Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Iraq’s Protest Movement Splits Over Federalism

Since December 2012 there have been demonstrations throughout Anbar, Ninewa, Diyala, Tamim, and Salahaddin provinces over the perceived marginalization of Sunnis by the central government. Since that time the protesters have faced many divisions over leadership and tactics. That continues to the present day with the issue of federalism, being the newest point of contention within the movement.
Raising the issue of federalism at Friday prayers in Fallujah has led to two clashes in May 2013 (AP)
The issue of whether to make Sunni provinces of Iraq their own federal regions has become the newest divider amongst the country’s protesters. During Friday prayers on May 24, 2013, there was a clash in Fallujah in Anbar over the issue. The committee in charge of the movement there hoisted banners calling for regionalism, which led to some members of the crowd to start throwing things, leading to a fight breaking out. Afterward, one participate said that the people opposed making any province its own region, and that they stood for the unity of Iraq. This was actually the second time this happened in the city. At the beginning of May, a speaker was talking about how the prime minister should resign or there might be civil war. He went on to say that the country should be divided, so that Sunnis could rule themselves. Again, some protesters began throwing water bottles at the stage to express their opposition to that idea. The talk of forming Sunni regions has just entered the lexicon of the protest movements in the last several weeks. Some common rhetoric heard is that the government refuses to deal with the protesters’ demands, and are supporting militias that are killing people, while the security forces do nothing. (1) Given this situation, Sunni provinces like Anbar have nothing left to do, but to form their own regions, which would theoretically give them more local control over their own affairs, and not have to rely upon a Baghdad, which they hold in deep contempt and suspicion.

Over the last month or so, calls for federalism have increased at various protest sites. Besides Fallujah, regionalism could be heard during Friday May 24 prayers in Ramadi, where the speaker warned of armed struggle if Anbar was not given autonomy. In Samarra, Salahaddin, the People’s Committee handed out a questionnaire to those in attendance asking for their preference to either defend the province or make it a region. In Ninewa’s Mosul, an imam said that federalism was the best answer to the problems of Iraq, while another cleric in Kirkuk said that Baghdad had ignored the demonstrators, and therefore they wanted self-rule like the Kurds. The increased calls for autonomy for Sunni regions followed Sheikh Abdul Malik Saadi, the spiritual leader of the majority of the protest movement, giving up on his initiative to form a committee that would negotiate with the government. On May 13, he offered to form a group of local leaders from Anbar to talk with the government in Samarra, which is in Salahaddin, but is the site of a Shiite shrine. In just six days he withdrew his offer. It’s not clear how serious he was about the plan or whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ever considered it. What is for sure is that afterward, the calls for regionalism increased across many of the protest sites. This did not appear to be a unanimous decision however.

The protesters and their leadership are divided over federalism. Sheikh Mohammed Bijari a member of the Fallujah Clan Council told the press that there were disagreements on the matter. Some religious leaders, a spokesman for the Sunni Endowment, the Anbar Tribes Chiefs, and even Sheikh Saadi have all expressed opposition to the idea. On the other hand, other groups such as the Iraqi Islamic Party have come out in support of the concept. According to several reports the differences over regionalism has led to many disputes within the protest leadership. It’s having an affect upon the regular protesters as well as the events in Fallujah showed. Maliki has thrown in his hat saying on May 20, that if a province wanted to enact federalism, they could do so as long as it was done legally and according to the constitution. The premier stopped Salahaddin and other Sunni provinces from doing just that last year, so his comments were probably just political rhetoric. Ironically, since 2003 both the premier and the majority of Sunnis have stood for a strong central government. Many of the former still hold onto that idea, while others are now embracing it since they have gained little from their actions over the last five months.

Iraq is going through dramatic changes right now. Sunnis across northern and western Iraq have been taking to the streets to protest against what they feel is victimization by the central government. This movement has continuously been divided over a number of issues, and federalism is the newest one. Calls for making Anbar, Salahaddin, and other governorates their own regions has become part of the weekly rhetoric coming out of Friday prayers. Not all the participants agree about this tactic as the incidents in Fallujah showed. One legacy of Saddam Hussein upon Iraq is the belief in a strong central government. Many Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, hold onto this belief. It’s only been in recent weeks that the protester organizers have been pushing federalism, seemingly out of frustration. It’s yet to be seen how far they will push this issue. Becoming a region requires specific steps such as a referendum according to the constitution, and that has not happened yet. With the divisions it’s bringing out it’s unclear whether this will ever occur.


1. Dar Addustour, “Clashes with hands and sticks in the yard of Fallujah because banners demanding a region – protests enter day 154 .. and preachers six provinces are demanding dialogue,” 5/24/13


Al-Abdeh, Malik, “Sunnism is Our Slogan,” The Majalla, 4/30/13

Alsumaria, “Iraqi PM welcomes establishing a region in western provinces,” 5/21/13

Daoud, Hussein Ali, “Iraq More Divided Than Ever,” Al Hayat, 5/20/13

Dar Addustour, “Clashes with hands and sticks in the yard of Fallujah because banners demanding a region – protests enter day 154 .. and preachers six provinces are demanding dialogue,” 5/24/13

Habib, Musafa, “100 days on: sunni protests won’t stop – but will they become violent?” Niqash, 4/4/13

Independent Press Agency, “Anbar is preparing today to “option to the people of the field,” 5/24/13

National Iraqi News Agency, “Abu Risha: Anbar’s residents are committed to the unity of Iraq refuse the Division Plan,” 5/5/13
- “Anbar Tribes Council rejects changing Anbar province into region,” 3/13/13
- “Imam Fri of Kirkuk/ options open/Iraq remains our choice and our land,” 5/3/13
- “Imam of Samarra Fri-pryers : replace Maliki and regions formation are of/ 4 / options to resolve the crisis,” 5/3/13

Parker, Ned, “Sword of division is poised over Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, 5/10/13

Radio Nawa, “People’s Committees in Samarra distributed a questionnaire forms for the best choice of the six provinces on protesters,” 5/24/13

Rudaw, “Iraq’s Sunnis Divided Over Need for Their Own Federal Region,” 5/15/13

Sadah, Ali Abel, “Sunni Tribes in Anbar, Kirkuk Prepare for Battle,” Al-Monitor, 5/3/13

Shafaq News, “Saadi gives up his initiative,” 5/19/13

Sotaliraq, “Clashes with hands and sticks in the yard of a sit-in in Fallujah because of raising people’s committees banners demanding “Territory,” 5/24/13
- “Khatib Mosul: the region is the best choice and save religion takes precedence over home,” 5/24/13

Wicken, Stephen, “2013 Iraq Update #20: Presidency and Protests Turn Attention to Negotiation,” Institute for the Study of War, 5/17/13

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