A wave of bomb explosions sent plumes of smoke into the air across Baghdad yesterday, killing 63 and injuring 194 people in the worst violence for months. There is a growing sense of crisis in Iraq as the Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki tries to arrest his own Sunni vice president on charges of running death squads.
The threat of escalating sectarian warfare is deepened by the fear among the Iraqi Shia elite that the Arab Awakening movement is turning into an anti-Shia crusade led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The most deadly of the bomb attacks came when a suicide bomber driving an ambulance packed with explosives persuaded police to let him through their checkpoint because he was on an emergency call. He blew himself up outside a government agency charged with fighting corruption in the middle class mainly Shia Karada district, killing at least 35 people and injuring 62.
“We heard the sound of a car driving, then car brakes, then a huge explosion, all our windows and doors are blown out, black smoke filed our apartment,” Maysoun Kamal told a news agency.
The 14 bomb attacks, mainly directed at Shia civilians, show that after eight-and-a-half years of such bombings, government security agencies have failed to break up the insurgent cells that carry them out. The director of one of the government intelligence agencies told me that “the problem is that Iraqi security only reacts to events and has no long term strategy.”
Two of the explosions were of roadside bombs in the south western Amil district, killing seven people and wounding 21 others. A car bomb in a Shia part of Doura in the south killed three and wounded several more. Bad though these attacks are the bombs are not so far as big as those used in 2009 when two-and-a-half tons of explosives were used to reduce the Foreign Ministry to ruins. But such is the legacy of sectarian hatred in Baghdad that it does not take much to produce fear that “ID card” killings based on sectarian identity might resume.
It is extremely difficult to prevent bombings in a city of five million people when the targets are often Shia street sellers or school children. In recent months the government has reduced the number of checkpoints and taken down some of the concrete blast walls that still snake through Baghdad, separating Shia and Sunni neighbourhoods. There are few mixed areas left in the city since the sectarian slaughter of 2006-7 though a few people have gone back to their old districts. Baghdad today is very much a Shia city.
The upsurge in violence comes only days after the withdrawal of the last US troops, who once numbered 170,000 in the country. The Americans have played little role in providing security since 2009 and were unable to prevent a bloody Sunni-Shia sectarian civil war in 2007-7. But there is no doubt that the US withdrawal has had serious psychological impact because many Iraqis feel the US helped defuse differences between Shia, Sunni and Kurds.
The latest violence and political crisis provoked by the arrest warrant for Hashemi are particularly destabilizing for Iraq because of the escalating Sunni-Shia confrontation across the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Sunni states have backed the ruling Sunni dynasty in Bahrain in crushing pro-democracy protests by the Shia majority in the island. Saudi Arabia and Turkey are both seeking an end to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where the Shia heterodox sect, the Alawites, have dominated the ruling elite for more than 40 years.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has a reputation for being paranoid about plots against his government and may have over reacted to an alleged assassination attempt against him late last month. But the Shia leadership in Iraq, which came to power in an election in 2005 after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, is openly worried that triumphant Sunni Islamists in Syria would give aid to the Iraqi Sunni and provoke a fresh insurgency.
The arrest of former Baath party members in Iraq and the dismissal of Sunni officers shows the edginess of Maliki and the Shia leadership. In practice, it is in little danger because the Shia dominate the officer corps and reportedly make up more than 90 per cent of senior officials in the Defense and Interior Ministries. Maliki commands 900,000 soldiers and police, and the country’s oil revenues will reach an estimated $100 billion this year.
Maliki’s bid to arrest Hashemi, who has taken refuge in Kurdistan, may well backfire. “The Kurds have no interest in handing him over,” said a Kurdish leader yesterday. “They know that if either the Shia or the Sunni dominate in Iraq it will be bad for the Kurds. They will try to mediate.” Maliki may try but is unlikely to succeed in ruling Iraq by force, something that Saddam Hussein failed to do.
Maliki was expected to try to increase his power in the wake of the final US troop withdrawal this month. But his unexpected decision to provoke a political crisis immediately by ordering the arrest his own vice-president on terrorism charges may weaken his rule and destabilize Iraq.
Maliki had just been in Washington where he presented himself as the national leader of Iraq and not just of the Shia majority. But within hours of his return to Baghdad, he ordered the arrest of the most senior Sunni leader, Tariq al-Hashemi, whose bodyguards were put on state television to confess that they had been paid by the vice president to carry out killings.
The simplest explanation for Maliki’s action is that he is extremely paranoid. Kaan Karadaghi, the former chief of staff of President Jalal Talabani, who attended many meetings with Maliki, told The Independent: “He is really obsessed with the idea that there are plots [against the government] and particularly against himself. This came up at many meetings. You feel that he really believes in these conspiracies against him — mainly by the Baathists.”
Instead of stressing national unity, Maliki has alienated the Sunni minority, who fear further persecution, and angered the Kurds, who form an essential part of the Iraqi government. Leaders from both communities have previously denounced Maliki’s dictatorial tendencies since he became prime minister in 2006. He has also damaged Barack Obama who had been intending to emphasize in the presidential election his success in withdrawing US troops leaving behind a democratic and stable Iraq.
Maliki’s paranoia may have some justification, given that Iraqi politics at every level is very violent and no doubt plots and conspiracies against him do exist. Moreover, Maliki, now aged 61, has spent much if his life in the Islamic Dawa, the Shia religious party, membership of which meant torture and execution if unmasked under Saddam Hussein. Not surprisingly, the mentality of its surviving members makes them suspect that they are threatened by potential traitors.
Maliki spent much of his life in exile after being forced to flee Iraq in 1979 and lived in Iran and Syria until the US invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Shia hold on power on Iraq may appear unbreakable, but the community fears a counter-attack by its old enemies.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of “Muqtada: Muqtada Al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq.