By Ray Fleming

HAVE the eight years and all the lives lost on all sides and all the suffering inflicted on innocent civilians -- have all these been to no purpose? It would not be difficult to answer a reluctant Yes to such a question following events of the past two days in Iraq. Within hours of the last US convoy crossing into Kuwait the government of Nuri al-Maliki issued a warrant for the arrest of one of the Vice Presidents of the country's parliament -- Tariq al-Hashemi -- on charges of terrorism. He managed to evade an attempted arrest in Baghdad and flew to Irbil, Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region from where he has protested his innocence of the allegations. The president of Kurdistan, Masmoud Berzani, said that the action against al-Hashami would put in danger the power-sharing agreement he has reached with Maliki's government.

At the root of this trouble are sectarian issues: Tariq al-Hashemi is a member of Iraq's minority Sunni community which was protected to some extent by Saddam Hussein but now looks to the Kurds for co-operation. The government is nominally representative of all religious sects but the Sunni ministers have now withdrawn from it. Whether al-Hashemi is guilty or innocent, al-Maliki's timing in hardly waiting for the Americans to leave seems to suggest that Iraq's future may be bleak.

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