Iraqis have been demonstrating in several cities since December 2012 to protest what they see as marginalization by the central government. On April 23, 2013, security forces raided a protest site in Hawija in Tamim province looking for militants that attacked an army checkpoint a few days beforehand. The operation quickly turned violent with several people killed and wounded, and dozens arrested. Immediately, there were retaliatory attacks in surrounding areas, and some leaders of the demonstrators started talking about taking on the security forces, which they claimed were under the influence of Iran. This could quickly escalate into an armed confrontation, which the activists cannot win.
Army forces preparing for their move into Hawija, April 23, 2013 (AP)
Iraqi forces moved into the Hawija protest area looking for armed men and weapons, when the situation quickly got out of hand. The spokesman for the demonstrators told the press that the security forces came in at 4:30 am on April 23, 2013. The Interior Ministry claimed the protesters were harboring insurgents and wanted men from the Baathist Naqshibandi insurgent group. The police entered wearing riot gear, and using four water cannon trucks. The Defense Ministry claimed they warned the activists beforehand to move out of the camp. When people started getting arrested, shots were fired. The police claimed they were shot at, while the protesters blamed the security forces. Afterward, the army said that 27 people were killed, 70 wounded, and 75 were detained. The cause of the raid was an attack upon an army and police checkpoint outside of Hawija on April 19, where one soldier was killed, and two were wounded. The assailants took weapons, and then disappeared into the protest site according to the Defense Ministry. Afterward, the security forces issued an ultimatum for the demonstrators to turn over those who were responsible. A leader in the popular committee directing the assemblies said that 114 people were arrested in the wake of the assault. The police and army then blockaded the protest area not allowing food, supplies, or medicines in. There were several meetings with local officials and parliamentarians to try to resolve the issue, but nothing came of them. In the meantime, the Tigris Operation Command, which has jurisdiction over Tamim, moved in three emergency police regiments, two rapid reaction police regiments, and a police brigade from Salahaddin and Diyala into the area. That all led up to the deadly clash. Iraq’s security forces have not dealt with protests well in the past. In 2012, there were several shootings and beatings of protesters with the police having a bad habit of firing live ammunition into crowds. Hawija was another example of this heavy-handed approach, which would obviously lead to a violent reaction. At the same time, some of the organizers of the movement in the city are connected to the insurgency. For example, one leader with a militant past has named his movement Jaish Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshibandi. Naqshibandi happens to be the main Baathist militant group in Iraq. The only reason to name an organization that is to either show sympathy with the former regime or being part of the movement. That means they very well could have been responsible for the attack upon the checkpoint, and might have started firing upon the police as they moved into the camp. Either way, it was a confrontation between two entities that were looking for a fight.
The political response to the raid was immediate. The Hawija protest movement called for the withdrawal of the security forces from the area, and for checkpoints in the town to be turned over to the local police. The spokesman went on to make a call for people to rise up against the Safavid government, and blaming the United States for the country’s problems, because it turned Iraq over to Iran. Safavids are a common term used by Sunnis to claim that Shiite politicians are under Tehran’s control. Some religious leaders in the city issued a statement that fighting the army was legal and a religious duty. In Anbar, Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman gave a speech saying that he would not be happy until the government was removed from office, and warning of future retaliation. Over in Ninewa’s Mosul, a demonstration spokesman said that they had given up on peaceful measures, and that armed struggle would be next. As for Iraq’s politicians, Iyad Allawi, Moqtada al-Sadr, and President of Kurdistan Massoud Barzani were all critical of the government’s actions. Speaker Osama Nujafi prophetically warned, “If this bloodshed spreads to other provinces, God forbid, there will be a huge fire that we cannot put out.” Finally, Education Minister Mohammed Tamim and Science and Technology Minister Abdul al-Karim al-Samarraie, both of the now disintegrated Iraqi National Movement, issued their resignations to protest the Hawija incident. Tamim is actually from Hawija, so he obviously had to make a strong statement. Maliki however, rejected his leaving office. Many Iraqi politicians opposed to the prime minister or hoping to make cheap political points against him have made comments in support of the demonstrations. Some like Speaker Nujafi have actually tried to take a direct hand in organizing them. The condemnations by Iraq’s political class then was expected. The comments by some protest movements were more alarming. Several warned that there might be attacks upon the security forces, which could quickly turn into direct fighting. Insurgent groups like the Naqshibandi and Al Qaeda in Iraq have attempted to move the protest movement in this direction, but with little affect so far. Hawija could give them the rallying point they need. Many demonstrators are becoming more and more militant and sectarian with their constant reference to Iranian control of Baghdad. Their moving away from talks with Maliki has also meant they have hemmed themselves into a corner where they cannot achieve anything. Turning to violence then, may be their last option, which would be a losing one since they don’t have the numbers or equipment to defeat the government, which was proven in the civil war.
Army vehicle set ablaze after being attacked by protesters in Ramadi (AP)
Despite that, the use of force was one of the first reactions to Hawija. Protesters in Ramadi, Anbar killed six soldiers, and took seven prisoners. At least two government vehicles were also set ablaze. There were attacks upon army checkpoints in al-Rashad and al-Riyadh in Tamim leaving thirteen dead. Clashes were reported in Fallujah, and a sniper there killed a policeman leading to a curfew. East of Tikrit in Salahaddin, nine police were killed, and five wounded in an attack upon checkpoints outside of the city involving heavy fighting with machine guns and mortars. The road between Tikrit and Kirkuk was shut down as a result. Some of this appeared to be directly related to protest groups such as in Ramadi. Others could have simply been insurgents taking advantage of the situation. Either way it was a troubling series of events highlighting how easily this situation could get out of hand, and spread far beyond Hawija and Tamim governorate.
Protesters in Falllujah flying Al Qaeda in Iraq flags. Could this be the direction of some demonstrators?
Iraq’s latest protest movement originally began over feelings of persecution by Prime Minister Maliki, but they quickly hit a dead end, and have become more militant since then. Some elements refuse talks with the authorities, while others have become closer to the insurgency. For example, people have been pictured flying Al Qaeda in Iraq banners, while attacks upon Baghdad as being puppets of Iran or actual Persians in disguise have become the norm. The incident in Hawija showed how much things have deteriorated. A checkpoint was attacked and blamed on the demonstrators. Talks over the matter went nowhere, and the police quickly moved in. That played into the image the activists had of the security forces, and with some of the leaders of the movement in the town being insurgents, a shootout was the result. Now the question is whether this match that has been lit can be extinguished by cooler heads amongst Iraq’s political elite or whether things will spiral out of control. Increased violence could erupt in Tamim, Anbar, Ninewa, and Salahaddin, which would lead to a crackdown upon all the protest movements. That would in turn only make militancy a move viable alternative in a vicious cycle. The demonstrators cannot win this situation, but not being able to achieve anything more with their peaceful protests may force their hand.
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