The recent dramatic images from Hawija of protestors under attack by Iraqi government forces are in themselves nothing new in Iraqi politics. Populated mainly by Sunni Arabs and located close to the disputed city of Kirkuk and the border between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Hawija has in recent years seen a level of violence that is significantly higher than the average in post-2003 Iraq. Some of the political violence has been mainly pro-Baath in nature, in other cases Sunni Islamic extremism has been at play, often with suspected ties to foreign radical groups.
What will determine the significance of the Hawija clash in Iraqi politics more broadly relates to its reception among Iraqi political factions outside the local area. And in this respect, early indications are not promising.
To some extent, it is unsurprising that Sunni and secular groups that have been critics of Maliki for a long period should rush to the defence of the Hawija protestors and complain about the actions of the Iraqi army. What is more critical, though, is that other Sunni and secular groups that lately have been on talking terms with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are also deeply critical of the government’s handling of the Hawija affair. This includes Sunni and secular ministers that had recently returned to the Iraqi cabinet despite the boycott by the mainline Iraqiyya movement – including Saleh al-Mutlak, the deputy premier, whose support for the annual budget played a role in enabling Maliki to pass it without Kurdish support.
Beyond this, even if Mutlak can perhaps be accused of wavering rather often when it comes to his relations to Maliki, the disputed areas of northern Iraq and the contest between the central government and the KRG have generally speaking been among the few issues where Maliki has been able to win some Sunni and secular friends during his two terms in office. By way of example, after parts of Iraqiyya opted to boycott parliament and cabinet following the arrest order for Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi in December 2011, it was mainly deputies from Kirkuk and other northern areas unhappy with the pro-Kurdish turn of Iraqiyya that defected and signalled their willingness to work with Maliki through breakaway factions like Free Iraqiyya and Wataniyun. Similarly, Arabs from the disputed areas have repeatedly played a certain role in helping Maliki defeat pro-federal tendencies in the northern governorates.
It will not be possible for Maliki to alienate both the Kurds and the Arabs of the disputed areas at one time. In a reflection of this dilemma, Maliki has reportedly rejected the resignation of the education minister from the Mutlak bloc, and is still weighing his options with regard to Kurdish ministers he had promised to replace by acting ministers in the case of prolonged absence from cabinet.
One interesting indicator of how this tug of war will play out relates to the provincial elections results of Diyala and Salahaddin, which have Sunni Arab majorities and significant Shiite and Kurdish minorities. Those results, expected later this week, will likely influence the extent to which factions like that of Mutlak will remain in protest mode.
Another significant process is the holding of delayed elections in Anbar and Nineveh. It emerged yesterday that there has in fact been considerable tension between the elections commission IHEC and the Iraqi cabinet on the issue: Whereas IHEC indicated 18 May as the latest possible date, the Iraqi cabinet decided that elections will be held on 4 July absent any radical improvement of the security environment at an earlier stage. The relevant legal framework gives cabinet the right to fix election dates on the recommendation from IHEC; to what extent this procedure has actually been followed now seems in doubt.
It is no more possible for Maliki to endlessly delay elections in Anbar and Nineveh than to pretend that the conflict in neighbouring Syria doesn’t exist. Maybe the Hawija incident can serve as a reminder for Maliki about how radical winds from Syria can easily derail Iraqi politics, and how critical it is for him, now more than ever, to build bridges and create accommodation rather than letting confrontational politics of the Syrian kind gain hold in Iraq.