Iraq jolted by violence as political crisis erupts

Iraq jolted by violence as political crisis erupts

It underscores the deep divisions among Iraqs three main factions Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds

A wave of coordinated explosions ripped across Baghdad early Thursday, killing at least 63 people, wounding more than 180 and jolting a country already unsettled by a deepening political crisis and the absence of American troops. Using car bombs and improvised explosives, insurgents attacked markets, grocery stores, schools and government buildings in a dozen neighbourhoods in the central and eastern parts of the capital.

The attacks were the most significant violence in Iraq since the last American troops pulled out of the country earlier this week. So far, the withdrawal and the bitter fighting between prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and his political foes in Parliament have not been accompanied by a rise in violence. But Thursday’s attacks raised the spectre that the crisis inside the government could spill into the streets.

The attacks came a day after al-Maliki threatened to abandon an American-backed power-sharing government created a year ago. The prime minister’s words at a televised news conference threw a fragile democracy into further turmoil after the departure of American troops, potentially tarnishing what has been cast as a major foreign policy achievement for president Barack Obama.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks Thursday but they appeared similar to others conducted by the insurgent group, al-Qaida in Iraq, which has tried to plunge the country back into a sectarian war by pitting Sunnis and Shiites against each other. “This has nothing to do with the American withdrawal,” said Abdul Kareem Thirib, the head of the security committee for Baghdad’s provincial council. “When they were here, there were also explosions. We were the ones in control of the streets when the Americans were here. I think there will be more cowardly attacks in the coming days, but we will face them and everything will be under control.”

The attacks came hours after al-Maliki pushed back on all fronts in the crisis, threatening to release investigatory files that he claimed implicated his opponents in terrorism. At a televised news conference, he also warned the Kurds – valuable allies with close ties to the Americans – that there would be “problems” if they protected Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who fled to the semiautonomous Kurdish region in recent days to escape an arrest warrant on charges that he ran a death squad responsible for assassinations and bombings.

The crisis underscores the divisions among Iraq’s three main factions – Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds – that were largely papered over while the American military maintained a presence here. The crisis also lays bare the myriad problems left behind with the final departure of American troops: sectarianism, a judiciary that the populace views as beholden to one man and a political culture with no space for compromise.

And it highlights the waning American influence on events here, after a war that lasted nearly nine years. For Obama, the political dysfunction represents an embarrassing turn of events, coming so soon after the troops left. This month, he met with al-Maliki in Washington and praised Iraq’s internal affairs, calling the country “sovereign, self-reliant and democratic.”

The crisis has also come at an inopportune time: Many on the extensive American Embassy staff here have gone home for the holidays. Ambassador James F Jeffrey, who left the country after a ceremony last week to mark the end of the war, cut short his trip to rush back to Baghdad, and was meeting with senior Iraqi leaders, as was David H Petraeus, the director of the CIA and former military commander in Iraq, who arrived Tuesday, an American official said.

If the crisis continues to intensify, the Obama administration is likely to draw new criticism as failing to negotiate an extension of the American troop presence in Iraq. While an agreement negotiated by the administration of president George W Bush called for a final departure at the end of 2011, both countries spent the summer trying to negotiate an extension – something that military leaders and many analysts argued was needed to secure Iraq’s fragile democracy and protect the gains achieved in a war that cost nearly 4,500 American lives and close to $1 trillion.

“This is an absolutely critical moment,” said Kenneth M Pollack of the Saban Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and an advocate for a continuing American troop presence. “It is critical for the White House’s Iraq policy. The underlying theme of their Iraq policy is that Iraq is a success and it is relatively stable and it does not need American troops to continue the move forward. This crisis is a clear and unmistakable challenge to both of those premises.”

Sharply tested

In the coming days, America’s ability to shape outcomes in Iraq, already flagging in the period leading up to the troop withdrawal, will be sharply tested. The largest American embassy in the world is here. The US is spending nearly $1 billion a year to train Iraq’s police and is spending billions more arming Iraq’s military with tanks, fighter jets and other weapons.

Even with all combat troops departed, 157 military personnel remain in the country, overseeing military sales to Iraq that amount to $10 billion in weapons contracts, $3 billion of which is paid by the US. “I’m a glass-half-full guy, so I’m not looking at the doomsday possibility,” Lt. Gen. Robert L Caslen, who heads the embassy’s office of security cooperation, said Wednesday. 

Yet the huge weapons sales and enormous diplomatic mission still may not carry much weight when it comes to the hard task of reconciling Iraq’s divisive sectarian politics. “Trying to include all the major elements in one government was always a prescription for paralysis, or at least food fights,” Christopher R Hill, the ambassador here last year, said by telephone.

Al-Maliki also issued a warning to his rivals – and, incongruously, to his coalition partners – in Iraqiya, the largely Sunni bloc of lawmakers that includes al-Hashimi: If they do not end their boycott of Parliament and the Council of Ministers, he will move to form a majority government that would exclude them from power. If Iraqiya’s ministers do not show up at future sessions, he said, “we will appoint replacements.” The news conference was the first time the prime minister had spoken directly to the nation since the controversy erupted.

The crisis began when the Shiite-dominated government issued an arrest warrant for al-Hashimi, the top Sunni politician, on terrorism charges. Al-Maliki offered to defuse tensions by calling for a conference of Iraq’s political elite to discuss the matter. But his efforts at conciliation seemed to end there, and Iraqiya rejected calls to meet and said it would pursue a long-shot no-confidence vote against al-Maliki.

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