A year after America’s withdrawal from Iraq, the country’s struggle for stability persists. Sunni protests are continuing following a government raid against Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi’s home and the reported arrest of many of his bodyguards and staff on December 20. The protests, which have recently acquired the backing of some of Prime Minister 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 Maliki survives the current campaign against him, the concept of a unified Iraq, shared among its many sects, will continue to suffer.
The protests are sectarian in nature, propagated mainly from Sunni Islamists, and aiming to reduce Maliki’s influence and that of the Shiites over Iraq. Among the Sunni protesters’ many demands are reforms, releasing prisoners, regional secession, an end to corruption and Iranian influence, and the downfall of Maliki’s Shiite-led government. Those 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 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. In addition to rallying Sunni voters prior to elections planned for the spring, the timing also coincides with increasing pressure against Baghdad from the ongoing Kurdish dispute over territory in northern Iraq;, a dispute that threatens to bring both Iraq and the KRG into another round of armed conflict. The Kurdish gains and continued opposition to Baghdad’s policies, in addition to the Sunni revolt in Syria, are likely giving many Iraqi Sunnis increased motivation to call for regional autonomy.
Things have worsened for Maliki. On December 27, one of Maliki’s main Shiite political and religious rivals, Muqtata al-Sadr, called for more Sunni demonstrations, while members of the Shiite ISCI bloc met with leaders from President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party. 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 Maliki’s government have since boycotted a cabinet session. Meanwhile, Maliki’s deputy forwarded a letter to parliament indicating that the government will be lifting judicial immunity for parliamentarians accused of libel against government figures and politicians. Sadr has since again asserted that Maliki is attempting to silence his rivals and stated that he will join Sunni-led protests if Maliki continues to consolidate power.
Shiite opposition towards Maliki’s religious-nationalist faction underscores continued competition for intra-Shiite ideological and political supremacy. In the past, this struggle has resulted in armed conflict, highlighted by the Battle of Basra in 2008 that saw Sadr’s Mahdi Army ousted from the city by government forces. Given the animosity between major Shiite factions and parties and the uncertainty of Maliki’s stance within Iraq at this time, it remains unlikely that Sadrists will unify behind Maliki against the Kurds and Sunnis without strong pressure from the Iranians. Those groups could contribute to new calls for Maliki to step down or a no confidence vote against him in parliament; although such efforts may have become more difficult. The acting president for the now ill President Talabani, is a known ally of Maliki.
Although Maliki’s recent hard-line stances against his rivals and especially al-Esawi were likely timed for political and strategic benefit, the actions of Muqtata al-Sadr indicate that his faction is acting to boost its clout ahead of provincial elections in the spring. Although 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. Sadr has just as much interest in maintaining Shiite rule over Iraq as Maliki. Sadr could likely continue to tolerate much of the sectarianism emanating from Sunni protests, as long as Maliki’s political situation continues to suffer. Sadr’s continued support for Sunni protests could have an adverse effect however, boosting ever growing support for his pro-Khomeinist Shiite-Islamist rivals in the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Maliki has cards to play as well. A more unified opposition to Maliki, backed by Sadrists, could propel more authoritarian measures against his opponents. Such a development could witness the intimidation of rival Shiite leaders, assassinations, raids, and judicial actions against opponents from all sects. Maliki’s reported efforts to remove immunity for parliamentarians may be an indicator of such a policy. Furthermore, Maliki may utilize the ongoing military standoff with the KRG to cover such actions or deflect attention away from the increasing pressure against him. This could provide the Iraqi leader with a much needed political boost from Iraqi Arab nationalists who oppose Kurdish statehood.
The numerous religious, ethnic, and political divides will continue to hinder Iraq’s transition into a normal state, let alone a Shiite Arab power. It remains unlikely that 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.