Thousands of Iraqis gathered in Fallujah on Saturday, 26 January, to bury the protesters killed the day before by Iraqi Army fire. At a protest following the funerals, demonstrators denounced the government in language reminiscent of the early stages of the uprising in Syria, chanting "Listen Maliki, we are free people" and "Take your lesson from Bashar.” Many protesters displayed Saddam-era flags, signaling their sympathy with the former Ba’ath regime. Photos from the funeral also show demonstrators waving the black flag of al-Qaeda.
In a televised interview broadcast on Saturday, prominent Anbari tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha issued an ultimatum giving the government seven days to turn over those responsible for killing the protesters or face "losses among their ranks." Abu Risha’s statements echoed threats that other prominent tribal sheikhs, including Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, had issued on Friday. Tribal leaders, rather than local or national Sunni politicians, are likely guiding the crowds’ responses to the crisis, for now. But it is difficult to see how Maliki can meet the sheikhs’ ultimatum.
Also on Saturday, militants continued their attacks against Iraqi army positions in and around Fallujah. Iraqi media reported clashes between gunmen and security forces in the Moheet and Julan neighborhoods of eastern Fallujah. Militants also overran a military post in northern Fallujah after attacking it with mortars and RPGs. In a separate incident, the Iraqi Security Forces, via the Anbar Operations Command, reported that protesters overran and set fire to an army checkpoint, but that no one was hurt in the incident. Three off-duty soldiers en route to Baghdad were also kidnapped south of the city that day.
The al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks against government forces, is likely linked to Saturday’s incidents. The group has tried to escalate current crisis through provocative attacks, and it is possible that it could draw increased support from disaffected Sunnis as the standoff with the government turns violent. It is also possible that the group’s actions are being tolerated right now by Anbari tribal leaders who have sought to maintain control of their constituents while satisfying demands for revenge.
The Iraqi Army seems to be attempting to exercise restraint rather than escalating the confrontation. The Iraqi government announced it had pulled army forces from the Fallujah following the deaths of six soldiers and police were killed in incidents on Saturday and another early Sunday. Other anti-government demonstrations took place in Mosul, but the federal police forces withdrew from the protest area fearing a violent confrontation.
As the events unfolded in Fallujah, the Iraqi parliament passed legislation barring the prime minister from seeking a third term in office—a move prompted by the violent events, as well as longstanding fears over his consolidation of power and authoritarian tendencies. The bill drew support from 170 parliamentarians, including those from Iraqiyya, the Kurdish parties, and the Sadrist Trend. The move was significant for opponents of Maliki, who have previously struggled to gain a 163-vote majority required for a no-confidence vote in the prime minister. Political parties do seem to be rallying against the Prime Minister in the wake of the shootings.
Yet the term limit initiative is unlikely to result in real limitations on the prime minister. In 2010, the judiciary ruled that only the cabinet could draft new legislation, effectively limiting the legislative power of the parliament. Members of Maliki’s State of Law coalition have already indicated they will challenge the bill and will likely receive judicial support for their appeal. The Federal Supreme Court might also strike down the term limits on grounds that it attempts to alter constitutional provisions while bypassing the prescribed amendment process. The Parliament has in fact demanded that Maliki show his hand and his intent to retain or relinquish power through electoral means. Maliki has refused.
Maliki had previously tried to contain the protests through non-violent means. Maliki had offered notional concessions by standing up a committee led by Maliki ally Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani to investigate protest demands and releasing some detainees. He had also closed the Jordanian border, a critical commercial node in Anbar’s economy, in order to strangle off the protests and logistics supporting them. Yet Maliki had also warned that he would not allow the demonstrations to continue indefinitely.
The recent violence leaves Maliki with few good options to prevent the conflict’s escalation while retaining power. He is not likely to be able to meet the sheikhs’ demands to turn over the Iraqi soldiers responsible for the violence, because to do so would enervate his entire army. He might offer promptly to pay compensation or involve tribal leaders in a joint investigation, but such concessions will not likely suffice even if made rapidly.
Friday’s escalation and the subsequent attacks against Iraqi Security Forces may ultimately require Maliki to respond with force, even though he may not wish to do so as of today. The violent confrontation will likely persist as both sides take retaliatory measures. Anbari tribal sheikhs’ restraint is not likely to last more than the seven days that they have given Maliki to act. Increasing sectarian polarization has deterred meaningful negotiation and compromise, and reduces the likelihood of a political solution to the crisis. Iraq may be tipping toward a destructive civil war.
