Protests in Iraq winds of Arab Spring or dangerous sectarianism

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Recent protests by Sunnis in Iraq against the country’s prime minister are portrayed as a possible foreshadowing of a delayed Arab Spring, but observers say Iraq is a different case.

A week ago, security forces arrested the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafia al-Essawi, hours after President Jalal Talabani was flown to Germany for treatment.

The move evoked attempts to arrest Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi last year following the U.S. withdrawal from the country. Hashemi was later sentenced to death in absentia for allegedly masterminding the killing of two people.

Maliki’s moves were viewed by many Sunnis as part of an organized campaign against their sect to further weaken their influence in the country’s complex political landscape.

As a result, they took to the streets in several Iraqi provinces demanding the release of the hundreds detained and calling for an end to what they saw as targeted marginalization of Sunnis.

In a recent interview with the London-based al-Hayat newspaper, Fugitive Vice President Hashemi warned of “civil war that would divide Iraq” and anticipated “a spontaneous popular uprising” against the rule of Maliki, which he described as a “liar, despotic and bloody.”

However, others argued that Maliki does not differentiate between Sunnis and Shiites in his drive for power. They cite the premier’s conflict with some Shiite parties such as the Sadrist Movement.

Muqtada al-Sadr, Head of the movement, recently criticized Maliki over a $4 billion arms deal with Russia that was later cancelled for suspected corruption in contracts.

Maliki has reportedly sought to divide rival politicians ahead of next year’s provincial elections and a parliamentary vote in 2014.

Amer Fayad, a political analyst in Baghdad, played down the prospects of worsening sectarian strife in Iraq, saying the country has “learned from its past experiences” spanning the years 2005, 2006 and 2007 how to manage disputes between its sectarian blocs.

“There is a problem we shouldn’t ignore, but we (also) should not exaggerate it,” he said, stressing that most of the demands that were raised during Friday’s protests were shared by all Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites.

“Some external powers are always seeking to exploit any domestic issue inside Iraq for their own agendas, and there are parties lacking popular support inside Iraq and seeking foreign backing.”

Fayad pointed out to “men of wisdom” among Iraq’s Sunni population as capable of containing anger not turn into violence.

Hayder Saeed, an Iraqi political analyst based in Jordan, also played down the protest saying they were motivated by political agendas for the upcoming elections.

He said Prime Minister Maliki’s recent attack on Finance Minister Essawi was merely part of an ongoing battle among political rivals rather than a targeted move by Shiite prime minister against the Sunnis and their political leaders.

He said events in Iraq, however, are largely influenced by regional developments, adding that some political leaders among the Sunnis are encouraged by the rise of their brethren in Syria to assert themselves in Iraq.

Saeed insists that regional and international powers “will not allow conditions in Iraq to explode” as the situation in Syria remains yet unresolved.

The United States, according to other observers, has a historical responsibility for Iraq's post-war political landscape and it would be compelled to interfere again to prevent the country from sliding into the abyss.

Besides, not every Iraq Sunni shares the same opinion about Maliki, who has managed to rally some Sunnis, especially in the contentious Kirkuk, during his face-off with the Kurdistan Regional Government over disputed oilfields in the north.