Stirred by a bloody raid to arrest a Sunni politician in the Anbar
city of Ramadi, fighters of the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of
Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and tribal allies took over Falluja and
parts of nearby Ramadi three weeks ago at a time of rising Sunni
anger with the Shi'ite-led government.
Tarek al-Hashemi, a Sunni sentenced to death in 2012 after an Iraqi
court convicted him of running death squads while vice president,
something he denies, has accused Maliki of pursuing a political
witch-hunt against his Sunni opponents.
"I'm not optimistic about the future... I think this spark in Anbar
will spread to other provinces," Hashemi told Reuters in an
interview this week in his Doha office guarded by Qatari security
"Maliki is targeting Arab Sunnis in different provinces, with the
use of army forces, or handing them death sentences in a way that
has never been seen before in Iraq's modern history, and therefore
it's the right of these individuals to defend themselves in every
On Sunday, Iraqi government forces battling ISIL militants
intensified air strikes and artillery fire on Falluja. The
confrontation has displaced tens of thousands of residents.
Many in Iraq's once dominant Sunni minority, the main community in
Anbar, share ISIL's enmity toward the Shi'ite Muslim-dominated
government. But some tribal leaders in Anbar, a vast western
province that borders civil war-wracked Syria, have been trying to
steer a middle course between the two.
Iraq's U.S.-equipped armed forces have killed dozens of militants in
recent days in shelling and air strikes, officials say. The scale of
casualties among civilians, the security forces and tribal fighters
is not yet clear.
ISIL has sought to extend its control into neighboring areas,
creating two desert entities that it refers to as "wilayah"
(governed area). One is called the State of North al-Jazeera,
outside the northern city of Mosul, and the other the State of South
al-Jazeera, in the Anbar desert.
Hashemi, who divides his time between the Gulf Arab state of Qatar
and Turkey, appealed to outside countries for humanitarian aid to
"support the victims".
He said it would be "disastrous" if Maliki, in power since 2006,
could win a third term if voters choose him in a parliamentary
elections set for April 30.
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"Today, we are objecting to Maliki not because he's Shi'ite. It's
because of his flawed policy," said Hashemi.
"Maliki ... controls political decisions and the power to implement
them and he also controls the judiciary system, stripping it of
Like Hashemi, critics of Maliki say he has gained undue control over
the army, police and security services using them freely against
Sunni Muslim and other political foes, while allowing grave abuses
in prisons and detention centers.
In the latest high-profile raid, security forces detained prominent
Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Alwani, a supporter of anti-government
protests and a strong critic of Maliki, at his Anbar home last
month, sparking the latest violence.
Maliki says his Anbar fight is with al Qaeda, not with Sunni Muslims
as a community. He lists an end to sectarianism and militias among
his core principles.
The political struggle between Maliki and Sunni rivals in Iraq's
delicate power-sharing deal intensified during the withdrawal of the
last U.S. troops in late 2011, nearly nine years after the invasion
that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.
Hashemi said he longed to return to his homeland but did not feel
safe to go back at this point. "There isn't a single square meter in
any (Sunni) governorate that's safe for me to return to," he said.
(Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Mark Heinrich)
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