Anti-government demonstrations turned violent today as Iraqi security forces fired on protesters in Fallujah. The confrontation began when protesters in eastern Fallujah attempted to join Friday’s demonstration and were blocked by security forces deployed from Baghdad. The demonstrators began to throw rocks and water bottles at the security forces at the checkpoint. In videos from the scene, the protesters appear to be unarmed, though Prime Minister Maliki later accused the demonstrators of firing on security forces. Iraqi army forces escalated by firing warning shots into the air, but soon they began to fire directly at the crowd. Protesters also escalated by torching several army vehicles and two cars, including one belonging to an Iraqiyya politician and another to a local politician. Initial reports indicate as many as seven protesters were killed and more than 60 were wounded in the incident.
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The Iraqi government responded by instituting a vehicle ban and curfew in Fallujah. The Ministry of Defense also announced it would launch an investigation into the incident and that federal police would replace Iraqi army units in Fallujah within 24 hours. The Iraqi Army unit involved in the confrontation is not known. Soldiers from the 1st Division (also known as the 1st Rapid Intervention Force) are present in Fallujah, but the force may have been from the 6th or 9th Iraqi Army Divisions, which are stationed in and north of Baghdad. The 6th Iraqi Army Division has a brigade stationed in Abu Ghraib, not far from Fallujah.
Several hours later, clashes between gunmen and security forces occurred in the al-Askari neighborhood in eastern Fallujah and the al-Shuhada neighborhood in southern Fallujah. In the latter incident, unknown gunmen attacked an army checkpoint in southern Fallujah, killing three soldiers. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a group linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq, is claiming responsibility for the attacks and calling for people to join the "jihad" in Fallujah on Twitter. On Friday evening, they declared that "gunmen [were] deployed in the streets of Fallujah to protect the protesters."
That evening, tribal leaders in Ramadi attempted to calm demonstrators after the Fallujah events. Angry crowds in Ramadi chanted “the people want to declare jihad against the government,” rebuffing tribal figures. However, the tribal sheikhs responded by condemning members of the Anbar Provincial Council for being corrupted by association with the central government.
Prominent Anbari tribal sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman called for an immediate investigation to name those responsible for killing the protesters. He insisted that the protesters were unarmed and had committed no crime. He threatened to take his armed men to Fallujah to confront the army the next day if the perpetrators of the violence were not named.
Maliki initially accused “a group of misguided people” of attacking an army checkpoint in a “deliberate act”. However, he also warned of attempts by intelligence services of regional actors, “remnants of the former regime,” and al-Qaeda “to drag the armed forces into a confrontation with the demonstrators.” The premier called on tribal figures from Anbar to “move to extinguish the fire of sedition,” and asked demonstrators to abstain from provoking the army.
After a meeting of Iraqiyya leaders at the residence of Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi on Friday evening, Iraqiyya called for the Shi’a Iraqi National Alliance and the religious authority in Najaf to replace Maliki. Nujaifi stated that the coalition held the National Alliance responsible for Maliki’s actions, and demanded that the bloc provide an alternative candidate who “respects Iraqi blood and preserves the unity, stability, and security of Iraq.” Nujaifi added that political dialogue was unfeasible with Maliki in place. Saleh al-Mutlak, a founding Iraqiyya leader who has become estranged from the rest of the bloc’s leadership in recent weeks, announced the withdrawal of his National Dialogue Front (Hiwar) from the upcoming provincial elections in protest at the “crimes” against the demonstrators. This is not the first time Mutlak has threatened an electoral boycott: he made similar statements during the de-Ba’athification crisis ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections, although he later retracted his threats. Mutlak was attacked by protesters in Anbar in late December, suggesting that his support among Sunni Arabs has declined recently.
Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the “assault” on the demonstrators and called on the security forces to “exercise the highest degree of restraint”, stressing the need to “provide security and protection for the demonstrators and maintain their safety.”
Today’s events suggest a significant escalation in Iraq’s ongoing crisis after weeks of anti-government protests. Sunni protesters and tribal leaders in Anbar are now threatening to abandon politics and return to violence as the primary means for addressing their grievances. A violent response by Sunni groups or security forces could prompt security and stability in Iraq to unravel.
