x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Sectarian rivalry makes justice in Iraq impossible

Nouri Al Maliki continues to consolidate power in his own hands. The price so far includes increased sectarianism and a weaker rule of law.

On Sunday, an Iraqi court sentenced the country's fugitive vice president, Tariq Al Hashemi, to death after finding him guilty of running an assassination squad. Mr Al Hashemi, in turn, declared his innocence yesterday and denounced the ruling as "politically motivated".

Mr Al Hashemi may be guilty - given the rivalries in Baghdad, it is impossible to judge the merits of the case - but he has a point about the politics. It should be remembered that Mr Al Hashemi's original feud with Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki was deeply personal, with both men hurling insults.

That feud has come to symbolise a serious split in the country, emphasised also on Sunday by suicide bombings that killed more than 100 in Shia neighbourhoods of Baghdad. The coincidence with Mr Al Hashemi's death sentence was unfortunate, to say the least. Sunni politicians in the Iraqiyya opposition coalition are again warning that Mr Al Hashemi's prosecution risks a return to the war's sectarian bloodletting that is the backdrop to contemporary Iraqi politics.

The rule of law is broken in today's Iraq, which makes political compromise almost impossible. Last week, forces from the army's 56th Brigade raided nightclubs and bars in the Karrada and Arasat neighbourhoods of Baghdad; in other areas of the capital, entertainment venues operating according to current law have been closed. Security officials, interviewed by AFP, linked the raids directly to Mr Al Maliki's office.

The vice president's case has occupied media attention since he was charged in December, but the marginalisation of Iraqiyya members has been a consistent trend. Two weeks ago, the communications minister from the Iraqiyya bloc, Mohammed Taqfiq Allawi, accused the prime minister of political interference in his ministry and he became the first minister to resign from the "national unity" government since it was formed in 2010.

Mr Al Maliki has shown surprisingly resilience since taking office for his first term in 2006. In part, this has been canny politics; and, undeniably, he has also consolidated power by the same strong-arm tactics that he once denounced after a death sentence was meted out against him by the Saddam Hussein regime.

He may indeed be more comfortable now that a friendly judiciary is ruling against his opponents. But the pattern of Iraqi politics is too familiar. The verdict on Mr Al Hashemi has no credibility under this government, and Iraq will not find stability without functioning political institutions. The rule of fear only returns Iraq to the past.