NAJAF, Iraq -- The turbaned clerics, powerful dynasts and militia commanders who run this Shiite Muslim holy city have plenty of gripes about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
He behaves like a dictator, they typically begin, then list the many other ills they see in Maliki’s teetering administration: corruption, cronyism, failure to build a military and an over-reliance on foreign patrons. But there’s one conspicuous omission to their charges.
Najaf’s power brokers, who wield enormous influence with the political class in Baghdad, can’t bring themselves to acknowledge Maliki’s sectarian policies as among the reasons an al Qaida splinter group was able to carve a self-proclaimed caliphate from Sunni Muslim territories in the north and west of the country. After all, they reason, Sunnis are in the legislature, run ministries and head civil society organizations, so any complaints couldn’t possibly stem from institutional discrimination.
This disconnect from – and some would call it a willful blindness to – Sunni grievances signals that the more inclusive Iraq called for by the Obama administration as a condition for deeper U.S. assistance will remain elusive regardless of whether Maliki remains in office.
Here in the Shiite south, home to golden-domed shrines and an ancient seminary, even the prime minister’s sharpest critics dismiss Sunni allegations of sectarianism as the grousing of a minority that simply hasn’t come to terms with its diminished status since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
When asked bluntly one recent afternoon whether Maliki is sectarian, Sheikh Ali Basheer, the son of one of Iraq’s five grand ayatollahs and a critic of the prime minister, released a deep sigh and contemplated a strand of prayer beads.
“Despite all the important failings of this government – its failure to improve services, its failure to defend the country – it cannot be considered sectarian,” Basheer said. “Shiite politicians are suffering even more than the Sunnis under this government. This suffering of the Sunnis is not because they’re Sunnis. In Nasiriyah, Shiites went out to protest the lack of electricity and they were shot at, too.”
Shiite leaders don’t dismiss Sunni complaints out of hand; they just link them to the shared concerns of all Iraqis who’ve seen the country disintegrate under the Maliki administration.
That’s certainly not the conclusion of Sunni politicians, their constituents in predominantly Sunni provinces, or of Western analysts who’ve warned for years that Maliki ditched his early nationalist campaign platform in favor of a sectarian and authoritarian agenda. Maliki’s approach undoubtedly has been sectarian, analysts say, with a systematic weakening of Sunni political participation through the courts, the military and other state tools at his disposal.
The Sunni vice president, Tariq al Hashemi, is exiled in Turkey; Maliki’s government accused him of orchestrating bombings and sentenced him to death in absentia. The Sunni finance minister, Rafia al Issawi, who survived at least two assassination attempts, said publicly that Maliki had rounded up scores of his guards and staff members. He, too, is now out of Baghdad, living under Kurdish protection in the north. When Sunnis staged mostly peaceful demonstrations to protest their widening political marginalization, Maliki’s administration cracked down with deadly force.
Some influential Sunni tribes did back Maliki when he launched a military offensive in January to beat back the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which had seized territory in western Anbar province. But that reservoir of Sunni support dried up when Maliki gave an incendiary speech in which he described the campaign in unequivocally sectarian terms, likening it to the historic Shiite martyrdom narrative of the Imam Hussein.
In May 2013, the Washington-based Institute for Understanding War issued a report on Sunnis’ status in Iraq that, while noting the Sunnis’ own organizational disarray and competing stances on political participation, warned that the United States should pressure Maliki into more inclusive governance before the Sunnis’ anger opened the door to al Qaida in Iraq, the precursor to the current Islamic State.
“Maliki’s dogged pursuit of Sunni politicians is a worst-case scenario for regional stability and U.S. national security,” author Seth Wicken wrote. “Targeting Hashemi, Issawi and other prominent Iraqi Sunni leaders is purely self-interested behavior, and it does nothing to counter the threat of AQI. In fact, it fans the flame of Sunni discontent and generates a security threat by way of anti-government violence and insurgency.”
That’s the kind of analysis that riles Sheikh Farhan al Saadi, a prominent Shiite cleric who teaches history at Najaf’s 1,000-year-old seminary. If Maliki’s discrimination against Sunnis bred extremism in Iraq, he said, how to explain the similar outbreaks of militancy in homogenously Sunni areas such as Libya, Egypt and Somalia? And Saadi was quick to add that he’s no fan of Maliki’s – he pointed to the lights, which had flickered on and off several times because of the country’s lack of electricity.
“I’m not an admirer of Maliki’s and I’m not on his side – we admit his mistakes,” Saadi said. “But for how long will the political minority try to control the majority?”
Saadi conceded that sometimes there were barriers to understanding Sunni thinking that make it easy to paint the other sect with a broad brush, especially in the nearly exclusively Shiite south. Saadi pulled his cell phone out from under his traditional robes to show a visitor a text message from a Sunni acquaintance in Ramadi, which the Iraqi government is struggling to hold onto amid the Islamic State’s advances.
Saadi said the man had come to Najaf on tribal business a few months ago and had sought him out after seeing him on television. The cleric’s family was alarmed that a Sunni had come asking for him; they worried he was an assassin. Saadi wasn’t home, but the man had left his phone number and they’ve kept in touch ever since.
A long thread of messages from the Ramadi man said, in effect, said that more Sunnis than the cleric realized supported the government’s fight but that they were caught between anger toward Maliki and fear of the Islamic State’s brutalities.
Saadi said he still thinks that the hollering about discrimination is overblown, but the personal connection to a Sunni compatriot has made him think more carefully about his public speeches. No more, he said, does he make televised references about historic Islamic battles that stoke sectarian tensions.
“I’m putting it aside for a while. A day will come when we can talk about it again,” Saadi said. “Four hundred years ago, if you told a Christian that the Crusaders were bad and Constantin was a murderer, he’d get mad, too.”
Perhaps the unlikeliest show of Shiite empathy to the Sunnis' demands comes from the movement led by the militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr, whose militias morphed into death squads that targeted Sunnis by the neighborhood at the peak of Iraq's sectarian bloodletting. Sadr even visited a Sunni stronghold in Baghdad, prayed with local leaders and then passed a list of their demands to the prime minister’s office, said Hussein al Sharifi, a Sadr associate in Najaf who helped organize the movement’s recent parade of militiamen who signed up to protect holy sites from Sunni extremists.
“He said, ‘Here you go, some of the demands are legitimate, some are not, but have a look,’” Sharifi said. “Maliki came out instead with only more foul speech that escalated the situation.”
Sharifi said the Sadr movement supports certain demands of the Sunnis, such as releasing prisoners, especially women, who’ve languished for years without due process under an administration that came to power on a ticket called “State of Law.” But, he added, Sadr's supporters reject talk of repealing laws targeting former Baath Party members or amnesty for suspected terrorists.
Sharifi, too, thinks many of the Sunni grievances boil down to “the loss of dignity.” Perhaps a better ruler than Maliki could’ve been more magnanimous and prevented the current crisis, he said, but for now the country appears doomed for another sectarian war no matter who succeeds him.
“We have a proverb that says you can cross the river as long as it’s narrow,” Sharifi said. “But the river is very wide now.”