The heat map displays attacks in Iraq from January 1-23, 2013. Data was compiled from open-source reporting from Western and Iraqi sources. This map does not provide an exhaustive account of security incidents in Iraq during the period in question; rather, it represents geographic concentrations of violence.
The volume and lethality of terrorist attacks in Iraq has risen in January 2013 compared to the final three months of 2012. In the context of Iraq’s current political crises, these attacks threatened to ignite growing sectarian, ethnic, and political tensions and suggest a concerted effort by radical Sunni elements to undermine the peaceful anti-government movement and eliminate its tribal leadership.
So far, there have been more deaths in January 2013 than in December, November, or October of 2012. According to the AFP count, at least 218 people have been killed since the New Year, up from 144 in December, 160 in November, and 136 in October of last year. The British NGO Iraq Body Count marks January’s death toll at over 300. According to the Olive Group, the week of January 14 – 20, 2013 saw the highest number of reported security incidents in Iraq in the last 12 months, with the number of incidents in the North Central Region (Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din, and Diyala) nearly double the weekly average. The rise in this month’s volume of attacks and number of causalities demonstrates the enduring capacity of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the umbrella organization of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the group likely responsible for the majority of the attacks.
In the summer of 2012, ISI launched the so-called “Destroying the Walls” campaign in an attempt to free Sunni prisoners and regain lost territory in Iraq. In particular, the campaign featured three attack waves in July, August, and September, each hitting a wide range of targets in a single day, in some cases from Basra to Mosul. This month’s attacks, however, have not occurred as a single attack wave, but have come in the form of weekly spectacular attacks that have included suicide bombings, shootings, and political assassinations.
ISI likely launched high-profile, targeted attacks in order to thwart the political and tribal leadership of the current anti-government movement in northern and western Iraq and take revenge against former Sahwa members. In the past week, suspected al-Qaeda gunmen assassinated two Sunni tribal leaders, Saber Ahmed al-Abassi in Salah ad-Din and Mohammed Hadi al-Julaimi in Anbar. Both individuals are former Sahwa leaders and reportedly helped organize the recent anti-government protests. These targeted attacks follow last week’s assassinations of Mohammed Abdul Rabbo al-Jubouri in Ninewa and Iraqiyya MP Ayfan Saadun al-Issawi in Anbar, both prominent supporters of the ongoing demonstrations. As Iraqi Sunnis become increasingly disillusioned with the failures of political participation, ISI will likely increase its attempts to radicalize the anti-government movement and sideline Sunni tribal leaders.
In a statement released on January 20th, ISI claimed responsibility for the assassination of Ayfan Saadun al-Issawi. The group labeled al-Issawi as a traitor and a “dog of the Americans,” stating that his death should “be an example and a lesson for those after him.” Voicing its support for the rebel forces in Syria, ISI justified attacks in Anbar as a means to “cut off the vein that is extending the life of the [Assad] regime to kill your brothers in the Levant.” ISI has demonstrated its intent to conduct both targeted political assassinations and large scale bombings, in order to take advantage of the growing sectarian crisis in Iraq and Syria and seek retribution against former Sahwa leaders.
ISI attacks are not limited to Sunni areas. Several recent high-profile attacks have targeted Shi’ite and Kurdish areas of Salah ad-Din and Kirkuk, and they coincide with a tense military standoff between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the disputes territories along the Green Line, threatening to exacerbate tensions.
On January 23, a suicide bomber infiltrated a funeral procession in the Shi’ite Sayyid al-Shuhada Mosque in the northern town of Tuz Khurmatu. At least 42 people were killed and dozens more wounded, making the attack the deadliest since ISI’s late summer “Destroying the Walls” campaign. Tuz Khurmatu sits on the ethno-sectarian fault line between the Kurdish Regional Government in the north and the Iraqi central government and has been a primary target for ISI attacks in the past because of its demographics. The town is home to a number of Turkmen Shi’ites and Kurds. In recent weeks, ISI has targeted Kurdish political offices, including the local office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Tuz Khurmatu on January 16.
