Iraq has been beset by a new wave of violence following the raid upon protesters in Hawija in Tamim province. On April 23, 2013, security forces entered the protest camp in the town looking for the assailants who attacked a checkpoint four days beforehand that left one soldier dead and three wounded. That resulted in 30 people being killed, and dozens more wounded. Immediately afterward there were retaliatory attacks across northern and western Iraq. The Baathist Naqshibandi group took responsibility for many of these operations. That insurgent movement and others have been trying to take advantage of the demonstrations for months, and might have found their way in with the Hawija incident. The protesters themselves appear split between those calling for restraint, and the far more prevalent voices that want armed action against the government. Hawija therefore has brought up the divisions not only within the demonstrators, but the insurgency as well over how they will challenge Baghdad.
After Hawija there were a few voices calling for calm amongst protesters, and even some cooperation with the security forces in Anbar. There were several Friday sermons in that governorate following the raid upon the protest camp in Tamim province that told activists to remain peaceful as long as the police and army did not provoke them. More importantly, after five soldiers were killed in Ramadi on April 27 in what appeared to be a retaliatory attack for Hawija, several tribal leaders in Anbar offered to work with the authorities to apprehend the culprits. The Albu Aetha, Albu Solda, Albu Ubaid, Albu Ali al-Jassim, and Albu Bali tribes all said that they would create a force to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq from Anbar in response, while the Albu Faraj, Albu Maree, and Albu Ubaid sheikhs said they would pull out of the protests. The Sunni Endowment in the province also called on demonstrators to turn over the killers, and that they should remain peaceful. Finally, Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha of the Awakening movement said that two people responsible for the attack had been handed to theRamadi police. These were voices of moderation amongst the barrage of militant statements by tribesmen and protesters following the Hawija incident. The actions surrounding the five dead soldiers in Ramadi was especially important, because it showed that some sheikhs did not want a repeat of what happened in Tamim, and were willing to withdraw from the demonstrations to prevent any of their tribesmen getting caught up in violence. Unfortunately, these figures were a decided minority.
Gunmen march in protest in Ramadi, Anbar, April 26, 2013 (AFP)
The majority of sheikhs, protest committees, and clerics associated with the demonstrations seemed to turn towards armed insurrection in response to the government’s actions. The protest movement in Hawija for example, said that people should fight the Safavid government in Baghdad, a sectarian phrase meant to portray the Shiite-led government being under Iran’s control. A spokesman for the demonstrators in the town went on to say that they had formed an armed wing of the Baathist Naqshibandi insurgent group after the raid. Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi, who has been the spiritual leader to many of the activists in Anbar, stated that self-defense was now legitimate, called on the Iraqi army to follow the example set in Syria and rise up against the government, and then endorsed the formation of a tribal army to protect the demonstrators in the governorate. Likewise, Anbar Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman called on the provinces’ tribes to take up arms to defend themselves, and told the army to either join the protesters or stay in their barracks. Several clerics in Fallujah announced the formation of the Pride and Dignity Army to defend the demonstrators, an imam in Samarra in Salahaddin called for the same in that area, and a spokesman for the activists in Mosul, Ninewa said that they would take up armed struggle. Protesters in many cities had become increasingly militant and sectarian, and given up on talks with Baghdad long before Hawija. Several factions in Ramadi for example, had rejected negotiations with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, other cities had been calling for his removal, while in Fallujah Al Qaeda in Iraq banners could often be seen flying during rallies. With the authorities excessive use of force in Hawija, the call for revenge was the predictable response amongst those groups that had already moved away from achieving their goals peacefully with Baghdad. The result was a wave of violence throughout northern and western Iraq.
Immediately after Hawija, a mix of demonstrators and insurgents took to the streets in several towns and cities in Iraq. There were reports of violence in Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar, Tikrit, Baiji, Tuz Kharmato, and Sulaiman Bek in Salahaddin, Baquba, Qara Tapa, and Khalis in Diyala, Mosul in Ninewa, and Al-Rashad and Al-Riyadh in Tamim. Some of these were minor incidents such as shooting at soldiers at checkpoints, but others were more serious such as militants taking over Sulaiman Bek, and shutting down important roads. This was exactly what some insurgent groups had been waiting for.
Protesters in Fallujah fly Al Qaeda in Iraq flags
Many militant organizations had been trying to take advantage of the protest movement to recruit fighters, and win them over to their side for quite some time. Besides the Al Qaeda flags being flown at protest sites in Fallujah, its umbrella organization, the Islamic State of Iraq also posted an internet statement saying they supported the activists. A fighter later told the Guardian that a truce had been made between several insurgent groups, tribes, and some factions of Al Qaeda to join the demonstrations. Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the head of the Baath Party and the Naqshibandi came out for the protests as well, saying they needed to overthrow the “Safavid-Persian alliance” in Baghdad. The Baath had their supporters amongst the demonstrators as well, such as the head of the protest movement in Hawija. After the government raid, these militants all pushed for violent responses to the government. The Naqshibandi for instance, said it would march to the capital to fight Prime Minister Maliki, and took responsibility for many of the recent attacks. One protest organizer in Fallujah, also said he had agreed to work with the Baathists. The Islamic Army however, responded that it would not follow the Naqshibandi, and would instead just protect their current positions. Like the protest movement, the insurgency is not a monolithic group. Rather it is made up of several different organizations. Ones like the Naqshibandi and the Islamic Army will likely gain more support after Hawija than others like Al Qaeda, because the former portray themselves as Iraqi nationalist groups rather than part of a global jihad as the latter. Still, each group appears to have its ties with at least some of the organizers, and can play upon those in an attempt to drive them towards fighting the government, which is their ultimate goal rather than gaining any concessions through negotiations.
Hawija could be a defining moment in Iraq like the bombing in Samarra, which set off the civil war. It has already become a rallying cry for those opposed to the government either through demonstrations or armed struggle. The question is whether the militant groups can turn the protesters to their cause, which would reinvigorate the insurgency, and lead to more widespread violence. Before, many Sunnis turned away from using force, because the memory of the sectarian conflict was still fresh in their minds where Shiite militias and the security forces that won a resounding victory drove them from many areas. Anger at Prime Minister Maliki and the raid upon protestors however, might be a tipping point for some. Still, there are voices of moderation coming out, like what happened in Ramadi after the five soldiers were killed. The coming weeks will show which side wins this battle for the hearts and minds of many Sunni towns and cities, and whether the country is heading for more instability.
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