As seen this time in the Maliki-Issawi showdown, there’s a lot more to Iraqi politics than sectarian divisions.
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Does it follow that Maliki went after Issawi just or primarily because he is a Sunni Arab? No. The fact is that Maliki will go after any politician he perceives to be too much of a threat to himself or a person who works in a government institution and over whom he feels he does not have enough control.
That is, Maliki did not target Issawi because of his ethno-religious identity, but rather because he perceives Issawi to be a longstanding personal rival who needs to be put in his place.
For comparison, one should note Maliki’s attempts to crack down on the Shi’ite MP Sabah al-Saidi, who is not tied to any political bloc. Saidi has been an ardent critic of corruption in the government, and has most recently appeared live on TV purporting to expose a number of corruption scandals in the highest ranks of the Maliki administration.
Since September 2011, there has been an arrest warrant against Saidi, which came in the context of Saidi threatening to expose how Maliki was using the intelligence agencies against him.
Related to the Saidi case is the arrest warrant against the head of the Central Bank: Sinan al-Shabibi. Like Saidi, Shabibi is a Shi’ite, and while the official pretext for the arrest warrant pertains to allegations of corruption, most politicians outside Maliki’s State of Law bloc simply saw the move as a unilateral attempt by the premier to assert greater control over the Central Bank.
Thus, even the Citizens Bloc — headed by Ammar al-Hakim, who is an ally in the Maliki coalition government and leader of the Shi’ite Islamist Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq — warned that the move against Shabibi risked becoming a stepping-stone towards “one-man dictatorship.”
Those outside Maliki’s own faction have perceived the move against Issawi in the same way. For example, the Sadrists, who have been at odds with the premier not only for the arrest warrant against Shabibi but also for the Russian arms deal corruption scandal, have indicated their sympathy for the demonstrations protesting against “corruption and dictatorship.”
Earlier on, some of the Sadrists even went to Anbar province to show their support. The “Majlis al-A’yan” in the Shi’ite province of Basra (council of tribal sheikhs) has also expressed solidarity with the protests in Anbar.
At the same time, the Sadrists have made it clear they will not participate in any protests in which the FSA flag is present or in which there are sectarian slogans.
Above it was noted that certain figures both for and against Maliki have played the sectarian card in their rhetoric about the current political crisis. The main exception has been none other than Issawi, who at a demonstration in Ramadi emphasized that the protests should represent all Iraqis and that Maliki targets all his opponents, not just Sunni Arabs.
This illustrates, as Najaf-based analyst Fadel al-Kifa’ee suggested to me, that Issawi is much more of a moderate figure than Hashemi, whom I consider to be guilty of the charges against him, even as the arrest warrant was issued in a political context (i.e. Hashemi’s rivalry with Maliki).
It must be admitted that the nature of the pretext against Issawi’s entourage has a sectarian flavor. When Maliki goes after his opponents, it is to be expected that serious allegations of involvement in terrorism will play a part if the rivals in question happen to be Sunni Arabs. In contrast, arrest warrants against Shi’ite opponents entail less serious pretexts.
Should Maliki ever perceive the anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his followers to pose too much of a threat to his power, it is likely that an arrest warrant against Sadr over allegedly ordering the murder of the cleric Sayyid Abdul-Majid al-Khoei will be revived. Even as we can acknowledge that the context of reviving the arrest warrant would be political, it does not diminish the validity of the accusations any more than for Hashemi.
Yet against Shi’ite opponents (including Sadr), Maliki would never use the pretext of allegations of running sectarian death squads, because in the all-out sectarian civil war of 2006-7 centered on Baghdad, Maliki was protecting the Shi’ite militias, as he feared that the Sunni insurgency posed an existential threat.
In sum, it is clear that Maliki did not go after Issawi simply because he is Sunni Arab. Rather, as Maliki’s record in dealing with rivals elsewhere illustrates, personal enmity between the two played the biggest role, even as it is apparent that people on both sides have stirred up sectarian rhetoric to rally support, and that the demonstrations in Anbar (now occurring in the northern city of Mosul) have increasingly taken on a sectarian character over time.
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