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Dividing Iraq: Now is the Time to Split the Country in Half
By Daoud al-Ali

Currently Iraqi commentators seem to think there are two options for ending current protests and ensuing violence: civil war between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Or a new Iraq with various autonomous regions.

Over the years since the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, there has often been discussion about whether it would be a good idea to split Iraq up, mainly dividing the country into the two sects of Islam that make up most of the population: that is, Sunni and Shiite Muslim.

And every now and then the idea has seemed a credible solution to Iraq's troubles, when violence between the two sects and other ethnicities has continued to threaten the general public's well being and lives. Now is such a time too -- and mainly because of the protests comprised mainly of Sunni Muslim demonstrators in certain parts of the country.

The Sunni Muslim protestors say they are discriminated against and marginalised by the current Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad, headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.

Recently things became even more tense when Iraqi army forces, acting on behalf of the Shiite Muslim-led government, turned on mostly Sunni Muslim protestors in Hawija in the north of the country, killing around 50 demonstrators. Since then there have been a number of deadly incidents around the country.

Recent events in Iraq indicate an escalation [of sectarian tensions]," Harith Hassan, an Iraqi political researcher, wrote on his personal blog. "The increased tensions may lead to the failure of the current political process and the increased levels of violence could ignite a new civil war. Social divides in the Iraq would become even more established. All this would put an end to any opportunity for peaceful coexistence."

Hassan believes that current protests have seen the Sunni Muslims of Iraq starting to form their own ethnic identity even more strongly, which takes them even further from Iraqi nationality. He also warned against the increasing influence of extremist groups within the ranks of the protestors as well as growing links between them and similarly radical groups fighting in Syria. Recently there's been evidence that the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, a particularly violent group with links to the Sunni Muslim extremist group, Al Qaeda, has been fighting among Sunni Muslims in Syria.

At a May 19 press conference Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that his government was considering new strategies for domestic security. Partially this was because some of the recent attacks used methods security personnel had not seen before. For example a senior police officer in Baquba, the capital of Diyala province, explained that at a bomb attack outside the Sunni Muslim Sariyat al-Jadid mosque, extremists had used two bombs. After the first had gone off, it was followed by a second explosion which killed those who had rushed to the aid of the first bomb's victims.

"In both attacks, armed groups also used new forms of explosives," the police officer said.

In terms of the escalation of sectarian conflict, there is evidence that both sects have been forming their own militias in response to the growing violence. And neither side has been short of emotional rhetoric either. In a statement issued by Lebanese-based Hezbollah in mid-May, the Shiite Muslim group wrote that, "they murdered us for centuries before Saddam Hussein and they continued to do so when Saddam ruled the country. Even today, they don't stop murdering us. Nothing will stop them. They don't believe in a partnership, they believe they are our superiors. We, the political majority, should be prepared for the clash."

Similar speeches have been made by Iraq's Sunni Muslims. "Some of the tribal leaders here have agreed that things cannot go backwards," Hamid al-Jibouri, one of the leaders in Sunni Muslim protests in the central Iraqi city of Samarra, told NIQASH. "That's why they and their men have agreed to carry arms and joined the protestors' group that is against the government."

All of this is why the idea of splitting Iraq into regions based on their sectarian populations is being revived again. At the same May 19 press conference even the Prime Minister seemed to welcome the idea.

"Anyone who wants to form a region in Iraq should express that intention openly," al-Maliki said. "And we will welcome it. However, we won't tolerate the use of force. These demands can only be achieved through constitutional mechanisms."

Meanwhile local politician Hamid Majid Mousa, the Secretary General of the Iraqi Communist Party, believes that his colleagues must take some of the blame for the current escalation. "These unfortunate calls for revenge and retaliation are the reason behind the exacerbation of the problem and the increased violence, and are the basis for the formation of armies, militias and armed gangs. And they're being repeated by politicians," Mousa complained. "We cannot solve the problem this way. By doing what we always do, we're only making things worse and removing any possibility for a peaceful solution."

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