BAGHDAD, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has executed some 65 "terrorists and criminals" this year, including 17 in a single day, in what is widely seen as a crackdown by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to eliminate Sunni political rivals.
The executions and Maliki's targeting of the Sunni leadership of the opposition Iraqiya bloc, using his Shiite-controlled security forces, seem intended to further his drive to establish a new dictatorship in Baghdad following the U.S. military withdrawal in December.
Leaders of Iraq's Kurdish minority, which has its own semi-autonomous enclave in the north, say they are alarmed at the direction Maliki has taken and has given sanctuary to a senior Sunni politician the government is targeting. This could inflame the swelling crisis.
The Americans, whose boast they left behind a "stable and democratic Iraq" soon proved to be perilously empty, have starkly failed to replace military influence with political and economic influence and so are powerless to smother the mushrooming violence.
The spate of executions is a gruesome indication of the way things are heading in Iraq where the Sunnis, once the backbone of Saddam Hussein's regime, are struggling against being marginalized by the majority Shiites.
At least 65 people were executed -- hanging is the preferred method in Iraq -- in the first 40 days of this year, Human Rights Watch reported Wednesday.
That's nearly the total number of executions carried out in 2011 -- 68.
Justice Minister Hassan al-Shammari announced Feb. 1 that the day before authorities had carried out 17 executions against "people condemned of terrorist and criminal crimes."
Human Rights Watch Deputy Middle East Director Joe Stork said Iraqi authorities had apparently given "the green light to execute at will … The government needs to declare an immediate moratorium on all executions and begin an overhaul of its flawed criminal justice system."
Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida and well-organized remnants of Saddam's Baath party, have retaliated with a series of withering attacks on Shiites in which hundreds of people were killed or wounded.
In this volatile atmosphere, it's probably only a matter of time before Shiite militants, many of them in Maliki's security forces, retaliate and plunge the country into a bloodbath like the sectarian savagery of 2003-07.
One of Maliki's top targets is Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni official in Iraq and a longtime critic of the prime minister. Under the anti-Sunni purge that began in December, Maliki accuses him of organizing the assassination of Shiite figures and has branded him a terrorist.
Hashemi is in Kurdistan, protected by Kurdish security forces. Dozens of his bodyguards and political staffers weren't so lucky and have been killed or arrested.
Hashemi denies all the charges. He says he wants to prove his innocence in court but maintains he wouldn't get a fair trial because Maliki controls the judiciary.
The Kurds, even though they were for years persecuted and slaughtered by the thousands by Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, refuse to hand him over to Maliki.
At this juncture, the Kurds hold some high cards. They have been a key ally of Maliki's and helped keep his unwieldy coalition intact. He cannot afford to move against them over Hashemi but neither can he allow the Kurds to defy him so blatantly.
What happens to Hashemi could dictate whether Maliki's power play succeeds.
Maliki, a fugitive himself during the Saddam era, is going after other Sunni notables.
One is lawmaker Haidar al-Mulla, who went into hiding in January after he learned the government sought to have his parliamentary immunity lifted so he could be tried on charges of "insulting the judiciary."
As Iraqiya's party spokesman, Mulla is known as a voluble critic of Maliki, whose coalition is dominated by his Iranian-backed ad-Dawa Islamic party, particularly since the crackdown was launched.
The deepening political divide, once held in check by the Americans, reflects the fault lines in Iraq's multi-ethnic society that have existed for centuries. These divisions are now heightened by the geopolitical rivalry between regional powers like Shiite Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, who have competing agendas in Iraq.
A new conflict in the Persian Gulf could plunge Iraq into chaos.
"A sectarian conflict in Iraq with one side backed by Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia will be extraordinarily difficult to contain within the borders of Iraq," warned Syrian commentator Sami Moubayed.