Sunni rebellion in Iraq
As the Shia-Sunni disputes in Iraq remain under the spotlight, the country has been rocked by a Sunni rebellion, writes Salah Nasrawi
Some hailed it as an Iraqi Sunni Spring, while others just took to the streets to vent their grievances about being treated as second-class citizens. Still others said the rallies that have hit Iraq’s three Sunni provinces over recent days have taken place as a protest against a crackdown on Sunni leaders.
Whatever the reasons behind their two week-long sit-ins, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs seem to have opened a new chapter in their struggle to regain prominence a decade after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country that toppled the minority Sunni regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and propelled Iraq’s majority Shias to power.
The Sunni rebellion is a sign of regained confidence, driven by increasing support by powerful regional Sunni heavyweights such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the prospect that a Sunni-dominated regime will come to power in neighbouring Syria following the widely expected fall of President Bashar Al-Assad’s Alawite regime.
The Sunni demonstrations heralded another bad year for Iraq and raised speculation about the future of the violence-torn nation some ten years after the US-led invasion which has gripped it in its worst political deadlock and confessional divisions since it came into being in the 1920s.
The Sunni protests came as sectarian violence spiraled across the country following the US troop withdrawal last year. A series of bombings across Iraq this week killed more than two dozen people, many of them Shias who were performing pilgrimages to the holy city of Karbala.
The protests were triggered by the arrest of the bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafei Al-Essawi on 21 December.
Thousands of Sunnis massed across their three provinces with the main focus in their heartland of Anbar. Crowds also blocked the highway that links Iraq with neighbouring Jordan and Syria to increase the pressure on the Shia-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
Al-Essawi, a prominent member of the mainly Sunni Al-Iraqiya political bloc, denounced the arrests as a “deliberate and premeditated act” by Al-Maliki. He accused Al-Maliki of turning the Iraqi security forces into militias run by his office.
Al-Maliki said the executive branch had not ordered the detentions and insisted that they had been the result of an investigation carried out by the judiciary.
A spokesman for the Supreme Judiciary Council said 10 of Al-Essawi’s bodyguards were being held on suspicion of terrorism-related offences. Other sources suggested that the bodyguards had confessed to carrying out bombings on Al-Essawi’s personal orders.
Last December, several bodyguards of Sunni Vice President Tarek Al-Hashimi were arrested. Shortly afterwards, a warrant was also issued for the arrest of Al-Hashimi himself, accusing him of running sectarian death squads.
Al-Hashimi denied the charges, but fled to the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region and then to Turkey and later to Qatar. He has been sentenced to death in absentia.
The Sunnis’ anger has been growing louder for several months over what they perceive as their mistreatment in Shia-run Iraq. The complaints have included the arbitrary use of anti-terrorism laws and the prolonged detention and mistreatment of prisoners, particularly women, in government jails.
Sunni dissatisfaction with the government has been building for years, stemming from claims of marginalisation, unequal distribution of wealth, repressive actions and the government’s failure to provide jobs.
Many Sunnis have declared that they should secede from the ethnically-divided and violence-ridden country and seek their own autonomy. Proponents say that the establishment of an autonomous region would be in reaction to the Iraqi government’s neglect and exclusion of the Sunnis.
Last year, the Sunni-dominated province of Salaheddin created uproar when its local council voted to establish it as an “independent region within a unified Iraq”. The Anbar council was to follow suit, but a bid to vote on the issue was halted under pressure from Sunnis opposed to autonomy.
Such demands for autonomy are considered as a major shift in the perspective of the country’s Sunni Arabs.
Since modern Iraqi came into being after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, Sunnis have prided themselves on being a bulwark of Arab nationalism and the guardians of Iraq’s unity in the face of Kurdish secessionism and Shia disenchantment with Sunni domination.
Most Sunnis rejected Iraq’s new constitution drafted after the 2003 US-led invasion on the grounds that the document was a recipe for the end of Iraq as a unitary state, since it allowed ethnic groups, or provinces, to set themselves up as autonomous regions under a federal system, something argued for by the Kurds and backed by the Shias.
