Iraq’s main Sunni Arab political party walked out of the Iraqi government two days ago and two bombs killed more than 70 people in the centre of Baghdad.
The Sunni Accordance Front left Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s embattled government, saying it had not met any of its demands, including greater say over security, the release of all detainees not charged and the disbandment of militias.
Rafaa al-Issawi, a leading party member, said: “The government is continuing with its arrogance, refusing to change its stand and has slammed shut the door to any meaningful reforms.”
The Iraqi government system is supposed to ensure power-sharing between Shia, Kurds and Sunni, but since the three communities and their political parties have differing agendas their participation in government has proved a recipe for continuing stalemate. Ministries are doled out on a quota system after prolonged negotiations and Mr Maliki cannot sack ministers for incompetence or corruption, however gross.
The Accordance Front has 44 out of 275 seats in parliament and has been looking for reforms that would enhance the strength of the Sunni community.
The core of the government is an alliance between the Kurdish parties and the Shia religious parties which triumphed at the polls in the last election in 2005. The Shia are suspicious that the Sunni – only 20 per cent of the population – are trying to regain the power they lost when Saddam Hussein was overthrown by relying on support from the US and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. The Shia make up 60 per cent of Iraqis and would win any future election.
The stalemate is further complicated by the presence of the US, which provides the main military backing for the government, but whose military escalation since the start of the year is failing to diminish the violence. At least 78 American soldiers were killed in Iraq in July, which was less than in previous months this year.
However, casualties normally fall at the height of summer because the intense heat makes it difficult to fight.
Suicide bombings, either on foot or by driving vehicles packed with explosives, are proving impossible to stop. They are normally employed by Sunni insurgents against Shia civilians. Shia retaliation is usually by death squads, often real police or militiamen posing as police, who operate checkpoints where Sunni are identified, tortured and murdered.
The most lethal bombing Tuesday was in the mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhood of al-Mansur in west Baghdad. A bomber in a fuel truck blew himself up near a petrol station where many drivers were queuing. More than 50 people were killed and at least 60 were injured.
A car bomb had blown up earlier in the Shia Karada district of east Baghdad, killing 17 people.
Mr Maliki’s government is widely criticized for being incompetent and sectarian but any succeeding Iraqi administration would be subjected to the same pressures. He has been weakened by the defection of the supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr, the nationalist cleric, who had held five ministries and is much disliked by the US.
The Sunni demand for the dissolution of all militias is unlikely to be met because the Shia-Kurdish parties composing the government, with the exception of Mr Maliki’s Dawa party, all have powerful militia forces.
Contrary to its declared anti-militia policy, the US has been encouraging the formation of a Sunni tribal militia which is hostile to al-Qa’ida in Iraq.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.