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Last updated: April 29, 2013 8:57 pm
Car bombs killed at least 23 people in Iraq on Monday, the latest in a wave of sectarian attacks that have exposed the faultlines in the country which lies at the heart of the regional power struggle between Iran and its enemies.
The attacks, in majority Shia Muslim areas, brought the national death toll of the past seven days to more than 200, marking the worst week of sustained violence since US troops left Iraq at the end of 2011.
Analysts think the country is unlikely to suffer a repeat of its 2006-2008 civil war, but the latest troubles highlight a growing domestic political battle as Nouri al-Maliki, the Tehran-leaning coalition prime minister, aims to consolidate power in a third term.
“The violence is very, very serious, but I think there are limits to how it can get worse,” said Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at the London School of Economics. “The next big watershed moment is the elections next year – how they are fought, the size of Maliki’s victory and how he obtains it.”
The blasts across Shia-dominated southern Iraq included an explosion near a market in the city of Amarah that killed at least 18 people, police said.
Last week more than 20 people died when security forces broke up a Sunni protest near the ethnically mixed oil city of Kirkuk. The incident marked the first big crackdown by the government after months of anti-government demonstrations. It sparked a week of violence, which included the killings of five government soldiers in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province at the weekend.
Mr Maliki’s government gave a 24-hour ultimatum – now expired – for protest organisers in Anbar to give up the gunmen, and the prime minister condemned “the plague of sectarianism”. On the other side of the political divide, Osama al-Nujaifi, the Sunni speaker of parliament, unveiled a plan on Monday to lay “the ghost of civil war and sectarian strife”, calling on the prime minister to resign and hold an early election.
Analysts are sceptical that the crisis is an attempted power-grab by Mr Maliki, but they say it sets the stage for what are likely to be bitterly contested polls. The prime minister has rejected criticism that he has become increasingly autocratic, accumulating power by placing allies in security agencies and other important government institutions.
“These incidents have served to polarise the climate ahead of the elections,” said Reidar Visser, an Iraq analyst. “We should not look at it so much as something promoted and stage managed by Maliki, but as something that went out of control to some extent.”
The polls will be a test of the Iranian sphere of influence established in Iraq since Mr Maliki – who once lived in exile in Tehran – took power a few years after the US-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime in Baghdad.
Anger among Iraq’s Sunni minority about alleged government persecution since the fall of Saddam has grown as the situation has worsened in neighbouring Syria, where the Iranian-allied regime of Bashar al-Assad is facing a rebellion dominated by members of the country’s Sunni majority.
Jihadists who once fought against the US in Iraq have crossed the border to join the opposition in Syria, although analysts say that a repeat of Syria’s nationwide conflict is unlikely in Iraq, because Sunnis are in the minority nationally and are concentrated in certain regions.
Analysts say that, if the present violence in Iraq is contained, the biggest threat to Mr Maliki gaining a parliamentary majority for the first time may come from rival Shia parties that performed well in provincial elections this month.
“It’s moving towards a new political map for the country,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, a politician and former government spokesman. “But in the end the big parties will still dominate.”
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