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May 29, 2017

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Arrest of alleged Baathists highlights Iraqi challenges

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi government's arrest of alleged Baathists has sparked a Sunni province's autonomy bid, highlighting challenges Iraq faces such as sectarian tensions and maintaining unity, analysts say.

Last month, security forces arrested hundreds of alleged members of Saddam Hussein's now-dissolved Baath party, who Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said were targeting "state security and stability."

The provincial council of Sunni Arab-majority Salaheddin province, which includes Saddam's hometown, voted on Oct. 27 to become an administratively and economically autonomous region, along the lines of Kurdistan in north Iraq.

Ahmed Abdullah, the province's governor, said "the main reason" behind the vote was arrests made by government forces in the province "without coordination or consultation with us."

According to Tikrit police, security forces arrested 30 alleged Baathists in the province a few days before the vote.

Under Article 119 of the Iraqi constitution, a province-wide referendum would need to be held before a region can declare autonomy.

But the provincial council's vote nonetheless sparked a furious reaction from Maliki, who won a second term as premier in 2010 at the head of a Shiite-majority coalition.

"The Baath party wants Salaheddin province to be a secure refuge for Baathists, but this will not happen," a statement from Maliki's office quoted him as saying in an interview with Iraqiya television.

He also said that 615 alleged Baathists had been arrested country-wide.

The dispute over the arrests and subsequent Salaheddin autonomy bid highlight a number of challenges faced by Iraq, analysts say.

"There is a severe dysfunction between the centre, Baghdad, and the provinces; and there are big tensions between the prime minister and his opponents," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq specialist and Middle East and north Africa deputy program director for the International Crisis Group.

"The two phenomena converge on Sunni-majority provinces, which blame neglect from Baghdad on sectarian motives. The arrest campaign has reinforced this," he said.

Ali al-Saffar, an Iraq analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London, also raised concerns about the arrests.

"The arrests bode ill for Iraq because the perception is that they are being conducted in an ad-hoc manner, and that they are specifically targeting Iraq's Sunni Arab community," Saffar said.

"If this perception persists, then it will further exacerbate existing sectarian tensions."

He noted that "the Sunnis see the arrests as being an unfair targeting of their community, while the Shiites will see the ... vote as being a bid by Sunnis to basically split from the centre."

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