There's this big debate going on in Washington about whether the US should tilt towards the Shia in Iraq and help them destroy the Sunnis, or else "revive the national reconciliation project" with some Sunni leadership. This may soon be a purely academic debate. According to al-Arabiya, the government of Nuri al-Maliki has just gone and issued an arrest warrant for one of the most influential leaders of the Iraqi Sunni community, Harith al-Dhari of the Association of Muslim Scholars. That giant barrel of civil war grade gasoline should pretty much rule out any chance of "reviving the national reconciliation project." While Iraqi government spokesmen Ali Dabbagh has clarified that it was an "investigation warrant" and not an "arrest warrant," this distinction may not particularly reassure the Sunni community. From Amman, Dhari denounced the arrest order as illegitimate and illegal, and rejected the "investigation order" clarification as well.
Screenshot of Harith al-Dhari courtesy of al-Jazeera
Given that Iraqi leaders follow American politics very closely (as well they should) and have been anxiously parsing the signals about future US Iraq policy, and given that many Iraqi Shia are already deeply disgruntled at Ambassador Zal Khalilzad's (reported) efforts to find a workable deal with Sunni leaders, it's hard to read the warrant issued against Dhari as anything other than a pre-emptive strike against a "revive the national reconciliation project / Sunni tilt" recommendation coming out of the Baker commission. Dhari's interview today from Amman with al-Jazeera strongly supports this interpretation: he blames the arrest order on "certain factions in the government who are incapable of understanding international developments", while also distancing himself from al-Qaeda in Iraq, both of which clearly aim at positioning himself as a legitimate interlocutor for the United States when it shifts its policies.
UPDATE: at least some of the jihadi forum comment is blaming Saudi Arabia for Dhari's arrest - an interesting angle; and for more on Dhari and the wider scene, see the latest from Badger's blog.
MORE: Al-Jazeera is reporting that Iraq's Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh says that the investigation order was issued by a judge, without the government's knowledge. But the Shia Interior Minister is defending the decision, while the Interior Ministry's spokesman is taking a hard line accusing Dhari of violating anti-terrorism laws. How plausible is it that such an inflammatory move could be taken by a judge without the government's knowledge, even given the general disarray in the Iraqi "state"? Meanwhile, al-Jazeera is also reporting that the Iraqi Islamic Party has called the warrant a "bullet aimed at the heart of national reconciliation." Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni Vice President, also called the warrant "destructive to the national reconciliation plan", and the Association of Muslim Scholars is calling on Maliki's government to resign. Even if Maliki's government survives this, it seems to have done its work of pre-empting any real reconciliation efforts.
Saturday morning: al-Hayat reports that the Association of Muslim Scholars is calling on the Iraqi people to withdraw from Parliament and the government. Speculation that Maliki's government could fall over this - or the government could take on an even more nakedly sectarian face.