Sunni secessionist fears as US troops leave
By Abeer Mohammed
BAGHDAD - 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 Shi'ite-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 Ba'ath 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 central government policies in recent years,
arguing that processes such as "de-Ba'athification" which followed the United
States-led invasion of 2003 have unfairly stigmatized them and restricted their
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 centralization," Aqso said. "We
would like to try federalization. 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 Ba'athists want to use Salahuddin as a
Iraqi government officials have long expressed fears that Ba'athists 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
defense, interior and national security ministries, as well as the intelligence
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 defense and
interior ministries have been informally earmarked for Sunni and Shi'ite
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 Shi'ite 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?"