In late-January 2012 there was a deadly showdown between protesters and the Iraqi army in the city of Fallujah in Anbar province. Demonstrators were stopped from joining a large rally in the city, which led to a confrontation, shots being fired, and dozens of casualties. This points to the increasing tensions between the protest movement, which is in its second month, and the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Baghdad is giving lip service to meeting their demands, but if the premier’s reactions to the demonstrations in 2011 and 2012 are any indicator, his main priority is putting an end to them.
Funeral for three protesters killed by the army on Feb. 25 in Fallujah (Reuters)
On January 25, 2013, Iraq’s latest protest movement turned deadly. On that day, a group of people heading to a large gathering in Fallujah was stopped at an army checkpoint in the western section of the city. The crowd turned rowdy, and started throwing bottles and rocks at the soldiers, leading them to open fire. Nine people ended up dead, and 60 were wounded. Immediately afterward, the acting Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi ordered the army to withdraw from sections of the city to prevent any further clashes, and said an investigation would be opened into the incident. Prime Minister Maliki called on the army to show restraint. At the same time, he said that foreign intelligence agents were behind the demonstrations, and blamed protesters for the violence since they assaulted the checkpoint. Within Fallujah itself, tensions were running high. Various leaders in Anbar threatened violence against the army in retaliation, and demanded the arrest of the soldiers responsible for the shooting. There were also reports of men carrying guns being seen walking the streets before a curfew was imposed. An army checkpoint was later attacked, which resulted in the death of one soldier and the burning of a vehicle. One soldier was also killed and another wounded by a sniper. It was unclear whether this was the same or a different incident. The mayor of Fallujah later said that there were instigators amongst the crowd that led to the army firing on them. Anti-government assemblies have been going on in Fallujah for the last two months. This was the first time there were any fatalities, and raised tensions between the protest movement and the government in Baghdad. More clashes are likely to occur in the future as anger grows amongst the demonstrators, and the government attempts to place ever greater restrictions upon them.
Protests in Anbar started in December 2012 after the Finance Minister Rafi Issawi’s guards were arrested on terrorism charges. Fallujah and Ramadi immediately saw large crowds gather in support of the Minister, as Issawi is originally from the former. Those quickly spread to Salahaddin, Ninewa, Tamim, and Diyala provinces, along with the Adhamiya neighborhood of Baghdad. The demonstrators have called for the release of prisoners, an end to torture, the reversal of deBaathification and the anti-terrorism law, and the removal of Maliki. While these seem like legitimate demands, the way they have been presented are often implicitly, and sometimes explicitly sectarian. The crowds for example are often seen flying the old Iraqi flag of the Saddam era, which harkens back to the time when Sunnis ran the country, but invokes negative reactions by others. This reflects the mood amongst Sunnis that they have become the victim of the new Iraq, claiming that the Shiite ruling parties have marginalized them since the 2003 invasion. The fact that the insurgency has issued statements in support of the movement has not helped. Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri for example, the head of the outlawed Baath Party and the Naqshibandi insurgent group said that he supported the protests, and called for them to overthrow the government, which he accused of being run by Iran. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s front group, the Islamic State of Iraq has issued similar comments. Despite those issues, the movement has grown so large that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has called on Baghdad to deal with the demonstrators’ demands. This is the third straight year that Iraq has seen protests. The previous two years the cause was the lack of services, corruption, and unhappiness with the government. Those issues are still in play, but the movement has failed to gain any real support outside of largely Sunni areas. That has only increased tensions with the prime minister who didn’t like the previous two protest movements, and sees plots behind the new one, because of its sectarian tone. Despite being firmly in power, Maliki and other leaders of the Shiite religious parties still fear the return of the Baath Party, and have projected that paranoia upon the new demonstrations.
Just like in 2012 Maliki has used his own demonstrations like this one in Karbala to counter the anti-government ones (CNN)
Like the last two years, Baghdad has responded with a carrot and stick approach. The prime minister’s media adviser Ali Hussein Musawi told the press that the government is dealing with the protesters’ demands. Acting Defense Minister Dulaimi and Human Rights Minister Mohammed Shaia’a Sudani have made trips to Anbar to talk with the protesters. The Justice Ministry announced that it released 721 women in December who had served their sentences, while the governor of Anbar said that 900 former soldiers and policemen had been reinstated in the province. Those were the carrots. The use of the stick is increasing. For one, Maliki has accused political parties of paying people to show up at the protests, and claimed that they do not represent the street. The premier has also stated that foreign powers are causing the problems, and that the demonstrators want to bring back the Baath Party. A member of the prime minister’s State of Law list told the press that some protesters were supporters of Al Qaeda in Iraq, while another parliamentarian claimed that they were attempting to start a civil war like in Syria, which would destroy the country. On the ground, the security forces have stopped protesters from attending events in Anbar, Ninewa, Baghdad, Salahaddin, and Tamim. On January 11, there was a clash between the security forces and protesters in Mosul for example, when they blocked off the main square, and then attacked the crowd, firing shots in the air, which ended up wounding eight. On January 25, the Ninewa Operations Command barred the media from covering an assembly in Mosul. In early January, the government also shut down three border crossings with Syria and Jordan in Ninewa and Anbar. Allegedly, this was done for security reasons, but it appears it was meant to punish the provinces economically by cutting off their trade in retaliation for the protests. Finally, Maliki has called out his supporters in pro-government marches, which have occurred throughout southern Iraq. This is almost an exact replay of how the 2011 and 2012 protest movements were dealt with. Then, Maliki promised reforms as concessions to the street. At the same time, he issued orders to the authorities to restrict protests, rallied his followers in counter-marches, and arrested and harassed members of the media and protest leaders. It took several months, but the assemblies were eventually broken up. Those same tactics are being employed now.
There is much pent up animosity within Iraq over the lack of good governance, which is why there have been three straight years of protests. This year has been different as it is only occurring in Sunni areas, and much of their rhetoric expresses the anger of that community over what they see as an increasingly Shiite supremacist regime. The movement appears to becoming more organized with each day, but also more sectarian. The response of Prime Minister Maliki is the same as to the previous two year’s movements, but with added criticism and invective since he sees this as a possible avenue for his enemies both foreign and domestic to challenge his power. What happened in Fallujah on January 25 was not a planned clash, but the result of the premier’s increasing use of the security forces to limit the scope of the protests. Before, that the incident in Mosul could have easily resulted in deaths, instead of just a few wounded from gunfire by the security forces. More of these clashes can be expected in the future, as Baghdad slowly, but surely tries to choke the life out of them.
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