The geographic spread of ISI’s recent attacks is consistent with the group’s historic areas of operation in northern and central Iraq. This month’s attacks are concentrated around Fallujah and Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad; towns in southern Diyala province; areas along the Tigris river in Salah ad-Din province; and the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul in the north. These areas are also the focal points for the anti-government demonstrations. In statements released this month, ISI has voiced its support of the anti-government movement, while continuing to assassinate the tribal leaders organizing the efforts. Unsurprisingly, many prominent tribal leaders, including Ali Hatem al-Suleiman in Anbar, have rejected ISI’s support for the protests. This month’s attacks are a reminder that ISI is a powerful actor with the capability to threaten the fragile ethno-sectarian balance in Iraq. As the political crises in Iraq progress, ISI will continue to take advantage of growing tensions and exacerbate the already flammable situation in Iraq.
A series of attacks this week targeted prominent Sunni leaders and Kurdish political offices as anti-government demonstrations continued in Iraq for a fourth week. While no group has thus far claimed responsibility, the attacks have the potential to escalate the political crisis in Iraq and may suggest a move by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to exacerbate already strained ethno-sectarian tensions. The targeting of Sunni officials will likely raise questions within the Sunni population regarding the possibility of the government of Iraq’s involvement and its inability to provide adequate security. AQI may also be attempting to ignite the military standoff between Iraqi and Peshmerga military forces in the north. Thus, the attacks add to the complexity of the ongoing political and security crises in Iraq.
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The first attack took place on January 13th when Iraqi Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi’s convoy wastargeted by a roadside improvised explosive device (IED) near the city of Fallujah, just west of Baghdad. Issawi was traveling between Fallujah and Abu Ghraib when the IED detonated, hitting a vehicle in the convoy but resulting in no fatalities. While no group has claimed responsibility for the attack, it bears the hallmarks of AQI; however, Iraqiyya has blamed the Maliki government. Two days after the attack, Iraqiyya parliamentarian Muthar al-Janabi accused the Muthanna Brigade (also known as the 24th Infantry Brigade of the Iraqi 6th Army Division) of orchestrating the attack against Issawi. Janabi claimed that the Muthanna Brigade, which operates around Abu Ghraib, has a precedent of targeting or facilitating attacks against Maliki’s political opponents, citing two attempts against Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq in the area over the last year, including an IED attack last August. Following the assassination attempt, the Iraqiyya bloc called for a full investigation, stating that it holds Maliki responsible for security lapses as commander-in-chief.
A day later, on January 14th, unidentified gunmen assassinated tribal leader Mohammed Taher Abdul Rabbo al-Jubouri near his house outside the town of Badush in Ninewa province, northwest of Mosul. Rabbo was reportedly one of the main organizers of the ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Ninewa province. He also headed the Independent Elder Spears Bloc that is registered to participate in the upcoming provincial elections as part of the Iraqi Nakhweh Coalition in Ninewa province, a coalition consisting of tribal and religious groups in Ninewa. Atheel Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewa and a supporter of the anti-government demonstrations, and his first deputy attended Rabbo’s funeral on January 16th.
Attacks also targeted senior Sunni Awakening leaders in Anbar. On January 15th, a suicide bomber disguised as a construction worker assassinated Iraqiyya MP Ayfan Saadun al-Issawi near the town of Fallujah. The explosion killed Saadun and six others, including members of his security detail. Saadun was a prominent leader of the Awakening movement and a previous target of attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq. He was not related to Rafia al-Issawi.In a separate incident, mortars targeted the home of Hamid al-Hayes on January 16th, a prominent Anbar Awakening leader and the chairman of the Anbar Salvation Council, which is registered for the provincial elections in Anbar. Hamid al-Hayes has generally been politically aligned with Maliki; the Anbar Salvation Council backed his candidacy for premiership in 2010. AQI is likely using the current environment both to exacerbate sectarian tensions between Sunni protesters and Maliki’s Shi’ite government and to settle old scores with the Awakening.
Following this week’s attacks, however, numerous political parties and tribal groups have focused their blame on Maliki’s government for failing to provide adequate security against terrorist attacks. In a statement, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) declared that the two recent assassinations “aim at hindering the calls for reformations and silencing the masses’ voice.” Others have accused Iran of playing a role in the attacks in order to deter anti-government demonstrations. Awakening leader Abu Risha blamed the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for facilitating the assassinations under the guise of al-Qaeda in Iraq. Furthermore, tribal leader Ali Hatem al-Suleiman warned of the use of Iranian militias to break up protests. Despite the lack of evidence of Iranian involvement in the attacks, such statements demonstrate the growing sectarian framing of the conflict.
