- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 3, 2012

BAGHDAD (AP) — Now that U.S. forces are gone, Iraq‘s ruling Shiites are moving quickly to keep the two Muslim sects separate — and unequal.

Sunnis are locked out of key jobs at universities and in government, their leaders banned from Cabinet meetings or even marked as fugitives. Sunnis cannot get help finding the body of loved ones killed in the war, and Shiite banners are everywhere in Baghdad.

With the Americans no longer here to play peacemakers and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations moving to isolate Iraq, it’s a development that could lead to an effective breakup of the country.

“The sectarian war has moved away from violence to a soft conflict fought in the state institutions, government ministries and on the street,”  political analyst Hadi Jalo says. “What was once an armed conflict has turned into territorial, institutionalized and psychological segregation.”

Despite occasional large-scale bombings, March recorded the lowest monthly toll for violent deaths since the 2003 U.S.-invasion: A total of 112 Iraqis were killed last month, compared with 122 in November 2009, the previous lowest.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite hard-liner in office for nearly six years, does not tire from telling anyone who cares to listen that it was he who defeated “terrorism,” the word he uses to refer to the Sunni insurgency.

Critics charge that Mr. al-Maliki is suspicious of all Sunnis, even those who never joined the insurgency or later abandoned it, and is punishing a community that lost its protectors when the Americans left Iraq in December, ending eight years of occupation.

On Tuesday, President Obama called Mr. al-Maliki to express Washington’s “firm commitment to a unified, democratic Iraq as defined by Iraq‘s constitution.” A White House statement also said that Mr. Obama stated his support for the prime minister’s participation in a national dialogue hosted by President Jalal Talabani to reconcile Iraqi political blocs. The dialogue formally opens Thursday.

Mr. al-Maliki has denied allegations that his government is harassing or discriminating against Sunnis. He even bragged to Arab leaders gathered for a summit meeting in Baghdad last week that “it is not an exaggeration to say that our success in national reconciliation can be an example to follow in Arab nations suffering from acts of violence and conflict.”

But Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the administration’s top Sunni official, is a fugitive wanted by prosecutors on terror charges. He fled to the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq to escape what he said would certainly be a politically motivated trial, and he left this week for Qatar, which publicly has criticized what the Gulf nation’s prime minister called the marginalization of Sunnis.

Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, has been banned from attending Cabinet meetings because he called Mr. al-Maliki a dictator.

Ordinary Sunnis complain of discrimination in almost all aspects of life, including housing, education, employment and security.

Formerly mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, such as Hurriyah, are now predominantly Shiite and protected by concrete barrier walls and checkpoints. With Shiite militias effectively policing many areas, hardly any Sunnis dare to return.

Baghdad now has the appearance of an exclusively Shiite city, with streets and bridges renamed after Shiite saints; Shiite green, black and red banners flying almost everywhere; and giant posters of Shiite saints towering over all else on major squares.

Flaunting Shiite strength in Baghdad, a city of some 7 million, is apparently a priority for the sect’s clerical leadership.

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