Iraqi Sectarian Rift Deepens, Returning Country to Bloodshed


At least 31 people died and another dozen were wounded as car bombs struck two outdoor markets in heavily Shiite-populated areas of Iraq Friday. This marks Friday as the most deadly day of the "Arab-Spring" styled anti-government protests minority Sunnis have staged across five cities in the past month, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of the U.S. brokered constitution put into effect in Iraq as of 2005.

Although tensions have been rising over the past few years, with Sunnis feeling suppressed and discriminated against, and complaints of suffering from an unequal distribution of power becoming more and more frequent, these eruptions have been spurred by a specific trigger – Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had the Sunni Finance Minister Rafie al-Issaqi's bodyguards arrested for terrorist activities late in December. This came almost a year after Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashmi's security detail was arrested.

Hashmi had fled the country in the months following, and the Iraqi Sunnis have seen Maliki's recent actions against Issaqi following the same pattern. They also have seen Maliki's move as sectarian and an assault on any Sunni government opposition.

The majority of Sunnis, for their part, however, had been opposed to the constitution long before it was approved in a referendum in 2005 – and for good reason. It clearly gave Kurds and Shiites the upper hand, both economically and politically.

Even constitutional adviser to the U.S.-led occupation government and adviser to the Iraqis was concerned about the implications that the constitution held for the 20% Sunni minority, saying that the constitution was "a constitution that is a deal between the Shiites and Kurds is not a deal."

Anthony Cordesman echoed the same thoughts when he said, "it may well be more of a prelude to civil war than a step forward … Rather than an inclusive document, it is more a recipe for separation based on Shiite and Kurdish privilege."

And they were right. The constitution drafted in 2005 lacked a strong central government and gave the provinces too much power and autonomy – a problem for the Sunnis who had been relegated to the resource-poor provinces. The Kurds and the Shiites, meanwhile, occupied the oil-rich north and south regions, giving them the upper hand economically.

Another problem arising out of the ill-constructed constitution was the odd combination between democracy and Islam. While one provision of the constitution dictated that no law was to contradict Islamic principles, another said that Iraq's Supreme Court would include a number of experts on Sharia. This opened another question – was Iraq now a theocracy? Or a democracy? And would it be based on Sunni, Shiite or Kurdish sharia law?

Although the protests have been largely peaceful thus far, they still pose a challenge to Maliki's power as the sectarian cleavages in Iraq deepen. Even worse, the potential of these demonstrations overreaching into neighboring Syria's civil war is heightening, allowing this to potentially become a larger sectarian conflict.