AQI may also be attempting to aggravate ethnic tensions as car bombs targeted Kurdish political offices on January 16th in northern Iraq. In the disputed city of Kirkuk, a suicide truck bomb detonated outside the local office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Kurdish political party led by President of the Kurdistan Regional Government Massoud Barzani. On the same day, a suicide car bomb targeted the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Tuz Khurmatu, a city south of Kirkuk. Over the past few months, tension between Baghdad and Erbil has remained high as negotiations have failed to diffuse the military standoff around Kirkuk. Violent attacks, therefore, increase the danger of miscalculation.
AQI has a long history of targeting Sunni, Kurdish, and Shi’a government officials, and this week’s attacks may be an attempt by the terrorist group to take advantage of the heightened political crisis to exacerbate ethno-sectarian tensions. Even if AQI is responsible, Maliki’s government will likely be blamed for failing to provide security, and the continued targeting of Sunni officials may fuel greater Sunni discontent in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Ninewa. At the same time, Iraqi security forces continue to encircle the anti-government demonstrations in an effort to prevent their spread. The Iraq-Jordan border remains closed, despite pledges of its reopening. In the north, Iraq stated that it has closed the Rabia and Walid border crossings with Syria until January 20th for unspecified security reasons. The Tigris Operations Command also announced plans to restrict protests in Hawija. Maliki has already warned demonstrators of terrorist plots in Fallujah and Ramadi, a move meant to deter protests. This week’s attacks may provide Maliki an excuse to further increase security cordons around the anti-government demonstrations, which could ultimately lead to miscalculation and confrontation with the protesters. Despite measures to contain the demonstrations, anti-government protests continue and preparations for this Friday’s rallies are well underway. AQI continued efforts to fuel the political crisis heighten the danger for escalation.
Over the last three weeks, both anti-government and pro-government demonstrations have spread across Iraq, split geographically along sectarian lines. The graphics below depict where anti-government protests first erupted and how they have steadily spread throughout predominantly Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad. After two weeks of anti-government demonstrations, pro-government counter-protests emerged in the southern predominately Shi’a provinces. The geographic split of the movements is both a factor and an accelerant of sectarian tensions in Iraq.
Figure 1- Click to enlarge
The arrest of Iraqi Finance Minister Rafa al-Issawi’s security detail on December 20, 2012 sparked anti-government protests in his native Anbar province, which quickly spread to Salah ad-Din and Ninewa. Figure 1 depicts the protests that occurred between December 21st and December 28th. Throughout the first week, tribal delegations traveled from Salah ad-Din, Diyala, Baghdad, Maysan, and Basra to Ramadi, which has become the focal point of the anti-government movement. Tribes, religious organizations, People’s Committees, and provincial councils from Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Ninewa have voiced their support for the anti-government protests. These groups may be providing food and other supplies to help sustain the sit-ins in Ramadi, Samarra, Tikrit, and elsewhere, but there is no direct evidence of how the demonstrations are being sustained and organized.
Figure 2- Click to enlarge
As they continued into their second week, the anti-government protests spread to over a dozen towns in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Ninewa, Baghdad, and Diyala, as depicted in Figure 2. During this time, tribaldelegations continued to arrive from other provinces such as Kirkuk, Karbala, and Muthanna. During the third week, protests were concentrated primarily in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, and Ninewa, with smaller demonstrations in Diyala and Baghdad. Despite small anti-government protests in Albu Ajil in northern Babil province and Nasiriyah in Dhi Qar province, the anti-government movement has failed to gain traction in the south, likely due to the predominately Shi’a demographics of the southern provinces.
The sectarian dynamics of Iraq play an important role in understanding the geographic concentration of the current anti-government movement. The predominantly Shi’a provinces of the south have distanced themselves from the movement, seeing it as a sectarian issue. Moqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Shi’a political organization the Sadrist Movement, has voiced cautious support for the demonstrations, but has thus far not mobilized his supporters to participate. In contrast, anti-government protestsagainst poor service provision occurred in the south during the Arab Spring in 2011, driven largely but not exclusively by the Sadrist Trend.
Figure 3-Click to enlarge
Pro-government demonstrations began in the south on 4 January, as depicted in Figure 3, after two weeks of sustained anti-government protests. They are being organized in part by Shi’a political parties, especially by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. As a result, these protests have a much more structured organization, with pro-Maliki groups, political leaders, and provincial councils advertising specific dates for protests throughout the southern provinces. The protests are becoming increasingly sectarian because of the geographic areas in which they are occurring and the political orchestration behind them. The growing sectarian perception of the anti-government protests augments Prime Minister Maliki’s position by solidifying Shi’a support in the south.
