Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1178, (2 - 8 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

All about Iraq’s elections

Moves made by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki against Sunni protesters have raised questions about his tactics in the country’s forthcoming elections, writes Salah Nasrawi

Al-Ahram Weekly

Clashes broke out in Anbar, Iraq’s western province, this week, when army and police forces moved to dismantle a Sunni protest camp after efforts to find a political solution to a year-long crisis that has been pitting the Baghdad Shia-led government and Sunni protesters against each other broke down.

The fresh round of sectarian violence came after Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki sent thousands of troops to pursue fighters from the Al-Qaeda terrorist group into the Anbar desert and initiated a crackdown on the Sunni protest leaders.

Al-Maliki warned on Friday that his troops would storm the location that the Sunni protesters have been occupying for a year, after anti-terrorism forces arrested MP Ahmed Al-Alwani, one of the leaders of the protests.

The arrest of Al-Alwani, who belongs to a powerful Sunni tribe in Anbar, followed a large-scale security operation in the province as Al-Maliki hoped to mop up the Al-Qaeda militants who have seized control of most of the province in Iraq’s Sunni heartland.

Perhaps as a result of this crackdown on one of his most outspoken Sunni critics and the dismantling of the protest camp, Iraq’s embattled Shia prime minister has now notched up a victory ahead of the crucial parliamentary elections next year.

Yet, Al-Maliki has still to prove that the deepening anger among Sunnis across Iraq following the raids will not deepen the country’s communal divide and lead to further escalations in sectarian violence.

Tensions rose after suicide bombers attacked Shia pilgrims last month as they were marching to the holy city of Karbala to mark the end of the 40 days of mourning on the anniversary of the martyrdom of the Prophet Mohamed’s grandson, the imam Hussein.

Scores of Shia pilgrims were killed in the attacks, which sparked demands for revenge. 

Al-Alwani’s arrest also followed the killing of 15 military personnel including a top army commander in a suicide attack near the Syrian border. Mohamed Al-Kirwi, an army general, was leading a massive army and police operation to hunt down Al-Qaeda terrorists in the deserts of the Anbar province.

Following Al-Kirwi’s death, Al-Maliki gave the security campaign in Anbar the code name “Commander Mohamed Revenge” and gave the protesters one week to leave their venue, which he described as a “square of sedition.”

The forces Al-Maliki dispatched to Anbar included tanks, helicopters and commandoes pledged to crush this “anti-government rebellion”. The commander of the US-trained Iraqi Anti-Terror Forces, Fadhil Barawari, said that his forces would “obliterate” the anti-government fighters “without mercy”.

Violence in Iraq this year has been at its worst since the civil strife in 2006, 2007 and 2008, when widespread sectarian violence killed tens of thousands of people. The turbulence spiked after security forces raided a Sunni protest camp north of Baghdad in April.

Al-Alwani is a key organiser of the sit-ins in Anbar, where thousands of Sunnis have been protesting since last December against what they perceive as the marginalisation of their sect by the Shia-led government.

As a vocal critic of Al-Maliki’s government, Al-Alwani often uses pejorative labels against Shia politicians, referring to them as “Safavids”, for example, to imply their subservience to Iran.

This could have made him a target for Al-Maliki’s moves as he gears up for his re-election campaign.  

General Ali Ghaidan, commander of the Iraqi land forces, said Al-Alwani had been arrested for resisting troops trying to arrest the lawmaker’s brother Ali, whom he accused of involvement in an attack that had killed Iraqi soldiers in Anbar.

Ali was killed in the fighting, as were five of his associates. Two Iraqi soldiers were also killed in the raid.

After negotiations over the release of Al-Alawni ended in stalemate, deadly clashes broke out in the city of Ramadi on Monday as the security forces moved to dismantle a protest camp that the Iraqi government says is being used to host the Al-Qaeda headquarters.

As the fighting raged, some mosques in Ramadi used loudspeakers to call on people to “go to jihad”, or practice holy war.

