By Abeer Mohammed
Fears of sectarian divisions in Iraq are rising as American troops prepare to leave the country at the end of this year, and some Sunni Arab areas demand increased autonomy from the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
The western provinces of Salahuddin, where former leader Saddam Hussein’s home town is located, and Anbar, once a stronghold for al-Qaeda fighters, both submitted a request for more autonomy to the cabinet in November.
The move was interpreted as a response to government policies perceived locally as anti-Sunni. In recent months, the authorities have arrested more than 600 Sunni Arabs accused of serving under Saddam as military officers or Baath party members.
Ayden Aqso, spokesman for parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi – a high-profile Sunni figure who said earlier this year that the community might consider seceding if Baghdad did not treat them better – said the government’s actions had left Sunnis with “no other solution than seeking autonomy”.
Many Sunnis have felt sidelined by the central government policies in recent years, arguing that processes such as “de-Baathification” which followed the United States-led invasion of 2003 have unfairly stigmatised them and restricted their opportunities.
Some Sunni officials say self-government would improve life in the western provinces, as economic development and housing provision have been sluggish.
“People there have tested the consequences of centralisation,” Aqso said. “We would like to try federalisation. That is our constitutional right.”
Baghdad maintains that secessionist moves by any group would lead to bloodshed, and warns of a return to the sectarian violence which peaked in 2006-07. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said former Baathists want to use Salahuddin as a safe haven.
Iraqi government officials have long expressed fears that Baathists would try to stage a coup against the current elected government when US troops finally pull out. About 18,000 American troops now remain, from a peak of 170,000.
The US withdrawal, laid out in a 2008 bilateral agreement, comes amid ongoing instability in Iraq’s security and political situation.
Although Maliki’s cabinet is half-way through its term, it is still incomplete. The parties in the governing coalition have failed to agree who should run the defence, interior and national security ministries, as well as the intelligence agency.
The constitution does not require top posts to be shared out according to ethnic or religious affiliation, but in order to maintain the delicate balance of power between Iraq’s various communities, the top posts in the defence and interior ministries have been informally earmarked for Sunni and Shia candidates, respectively.
However, this unofficial appointments system appears to have broken down as politicians continue to haggle over the nominations.
Tahsin al-Sheikhli, a government spokesman, says it is not “the appropriate time” to move towards creating more autonomous regions.
“Criminal activities might return as US troops depart,” he warned.
Highlighting government concerns that giving Sunni Arab areas a degree self-rule would lead to outright separation, al-Sheikhli added, “Our big fear is [risking] Iraqi unity”.
But Sunni representatives say they only want more power to be devolved locally, and secession is unrealistic in any case.
“Sunni provinces have no means of [independent] financial support,” Aqso said.
Unlike Sunni and Shia Arab areas, the Kurds in the north have an autonomous area under the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG.
There are ongoing tensions between Kurdish regional leaders and the Baghdad authorities, largely over land, oil and investment in natural resources. The central government objected to a recent deal between the KRG and US oil company Exxon Mobil to conduct oil exploration in the north.
Kurdish leaders have not raised objections to the idea of autonomy for other Iraqi communities. Their principal concern in that regard is to stake their claim to Kirkuk and Ninevah, both provinces outside the KRG administration and both with significant numbers of Sunni Arabs as well as Kurds and others.
According to Haider Saeid, an Amman-based researcher and expert on Iraqi affairs, these disputed lands have shown signs of descending into conflict on more than one occasion – so much so that the risk has been cited as an argument for retaining a US military presence in these areas.
Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmoud Othman stresses that “we prefer to resolve problems through dialogue and in accordance with the Iraqi constitution”.
Aqso acknowledged that there were real concerns about frictions in these areas, but insisted that this issue would not be made worse if Sunni Arab areas generally won greater local powers.
Since tensions already existed, he said, “What has autonomy got to do with it?”
Abeer Mohammed is IWPR’s editor for Iraq. This article was published in IWPR’s ICR Issue 382.