Maliki’s political alliance and other political actors have been able to define the movement in stark sectarian terms by accusing Sunni demonstrators of provoking sectarian tensions, particularly the use of Baathist flags in some demonstrations. Maliki has framed the demonstrations as a zero-sum situation: If the Sunni protests gain ground, Shi’ites will lose dominance in government.
Maliki has used Iraqi security forces to contain or disperse the anti-government protests only in limited ways so far. During the first week of protests, reports suggest that a brigade from the Ninewa Operations Command established a cordon near Mosul to prevent convoys of supporters from reaching the anti-government demonstration in the western part of the city. The following week, further reports indicate that the Iraqi 6th Army Division under the Baghdad Operations Command was used to blockthe Adhamiya Bridge in Baghdad to prevent demonstrators from joining the protest in Adhamiya, a Sunni enclave in east Baghdad. The Anbar Operations Command also deployed forces to preventmovement west towards Fallujah and Ramadi during the second week. Reports suggested that the Baghdad Operations Command established a cordon of Sunni areas north and west of Baghdad. Then on January 9th, the 29th Mechanized Brigade from the Iraqi 7th Army Division assisted in closing the Trebil border crossing between Iraq and Jordan. Most recently, additional cordons have been established near Tikrit and Taji in Salah ad-Din.
Violent clashes between anti-government protesters and Iraqi security forces have been limited to Mosul as of January 11th. The first reports of violence came during the third week of the protests, when forces from the Ninewa Operations Command overran and fired on protesters near Ahrar Square in Mosul in two separate incidents, wounding eight. Extrapolating from Maliki’s responses to anti-government demonstrations in 2010 and 2011, the Prime Minister will likely steadily increase the presence of security forces in cities, while simultaneously promising minor concessions and stoking fears of terrorist plots. Whether and how Maliki may use force against protests in Anbar, however, remains to be seen.
Numerous groups have already pledged to react violently to any use of government force. Maliki’s response, therefore, will likely be restrained and focused on cutting economic and logistical lines to Anbar in order to reduce the size and sustainability of the demonstrations. The recent troop deployments to the north and west of Baghdad and the closure of the Iraq-Jordan border suggest that this strategy is already underway. The Anbar provincial economy relies heavily on cross-border trade with Jordan. This approach carries risk. Placing additional economic constraints upon the Sunnis as well as politically isolating them may radicalize a population already mobilized by legitimate grievances.
If anti-government protests continue to grow and ultimately provoke a violent response from security forces, anti-government sentiment will likely expand quickly, legitimately threatening Maliki’s hold on power. If, however, Maliki is able to contain the anti-government demonstrations in their current locations and erode support for them over time, Maliki will emerge with solidified support in the south and a much weaker opposition in the north.
For over two weeks, sustained anti-government protests have fueled an entrenched political crisis in Iraq, which has divided the country and threatened the power-sharing foundation of the Iraqi government. Protests broke out after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrested the security staff of Iraqi Finance Minister Rafa al-Issawi on December 20. Sunni demonstrators in the provinces of Anbar and Salah ad-Din denounced the arrests and called for the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since then, protests have spread throughout the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Diyala, and Ninewa, drawing support from various anti-Maliki tribal, clerical, and governmental figures. In general, the demonstrators are protesting against issues that they see as symbolic examples of Maliki’s politicized expansion of executive power, including the detainment of prisoners without warrants and the use of Chapter IV of the Anti-Terrorism Law.
The demonstrations are manifestations of deep-seeded Sunni discontent regarding their representation in the Iraqi state and the legitimacy of the political process. Over the past year, Maliki has accelerated efforts to strengthen his power in Iraq by commandeering independent bodies, manipulating the judiciary, consolidating control of security forces, and sidelining Sunni political leaders, such as Maliki’s move against Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. However, Maliki’s recent action against Issawi—a technocratic cabinet member with a strong base of support among Sunnis in Anbar—marks an escalation by Maliki in these efforts.
