"The message is: 'Get out,' " said Omar Mashhadani, a Sunni, the former spokesman for Parliament.
Malikis supporters insist hes a nationalist, dismissing widespread criticisms that the leader is not only sectarian but isolationist, surrounding himself with trusted yes-men from his own Dawa Party.
Supporters also shrug off the fact that Maliki has gotten rid of Iraqs top two Sunni officials: Vice President Tareq al Hashemi is a fugitive in a sectarian-motivated murder case, while Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al Mutlaq is barred from Cabinet meetings in apparent violation of the Constitution after publicly suggesting that Maliki was on the path to dictatorship.
Ismail Zayer, an Iraqi newspaper editor and pro-government commentator, said he didn't agree with everything the prime minister was doing, but justified such tough measures as serving a national rather than sectarian agenda: to prevent Iraq from fragmenting in the aftermath of a devastating U.S.-led military occupation.
"If there's anyone who divided Iraq into Sunnis and Shiites, it was the Americans," Zayer argued. "What did they do in Korea? Two Koreas. Vietnam? Two Vietnams."
The constantly expanding powers of conservative Shiite Islamists have inspired a backlash among some concerned Iraqi communities; not just Sunnis, but also secular Shiites, liberals and artists, as well as the few remaining Christians.
They wonder what happened to all those promises from 2003 about Iraq becoming a pluralistic nation with Western-style guarantees of civil liberties. Instead, they say, Iraqis got a country where the once-treasured national orchestra can't even play for fans in the southern Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala because religious authorities have deemed musical performances un-Islamic.
Hatif Farhan, a 46-year-old photographer, couldn't resist a mischievous chuckle as he described the local art community's latest act of sedition against the self-appointed censors: an exhibition in a famous Baghdad gallery, composed solely of nudes. Farhan, sounding proud, said, "Even the veiled women came."
"We insist on doing this as a reaction," he said. "I took photos and put them on Facebook so that people outside would know that not everything is closed down. We are still here."
(Allam, who's now based in Cairo for McClatchy, was Baghdad bureau chief from 2003 to 2006.)
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