BAGHDAD — A stepped-up campaign by Iraq's prime minister against Saddam Hussein loyalists is alienating Sunni Muslims and stoking tensions between them and the majority Shiites ahead of key national elections.
In its latest anti-Baathist attack, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government put three men on state television Sunday to confess their alleged role in planning suicide attacks in Baghdad last month. The three, all in detention and dressed in orange prison jumpsuits, said the bombings were ordered by Hussein's Baath Party.
Maliki's intensified rhetoric worsens one of Iraq's most dangerous sectarian fault lines, one which the United States has long struggled to calm.
Reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites has been an elusive goal, seen as critical for Iraqi's stability — and it takes on added urgency with American forces scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Many fear that without U.S. troops, sectarian and ethnic rifts could re-ignite into violence.
Maliki and his fellow Shiite politicians have repeatedly warned in recent weeks against what they contend is a plot by members of the Baath Party to return to power, with what some suggest is the help of Sunni-ruled Arab nations.
He has vowed to do everything in his power to stop Baath Party loyalists from running in the forthcoming parliamentary election. He has also insisted that Baathists, a term widely taken to mean Sunni Arabs, worked with al-Qaida to carry out massive suicide bombings targeting government buildings in Baghdad that killed at least 255 people in August and October.
The Baath Party and Hussein's regime were dominated by Sunnis, who have lost their political prominence to the majority Shiites since Hussein's fall in 2003. Election law bars Iraqis who held senior Baath Party positions or were involved in past crimes from running for office. But Sunnis fear the ban could be expanded to others.
The talk against Baathists raises alarm bells among Sunnis, who fear it hints at a move to force their candidates out of the election. The election for a new, 323-seat Parliament is slated for January, but may be delayed by a dispute over election law and a Kurdish threat to boycott the vote.
"I think the law and the judiciary, not political agendas, should decide the issue of the Baathists," said Sunni lawmaker Hashem al-Taie. "If there is no transparency and fairness, the criterion will be used selectively against candidates."