Many Sunnis boycotted Iraq’s parliamentary elections following the invasion but participated heavily in the 2010 elections, later joining a “partnership government” in the hope of ending their marginalisation under the Shia and Kurdish-controlled governments that came to power after the US-led invasion.
Although in recent demonstrations Sunnis again showed their commitment to a unified Iraq, a sectarian slant was also evident in the demonstrations.
Some protesters carried the Iraqi flag of the Saddam era and shouted anti-Shia slogans. Others carried Syria’s rebel flag and pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom many Iraqi Shias consider as an enemy.
Fugitive Vice President Al-Hashimi has been leading a campaign from his new exile in Qatar to rally Sunni support for the demonstrators.
He has called on Sunnis not to “waste the historic opportunity provided by the blessed uprising” and has also urged the Sunni Gulf countries to lend support to their Sunni brethren in Iraq.
However, the anti-Shia rhetoric has infuriated many Shias in Iraq, including those who are opposed to Al-Maliki. Prominent Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr canceled plans to send representatives to Anbar to participate in the anti-government protests and criticised the anti-Shia slant.
Even liberal-oriented Shias who disagree with al-Maliki voiced their dismay over what they saw as sectarian incitement and attempts to bring back Saddam loyalists to power.
“How can we defend the Sunnis, when their representatives fire all these words of contempt and slander against the Shias,” asked Nabil Yassin in the Al-Mowaten newspaper on Sunday.
Some Shia politicians have accused the regional governments of being behind the protests to incite “sedition”.
Turkey has headed the list of countries accused of meddling in order to destabilise Iraq. On Sunday, Al-Maliki accused Turkey of encouraging Iraqi Kurds to secede from Iraq.
Turkey has sided with the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan in its conflict with the Iraqi government. It is also working closely with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and Erdogan has said that Al-Maliki is sectarian and is discriminating against Sunni Muslims in the country.
Last week Erdogan said that “extremist Shia authorities are ruling Iraq”.
Saudi Arabia, at the forefront of the conflict against Shia Iran, has assumed the mantle of the defender of the Iraqi Sunnis.
In an article published by Project Syndicate 2012 last week, an influential member of the Saudi royal family said “Iranian intervention is tearing Iraq apart and endangering the countries around it.”
“Western and Iranian support for Nuri Al-Maliki’s government, which is controlled by Iran’s Basij militia, must be withdrawn, enabling the Iraqi people to determine freely their own destiny,” wrote prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ex-ambassador to the United States and Britain.
Qatar is also believed to be heavily involved, its Al-Jazeera satellite networks providing heavy coverage for the Sunni protests and its employees joining an anti-Shia campaign by disgruntled Iraqi Sunnis on the Internet.
As the inevitable brinksmanship plays out, the question remains of what options the Sunnis really have to advance their cause apart from street mobilisation.
One effect of their protests is a deepening division within their ranks, which could embolden Al-Maliki. Many moderate Sunni groups and leaders have expressed their dismay over the anti-Shia rhetoric, describing it as being counter-productive.
Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutleq was attacked when he visited the protesters in Anbar recently, trying to calm them. Angry crowds insisted that the Sunni official should resign from the government.
There are also signs of Shia dissent within the Al-Iraqiya bloc, which are a serious blow to its proclaimed secular mantel.
On Monday, the bloc’s Shia leader, Iyad Allawi, distanced the group from the protests in Anbar. He told the Al-Hurra television channel that he would have preferred Al-Iraqiya ministers to withdraw from the government instead.
Al-Iraqiya’s Shia spokesman Haidar Al-Mullah said he was resigning from his post because of the anti-Shia diatribes.
Prospects for these escalating Shia-Sunni tensions spiraling out of control and producing yet another civil war are sharply heightened by the new conflict.
In an interview with Al-Sumeria television on Sunday, Al-Maliki warned of “a deadlock situation” in the country.
He suggested that the Sunnis either go for a new election or sit around the negotiating table in order to try to find a solution to the crisis.
Otherwise, he said, “we are faced with either civil war or separation.”