While the West frets over the increasingly bellicose utterances of North Korea's deranged delinquent dictator and wrings its hands in frustration over the on-going bloodbath in Syria, attention has strayed from Iraq as it spirals towards civil war. On the tenth anniversary of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the popular uprising against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in six provinces and most of the major cities continues apace. These demonstrations have now lasted for more than 100 days and moved into their fourth month. Hundreds of thousands of protesters are pouring onto the streets, particularly following Friday prayers, to demand an end to sectarian oppression, human rights abuse and arbitrary executions.
Placards bearing the slogan "This regime stands for torture and execution" were prominently displayed last Friday in Ramadi and Baghdad, where protesters made speeches attacking Nouri al-Maliki's extensive violation of human rights and called on the international community to intervene in Iraq. The deteriorating situation has even attracted international condemnation from the European Parliament, Western governments and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, who have expressed their serious concern about the increasing detention, torture, rape and execution of Iraqi citizens. Amnesty International now states that Iraq ranks third in the world in respect of the number of death sentences handed out by its courts. Iraq has also witnessed the largest number of recorded executions in the world during the past 12 months. Defying calls for clemency and compassion, the Iraqi Justice Minister has confirmed the implementation of death sentences for terrorists will continue and "nothing and no-one will stop it."
But far from acting as a deterrent to violent acts of terrorism, the bombings and assassinations are on the increase. Sectarian attacks by alleged Sunni terrorists on predominantly Shia targets are an almost daily occurrence and with local provincial elections due on April 20th, candidates from some of the political factions opposed to Maliki have been targeted; sixteen candidates from the opposition al-Iraqiya party have been murdered by terrorists so far this year. A series of lethal bombings involving five suicide vehicles took place on Friday, March 29th, in Baghdad and Kirkuk, killing and injuring hundreds.
Responding to the on-going civil unrest and escalating violence, the Speaker of the Iraqi parliament summoned Prime Minister Maliki, as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, to appear on 1st April. Maliki simply refused, leading to the resignation of some key coalition ministers and, perhaps more seriously, to the loss of support by the Kurds who have propped up the Maliki government for the past three years. The Kurds walked out after negotiations over the Iraqi budget broke down. They are now threatening to hold a referendum on independence for Kurdistan and political activity promoting this initiative is increasingly evident in Brussels and Washington.
Alarmed at the worsening situation in Iraq, the recently appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry visited Baghdad on 24th March and met with al-Maliki. Kerry asked Maliki to prevent Iranian flights delivering weapons to Syria through Iraqi air space. He described this issue as a key problem. Maliki responded by ordering the grounding and search of several Iranian aircraft, complaining that no weapons had in fact been found. This blatant piece of stage-craft by Maliki has not gone down well in Washington where reports are circulating that Kerry met with the Iraqi Speaker of Parliament al-Nujaifi while he was in Baghdad and urged him to take an executive decision to hold early elections. Clearly patience with Maliki is wearing thin. While the Obama administration could turn a blind eye to the venal corruption, blatant human rights violations and lack of democracy that continues to flourish under al-Maliki, they will not tolerate his cosy relationship with the Iranian mullahs and the channelling of Iranian weapons and fighters through Iraq, to bolster Bashir al-Assad's murderous regime in Syria.
John Kerry's visit to Iraq was quickly followed by a visit from the Iranian Minister of Intelligence, the sinister Heydar Moslehi. Intent on undermining US influence on Maliki, Moslehi warned Maliki that his continuing position as Iraq's Prime Minister hinges on the active participation in his coalition of the Moqtada al-Sadr and Hakim political factions, who take their orders directly from Tehran. Nevertheless, Moslehi's visit faced widespread protests in Iraq and in a major rally that brought over a million people onto the streets of Iraq's main cities last Friday, leading politicians and parliamentarians accused him and Iran of meddling in Iraq's internal affairs.
Despite the mounting problems facing the Iraqi Prime Minister, including the resignation of some key ministers from his government, the withdrawal of support by the Kurds, the colossal protest rallies, pressure for an early election and international condemnation of the ongoing violation of human rights in Iraq, Maliki still insists on ignoring the principle of power-sharing. He says that he is determined to form a government based on the Shia majority, omitting all opposition politicians. In the words of Iraq's Foreign Minister - Hoshyar Zebari - in an interview with Al Jazeera TV - "The situation in Iraq is critical and if it continues everybody will be hurt." He added ominously that if the current situation leads to a collapse of the country, it would be hard ever to restore normality.