A recent tide of sectarian tensions that erupted into the worst violence seen in Iraq in five years is testing the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ability to contain the crisis could hinge on a conflict raging beyond his control in Syria.
The prospect of a regional power shift driven by the bloody civil war next door, where a mostly Sunni rebel movement is struggling to topple the Shia-dominated regime, has emboldened Iraq’s Sunni minority to challenge its own Shia government and amplified fears within Maliki’s administration that Iraq may soon be swept up in a spillover war.
Sectarian bombings and assassinations targeting both Sunnis and Shias increased last month after government forces raided a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq, killing more than 40 people. Shootings and bombings continued last week.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s embittered Sunnis say the successes of the Syrian rebels have given them the confidence to challenge what they call worsening government discrimination and abuse against the minority that once ruled the country under Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s Sunnis have been staging a growing wave of anti-government demonstrations in Sunni-majority provinces across the country for five months, raising tensions that some say could reignite the civil war that peaked in 2006. The combustible situation, underpinned by what critics call mistakes of the decade-long US occupation that enshrined sectarianism, has been aggravated by Maliki’s increasingly authoritarian policies, analysts say.
Inside a dust-battered tent at a protest camp in Fallujah earlier this month, tribal leaders in white robes described the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as inescapably intertwined. Many here view Maliki as a puppet in a conspiracy by Shia-majority Iran to achieve regional domination, and they say Syria’s Iran-backed regime is no different.
“Maliki’s intentions for the Sunnis are the same as Iran’s: They want to ‘Shia-ify’ the country,” said Mohamed al-Bajari, a spokesman for the protest movement in Fallujah. Bajari served as an officer in Hussein’s intelligence service.
At a rally on 10 May on a highway that cuts through Fallujah, where the old flag of the Hussein-led Iraq fluttered above the crowd, one banner read: “America: You gave Iraq to Iran, and then you left.” A rebel victory in Syria could benefit Sunnis in Iraq, Bajari said.
A number of Sunni officials in Baghdad have lost credibility with the protest movement for their willingness to work with Maliki. In Anbar, tribal leaders, militants and protesters have sparred over the path forward.