier, the head of the University of Tikrit had resigned after the sacking of 300 university lecturers. More than 1,200 teachers - all of them Sunnis - have reportedly been fired since Ali Al Adib, the minister of education, took office in 2006.
Al Alwani speaks of a "systematic and well-planned marginalization" as he underlines the federal nature of the Iraqi Constitution when asked about the possibility of the Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar and Salahadin becoming a single autonomous region in the future. He adds that he was the first one to support the project in Baghdad in summer 2010.
"Sunnis are systematically excluded from political power-sharing in Iraq. We only form a majority in the prisons," Anbar region's governor, Mohammad Qasim Abid, told DW. In the absence of official census, many say that over 80 pecent of the detainees in Baghdad's prisons are Sunni.
Strangers at home
"Either they kill us or they put us in jail; that's how they want to change the demographic balance in Baghdad," 50- year-old Abu Baker, a Sunni, told DW. He lived in Baghdad's Shiite neighbourhood of Khadimiya and was forced to move a year ago, but he still says he was lucky.
"The police arrested me for no reason and my family was told that I would be freed in exchange for $2000. They said they would arrest me again if I stayed in Baghdad, or I'd be killed by Moqtada Al Sadr's Shiite militias.
Abu Baker has lived in Ramadi ever since. He is yet another of the thousands of internally displaced Sunnis seeking refuge in Anbar and Salahadin. He says his house is now occupied by a Shiite family who bought it from a real estate agent.
"I didn't sign any document but we all know that somebody is making a lot of money with the properties we leave behind," says Omar, a former mechanic, who now survives on occasional jobs in construction.
Omar claims to be one of the few Sunnis working in the security sector. He prefers not to give his full name for security reasons.
"Since I started working four years ago, the number of Sunnis in my section has only decreased. Of the 153 in my department, 15 were Sunnis; today we are only four."
Saad Yousif Muttalibi, from the ministry for dialogue and reconciliation, categorically denies discrimination "of any kind." He says there are other reasons for the small number of Sunni officers in the Iraqi administration.
"If there are so few Sunnis in the administration that's because of a fatwa - an Islamic ruling - which Sunni Imams handed down on all those who cooperate with the government," the senior official from Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law ruling coalition told DW.
"The political crisis in Iraq is rife, that's why Iraqis must stick together now," concludes Muttalibi, describing the government's position on the Sunnis' growing demand for autonomy.
Back in Anbar, Sunni Imam, Hussein Gahzi Al Samarrai, can hardly hide his dissatisfaction:
"It is true there was a fatwa to prevent our people from siding with the Americans, but that was in 2004," the former cleric in Baghdad told DW from his house in Samarra.
"The biggest proof that the fatwa is not in force is that we took part in 2006 and 2010 elections winning over 100 hundred seats in Parliament, despite many of our people having fled the country."
Samarrai claims that the government feels threatened by the Sunnis' real presence in the country. "It was actually the Iraqiya list which won the elections in 2010, and not Maliki." The current Prime Minister got his seat as a result of the backing from Moqtada Al Sadr, the controversial Shiite religious and political leader.
When asked about the autonomy project, the priest labels it as the "least bad" of the options.
"I do not like the idea of a federal state but the situation inevitably pushes us toward it. It could be a temporary solution until real justice is brought into the country," he said.
A safe haven
The gap between Shia and Sunni Iraqi Arabs has grown by the day since Maliki ordered the arrest of Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tarik Hashemi - just one day after US troops officially left Iraqi soil - over allegations of promoting terrorism.
Now hosted by local Kurds in the Kurdish Autonomous Region, Hashemi has been blaming Maliki for the sudden surge in violence.
The Iraqi Kurds are actually the only ones to have ever enjoyed a federal autonomy in the Middle East. Theirs is, by far, the most stable region in Iraq.
"A federal state is the most desirable solution for everyone," Kurdish Alliance MP Ashwaq Jaf told DW.
"If the Iraqi Kurds have survived until today, that's been thanks to our own autonomy. The Sunnis need the same medicine before it's too late."
Author: Karlos Zurutuza, Baghdad
Editor: Rob Mudge