In the middle of December 2012, security forces arrested ten guards of Finance Minister Rafi Issawi of the Iraqi National Movement (INM). That same day spontaneous protests started in Anbar, Salahaddin, and Baghdad provinces. They demanded the release of the Minister’s guards, and an end to what they saw as government discrimination against Sunnis in government and through arbitrary detentions. Since then there have been demonstrations in Ninewa as well. Like previous protests in 2010 and 2011, the government is listening to their demands, while warning them about the limits of its patience. If those previous years are any indicator, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will only allow public outbursts like these to last so long before he breaks them up.
The arrest of members of the Finance Minister’s security detail was what started the new round of protests. On December 21, 2012, ten members of Issawi’s security detail were arrested in Baghdad on terrorism charges. Spontaneously, protests started in Tikrit in Salahaddin, Qaim, Rutba and Fallujah in Anbar, as well as the Adhamiya neighborhood in Baghdad. Fallujah had the largest outpouring with a reported 2,000 people showing up, and shutting down the highway that goes towards Jordan and Syria. The Anbar provincial council also voiced their concerns about the detentions. Salahaddin, Anbar, and Adhamiya were all strong supporters of Issawi’s Iraqi National Movement (INM), and the Minister is originally from Fallujah. The events also took place on the one year anniversary of Vice President Tariq Hashemi having his guards picked up for running deaths squads, which forced him into exile. During that time, Issawi was also placed under temporary house arrest, and had some of his bodyguards were held as well. That was seen as a political attack by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki upon his rival the INM. The new arrests of Issawi’s guards made some believe that the premier was at it again, leading them to take to the streets.
Protesters in Ramadi, Dec. 26, 2012 (Reuters)
Anbar quickly became the center of the new protest movement. On December 22, the Sunni Endowment, political parties, local officials, and tribes in the province met, and decided to call for civil disobedience to voice their anger at the government’s actions. The next day there was a march in Fallujah, which shut down the highway again. On the 24, similar events occurred in Ramadi, which have continued on to the present time. They were soon joined by others from across Iraq, including Maysan, Diyala, Baghdad, Salahaddin, and Basra who made the trip to western Iraq. On December 26, Minister Issawi himself showed up, and addressed the crowd. December 28 might have seen the largest turn out of all. Reuters reported up to 60,000 attended that day in Ramadi. The protest raised concern as well, because some were flying the Saddam era Iraqi flag and that of the Syrian Free Army. An Iranian flag was also set afire as the crowd called the prime minister a puppet of Tehran. There were also marches in Fallujah, a town just to the north of Ramadi, Mosul in Ninewa, and Tikrit and Samarra in Salahaddin. The old Iraqi flag became such an issue that several days later a prominent sheikh gave a speech to the protesters that their actions had to be non-sectarian, and nationalist in character, so that all citizens could be included. Anbar is considered part of the Sunni heartland of Iraq. Ramadi and Fallujah have a large population of former soldiers, intelligence officers, and Baath Party members. It was no surprise then that some flags from the Saddam era would show up there. It could hurt their appeal to other Iraqis who do not have such fond memories of the former regime. Many Shiites have also voiced concerns about Syria becoming a haven for Islamists that could later attack Iraq if the government there were to fall to the rebels. At the same time, there have been tribal groups from southern Iraq who have showed up in Anbar to show their support showing that they do have some following across the country.
Things toured sour in Ramadi on December 30. That day, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq of the INM attempted to give a speech to the demonstrators. The crowd didn’t want to listen however, and started throwing bottles and rocks at him, and calling him a liar. In the hail of projectiles being hurled at them, the deputy premier’s delegation made a hasty retreat, not before they fired shots at the crowd, wounding five, one of which later died. Afterward, Mutlaq made an attempt at face saving by claiming that he was generally greeted well in Ramadi, but that a bad element there tried to assassinate him. This showed that the masses there were not trying to be co-opted by politicians, and instead were trying to maintain a level of independence.
Deputy Premier Mutlaq and his party being chased out of Ramadi, Dec. 30, 2012
Local governments have bolstered the protesters as well. On December 29, Ninewa’s governorate council said it would not work for three days until the government responded to the demands of the protesters. Likewise, on December 31 the Salahaddin council called for peaceful protests there. Anbar’s officials had come out for the demonstrations from the beginning. With such large numbers of people out on the streets there was no way the provincial authorities could ignore them. The governorates have been neglected by the central government as well, not giving them the funds they want or holding up development projects, so they had reason enough to complain about Baghdad as well.
