Now that U.S. forces are gone, Iraq's Shia majority is moving quickly to keep the two branches of Islam separate — and unequal.

Sunnis are locked out of key jobs at universities and in government, their leaders barred from cabinet meetings or even marked as fugitives. Sunnis cannot get help finding the body of loved ones killed in the war, and Shia 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 with 122 in November 2009, the previous low.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia hardliner 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.

Extradition denied

Qatar has rejected Iraq's request to hand over fugitive Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, the top Sunni official in Iraq's Shia-dominated government, to face terror charges in Baghdad. Iraqi authorities issued a warrant for his arrest in December, triggering a political crisis in Baghdad and deepening the country's sectarian divide .

Khaled al-Attiyah, Qatar's minister of state for international co-operation, said extraditing al-Hashemi ove would be contrary to diplomatic protocol. "There is no court verdict against him," he said. "He came to Qatar from Iraq as the vice-president of Iraq and he still holds the title and has [diplomatic] immunity that prevents us from doing such a thing."

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 after 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 Persian Gulf nation's prime minister called the marginalization of Sunnis. Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, has been barred 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 neighbourhoods of Baghdad, such as Hurriyah, are now predominantly Shia and protected by concrete barrier walls and checkpoints; with Shia militias effectively policing many areas, hardly any Sunnis dare to return.

Shia banners

Baghdad now has the appearance of an exclusively Shia city, with streets and bridges renamed after the sect's saints and its green, black and red banners flying almost everywhere; giant posters of Shia saints tower over major squares.

Flaunting Shia strength in Baghdad, a city of about seven million, is apparently a priority for the sect's clerical leadership.

"I always say that one Shia from Baghdad is worth five Shias like me from Najaf," Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the nation's most revered Shia cleric, was quoted as telling Shias 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 Shia areas or those hosting religious shrines.

Residents practised the ritual of self-flagellation on the streets, hoisted hundreds of Shia 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 Shia domination, the government is ignoring repeated demands by Sunni residents to remove Ali al-Saadi, a Shia who heads the local council. They also want to replace Hadi al-Jubouri, another Shia 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.

Stalling tactics

Among other injustices, the Sunnis say, are Health Ministry officials who stonewall them when they seek help locating the remains of loved ones killed during the sectarian violence of the last decade and that, unlike Shia living in the district, they are not allowed to keep a firearm at home for self-defence.

Sunnis who apply for government jobs also complain of stalling tactics.

And in the educational sector, 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 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 barred 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 Shia authorities use Baath ties as an excuse to purge the civil service and academic