Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani announced Feb. 4 that Baghdad is increasing the salaries of the Sunni militiamen who were inducted into state security organs in 2008, when Sunni nationalist militants ended their insurgency and agreed to join the post-Baathist political system. The move comes after the federal government decided to release thousands of Sunnis who have been imprisoned for years. This prisoner release came in response to the protests that broke out in December after the al-Maliki government arrested the bodyguards of the country's fourth-highest ranking Sunni official, Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, on terrorism charges.
Since the arrests, al-Maliki has found himself trapped between the Sunnis, the Kurds and his Shiite allies. The backlash from the Sunnis came at a time when Baghdad's feud with the Kurds, who are seeking greater autonomy, had escalated into a standoff. Al-Maliki's resistance against both minority communities has angered his own Shiite allies and their patrons in Iran, who both see al-Maliki's personal and partisan agenda as undermining their interests.
There has been a great deal of pressure on al-Maliki from Tehran and the other Iraqi Shiite factions, especially the movement of Muqtada al-Sadr, to defuse the situation with the Sunnis and return the ethnic and religious tensions to within tolerable limits. This is especially important considering the Sunni uprising in neighboring Syria.
Complicating matters for al-Maliki, the Iraqi parliament on Jan. 26 — with the help of a significant number of Shiite lawmakers — passed a law that limits the prime minister to two terms, which means al-Maliki, who is in his second term, cannot remain prime minister after next year's parliamentary elections. While al-Maliki is challenging that law in the courts, he knows he has to regain the confidence of his Shiite allies, something that is possible only if he can demonstrate that he has brought the minority situation under control. To do that, he must ensure that Sunni political unrest and low-level violence does not turn into a full-blown insurgency. It is to his advantage that the Sunnis do not want to create a situation that would benefit al Qaeda and the transnational jihadists.
Part of al-Maliki's strategy is increasing the salaries of the Sunni militiamen, but that decision is also designed to exploit divisions within the Sunni community. The beneficiaries of the salary increase will be those who are already part of the security network and have been working with the al-Maliki administration. It is quite possible that in the coming weeks and months Baghdad could reach out to others in the Sunni community with similar incentives.
Al-Maliki can gain some short-term respite from these initiatives, but ultimately these concessions will embolden the Sunnis, who will not settle for occasional small benefits. Ultimately, it will be very hard for the Shia to continue to dominate Iraqi politics, particularly when Sunnis in neighboring Syria achieve a degree of empowerment.