By Tanveer Jafri
As was foreboded, the situation in Iraq is deteriorating. It was feared that the Shia-Sunni rivalry in Iraq would flare up after the toppling of Saddam Hussein in April 2003. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni Arab military dictator who took over the reins of Baghdad from Ahmad Hasan Al Barq in 1979 and continued to rule the country till 9th April 2003. Shiites form 60 percent of the Iraqi population whereas Sunnis account for 31 percent. During his despotic rule of 24 years, Saddam used every tool to crush his opponents, be they Shias, Sunnis or Kurds.
However, this tyrannical and dictatorial nature of Saddam provided the US an easy excuse to interfere in Iraq in the name of unearthing weapons of mass destruction and combating terrorism. Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in violence since the American occupation in 2003. Many incidents of communal violence have been witnessed in all these years. Crowded markets, religious festivities, mausoleums, mosques etc. have been endlessly targeted. Meanwhile, the local opposition against the American presence kept on increasing. In accordance with Obama’s election promise of bringing back the troops from Iraq, the US ended its mission this December after ‘disposing of’ Saddam and installing a ‘democratic’ government in Baghdad. Certainly, Washington played a major role in the formation of a coalition government and circumscribing sectarian violence to a large extent. Now that the US troops have left the country, fragile political system of Iraq is apparently coming under unprecedented strain.
On 19th December, an Iraqi court issued an arrest warrant against Tariq Al Hashmi, the Vice-President of Iraq and the leader of the biggest Sunni party Iraqiya, on the charge of involvement in “suspected terrorist activity.” Hearing this, Hashmi hid away in Kurdistan. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shia, said, “We won’t allow any interference in Iraq’s judicial system. Saddam Hussein was prosecuted impartially and Al-Hashmi’s case will also be impartial.” He appealed to the Kurds to handover Hashmi to the government. The Vice President Tariq Al Hashmi has denied all the charges and said, “I swear before Allah that I have committed no crime.” Hashmi is ready to face the judicial proceedings but only at Kurdistan region.
Of late, communal tension has escalated in Iraq. Violence has also been reported from some parts. 13 bomb blasts ripped through the capital Baghdad on 22 December, killing 75 and wounding more than 200 people. Hashmi has claimed that violence has escalated only as a result of the warrant against him. According to him, it is difficult for Premier Maliki to stop this violence. He has also accused Maliki of creating this “national crisis.” Besides, a simmering political and constitutional crisis cannot be denied. All the ministers belonging to the Iraqiya party have refused to attend Cabinet meetings. In response, Prime Minister has threatened to sack them. Both the groups of coalition are apparently getting ready for a showdown.
Current political situation in Iraq is harbinger of the fact that a civil war can break out anytime. If that happens, it would have repercussions not only for Iraq, but for the entire region. Sunni and Shia, the two major sects of Islam, are struggling to dominate the entire Arab world. These struggles for predominance lead to the eight years long First Persian Gulf war between Iran and Iraq from 1980-88. At that time, Saddam had complete backing of Washington. When both countries got exhausted and suffered huge losses after fighting for eight consecutive years; they agreed to a peace truce under Resolution 598 of the UN Security Council. During his reign, Saddam enjoyed the full support of almost all the Sunni Arab states. This backing was based on the fact that he was a Sunni dictator. But when, owing to his belligerence, he tried to capture Kuwait in 1990, it set alarm bells ringing across the Arab world vis-à-vis the ‘danger’ Saddam posed to other Arab states. Since then, many countries of the region turned against Saddam. America took the benefit of his isolation and occupied Iraq in 2003.
Iran is sympathetic to the Shia groups in Iraq and is said to support them actively. Hence, Iran’s role in current turmoil in Iraq cannot be ruled out. Coming days may turn out to be more perilous for Iraq and it may witness a Civil War. What will come out of this churning, remains to be seen. Whether the power will go to a single group as was the case during Saddam’s rule? Or, will Iraq break up on sectarian lines and lose its influence in the region, in line with the wishes of the West?