Posted by on September 11, 2012 in Blog

In a sign of Iraq’s deepening political crisis, an Iraqi court yesterday sentenced the country’s foremost Sunni leader, Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, to death. Al-Hashemi, who fled Iraq in December 2011 after the Shiite-dominated government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for him, has been living in exile in Turkey. At a press conference on Monday, al-Hashemi angrily rejected the charges, calling the case “politically motivated” and arguing that a Sunni leader of his stature could never receive a fair trial in a court system he described as controlled by Shiites loyal to al-Maliki.

The verdict stems from a case which accuses al-Hashemi of running death squads that targeted political opponents, mostly from Shiite parties. Government prosecutors have been slow to release the evidence against al-Hashemi, lending credence to Sunni charges that the case is politically motivated. Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s other Vice President and a leader of the country’s influential Kurdish community, also denounced the verdict. Talabani’s reaction continued a dynamic which has increasingly shaped Iraqi politics since the withdrawal of the last American troops last year: an alliance between Kurdish and Sunni political forces against what they see as the increasing despotism of al-Maliki and his Dawa Party. Kurdish forces even sheltered al-Hashemi in Iraqi Kurdistan in the first months following the issuance of the warrant for his arrest. Sectarian tensions have been the driving force in Iraqi politics since the American invasion in 2003, but al-Hashemi’s case seems to indicate that things are becoming worse, not better.

Infighting between political parties, which are largely built on sectarian lines, has prevented the resolution of Iraq’s most vital issues, like the composition of the security forces and the future of oil revenues. On Sunday, the verdict in the al-Hashemi case coincided with a deadly day in which more than a hundred people were killed in bomb attacks around the country. Though the connection between the two events, if any, was unclear, the day provided an example of the worst-case scenario for Iraq in the next few years. If Sunnis are completely marginalized from the political system, as al-Hashemi’s case seems to presage, they will likely react with violence towards the Shiite-dominated central government, further inflaming sectarian tensions in a country already struggling to hold itself together. Though conflicts are inevitable in a country with Iraq’s fraught history, the events of Sunday should demonstrate that it is far better to have the disputes resolved in parliamentary debates than with violence in the streets.  

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