Baghdad – Less than 24 hours after the US military withdrew the last of its occupation forces from Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered an arrest warrant for Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi on terrorism charges.
Maliki, a Shia, levelled the charges against the highest ranking Sunni in the government – a move that threatens to drag the country back into sectarian bloodshed such as what occurred in 2006-2007 and led to tens of thousands of Iraqis being killed.
The move is particularly dangerous at this time, given the power vacuum created by the US withdrawal.
Just three days after US forces withdrew from Iraq, on December 21, Maliki placed Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni politician and a leader of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, on “extended leave”.
In an interview with Al Jazeera on Tuesday, Mutlaq called on Maliki to step down, accusing the prime minister of governing like a dictator and leading the country into chaos.
“My advice to him [Maliki] is that he should leave his chair because he is the reason behind all that is happening in Iraq because he turned into a real dictator in this country,” Mutlaq told Al Jazeera.
Mutlaq said this is the most dangerous situation Iraq has been in since the occupation, and said the way Maliki is running the country “will lead to chaos and a civil war”.
“He [Maliki] is a dictator without wisdom,” Mutlaq said, and called for Maliki to step down immediately. “He should leave his position for somebody else and [we should] form a new government until we reach the election.”
Maliki has defended his moves, claiming to adhere to the power-sharing agreement and the Iraqi constitution.
Further complicating matters, the political bloc loyal to Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called for the parliament to be dissolved and new elections to be held. So has Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Barzani said there should be early elections if the political leaders fail to resolve the crisis. He said that Iraq is facing the most dangerous crisis since the Americans entered the country in 2003, adding that Iraq's constitution allows for federalism and Maliki has no right to object to it or to the creation of federal regions, which more Iraqi provincial leaders are aiming to do.
Baha al-Araji, the head of Sadr's al-Ahrar bloc which holds 39 seats of the 325-member parliament, told Al Jazeera that the existing political partners are unable to reach solutions because there are blocs of politicians among them carrying out foreign agendas “while others work with terror”.
Maliki's move against Hashimi has caused several of Iraq's Sunni majority provinces to renew their call for their own federal region. Such a move would further aggravate Iraq's sectarian fault lines that are already being widened by the crisis.
A Shia Saddam?
Hashimi and Mutlaq's Iraqiya bloc, led by former Iraqi interim Prime Minnister Iyad Allawi, announced on December 17 it had suspended participation in parliament in protest of ongoing arrests of its members.
On December 18, the remaining US forces withdrew from Iraq. The next day, Maliki issued the arrest warrant for Hashimi.
More than 10 bombings wracked Baghdad on December 22, killing at least 70 and wounding more than 200. Al-Qaeda in Iraq recently claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Hashimi, who fled to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, has denied all of Maliki's charges and has questioned the motivation behind the accusations.
Hashimi also said that he believes Maliki's case against him was intentionally timed to happen immediately upon the withdrawal of US forces.
Meanwhile, leaders of some of the predominantly Sunni provinces such as Anbar, Salahedin, Diyala and Ninevehhave have renewed their calls for federalism in order to obtain greater autonomy from Baghdad.
Maliki has warned that Iraq is not yet ready for federalism, and stated that he would reject anything that would lead to a division of Iraq.
He recently told a group of tribal sheikhs from Iraq's Salahedin province that if federalism were to come to Iraq “by unnatural means” it would “transform into rivers of blood”.
Al Jazeera spoke with several Iraqis inside the Shabender Café, a famous teashop near Baghdad's Mutanabi Street, which hosts a Friday book market each week.
Iraqi intellectuals and artists regularly meet at the café to discuss art, politics and literature, and have done so for many centuries.
Retired teacher Naji Salman, who was arrested in 1970 by the regime of Saddam Hussein and accused of being a political dissident, told Al Jazeera he feels Maliki is leading “in a balanced way”, and that Hashimi should be tried in Baghdad.
“Tariq al-Hashimi should have stayed in Baghdad and he should be tried here, because his fleeing to Kurdistan has allowed Maliki to tarnish Hashimi's reputation,” Salman, who used to be in former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's party, said. “And I think Hashimi is pushing things politically out of sectarian interests.”
Aymen Kareem, who owns a mobile phone shop, said he is angered by the political crisis, because no matter what happens, the Iraqi people will pay the highest price as the politicians argue.
“Insh'allah [God willing] the sectarian violence will not return,” he told Al Jazeera. “While they fight amongst themselves, it is the Iraqi people who suffer.”
Ahmed Sabah, a barber, felt similarly.
“The only victims of the political crisis are the Iraqi people”, he said. “We hope the situation will not be like it was before, but there are signs it will return to that if things do not change soon.”
Sabah added that he felt the only solution is to get rid of the current politicians and “find better people to work together to serve our country”.
Faisal Mahmoud, who owns and operates the teashop, was blunt: “We are in a political crisis and the politicians only care about themselves and not the country.”
Other Iraqis who spoke to Al Jazeera said the current crisis is little more than political theatre.
“The politicians are fighting with each other in the media, yet behind closed doors they are shaking hands and getting rich,” Muhamed Abid, a day labourer, said. “But it's always the less financially advantaged Iraqis who suffer.”
Nonetheless, Abid fears that the crisis will drag Iraq back into sectarian violence if it continues much longer.
Mustafa Ahmed, a taxi driver, had an equally bleak outlook on the situation.
“All our politicians represent the political aims of foreign countries. I don't know if the sectarian violence will return, but the Iraqi people understand the situation and the biggest loser is the Iraqi citizen.”
Mowathiq al-Hashemi with the Iraqi Centre for Strategic Studies in Baghdad told Bloomberg news that he believes Iraq's issues will not be resolved without the parliament's dissolution. In a statement similar to Ahmed's he added, “I believe this is nothing but an attempt to impose pressure. Many of the lawmakers are certain that they would not keep their seats if elections take place amidst such poor parliamentary performance”.
Ahmed said the possibility of holding new elections scares most of the current politicians “since they aim to maintain their interests and positions, and each one of them are holding files against the others”.
Unlike Abid and Ahmed, however, Mahmoud from the tea shop believes the government will be able to solve the crisis: “They have to sit together and work things out,” he said. For now, this simple suggestion is something Iraqi politicians appear unable to accomplish.