Iraqis knew they were getting something special for Christmas this year, the departure of American combat forces. And a good many Iraqis also knew that marked the time for settling old scores and balancing the books.
Power struggles are opening in Iraq, several of them. That's largely because the central government of Nouri al-Maliki has failed over the past five years to consolidate power by integrating the Sunni and Kurdish minorities into the majority Shiite government. Maliki himself threw in the towel within hours of the American departure by ordering Iraq's Kurdish vice-president arrested on terrorism charges. Maliki admits he's known about the veep's alleged terror activities for three years but didn't act to help maintain political harmony. That Maliki would move so abruptly against Tariq al-Hashimi, a Kurd, but stand mute about Muqtada al Sadr speaks volumes about the prime minister's cynical outlook on Iraqi unity.
Meanwhile the Sunni minority is effectively boycotting Maliki's cabinet, causing the prime minister to threaten to simply replace any Sunni who remains absent. Sunni dissidents, thought to include al-Qaeda Iraq, are believed responsible for a wave of bombings yesterday in Baghdad that claimed 69-lives.
And, in the north, also known as the Kurdish Republic, Maliki's hapless and hopelessly corrupt government will probably spur the Kurds to solidify their claim to the oil-rich region of Kirkuk, something that has come so close to triggering Kurdish separation or factional civil war that a promised referendum to decide the area's fate has been repeatedly postponed by Baghdad.
If the Kurds were clever (and they are), they'll probably wait to see how the Iraqi Sunni versus Shiite tensions play out. In the meantime I expect the Kurds will be extending overtures to Istanbul about settling the seemingly intractable Turkish/Kurdish conflict. Turkey would do well to have a friendly, oil-rich neighbour on its border and the Kurds would benefit from Turkish protection against the southern Arabs especially over the Kirkuk issue.
A deal between the Turks and Kurds would be a powerful incentive for a similar arrangement between Syria and an Iraqi Sunni state. That, in turn, would be almost certain to forge a closer alliance between Iraq's Shiites in the south and Iran.
A 3-way breakup of Iraq could enhance the positions of Turkey, Syria and Iran but at great loss to Washington that would find its dominance in that part of the Middle East eroded if not extinguished. The ripple effect from relieving Iran of the American threat along its western border, the further isolation of Afghanistan and a reinforced Shiite challenge to the Saudis and Gulf States could further complicate the competition heating up between the Americans and the Chinese in that region. Interesting times, indeed.