Last week's multi-site raid on Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, a government operation that netted his chief of protection and nine bodyguards after the dust cleared, has thawed a frozen standoff with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Isolated by the premier's centralization of power, Sunni officials spent the first half of 2012 unsuccessfully organizing a no-confidence vote against al-Maliki's hostile behavior. Numerical support from Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani couldn't swing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to motion a vote in parliament, close as they came before last-minute signature retractions, and the plan was shelved for a future opportunity.
Al-Issawi now considers the present as ripe for action. Announcing his intent to restart the no-confidence process shortly after the raids on his home and political offices, one of al-Maliki's most vocal opponents is flexing his muscles to gauge the Sunni streets' temperature. Five days of modest protests in Ramadi and Samara are the first of more to come, and its participants have expressed themselves in even less diplomatic terms than their leaders.
"Injustice, marginalization, discrimination and double standards," al-Issawai announced from Ramadi, "as well as the politicization of the judicial system and a lack of respect for partnership, law and constitution… have all turned our neighborhoods in Baghdad into huge prisons surrounded by concrete blocks."
At least one MP from Iraqiya claims that the group will be sending its parliamentarians to Anbar governorate to back al-Issawi. Tribal authorities of the Dulaim, which counts the majority of Anbar's Sunnis as its members, have already flocked to the regional capital in a show of support for their Minister, who declared that the demonstrations "represent all components of Iraqi people." This statement is truer than not; Kurds and Shia supporters of al-Sadr are joining in too, rolling their individual grievances into one big snowball to challenge al-Maliki. Their commonalities have unified into Iraqi nationality and produced a sit-in at Ramadi.
"This sit-in will remain open-ended until the demonstrators' demands are met, and until the injustice against ends," cleric Hamid al-Issawi said at the protest.
The spread of these fervent protests and roadblocks, being mobilized in Sunni heartland by the most disenchanted of all Iraqis, naturally concerns al-Maliki's government. Especially irritating was the flying of Iraq's old flag, which the government used to discredit the opposition as unlawful Baathists. The threat, though, is treated as the main problem. Brushed aside is al-Maliki's long-standing alienation of Iraq's opposition, making room for political attacks on al-Issawi. The Minister has every right to "be in the government and use the street against it at the same time," for that government denies his legitimate authority.
According to local and national accounts, al-Maliki's autocracy has pushed the average Sunni and Kurd beyond reconciliation. They simply do not recognize him as the leader of Iraq. When al-Essawi explained his plan to bring a representative of the protesters "to negotiate with Baghdad" - a possible stunt - demonstrators began to chant, "We only want a revolution." Most Iraqis probably wouldn't express themselves that far, but they do demand more representative government and won't receive it with al-Malliki in charge of Baghdad. That leaves few options beyond festering disillusion, and this powder-keg could eventually blow if heated up high enough.
As Tehran and Riyadh position themselves on opposite sides of this divide, Washington and Ankara are left as the only possible brokers of a mediated settlement. Accordingly, the Obama administration must apply greater pressure on al-Maliki to abide by 2010's Irbil Agreement. Obviously this idea is easier suggested than practiced, and al-Maliki has already proven unresponsive to Iranian overflights into Syria. U.S. influence dwells below Iraq's neighbors and immediate challenges rise above the threshold: force al-Maliki to cede personal authority of the Interior and Defense Ministries, grant Ayad Allawi a position of national security, drop the charges on Sunni officials or hold fair trials, and negotiate a mutual outcome to Kurdish autonomy.
Yet with the exception of Kurdish disputes, the Obama administration has allowed al-Maliki to rampage at large and stunt Iraq's regeneration. Anonymous statements, private messages, diplomatic jargon and Turkish mediation still lack the combined weight to alter al-Maliki's behavior. He must be called out publicly, by high-ranking officials, if the White House genuinely believes al-Maliki has crossed red lines. Otherwise silence and apathy give him the green light to proceed, even if he must double back on occasion to save face.
Public measures may appear to yield minimal effects in the actual political process, but President Barack Obama's red-carpet treatment of al-Maliki has already given too much impetus to Iraq's political crisis.