Towards an Iraqi Spring?
Can Iraq’s Sunnis fulfil their goals without taking up arms against the country’s Shia-led government, asks Salah Nasrawi
For some six weeks, Iraqi Sunnis have kept their anti-government protests peaceful by trying to air their grievances and press their demands while distancing themselves from violent insurgency groups such as former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s diehard loyalists and the Al-Qaeda terror organisation.
While they have risen up against what they consider to be their marginalisation by the country’s Shia-led government, the Sunnis have also reached out to disgruntled Iraqi Shias and dubbed their protests the “Iraqi Spring” in emulation of the 2011 Arab Spring that toppled autocratic and corrupt regimes in three Arab countries.
However, the clashes this weekend between protesters and army troops in which several people were killed, including two soldiers, have shaken the country and sparked concerns that the peaceful rallies could turn violent.
Worse, the showdown in the town of Falluja in the Sunni heartland of western Iraq, which has boasted of the use of force to fight government troops, has raised the alarm that Iraq could descend to the bloodbaths of the sectarian war that spiked in 2006 and 2007.
The details are conflicting about the confrontation in Falluja. Government officials said protesters had tried to cross an army checkpoint on the outskirts of the town and had thrown rocks at soldiers, who opened fire in response.
Representatives of the protesters said the firing had been unwarranted. Later, two soldiers were shot dead at another of the town’s checkpoints, in apparent retaliation for Friday’s clashes.
The Falluja protest was one of several across Sunni-majority areas of Iraq that have raged in recent weeks, hardening the opposition to the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki amid political turmoil and a deterioration in security following the US withdrawal in December 2011, nine years after the beginning of its occupation.
The unrest erupted after security forces arrested members of Sunni minister of finance Rafia Al-Essawi’s security staff in December on charges of terrorism. The crackdown has enflamed Iraq’s lingering political tensions, which have been heightened since an arrest warrant was issued against Sunni vice-president Tarek Al-Hashimi, one of Al-Essawi’s political allies, in December 2011.
Al-Hashimi was accused of leading death squads and was later sentenced to multiple death sentences.
The protesters also claimed that thousands of fellow Sunnis, including women, were in prison accused of terrorism, some without being charged. They alleged that female inmates had been abused and even raped by prison or police officials, a charge denied by the government.
The protesters accused the government of sidestepping the Sunni minority in the country, which has been politically dominated by the Shia majority since the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni regime. They also complained of poor government services and a lack of economic progress in Sunni areas.
Initially, the protesters denounced the crackdown on the Sunnis and then demanded the ending of what they described as their marginalisation and discriminatory measures against them, such as the de-Baathification law which bans senior members of the former Saddam regime from government employment.
They have also demanded modifications to the anti-terrorism laws and an amnesty for Sunni prisoners convicted on terrorism charges.
Al-Maliki has agreed to meet the Sunni protesters half-way and has promised to release some prisoners, but he has remained non-committal about the protesters’ demands to abolish the de-Baathification and anti-terrorism measures.
“If we did that, it would mean that the [former ruling] Baath Party would make a comeback, and we would find ourselves again in prison,” he told Al-Baghdadiya television on Sunday.
In return, the Sunnis have hardened their positions and called on Al-Maliki to resign. They also want to abolish the political process forged by the US occupation authority, which they believe has empowered the Shias at their expense.
In the face of the army intervention in Falluja, Sunni tribal leaders threatened to launch attacks against the army in the western province of Anbar, which has been the centre of the protests.
The leaders said they had given the government one week to arrest the soldiers responsible for opening fire on the crowd. On Sunday, eight missiles were fired on a military camp in the province.
The threats to resort to arms, whether real or rhetorical, have raised serious questions about what options the protesters have if the Shia-led government remains unwilling to make compromises on their key demands.
This is the nub of the issues that the Sunnis will have to address as they insist on embracing and defending their stated goals.
Many Sunnis resorted to arms after the overthrow of Saddam, only to abandon the insurgency later and become actively involved in the political process, raising hopes that the Sunnis would finally join in rebuilding the country following the US withdrawal.
Only Al-Qaeda and a few other small groups said they would fight on to topple the Shia-led government.
Many observers believe that a large-scale insurgency now is not a viable strategy for Sunnis to achieve their goals of ending marginalisation and discrimination.
Genuinely standing up to the Shia-led government and its army militarily would require more than bombings and clashes with the security forces, since these may inflict deaths and destruction but they are unlikely to achieve political objectives and could draw sectarian reprisals.
Most Sunnis live in Baghdad and other ethnically mixed provinces where they are outnumbered by Shias. Sectarian strife could trigger ethnic cleansing that could drive them out of the capital to Sunni pockets in the provinces in a strategic muddle not guided by any clearly calculated long-term vision.
Also, if the government pulls out the army and federal police force from Sunni areas in response to the threats, Al-Qaeda and other hardline groups will return and gain control of them.
Since the start of the protests in late December Al-Qaeda has mounted a violent campaign against Iraqi military barracks, checkpoints, and security forces in Baghdad, Diyala, and Anbar provinces.
The attacks have reinforced the government’s claim that the protests have been infiltrated by extremists such as Al-Qaeda and members of Saddam’s Baath Party, who have been trying to steer them away from peaceful demonstrations and use Sunni areas to launch terrorist attacks against the government and security forces.
If anything has been demonstrated by the protests, it is that sectarianism and inter-ethnic conflicts have been major forces shaping Iraq and the structure and stability of the state since the US withdrawal.
Ten years after the US-led invasion of the country, the process had wound up almost exactly where it started — an Iraq embodied in a US-engineered structure, a divided nation, and a failed state.
Iraqi Sunni Arabs are strongly opposed to the federal system forged by the US occupation, which strengthened the hands of the Shias in the south and the Kurds in the north at their expense.
The Sunnis, who maintained political power in modern Iraq until the overthrow of the Saddam regime, may never feel truly part of the nation without the crucial first step of reintegrating them on a more equitable basis.
On the other hand, it is impossible to conceive of any sustainable outcome in Iraq without a political agreement based on recognising the Shias as the majority wielding power appropriate to their numbers and addressing their past misgivings and fears of marginalisation and accommodating Kurdish aspirations to self-rule.
Through their mass protests, Iraqi Sunnis have made their voices heard, but they now have to find an appropriate strategy to lure the Shias into broaching a new deal, one that begins moving in the direction of reforming the political process towards one based on citizenship and democracy and not sectarian power-sharing.