Protests in western Iraq over the last few months have targeted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Are they a true national uprising against the government, or merely a Sunni call for rights that will peter out? By Bilal Ahmed.
It had to happen eventually. Mass protests that have clearly been inspired by the Arab Spring have taken hold of the western Iraqi province of Anbar. Although past calls for popular action did not lead to substantial action, demonstrations exploded late last year. They have now come to pose the most significant threat to Nouri al-Maliki’s government since the Iraqi civil war.
Weekly protests (usually starting after Friday prayers) began following the December arrest of bodyguards assigned to the Sunni finance minister Rafi al-Essawi. The action validated a common opinion that Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been eliminating Sunni political rivals. al-Maliki’s Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi fled Iraq after being accused of murder in 2011, and was later sentenced to death in abstention. Deputy Prime Minister Salah al-Mutlaq triggered a political crisis in 2011 when he called al-Maliki a dictator on television, leading to tanks surrounding his home. The narrative appeared to be that al-Maliki was slowly pushing Sunni Iraqis from positions of political influence.
Additionally, because they were arrested on charges of terrorism, the bodyguards came to represent Iraq’s deeply unpopular anti-terrorist laws. Many protesters argue that the laws disproportionately affect Sunnis, and have led to sweeping authority to detain and execute prisoners. Female prisoners are of particular note, as many Iraqis have heard stories of rape and torture being used to exact confessions from their male family members.
However, it would be misleading to state that the protests are only motivated by Iraqi problems as they affect Sunnis. While many issues focus on Sunnis, such as the lingering policies of de-Baathification pursued by Paul Bremner that left millions of the group unemployed, others are more national. The figures most fiercely criticized by the protesters are Sunni politicians in al-Maliki’s government, with many expressing frustration at the seeming inability of the sitting parliament to concretely solve the many issues facing Iraqi society. These are seen to have played out in Anbar with particular tragedy, as many cities in the province have yet to fully recover from the violence of the initial occupation, later civil war, and continued Iraqi insurgency.
It is certainly true that the Iraqi Council of Representatives is frequently deadlocked. Over the past year, its ethnically-aligned parties have only been able to agree on unsuccessful pushes for a vote of no-confidence in al-Maliki. Anbar is therefore of particular concern to the embattled al-Maliki government, as it represents more grassroots political pressure simultaneous to threats by its political rivals. Tellingly, hardline Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, former commander of the now-defunct Mahdi Army, has taken a position in defense of the protests. al-Maliki has withstood many threats to his regime, but he has rarely had to resist a dual push such as this.
al-Maliki’s government has been taking protesters more seriously as of late, agreeing to the release of 3000 political prisoners and possibly considering other demands. However, it continues to dismiss the protests as the machinations of foreign powers or a calculated stage for future violence.
Additionally, although it promised to investigate the army opening fire on demonstrators in Fallujah a little over a month ago (in the first deaths of the protest movement), al-Maliki has consistently invoked security concerns as the rationale for the military’s behavior. Iraq’s primary security concern at the moment is that violence from the Syrian civil war will spill over into the country. As Anbar was the heart of the Sunni-dominated insurgency during the Iraqi civil war, and shares a porous border with Syria, it is difficult to reject these concerns. Importantly though, protesters disavow the violence of militant groups, making peaceful solutions far more likely
It will be difficult to assess where the protests will lead. Demonstrations are escalating from week to week as al-Maliki’s political adversaries exploit the atmosphere and militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq issue new calls for violence. As the group intensifies its attacks, and sectarian divides continue to plague Iraqi democracy, the political situation points to continued unrest and uncertain outcomes.
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