A car burns after a deadly raid by Iraqi security forces at a Sunni protest… (Human Rights Watch / Associated…)
BAGHDAD — Less than a year and a half after the last U.S. troops left, Iraq's political leaders are openly debating the prospect of two dangerous paths for their country: de facto division or civil war. Perhaps both.
Tension between the Shiite majority, now in control of the levers of power, and the Sunni Arab minority, which dominated under Saddam Hussein, has been building for months. But politicians on all sides agree that the country has entered a perilous new phase, highlighted in late April by an attack on a Sunni protest camp by security forces that killed at least 45 people.
As word of the shootings spread, fighting erupted around the country, leaving more than 200 people dead. Overall, the United Nations said, more than 700 people were killed in Iraq in April, the highest monthly toll in five years.
Polarized political leaders openly discuss the threat of more bloodshed and the gradual breakup of the country, either through an informal declaration of an independent Sunni Arab region, modeled on the Kurds' region in northern Iraq, or outright war.
The problems are compounded by the increasingly sectarian war in neighboring Syria, where the Sunni majority forms the backbone of the insurgency against the government of President Bashar Assad.
In Iraq, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, who has been ostracized by fellow Sunnis for continuing to participate in the Shiite-led government, said he feared that one more deadly incident could push Sunni protesters to "return to violence, and once the violence starts, it will not end for 20 or 30 years."
A package of reforms meant to address protesters' demands has been left to a silent death in the parliament. The demands include an end date for punitive measures against former members of Hussein's Baath Party, an amnesty act and legal reforms prohibiting the use of secret informants to convict people.
"They are legitimate demands, but are politically impossible," said lawmaker Sami Askari, a close advisor to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who had lobbied for the package. Shiite parties signed off on the reforms when they were debated in Maliki's Cabinet, but then reversed themselves in the parliament, he said.
Askari helped engineer Maliki's unsuccessful effort in 2010 to form a government that would have crossed Iraq's sectarian divide. The country has now entered a period of acrimony between Shiites and Sunnis, he said.
"The Sunnis want better conditions, better participation, and the Shiites are scared and fearful the past might come back again," Askari said. "All of the region now is talking of a clash between Shia and Sunnis. You cannot ignore this now.... Even those Sunnis who are ready to strike a deal are under attack."
Two investigations were launched after security forces attacked the Sunni protesters in Hawija on April 23. Senior government officials say the findings indicate that security personnel used disproportionate force, including shooting unarmed civilians. Video apparently recorded by security forces showed what appeared to be slain civilians gripping sticks, and a body that had fallen out of a wheelchair.
Maliki initially expressed regret over the assault but has since taken a harder line. He has vowed to fight what he calls terrorists among the protesters, and has massed troops outside Ramadi, a Sunni-majority city in Anbar province.
Protesters there have formed a tribal force to defend against a military attack, and Maliki has warned them that he could crush them easily if he wasn't concerned about shedding Iraqi blood. His acting defense minister, Saadoun Dulaimi, called the protest camps incubators for terrorism.
The government assault in Hawija has further radicalized the Sunni protest movement. At a rally last week in Fallouja, a cleric told Sunnis that they had to choose their next step. The options included "the resignation of Maliki; civil war and sectarian conflict, which we don't want ... or to divide the country in order to protect ourselves, and rule ourselves by ourselves."
Some in the crowd, angry over the idea of federalism, threw water bottles at the stage; others shouted in praise of holy war.
Usama Nujaifi, a Sunni who is speaker of the parliament, said the government was pushing Sunnis to the brink. "The conditions for a civil war are present now," Nujaifi said. "The first person responsible is the prime minister."
A former Sunni fighter who goes by the name Abu Selim said Hawija and subsequent violence had given new life to armed groups that had been less active in recent years, including the Iraqi affiliate of Al Qaeda, the Baathist-inspired Naqshbandi Army and the Salafist-led Islamic Army.
"The Islamic insurgent groups had lost their mission … they were just waiting for an instance to take over again under an attractive banner," he said. "Hawija was the zero hour they were waiting for."