Arrest of alleged Baathists highlights Iraqi challenges

Tuesday, November 8, 2011
By W.G. Dunlop, AFP

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.”

Maliki may also have to contend with additional bids for autonomy, according to John Drake, an analyst with Britain-based private security firm AKE.

“Nuri al-Maliki will have to continue tackling various calls for autonomy, not least as Kurdistan appears to be doing so well economically,” Drake said. “However, he does not appear to have any intention of giving up centralized government.”

“The Salaheddin call may be a symbolic protest, aimed at making a bold statement to the central government. We may see similar demands in other provinces,” he forecast.

“The tactic may evolve into some sort of move aimed at encouraging central government to distribute more regional funding, or to allow for a greater number of constituent seats to be held in a province, for example.”

Anbar, another Sunni-majority province, appears set to follow Salaheddin's example, with its provincial council chief, Mamoun Sammi Rasheed, warning that “all options are available to us, including announcing Anbar as a region.”

But he later seemed to back down, instead urging council members “not to create a crisis with the government.”

Reidar Visser, an analyst and editor of the Iraq website www.historiae.org, said the arrests were problematic, while the autonomy vote and Maliki's response pose potential challenges to Iraqi unity.

“The arrests seem to be lacking a clear legal basis whereas both proponents and opponents of the Salaheddin federalism bid are twisting the legal framework in order to make their case,” Visser said.

Meanwhile, “Maliki is basically labeling a whole province as neo-Baathist, which raises questions about his ability to remain prime minister for all of Iraq.”

“What (are) federalist ideas today might turn into separatist ideas tomorrow if Maliki remains unable to give the people of Salaheddin some concessions and hope for the future,” he said.

While Maliki is strongly opposed to the autonomy vote, Iraq's Sunni speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, has termed the council's request “constitutional.”

Analysts expressed doubt that Salaheddin will actually become autonomous, and over its viability for a province of some 1.2 million people which faces economic problems.

“I think it would be very difficult,” Saffar said, noting that Salaheddin is not “particularly rich in natural resources.”

According to a February 2011 fact sheet on Salaheddin from the U.N. Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit, 39.9 percent of the population lives below the national poverty line of US$2.2 per day, while unemployment is “above average at 18 percent.”

In any case, Salaheddin appears set, at least for now, to press on with the autonomy bid.

“We will not turn back on our demand for establishing an economic and administrative region,” Salaheddin governor Abdullah told AFP on Saturday, adding that “the matter is now in the hands of the citizens.”

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