- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 8, 2012

A dramatic uptick in violence and political instability in Iraq has raised fears that Baghdad once again is tilting toward civil war.

A half-year after the U.S. military left Iraq, the war-weary country is beset by violence as insurgents take advantage of the power struggles between the country’s ethnic and sectarian factions.

“Iraqis are living in real tragedy every day. It is unfair to just leave the Iraqis facing such difficult circumstances,” Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times.

June was Iraq’s second-deadliest month since U.S. troops pulled out Dec. 18, and violence has continued with a major bombing or shooting rampage occurring about twice a week, many targeting Shiite pilgrims and carrying the hallmarks of al Qaeda — although some Iraqis have said they believe other factions are responsible.

Clashes in neighboring Syria and lethal attacks by the Sunni-led opposition to President Bashar Assad’s regime are emboldening Iraqi Sunnis to attack government targets, exacerbating sectarian tensions in a “spillover” effect, regional experts say.

“It’s quite remarkable to me that everyone is so concerned about Syria and the spillover that could take place with a Syrian civil war, but an Iraqi civil war would be worse,” said Ken Pollack, director of the Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Iraq is an oil producer and is in the midst of one of the most important regions. The spillover could affect Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Pollack said. “All the things that make us concerned about Syria ought to go double for Iraq.”

‘In election mode’

Mr. al-Hashemi, his country’s highest-ranking Sunni, bemoaned a lack of U.S. leadership in Iraq — and growing Iranian influence — as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, maneuvers to consolidate power.

“I know [the Obama administration is] in election mode, but the American administration missed a golden opportunity,” Mr. al-Hashemi said in the telephone interview. “They just left Iraq facing tremendous challenges.”

The vice president reportedly is hiding in Turkey to avoid arrest on terror charges in Iraq, where he is being tried in absentia. He vehemently denies the charges, saying they were trumped up by Mr. Maliki in his bid to seize more power.

Mr. al-Hashemi has given a series of recent interviews promoting a no-confidence vote on Mr. Maliki and calling on U.S. officials to exert more pressure on the Iraqi leader to abide by agreements brokered in 2010 that paved the way for forming Mr. Maliki’s coalition government.

Meanwhile, Mr. Maliki has responded to political infighting by threatening to call for early elections that would dissolve parliament, betting that he would win and consolidate his hold on power. Those moves are aggravating tensions with U.S. officials concerned that the Iraqi premier is violating power-sharing agreements and allying himself too closely with Tehran.

This week a reporter asked State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland whether the relationship between Mr. Maliki and the United States “is really quite tense these days.”

“We continue to have the same kind of dialogue that we’ve had all along,” Ms. Nuland said. “We maintain an open channel not only with the prime minister, but with all the major political figures in Iraq, and we use those challenges to encourage them, among other things, to work well together and to settle their political differences through constitutional processes.”

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