Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, is under fire for breaking promises to share power with his partners in a unity government and focusing on settling old scores. Tensions spiked after Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi — the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq's leadership — was charged with running death squads. The government began his trial in absentia with al-Hashemi out of the country.
"The al-Qaida elements in Iraq are feeling like they are in a position to try to start something bigger in Iraq and they are trying to do so. They are increasingly going after Shiite targets to try to reignite the civil war," said Kenneth Pollack, a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
Meanwhile, a lethargic parliament has failed to take up important bills such as regulating the sharing of oil revenue with the northern Kurdish region. Red tape stifles economic growth. And Sunnis complain of discrimination and disenfranchisement.
Iraq's oil riches — an income of tens of billions of dollars a year — are effectively cushioning the lack of effective government and preventing the country from becoming a failed state like Somalia.
Still, despite the political crisis, there are some signs of progress that attacks like Wednesday's have not managed to erase, said Joost Hiltermann, deputy Middle East program director for the International Crisis Group.
"These attacks will occur regardless, whether there is political tension or there is no political tension," Hiltermann said.
He noted that al-Maliki, for all his missteps, is still in control of the government and that the tensions, while escalating, have not yet shown signs of a return to the sectarian battles of the past, when bombings and attacks happened several times a day and people were afraid to leave their homes.
"The political parties are still agreeing to work out their problems through a democratic process," he said. "That's why there's talk of a no confidence vote in parliament and not about shooting people."
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