The violence quickly spread to most parts of Ramadi, as tribesmen clashed with the security forces and took control of several city junctions. Later, clashes also erupted in Fallujah, Anbar’s second-largest city, where armed tribesmen set fire to several military vehicles.

The violence threatened to escalate the already widespread anger among Iraq’s minority Sunni Arab community. Key Sunni Muslim clerics called on the community to close ranks and urged their political leaders to “take decisions to determine the future of the Sunnis” in Iraq.

Several Sunni MPs also announced the suspension of their membership of the country’s parliament.

Anbar is a hotbed for Al-Qaeda activities, and its fighters often regroup there to launch attacks against government forces and Shia targets in Baghdad and other provinces.

In recent months, the terror group has gained control of more territory and carved out an area of neighbouring Syria and in Iraq’s western provinces where it has declared the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [Syria]” as its zone of influence.

By using this vast area, the so-called “Sunni Triangle”, as an incubator for Al-Qaeda, the group has also been taking a different approach to enlisting the support of aggrieved Sunnis, causing bloodshed that could push the country into a new round of civil strife.

Many Iraqi Shia leaders accuse Sunni politicians like Al-Alwani of playing a double game by participating in the government and providing valuable logistical support to the Sunni insurgency, including Al-Qaeda, in their provinces.

The surge in bombings and other assaults on Shias in recent months by Sunni extremists that have killed thousands of  Iraqis this year, most of them Shias, has been provoking ominous calls from Shia leaders to take up arms in self-defence. 

In the mixed province of Diyalah, last month’s killing of Shia pilgrims and the bombing of their processions triggered ferocious retaliation by Shia militias who killed several Sunni preachers and set fire to dozens of houses belonging to Sunnis.  

Diyalah Governor Omar Al-Himyari said that at least 35 houses had been burned in three villages, forcing scores of families to flee.

The escalation highlights the security challenges with which Iraq is grappling two years after the United States withdrew its last soldiers from Iraq.

In what can be seen as a reflection of Iraq’s beleaguered condition, the US last week rushed missiles and surveillance aircraft to the country, apparently in response to the mounting threat from Al-Qaeda. 

In a comment on the shipment, US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki described Al-Qaeda as a “common enemy of the United States and the Republic of Iraq and a threat to the greater Middle East region”.

Many Iraqis, however, believe that the latest crackdown has been staged by Al-Maliki to shore up his popularity among the Shias, who have been disgruntled by the failure of his government to put an end to Al-Qaeda-orchestrated violence.

A showdown with Shia militias in 2008 and standoffs with Sunni insurgents during his first period in office raised the fortunes of Al-Maliki in the general elections two years later.

Iraqis are slated to go to the polls on April 30 to pick new members of parliament. Al-Maliki also intends to run for a third term in office despite increasing opposition to his candidacy and the series of setbacks his government has suffered since his re-election in 2010.

His critics have voiced concerns that he is using the army and security forces under his control in the search for a breakthrough for his stalled government.

The president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, Masoud Barzani, described Al-Maliki’s moves against the Sunni protesters as “worrying”. “Combating terrorism should not be mixed up with the legitimate demands of the province’s [Anbar’s] citizens,” Barzani said in a statement.

Muqtada Al-Sadr, a prominent Shia cleric and an arch-rival of Al-Maliki’s, has urged the Iraqi army to refrain from acting under political orders.

Whether it was Al-Maliki’s intention to provoke the standoff or not, the military operations in Anbar suggest that they could have a long-term impact on the relationship between the country’s Shias and Sunnis.

Many Iraqis now fear that the power struggle between the two communities could turn into fighting that could descend into a fully-fledged civil war.

At the heart of Al-Maliki’s troubles is the deep-rooted Sunni resentment against their potential exclusion from power and influence. This resentment has been increasingly turning violent, triggering concerns of the collapse of Iraq’s fragile state.

It is also for this reason that the ruling Shia Iraqi National Alliance was wrong in coming to Al-Maliki’s support and giving priority to the military operations over national consensus “in order to achieve security and stability”.


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