BAGHDAD -- Now that U.S. forces are gone, Iraq's ruling Shiites are moving quickly to keep the two Muslim sects separate – and unequal.
Sunnis are locked out of key jobs at universities and in government, their leaders banned from Cabinet meetings or even marked as fugitives. Sunnis cannot get help finding the body of loved ones killed in the war. And Shiite banners are everywhere in Baghdad.
With the Americans no longer here to play peacemakers and Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab nations moving to isolate Iraq, it's a development that could lead to an effective breakup of the country.
"The sectarian war has moved away from violence to a soft conflict fought in the state institutions, government ministries and on the street," said political analyst Hadi Jalo. "What was once an armed conflict has turned into territorial, institutionalized and psychological segregation."
Despite occasional large-scale bombings, March recorded the lowest monthly toll for violent deaths since the 2003 U.S.-invasion. A total of 112 Iraqis were killed last month, compared to 122 in November 2009, the previous lowest.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite hard-liner in office for nearly six years, does not tire from telling anyone who cares to listen that it was he who defeated "terrorism," the word he uses to refer to the Sunni insurgency.
Critics charge that al-Maliki is suspicious of all Sunnis, even those who never joined the insurgency or later abandoned it, and is punishing a community that lost its protectors when the Americans left Iraq in December, ending eight years of occupation.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama called al-Maliki to express Washington's "firm commitment to a unified, democratic Iraq as defined by Iraq's constitution." A White House statement also said that Obama stated his support for the prime minister's participation in a national dialogue hosted by President Jalal Talabani to reconcile Iraqi political blocs. The dialogue formally opens Thursday.
Al-Maliki has denied allegations that his government is harassing or discriminating against Sunnis. He even bragged to Arab leaders gathered for a summit meeting in Baghdad last week that "it is not an exaggeration to say that our success in national reconciliation can be an example to follow in Arab nations suffering from acts of violence and conflict."
But Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, the administration's top Sunni official, is a fugitive wanted by prosecutors on terror charges. He fled to the self-ruled Kurdish region in northern Iraq to escape what he said would certainly be a politically motivated trial and left this week for Qatar, which has publicly criticized what the Gulf nation's prime minister called the marginalization of Sunnis.
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, has been banned from attending Cabinet meetings because he called al-Maliki a dictator.
Ordinary Sunnis complain of discrimination in almost all aspects of life, including housing, education, employment and security.
Formerly mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, such as Hurriyah, are now predominantly Shiite and protected by concrete barrier walls and checkpoints; with Shiite militias effectively policing many areas, hardly any Sunnis dare to return.
Baghdad now has the appearance of an exclusively Shiite city, with streets and bridges renamed after Shiite saints, Shiite green, black and red banners flying almost everywhere and giant posters of Shiite saints towering over all else on major squares.
Flaunting Shiite strength in Baghdad, a city of some seven million, is apparently a priority for the sect's clerical leadership.
"I always say that one Shiite from Baghdad is worth five Shiites like me from Najaf," Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most revered Shiite cleric, was quoted as telling Shiites who visited him at his home in Najaf, a city south of Baghdad.
"You are the majority and your enemies are trying to reduce your numbers," al-Sistani said, according to one of the 30 men who attended the seven-minute meeting last November. "Go out and perform your rituals."
The men took al-Sistani's words to heart and swung into action when the next religious occasion arrived in January – the Arbaeen, which marks the passing of 40 days after the seventh century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a much revered saint.
The district known for its well-to-do professionals and businessmen took on a religious ambiance of the kind found in Baghdad's poor Shiite areas or those hosting religious shrines.
Residents practiced the ritual of self-flagellation on the streets, hoisted hundreds of Shiite banners on trees and lamp posts and served meat and rice from tents pitched on street corners.
In the Baghdad district of Azamiyah, for years a bastion of Sunni resistance to Shiite domination, the government is ignoring repeated demands by Sunni residents to remove Ali al-Saadi, a Shiite who heads the local council. They also want to replace Hadi al-Jubouri, another Shiite who is the district's mayor. Both men were appointed by the U.S. military authorities in July 2003, when the Sunni insurgency against the American occupation was starting.
Among other perceived injustices, the Sunnis say Health Ministry officials stonewall them when they seek help locating the remains of loved ones killed during the sectarian violence of the last decade and that, unlike Shiites living in the district, they are not allowed to keep a firearm at home for self-defense.
Sunnis who apply for government jobs also complain of stalling tactics.
A young university graduate from Azamiyah who wanted to be identified as Umm Omar, or the mother of Omar, said she was among 150 candidates selected last year for jobs in the public affairs departments in Cabinet ministries. When she goes to the ministry to find out when she can start work, she is told to come back another time for an update.
"All the Shiites I know who applied with me started work," said Umm Omar, who did not want to identify herself or the ministry because she feared reprisals. "I think it is because I am a Sunni from Azamiyah, but I will not give up. Jobs must never be given based on sect."
Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb, a close al-Maliki ally, is accused of implementing sectarian policies thinly concealed behind his goal of purging members of Saddam Hussein's now-outlawed Baath Party from academic institutions.
He has ordered candidates for senior positions in universities and the ministry to submit declarations on their possible links with the Baath Party or security agencies.
Those found out to have withheld such information are banned from assuming the positions for which they applied, according to an aide to the minister who agreed to talk about the subject only on condition of anonymity.
Sunnis have long maintained that Shiite authorities use Baath ties as an excuse to purge the civil service and academic institutions of members of their community.
Al-Adeeb has fired nearly 200 academic and administrative staff from the state university in the mainly Sunni Salaheddin province north of Baghdad, according to local tribal leaders and officials. The campus is in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.
Most if not all university directors in Baghdad are Shiites, according to staff members.
"Sectarian discrimination has become more manifest since al-Adeeb took over the ministry. Several deans and heads of departments have been removed because they belong to the other sect," said university lecturer Ali Abu-Zeid, himself a Shiite. "Even enrollment for postgraduate studies is subtly decided on sectarian basis. We all know that," said Abu-Zeid, who declined to name the university that employs him because he feared reprisals.
Fed up with Shiite domination, the mainly Sunni provinces of Diyala, Salaheddin and al-Anbar have recently announced their intention to become semiautonomous regions, a move provided for by the constitution. Their plans have been stymied by al-Maliki, who argues that granting them autonomy would break up Iraq.
In Diyala, the provincial council voted Dec. 12 to establish a self-ruled region, with 18 members in favor and five against. The next day, protesters widely suspected to be Shiite militiamen loyal to al-Maliki attacked the offices of the provincial government as well as the home of Sunni governor Abdul-Naser al-Mahdawi, as police and army troops stood by and watched.
Fearing for their lives, al-Mahdawi and several council members fled the provincial capital, Baqouba, and found sanctuary in the mainly Kurdish town of Khanaqin to the north.
Last month, al-Maliki gave al-Mahdawi 72 hours to return to Baqouba or resign. He resigned.
AP writers Sameer N. Yacoub, Mazin Yahya, Sinan Salahedddin and Bushra Juhi in Baghdad and Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.(This version CORRECTS the March toll for violent deaths among Iraqis to 112, not 122.)