While the resulting protests have exacerbated political tension in Iraq and revealed widespread support for Issawi, they have also highlighted the inability of Sunni political leaders to form a unified opposition front. In particular, the protests revealed that Deputy Prime Minister for Services Affairs Saleh al-Mutlaq no longer has sizeable support among the Sunni constituency represented at the demonstrations. On December 30 Mutlaq was violently chased out of a demonstration in Ramadi. Given his political maneuvering throughout 2012, however, this rejection is not entirely surprising. Following the Hashemi affair of 2011, Mutlaq referred to Maliki as a “dictator” and was subsequently barred from the cabinet. Despite this, Mutlaq was reinstated soon after the ordeal, suggesting that Mutlaq submitted to a deal with a Maliki, which undermined his credibility as a Sunni opposition leader.
Maliki’s response to the protests is still evolving and has the potential to inflame the tenuous situation. Maliki’s actions during the anti-government protests in 2011 may offer hints to the direction of this evolution. Maliki has previously offered limited concessions to protesters, while also stoking security fears and threatening the use of force to quell protests. Following demonstrations in February and March 2011, Maliki promised to cut government salaries, lower electricity costs, and reallocate funding to enhance food handouts as well as pledging not to seek a third term as prime minister. Maliki also warned protesters that insurgents and foreign elements were planning on hijacking the demonstrations and create unrest. As so-called security precautions, Maliki banned all vehicles in Baghdad, imposed curfews, and deployed additional security forces in numerous cities. These initiatives failed immediately to quell protests. Demonstrators clashed with security forces, resulting in the death of around 20 people. The protests eventually quieted down in an atmosphere of tight security.
Maliki’s responses to this month’s protests have thus far followed a similar pattern. Soon after the start of the protests in Anbar and Salah ad-Din, Maliki attempted to appease the protesters by pledging minor concessions, including the release of female detainees held without warrants and the formation of a special committee tasked with investigating the conditions of Iraqi prisons. When these concessions failed to stop the demonstrations, Maliki warned that protests would not be allowed to continue indefinitely and that the government would soon intervene. He also warned of terrorist plots against protesters in Fallujah and Ramadi in an effort to deter further demonstrations. Yet these steps have failed to stem the protests. The largest and most widespread demonstrations to date occurred on January 4, with protests breaking out in over a dozen towns in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Baghdad, Ninawa, Diyala, Babil, Kirkuk, and Dhi Qar. Still, there are important distinctions between these protests and past demonstrations. Where the focal point of the protests in 2011 was Baghdad, this month’s demonstrations are centered on Anbar province, where there has historically existed a large bastion of anti-government sentiment. Thus, Maliki may have a harder time suppressing protests by force. Furthermore, unlike in 2011, protesters are almost unanimously calling for Maliki’s resignation and have adopted phrases identical to those used in the Egyptian, Tunisian, and Syrian revolutions.
While Iraqi security officials have not responded to the current protests with force, the potential for them to turn violent remains. Based on his past behavior, Maliki may not tolerate public demonstrations for much longer before security forces intervene to disperse the crowds. Thus far, Maliki has urged security forces to use restraint. On the other hand, radical elements may use the protests as an opportunity to spark violent confrontation. Despite the potential for escalation, rival mediation efforts have been launched to defuse the crisis. Parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi has called for an emergency session of parliament to take place on the January 6 in order to discuss the current crisis and the disputed Anti-Terrorism Law. While the Sadrist Movement has pledged support, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition and the White Bloc, a pro-Maliki secular Shi’a fraction of Iraqiyya, are planning to boycott the meeting. At the same time, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the head of the Shi’a National Alliance, attempted unsuccessfully to hold a meeting with various political entities on January 4. Jaafari had previously met with Iranian ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danaifar on December 23, suggesting that the Iranians may be attempting to use Jaafari as a mediator in the conflict.
The current political crisis in Iraq has major political implications. The ultimate danger is that Sunnis will withdraw from politics altogether and return to violence. Such a situation could develop in a number of ways. First, if Sunni political leaders are unable to form a united opposition, they run the risk of further disenchanting their support base. In turn, the potential for violence as a means of political expression becomes increasingly possible as Iraqi Sunni are left without legitimate political representatives. Second, as Maliki continues to consolidate power, Sunni leaders may continue to be sidelined politically, following the precedent set by Maliki with Hashemi and Issawi. Third, increasingly sectarian rhetoric on the part of protesters and Sunni leaders coupled with a sense of opportunity might prompt Maliki to take formal steps towards establishing a majoritarian Shi’a government, which would dissolve Iraq’s power sharing agreement and have grave consequences for regional stability.