The central government has responded with both carrots and the threat of sticks. On December 29, a party led by acting Defense Minister Sadoun Dulaimi arrived in Anbar, and received a set of five demands from the protest organization. Those included a release of innocent prisoners, the integration of Sunnis within the government, and the end of arbitrary arrests. On December 31, Maliki released a number of women prisoners who were arrested without warrants on terrorism charges. On the other hand, there have been increasingly critical comments coming from Baghdad. A spokesman for the premier called the demonstrations sectarian, while another called on Minister Issawi to resign saying that he couldn’t be part of the government, and use the street against it at the same time. Similarly, a member of the prime minister’s State of Law blamed the Finance Minister for the demonstrations, claiming that he was trying to use them for his own benefit. On December 30, Maliki gave a TV interview where he questioned why pictures of Turkish Premier Erdogan were seen and the Free Syrian Army flag was flown at the Ramadi protests. The next day, the cabinet sectary said that freedom of expression was guaranteed in Iraq, but that people could not break the law. He stated that any assembly needed the permission of the authorities, and the people in Anbar had not gotten that, so their actions were illegal. He went on to say that any provincial council that called for work stoppages or other acts of defiance were violating the constitution, and would be held accountable for their actions. Finally, there have been several reports that the security forces have not allowed people from outside Anbar to join the marches and arrested people. In 2010 and 2011 there were similar popular outbursts in Iraq over the lack of services, corruption, and poor governance. The prime minister reacted in a similar way. He promised reforms, and sacked the Electricity Minister in 2010. At the same time, he had the Interior Ministry set up restrictive rules to bar any further marches in 2010, and eventually had the security forces harass the media so that they could not cover the demonstrations, while they were broken up by force in 2011. A similar set of circumstances could happen this time. The premier has shown that he will give lip service to the street, but if things drag on to long, he will put an end to them using the army and police.
The Iraqi public has a lot of pent up anger at the lack of good governance, and what they see as the abuse of power. The arrest of Finance Minister Issawi’s guards was simply the catalyst for the release of those feelings. Spontaneously people took to the streets in four provinces, with those in Anbar and Ninewa continue to this day. People from other governorates have also gone to Anbar to show their support. The question is what can they accomplish with these protests. Will they be able to get some concessions from Baghdad or will their enthusiasm eventually wane or worse could the government crack down on them? In the previous two years when there were mass demonstrations they accomplished next to nothing, because they never developed a means to push their demands beyond the street. This time, their local governments are behind them, which could act as their representatives to press their case with the central government. Maliki’s growing criticism of events and his past actions however may not bode well for the future. The people in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Mosul and could very well end up disappointed again, because the government has proven very unresponsive to the public, and broken up demonstrations before.
Adnan, Duraid and Arango, Tim, “Arrest of a Sunni Minister’s Bodyguards Prompts Protests in Iraq,” New York Times, 12/21/12
AIN, “SLC MP demands Esawi to resign,” 12/26/12
- “SLC MP: Esawi has to adhere to judiciary, not to provoke Iraqis over arresting his guards,” 12/27/12
Al Arabiya with Reuters, “Iraqi PM orders release of female prisoners to appease protesters,” 12/31/12
Associated Press, “Sunni demonstrators challenge Iraq’s Shiite-led government, denounce bodyguards’ arrest,” 12/23/12
- “Thousands of Sunnis protest across Iraq,” 12/28/12
Aswat al-Iraq, “Tribal delegation arrives from Missan to take part in Anbar protest,” 12/25/12
Al Jazeera, “Iraqi PM questions role of Turkey in unrest,” 12/31/12
Naama, Kamal, “Sunni protesters attack Iraq official’s convoy, guards wound two,” Reuters, 12/30/12
National Iraqi News Agency, “Abdul Malik al-Saadi: Beware to attribute your sit-in to a particular component or person,” 12/30/12
- “Anbar Cleric Council demanding to declare civil disobedience,” 12/22/12
- “Anbar Provincial Council: Hashemi scenario repeated with Issawi,” 12/21/12
- “Anbar tribal council: the government incapable to meet the demands of Iraqi people,” 12/27/12
- “Arrival of / 15 / convoys from Diyala province to Ramadi,” 12/26/12
- “The arrival of demonstrators convoys from Baghdad to participate in demonstrations in Fallujah,” 12/28/12
- “Arrival of supporters from Baghdad, Tarmiyah, Dujail and Samarra to sit-in in Ramadi,” 12/26/12
- “Continues to sit for the second day in Anbar province and cut off part of the international road,” 12/24/12
- “Delegation from Basra tribes joins protests in Ramadi,” 12/27/12
- “Demonstrations in Salah al-Din condemns “arbitrary measures” against Issawi protection members,” 12/21/12
- “Demonstrations pro-Issawi in the cities of Alqaim and Rotba of Anbar province,” 12/21/12
- “Flow of hundreds of protesters from iraqi provinces continues heading to sit-in Ramadi,” 12/31/12
- “Military force prevent demonstrators from entry to Anbar province,” 12/28/12
- “Protesters from Fallujah cut off the international highway and heading to Baghdad,” 12/21/12
- “One of the injured dies due to wounds he got from Mutlaq’s bodyguards shooting,” 12/30/12
- “Samarra demonstrators urging in “Friday of pride and dignity,” the government to stop oppressive and sectarian practices,” 12/28/12
- “Source: the government forces prevent other delegations to join the Anbar sit-in,” 12/30/12
Radio Nawa, “Nineveh provincial council suspended work for three days until the implementation of the demands of the demonstrators,” 12/29/12
- “Representative of Nuri al-Maliki received the demands of the demonstrators in Anbar,” 12/29/12
Reuters, “Tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis protest against Al Maliki government,” 12/28/12
Schreck, Adam and Abdul-Zahra, Qassim, “Iraq: New Protests Break out in Sunni Stronghold,” Associated Press, 12/26/12
Shafaq News, “Council of ministers threatens government departments and those responsible for the civil disobedience of legal accountability,” 12/31/12
- “Salahuddin calls its masses to demonstrate peacefully to express their demands,” 12/31/12