As seen this time in the Maliki-Issawi showdown, there’s a lot more to Iraqi politics than sectarian divisions.
Just as 2011 in Iraq ended with a political crisis following the issuing of an arrest warrant by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki against Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on allegations of running a death squad, so 2012 has rounded off with another political crisis: this time involving the Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, a member of Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya bloc.
In this case, the arrest warrant is not against Issawi himself, but rather some members of his security entourage, charged with aiding Hashemi’s men in the Vice President’s alleged death squad.
As always, media outlets were quick to note the ethno-religious backgrounds of the men involved in this current political crisis: namely, Maliki as a Shi’ite versus Issawi, who is a Sunni Arab.
Reporting on demonstrations that subsequently arose in the predominantly Sunni Arab province of Anbar in protest at the move against Issawi, an Associated Press piece printed on the Guardian’s website came with the headline, “Iraq protests signal growing tension between Sunni and Shi’a communities.”
The piece then affirmed in the main text: “The unrest is part of broader sectarian conflicts that threaten the stability of the country.”
On this view, the current political debacle is indicative of a deepening Sunni-Shi’ite crisis in the country. So is the Maliki-Issawi crisis a sectarian affair?
In short, the answer is both yes and no.
Start off with some of the evidence that points in the affirmative direction in answer to the question. Both Maliki and certain opponents of his in this crisis have played the sectarian card, hurling accusations at each other of stirring up sectarian strife, while portraying themselves as defenders of the ethno-religious communities they claim to represent.
For example, in an interview with al-Hayat, Tariq al-Hashemi claimed: “What is happening to my colleague Dr. Rafi al-Issawi is further proof that there is a plot to exclude Sunni Arabs from the political process.” Hashemi went on to say that Maliki is “an extremely sectarian man,” even as he also affirmed that Maliki’s targets are not limited to Sunni Arabs.
Hashemi has portrayed the arrest warrant against himself in similar terms, urging Iraqis not to allow Maliki and his allies to get their supposed wish of “sectarian strife.” In a similar vein, Maliki has accused the reaction in opposition to his move against Issawi of taking on a “sectarian” dimension against Shi’ites.
Further, people on both sides have depicted the crisis as a sectarian game instigated by foreign powers in the region. Thus, protesters in Anbar have burned Iranian flags, with one Iraqiya MP accusing Maliki and his allies of being traitors serving Iran, and some banners calling for a “Sunni” liberation of Iraq from Iranian occupiers.
Meanwhile, Maliki himself has hinted that there might be a Turkish and Syrian rebel hand behind the protests, drawing attention to the fact that some protesters were holding portraits of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Free Syrian Army flags.
Similarly, Press TV — Iran’s English-language outlet — claims that “Turkey is working closely with Qatar, Saudi Arabia and al-Hashemi to design tensions with the present Iraqi government,” a sentiment shared by many of Maliki’s supporters.
What this rhetoric foremost illustrates is how many of Iraq’s politicians play the sectarian card in an attempt to rally support when they feel that they are under fire.
Concomitant with this approach is a mindset of victimhood that naturally entails allegations of foreign powers playing a role in stirring up unrest. This rhetoric in turn helps to arouse sectarian sentiment in demonstrations and counter-demonstrations.
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