ANALYSIS-Trouble in former Qaeda heartland bodes ill for Iraq

(first transmitted on Sunday Aug 23)

* Resurgence of violence hits Anbar

* Province seen as barometer of Sunni Muslim discontent

ANBAR, Iraq, Aug 24 (Reuters) - Renewed violence in the former heartland of Iraq's al Qaeda-inspired Sunni Muslim insurgency bodes ill for efforts to prevent a resurgence of a sectarian conflict that has killed tens of thousands.

Officials have blamed Sunni extremists and members of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led Baath party for a wave of bombings since June, including two at federal ministries on Wednesday that killed 95 people in Iraq's deadliest day of violence this year.

Anbar, Iraq's largest province, is viewed by the U.S. military as a victory trophy because it was once lost to Sunni Islamist militants. After at least a year of relative quiet, the province has again been rocked by bombs in recent weeks.

Sunnis under Saddam were the country's elite, but complain of being marginalised since his ouster in 2003. Iraq is now led by its Shi'ite majority, oppressed under Saddam's rule.

"We Sunnis are being sidelined. We're losing Kirkuk and can barely hold Mosul," said one Anbar police officer, referring to two Iraqi cities whose control Sunni Arabs fear they may lose to ethnic Kurds, now a powerful Iraqi group since Saddam's fall.

The officer, despite his official job and uniform, asked to be described as a member of Saddam's army. The Baath party was outlawed and Saddam's army dissolved soon after the U.S. invasion more than six years ago.


There have been steps to bridge the sectarian divide, and attacks on mainly Shi'ite targets since June have not reignited sectarian carnage that almost tore Iraq apart in 2006 and 2007.

Sunnis and Shi'ites started the Muslim month of fasting on Saturday, the first time they have agreed on the date in years.

Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, says he is trying to build a broad coalition including Sunnis to contest parliamentary elections in January, which would mark a shift from the exclusive sectarian alliances of recent years.

He visited Anbar in July for talks with powerful tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha, a Sunni, about a possible alliance.

Some of the violence in Iraq appears aimed at stifling cross-sectarian coalitions.

"We've had many warnings: 'Do not ally with the Shi'ite government. Do not work with Shi'ites at all'" said Qassim al-Fahdawi, governor of the mostly Sunni Muslim province.

Al Qaeda and many other Sunni Islamists consider Shi'ites heretics, and Iraqi officials have warned that bomb attacks are likely to increase ahead of the elections in an effort to derail a democracy that gives clout to Iraq's Shi'ite majority.

The Shi'ite-led government has made efforts to accommodate Sunnis, but progress is slow. Many accuse it of using the fight against terrorism to sideline Sunnis, including Baathists.

The Baath party was brutal in crushing Shi'ite and Kurdish dissent, but many Iraqis had little choice but to join it. Most played no direct role in such oppression.

"Reconciliation between Baathists and the government has still not happened ... There are millions of them living abroad, and any (country) that doesn't want the best for Iraq can use these people," said Abu Risha, who insisted Anbar was still secure, but blamed other countries for stirring up strife.


Adding urgency to efforts to accommodate Iraq's Sunnis is the release of thousands of detainees from U.S. prison camps this year. A U.S.-Iraqi security pact says they must be freed if there is not enough evidence to convict them in an Iraqi court.

"We have camp Bucca, which we consider the school of takfiris (Sunni Islamist extremists) ... Not everyone who leaves there is bad, but many are," said Anbar police chief Major General Tariq Yusuf.

Complicating Sunni-Shi'ite tensions is strife within each group, as past coalitions dissolve ahead of fresh polls.

In addition, many members of Iraq's security apparatus work for factions, creating the potential for security breaches.

"The police are supposed to be loyal to the state, not any particular political group or person," said Anbar's deputy governor Hikmet Khalaf, speaking of the province's police force. (Additional reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani; writing by Mohammed Abbas; editing by Andrew Roche)