Iraq’s fugitive vice president warns Anbar violence could spread
DOHA // Iraq’s fugitive vice president warned that an armed stand-off in Anbar province could spread to other parts of the country as Sunni Muslim opposition to Shiite prime minister Nouri Al Maliki grows.
Stirred by a bloody raid to arrest a Sunni politician in the Anbar city of Ramadi, fighters of the Al Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) and tribal allies took over Fallujah and parts of nearby Ramadi three weeks ago at a time of rising Sunni anger with the Shiite-led government.
Tarek Al Hashemi, a Sunni sentenced to death in 2012 after an Iraqi court convicted him of running death squads while vice president, something he denies, has accused Mr Al Maliki of pursuing a political witch-hunt against his Sunni opponents.
“I’m not optimistic about the future... I think this spark in Anbar will spread to other provinces,” Mr Al Hashemi said in an interview this week in his Doha office guarded by Qatari security men.
“Maliki is targeting Arab Sunnis [in Iraq] in different provinces, with the use of army forces, or handing them death sentences in a way that has never been seen before in Iraq’s modern history, and therefore it’s the right of these individuals to defend themselves in every way possible.”
Many in Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority, the main community in Anbar, share Isil’s enmity toward the Shiite Muslim-dominated government. But some tribal leaders in Anbar, a vast western province that borders civil war-wracked Syria, have been trying to steer a middle course between the two.
Iraq’s US-equipped armed forces have killed dozens of militants in recent days in shelling and air strikes, officials say. The scale of casualties among civilians, the security forces and tribal fighters is not yet clear.
Isil has sought to extend its control into neighbouring areas, creating two desert entities that it refers to as “wilayah” (governed area). One is called the State of North Al Jazeera, outside the northern city of Mosul, and the other the State of South Al Jazeera, in the Anbar desert.
Mr Al Hashemi, who divides his time between the Gulf Arab state of Qatar and Turkey, appealed to outside countries for humanitarian aid to “support the victims”.
He said it would be “disastrous” if Mr Al Maliki, in power since 2006, won a third term in a parliamentary elections set for April 30.
“Today, we are objecting to Maliki not because he’s Shiite. It’s because of his flawed policy,” said Mr Al Hashemi.
“Maliki ... controls political decisions and the power to implement them and he also controls the judiciary system, stripping it of independence.”
Like Mr Al Hashemi, critics of Mr Al Maliki say he has gained undue control over the army, police and security services using them freely against Sunni Muslim and other political foes, while allowing grave abuses in prisons and detention centres.
In the latest high-profile raid, security forces detained prominent Sunni lawmaker Ahmed Al Alwani, a supporter of anti-government protests and a strong critic of Mr Al Maliki, at his Anbar home last month, sparking the latest violence.
Mr Al Maliki says his Anbar fight is with Al Qaeda, not with Sunni Muslims as a community. He lists an end to sectarianism and militias among his core principles.
The political struggle between Mr Al Maliki and Sunni rivals in Iraq’s delicate power-sharing deal intensified during the withdrawal of the last US troops in late 2011, nearly nine years after the invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Mr Al Hashemi said he longed to return to his homeland but did not feel safe to go back at this point.
“There isn’t a single square metre in any (Sunni) governorate that’s safe for me to return to,” he said.
Officials said Iraqi forces also took back Al Nasaf, on the western outskirts of Fallujah, on Wednesday.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse
Published: January 29, 2014 04:00 AM