Immediately after the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, Iraq's political crisis has deepened considerably.
The Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni Arab who previously served as general secretary of the Islamist Iraqi Islamic Party. Hashemi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan. There, Kurdish political parties proposed to mediate tensions between the State of Law bloc led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party and the opposition Iraqiya bloc headed by Ayad Allawi.
The allegations against Hashemi include the charge that he managed and funded a death squad over the past two years, with a possible role in an attack on Iraq's parliament last month that may have included Maliki as an assassination target.
It should be emphasized that if these accusations regarding the vice president are true, they should not come as a shock. At least one member of Hashemi's family had proven ties to terrorism: his nephew Asad al-Hashemi was responsible for organizing an assassination attempt on Mithal al-Alusi in February 2005. Asad planned the attack because Alusi had visited Israel the previous year.
Asad was eventually convicted and sentenced to death in absentia, but al-Hashemi's political allies tried to have the charges against Asad dropped by withdrawing from the Iraqi government at the time. The sentence was upheld, and Asad fled the country.
Nonetheless, the current charges against Asad's uncle show many signs of a political attack by Maliki on someone perceived to be a rival. It has been widely noted that Hashemi's bodyguards are giving televised confessions, a stock feature of prominent legal cases in Iraq during the post-war period.
Since the Iraqi judiciary system primarily relies on confession as a means of securing convictions, it could well be that Hashemi's bodyguards have either been tortured to bring forth confessions — a widespread method in Iraqi prisons for dealing with suspected militants — or they have been bribed, which should not come as a surprise in light of the rampant corruption in Iraq.
The political context of Maliki's attack on Hashemi is the growing frustration expressed by al-Iraqiya over Maliki's authoritarian tendencies. Under the compromise agreement of a year ago, the Defense, Interior, and Security Ministries as well as a designated "National Council for Higher Strategic Policies" (NCHSP) should have been awarded to al-Iraqiya. They had insisted on the right to form a new government because they won the largest number of seats for a single bloc in the March 2010 elections. In return, Maliki was allowed to retain his position as prime minister for a second term.
However, Maliki has gone back on the terms of the compromise, trying to control the Defense, Interior, and Security ministries. Further, the proposed NCHSP has not even been implemented. It still merely exists on paper, for there has been much bickering as Maliki has sought to fill the planned body with his own followers.
At the same time, many members of al-Iraqiya have expressed alarm over Maliki's arrest of hundreds of Sunnis in Salahaddin and Anbar provinces on vague allegations of Ba'athism.
Feeling pressure from Maliki, the judiciary has increasingly ruled in his favor. As analyst Reidar Visser noted, the higher judicial council stated that it intends to "create a special investigatory committee to look into the accusations against Hashemi's security detail — a judicial approach that in itself seems ad hoc and extraordinary."
While Allawi and his bloc indicated at the start of this month that they wanted a reconciliation process with Maliki and his followers, they quickly switched to a political offensive against the premier. Saleh Mutlaq, Sunni deputy premier, accused Maliki of being the most dictatorial ruler in Iraq's history in an interview with CNN. Allawi's bloc has also boycotted the parliament and worked with the Sadrists — who form a key part of Maliki's ruling coalition — to push for a general amnesty law in the parliament, which is opposed by Maliki.
The role of the Sadrists is important to examine, because it illustrates how personal power struggles are as much an issue in Iraqi politics as the question of sectarian affiliation. While Sadrists have not hesitated to accuse some members of al-Iraqiya and other Sunni politicians of being Ba'athists, it is not always the case that they simply side with Maliki and his followers.
In the aftermath of the 2010 elections, the Sadrists entertained the idea of forming a coalition with al-Iraqiya. Even after joining State of Law's coalition, the Sadrists refused to endorse Maliki for a second term as prime minister without incorporating al-Iraqiya into the government in some way. They feared the possibility of a reignited Sunni insurgency in light of the fact that their own militia, the Mahdi Army, had been forced to disband in 2008 following Maliki's "Operation Charge of the Knights" against the Mahdi Army in Basra.
In a similar vein, the Sadrists offered to act as mediators between al-Iraqiya and State of Law at the start of this month, and have not joined Maliki in his attack on Hashemi, lamenting the fact that this fallout has emerged immediately after the American withdrawal.
In short, it is not strictly accurate to characterize the present crisis as a political conflict between the Shi'a and Sunni Arabs. It should rather be seen in the context of Maliki's efforts to concentrate as much power in his hands as possible. Indeed, it is telling that he has just gone back on his promise not to run for a third term as prime minister, a pledge he made in response to protests in the country that reached their zenith in February of this year.
If the allegations against Hashemi fail, Maliki will have made a big political mistake, for Hashemi has been one of the Sunni Arab members of the parliament willing to compromise with the government. A full-blown, renewed Shi'a-Sunni civil war is a remote prospect, but there is a significant threat to stability from potential violence between political factions.