World Bulletin/News Desk
In a move that could draw Iraq back into the throws of infighting and potential civil war, the fledgling Baghdad government may be on the brink of dissolving parliament within days, U.S. News reported.
Dissolving the parliament before the next elections in early 2014 is further complicated by the absence of much of the presidency council, which would participate in the temporary caretaker government. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is currently in Germany for treatment following a stroke, and one of the two vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashemi, is currently in exile following murder charges.
Street protests in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland pose a new challenge to Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as shock waves from the Sunni-led insurgency in nearby Syria strain his country's fragile political balance.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Sunnis have staged demonstrations, and in Anbar province they have blocked a highway to Syria in a show of anger against Maliki, whom they accuse of marginalising their community and monopolising power.
Protesters have echoed the chants of Arab uprisings that have brought down leaders in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen in the past two years.
"We will never relent. Enough of Sunnis living in Iraq like outsiders. This time it's do or die for us," said Jamal Adham, a tribal leader from Saddam's former hometown of Tikrit.
Their demands range from mending crumbling public services to abolishing anti-terrorism laws they say are used to persecute Iraq's once-dominant Sunnis.
"What's happening is not spontaneous," said Mohammed Tofiq, spokesman for Kurdish opposition movement Gorran. "The forces behind the current protests are Sunni political parties."
Senior Sunni sources say the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), part of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the prime mover in a campaign to create an autonomous Sunni fiefdom, by force if need be.
The tribes of Anbar were instrumental in subduing al Qaeda in 2007, making common cause with U.S. troops to fight fellow Sunnis in what came to be known as the "Anbar Awakening".
Now, Anbar is awakening again, but this time the target is Maliki - and U.S. forces who once held the ring are long gone.
"Anbar has always had the power to be very influential in Iraqi politics," said Gareth Stansfield, an Iraq expert at Exeter University. "This should be of great concern to Maliki."
The protests ignited after Maliki detained the bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafaie al-Esawi last month, just hours after Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, seen as a steadying hand, suffered a stroke and went abroad for treatment.
Iraqi authorities said the bodyguards had confessed to involvement in assassinations carried out in coordination with security men employed by Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi.
Hashemi fled into exile a year ago and was later sentenced to death in absentia for terrorism. Esawi himself was once a leader of an armed Islamist group, Hamas al-Iraq, in Anbar.
The arrests and alleged confessions of bodyguards of the two senior Sunni leaders followed a strikingly similar pattern, but this time round, Maliki is more isolated, analysts say.
One Shi'ite lawmaker said Maliki had planned to target Esawi for some time and had calculated that it would be easier to strike now and contain the Sunni backlash than to do it later when Sunnis might be emboldened by events in Syria.
"Maliki told me he would go after Esawi and his bodyguards more than a month ago," said the parliamentarian on condition of anonymity. "He preferred to burst the Sunni bubble, rather than wait for it to blow up in his face".
So far, Maliki's response has been cautious.
This week he said his patience was wearing thin and warned he would not tolerate the Sunni rallies indefinitely, but made a small concession by releasing 11 women detainees and allowing others to complete their sentences in their home provinces.
That will not appease all the protesters.
The provincial council of the predominantly Sunni Salahuddin governorate on Thursday re-submitted a request to the electoral commission to form their own region. Other Sunni-majority provinces have previously presented similar demands.
Under the constitution drawn up after the U.S.-led invasion, each province or group of provinces is entitled to create a federal region if it wins enough votes in a referendum.
"This is the moment when we see whether Maliki has emerged as the strongman of Iraq," Stansfield said. "Either he enforces a centralised government on Iraq or allows federalism to be the organising principle of governance across the country.
"The question is whether it's done after fighting or instead of fighting."
The central government in Baghdad is already at odds with the Kurdish region. Their long-running feud over land and oil rights recently escalated into a military build-up in the oil-rich territory along their contested internal boundary.
The Kurds and other rivals of Maliki are likely to use the Sunni protests to pile pressure on the Shi'ite leader without necessarily jumping on board, analysts and politicians say.
Both Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and influential Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have voiced support for the protesters in Anbar and elsewhere, as long as they drop sectarian slogans and stop glorifying Saddam's Baath party.