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    Middle East
     Jan 14, 2012

Iraq descends into sectarian puppet show
By Sami Moubayed

DAMASCUS - The storming of Vice President Tarek al-Hashemi's office in Baghdad in late December - on the orders of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki - went by relatively unnoticed in the international and Arab media.

Journalists were seemingly too busy covering events in Syria to mind what seemed to be trivial in the complex world of Arab politics.

Hashemi, who recently opened a "temporary office" in his current exile in Kurdistan, was furious at the raid and the arrest of two of his employees without any judicial warrant.

Hashemi, who is wanted in Iraq on "terrorist charges" - "orchestrating bombing attacks" - created a storm in Baghdad

when he accused the post-2003 political system of "drifting from building a democracy to building an autocratic regime".

He had previously implied that Maliki was becoming another Saddam Hussein. These calls were echoed by fellow Sunni, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, who described Maliki in similar fashion.

Sunni politicians are furious with the accusations against Hashemi, which were leveled on December 19, 2011, with some ministers boycotting a recent cabinet meeting, voicing their objection to Maliki's conduct. They claim that Hashemi's persecution - which targets the Sunni community as a whole - has Shi'ite Iran's fingerprints all over it.

Hashemi, 70, is a heavyweight affiliated with the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. He joined the party at the age of 33 in 1975 and 29 years later became a member of its shura (council) and was elected secretary general.

During the December 2005 elections, Hashemi led the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, with 44 members, loosely affiliated with Saudi Arabia and strongly opposed to Iranian hegemony over Iraqi politics.

The Iraqi Accordance Front that he represented nominated him for the post of vice president, pretty much against the will of heavyweight Shi'ite politicians, in April 2006.

One week after his appointment, his brother Mahmud was killed by armed Shi'ite militias and two weeks later so was his sister Maysoun.

In July of the same year, his second brother, General Omar al-Hashemi, was also killed, during the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, by armed gangs.

Hashemi famously opposed federalism at a time when Iran-backed figures were demanding an autonomous district for Shi'ites in southern Iraq, arguing that this would further divide the carved-up nation and leave Sunnis in central Iraq with no oil.

He instead demanded division of oil revenues based on population, and was strongly in favor of de-Ba'athification and in empowering Sunnis through military, police and political posts.

A target on his back
A closer look at Hashemi's arrest warrant shows that Maliki's move had little to do with Hashemi himself. Although the aging statesmen has been a headache for Maliki's coalition in recent years, his mischief was always "controllable" as the man threatened to walk out on cabinets over and over - but never took the bold move.

He does not command a militia that roams the streets, has not been convicted of any treason and certainly is not "Saudi Arabia's number one" in Iraqi politics.

The charge brought against him is of operating a militia in the post-2003 order that is accused of killing political opponents. Big deal - by Iraqi standards. If Maliki wanted to go by an anti-militia yardstick, then he would have to arrest his prime allies Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, who respectively run the Mehdi Army and Badr Brigade, two Iran-affiliated military groups.

Hashemi's warrant, pretty much as he has been saying all along, is 100% political, aimed at arm-twisting and scaring the Sunni community at large, which he represents.

Maliki is worried that the Arab Spring will soon reach Baghdad, now that the Americans have left, only this time it won't be society at large rising against an aging despot; it will be the Sunni minority that ruled Iraq since creation of the modern country in the 1920s, against the Shi'ite majority that came into power after the 2003 toppling of Saddam.

Sunni politicians, no doubt, are fed up with paying the price for Saddam's madness, having been excluded from top posts like the presidency and premiership - two jobs that were historically theirs. They have long voiced loud and legitimate demands; that Sunni politicians get better representation in top government posts, are empowered politically through the judicial, executive and legislative branches, and that a general amnesty sets thousands of Sunnis free.

Sunnis have a long list of demands that they seek to achieve, which relates to the distribution of oil, for example, and accountability for Shi'ite militiamen who have been free to roam the streets of Iraq for six years, with no accountability whatsoever from Maliki's government.

They have been involved in killing and looting within Sunni neighborhoods, but almost always Maliki looked the other way, arresting and persecuting Sunni militias instead.

As long as the Americans were around, Sunnis felt there was little they could do to get rid of Maliki and his team, seeing that the prime minister had been brought to power by the George W Bush administration and kept in his job by President Barack Obama.

They always felt that Iran had handled the 2003 toppling of Saddam as a blessing in disguise, using it to prop up loyalists like Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, his son Ammar, and Maliki himself, in top positions.

Hashemi - like so many of his allies - were waiting for the day that the Americans withdrew their troops to strike at Maliki. The Arab Spring no doubt awakened their appetite, and so did fresh Saudi backing after its new Crown Prince Nayef Ibn Abdul-Aziz came to power last October.

Nayef is adamant about getting the Iranians out of Iraq, which he considers Saudi Arabia's own backyard and the crux of its national security. Having an old grudge to settle with the Iranians, based on historical, political and religious rivalries, Nayef will not rest until he restores Sunni supremacy to Iraq and is a main supporter for the upcoming "Sunni Spring" in Baghdad.

Hashemi was earmarked to become one of the pillars of this uprising, and was struck down early by Maliki, as a pre-emptive move to frighten his allies and break the backbone of the Sunni rebellion. It certainly will not stop it, but it very much might slow it down. The real target is Saudi Arabia, not Tarek al-Hashemi.

Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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