Change of landscape in Iraq?
Iraqi Sunni protesters have rejected concessions offered by the country’s Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and are pushing hard to change the political landscape, writes Salah Nasrawi
Angered by Iraq’s Shia-led government’s procrastination in ending what they consider to be their marginalisation and the exclusion of their sect, the country’s minority Sunnis have stepped up their resistance and after protests lasting several weeks are seeking to topple the US-engineered political process that they believe has empowered the majority Shias at their expense.
The Sunni protests erupted in late December after government forces arrested security staff of the country’s Sunni finance minister on terrorism charges. The protesters first denounced the crackdown on Sunnis and then demanded better treatment for Sunni inmates in government prisons.
They also complained of poor government services and a lack of economic development in Sunni areas.
Sunni demonstrators later came up with a host of demands, largely centring on ending exclusionary measures against them, such as the de-Baathification law which bans senior members of the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein from government employment.
They also demanded modifications to the anti-terrorism laws and an amnesty for Sunni prisoners convicted on terrorism charges.
Sunni Arabs maintained political power in Iraq after the modern state came into being in the 1920s following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, marginalising Shia Arabs and Kurds.
Saddam’s Baath Party, most of whose members were Sunnis, ruled a single-party state for 35 years until it was overthrown by the 2003 US-led invasion. A federal system forged by the US occupation then strengthened the hands of the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north, minimising the Sunnis’ overall influence.
A Sunni insurgency against US occupation troops turned sour after it was hijacked by Saddam loyalists and the Al-Qaeda terror group, pitching them against the country’s Shia-led security forces.
Over the past 10 years, the rebellion has pushed Iraq close to a bloody sectarian war many times following orchestrated bombing attacks on Shias.
Now the country’s Sunnis hope that through the protests and sit-ins that have swept across Sunni provinces and Baghdad’s Sunni neighbourhoods they can abolish the political structure forged by the US occupation authority, allowing them to negotiate a more equitable governing system.
Six weeks after the protests erupted, the demonstrators have hardened their positions, and they are now demanding an overhaul of the political process, including drafting a new constitution and abolishing laws which they say were enacted to sidestep them.
They have also called on incumbent Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to step down in order to clear the way for new elections and the restructuring of the government, the army and security forces to include more Sunnis.
On Friday, many protesters in Anbar, Mosul, Samarra and other Sunni areas shouted cries of “leave, leave” and “the people want to overthrow the regime,” a central chant of the 2011 Arab Spring that toppled three Arab dictators.
Many protesters also blasted what they called neighbouring Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and its support for Shia political groups.
Al-Maliki’s initial response to the protests was defiance and arrogance, calling the demonstrators “a bubble” and scoffing at their slogans as “rotten”. He also accused them of harbouring foreign agendas and threatened to arrest the protesters if they tried to close down government offices.
But as the protests escalated and their demands snowballed, Al-Maliki named a committee to address the protesters’ demands, and ordered the release of hundreds of Sunni detainees in an effort to appease the rallies.
He also promised to consider an amnesty for prisoners if they were pardoned by the victims or their families.
The Shia Iraqi National Coalition that forms the backbone of Al-Maliki’s government invited Sunni and Kurdish politicians for talks in a bid to resolve the dispute that has already paralysed parliament and the cabinet.
The Sunni protests show no sign of abating, and leaders insist they will not abandon their gatherings until all their demands are met. The protesters are seemingly receiving support from political and religious leaders who have been taking a back seat in the confrontations, allowing the protesters to make their voices heard.
On Sunday, Sunni deputy prime minister and a top leader of the Sunni Al-Iraqiya bloc, Saleh Al-Mutlek, said that Sunni politicians would not meet again with their Shia counterparts if the government did not meet the protesters’ demands.
In further signs of the protesters gaining clout, the prominent Sunni cleric Abdel-Malik Al-Saadi turned down requests from government officials for a meeting to ask for his help in calming the protesters.
Instead, he told them to go to see the protests’ leaders and listen to their demands.
The protesters have also received backing from Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, who described the demonstrators’ demands as “legitimate”.
“The federal government… has increased the crisis through neglect and threats that have led to dangerous consequences,” he said in a statement issued late on Saturday.
Barzani, who has accused Al-Maliki of being a dictator, attempted last year to convince parliament to withdraw confidence in the prime minister but could not master enough votes.
Al-Maliki has also been facing challenges from inside his own camp over the way he has been handling the dispute with the Sunnis, and former vice president Adel Abdel-Mahdi criticised the way prisons in Iraq were run by the government.
“Obviously, thousands of Iraqis are subject to injustice,” he wrote in a syndicated article this week.
Mounir Haddad, a Shia judge in Iraq’s Special Criminal Court, accused prison officials of committing crimes against humanity. “Arab Sunnis are subject to injustice worse than that suffered by Shias under Saddam,” Haddad told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper on Sunday.
“Torture, abuse and murder by torture are common,” he said.
The Sunni protests are certainly not making life easier for Al-Maliki, but it is unclear if they can topple the Shia prime minister who has been able to outmanoeuvre his enemies with political monopoly and brinkmanship.
In addition, Iran, which considers Al-Maliki to be one of its staunchest allies in Iraq, has already stepped in and made it clear that he can depend on its full support.
“The Iraqi government is strong… and has reached power through the ballot box,” Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told a Lebanese television station on Saturday.
“We know enemies of the Iraqi people will not stand idle, but the Iraqi government is quite capable of dealing with these enemies,” he said.
Al-Maliki is also using government resources to mobilise public support. Last week, a few hundred of his supporters who were reportedly brought in by government buses, held rallies across Iraq demanding that the government not give in to the Sunnis’ demands.
In Baghdad, demonstrators carrying the prime minister’s picture decorated with slogans hailing him as a Shia hero, demanded that Al-Maliki be elected to a third term.
Al-Maliki is also benefiting from Sunni divisions. While moderate Sunnis want to work with the prime minister to improve power-sharing agreements, hardliners are calling for escalation, including a civil-disobedience campaign that would feature strikes and the boycott of the government in Sunni provinces.
Two tribal leaders believed to support a peaceful resolution of the crisis were killed last week. On Sunday, Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the assassination of Ifan Al-Essawi, a moderate Sunni lawmaker believed to be mediating between the protesters and the government.
The group said in a statement that its fighters had killed Al-Essawi because he was a “dog of the Americans” and a “tail of the Shias”.
Such murders and intimidation by Al-Qaeda will certainly raise concerns among moderate Sunnis that breaking with the central government will embolden the terror group at their expense.
It is not clear, however, if Iraqi Sunnis will be able to topple Al-Maliki or drastically change what they perceive as the country’s unequal political structure.
However, one lesson they can extract from the protests is that they have been able to give themselves a leg up and make their voices heard.