A year after America’s withdrawal from Iraq, the country’s struggle for stability and security persists. Sunni protests are continuing following a government raid against Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi’s home on Dec. 20. The protests, which have recently acquired the backing of some of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s main Shiite rivals – the Sadrists – come as the Shiite-led Iraqi government is already facing increased pressure from a persistent border standoff with Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG). Regardless of whether al-Maliki survives the current campaign against him, the concept of a unified Iraq – shared between its many sects – will continue to suffer.
The protests are sectarian in nature, propagated mainly by Sunni Islamists and aimed at reducing al-Maliki’s influence and that of the Shiites over Iraq. Their demands are unlikely to be met. While Iraq’s government, security forces, and Shiites have faced years of deadly Sunni insurgent attacks, the protests underscore an increased effort by the country’s Sunnis to replicate mass protests held elsewhere in the region and pressure al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government.
Protest leaders are likely aiming to capitalize upon perceived justification for mass protests following the government’s decision to act against al-Esawi. The timing also coincides with increasing pressure against Baghdad from the ongoing Kurdish dispute over territory in northern Iraq. The Kurdish gains and the Sunni revolt in Syria are likely giving many Iraqi Sunnis increased motivation to call for regional autonomy.
Things have worsened for al-Maliki. On Dec. 27, one of his main Shiite political and religious rivals, Muqtata al-Sadr, called for more Sunni demonstrations. Although the ISCI did not attend a failed anti-Maliki emergency session in Parliament led by Sadrists, Kurds and Sunnis, Kurdish and Sunni factions of al-Maliki’s government have since boycotted a Cabinet session. Meanwhile, al-Sadr has once again asserted that al-Maliki is attempting to silence his rivals and stated that he will join Sunni-led protests if al-Maliki continues to consolidate power.
Shiite opposition towards al-Maliki’s religious-nationalist faction underscores continued competition for Shiite supremacy. In the past, this struggle resulted in armed conflict, highlighted by the Battle of Basra in 2008 that saw al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army ousted from the city by government forces. Given the animosity between major Shiite factions and the uncertainty of al-Maliki’s stance within Iraq at this time, it remains unlikely that Sadrists will unify behind al-Maliki against the Kurds and Sunnis without pressure from the Iranians.
The actions of Muqtata al-Sadr indicate that his faction is acting to boost its clout ahead of provincial elections in the spring. Although al-Sadr now portrays himself as a leader of all Iraqis, his support for the Sunni protests is mainly political, to boost his ideological movement’s influence in Parliament. Al-Sadr could likely continue to tolerate much of the sectarianism emanating from Sunni protests, as long as al-Maliki’s political situation continues to suffer. Al-Sadr’s siding with the Sunnis could backfire however, boosting ever growing support for his pro-Khomeinist Shiite-Islamist rivals in the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Al-Maliki has cards to play as well. A more unified opposition to al-Maliki, backed by the Sadrists, could propel more authoritarian measures against his opponents. Furthermore, al-Maliki may utilize the ongoing military standoff with the KRG to cover such actions or deflect attention away from the increasing pressure against him.
The numerous aforementioned divides will continue to hinder Iraq’s transition into a normal state, let alone a Shiite Arab power. It remains unlikely that al-Maliki will step down in the process absent severe pressure from fellow Shiites and Iran. Like most states in the Middle East, Iraq’s future as a unified political entity devoid of destabilizing sectarian and political conflicts appears grim.
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