Op-Ed: U.S. troops have left Iraq, let the political crisis begin

Posted Dec 18, 2011 by Joan Firstenberg
No sooner had American troops pulled out of Iraq after their nine-year stay, than a political crisis appears to be brewing, pitting Iraq's Shiite prime minister against some very outspoken Sunni coalition partners.
Baghdad  Iaq.
Baghdad, Iaq.
File photo
Iraq could be plunged into a new era of political instability, even as the last U.S. troops were making their way out of the country. The Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki leaked plans Saturday to arrest a Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, on charges of terrorism. Hashimi's Sunni bloc then said it would boycott the national parliament.
The Washington Post reports that the leak was followed by a series of telephone calls between President Jalal Talabani, Maliki, Sunni politicians and U.S. Embassy officials and that appeared to resolve the issue. In addition all agreed to form a judicial committee to “thoroughly investigate” the terrorism charges, a solution that seemed to allow time for negotiations to unfold.
But one day later, Maliki decided to torch the tensions again, when he asked parliament to hold a no-confidence vote so he could dismiss another top Sunni official, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak.
Mutlak says there's little doubt that Maliki's move springs from comments he made in a CNN interview last week calling Maliki the “biggest dictator ever.” He says that he stands by the comment, and that the boycott will be upheld until Maliki takes steps to fully share power with his Sunni partners in Iraq’s coalition government.
Both Hashimi and Mutlak flew to Kurdistan Sunday night, saying they were seeking the intervention of Kurdish leaders but it fueled speculation that they were seeking refuge in that area.
This is not an unusual dispute, and many have erupted in the past, only to be smoothed over by lengthy negotiations. But this one seemed in the minds of many Iraqis to have ominous overtones in the wake of the departure of the Americans.
In recent days, Iraqis say there are noticeable soldiers and armored vehicles on the streets of Baghdad. Tanks have been seen sitting outside the homes of Hashimi, Mutlak and a third Sunni politician, with soldier's guns pointed toward their gates.
This is a sectarian battle, threatening a revival of the tensions that erupted in widespread bloodletting in the middle of the past decade. Sunnis believe this is a plot by Maliki to crush his rivals and cement his authority now that U.S. forces are gone. Shiites think that Hashimi and other Sunni politicians may be behind some of the acts of terrorism that have slowed down, but not disappeared from Baghdad’s streets.
Some Iraqis predict there will be a coup. But that's just one of the many theories circulating around these long-simmering feuds.