Friday, February 1, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #5: Friday's Protests Will Gauge Direction of Iraqi Crisis

February 1, 2013
By Stephen Wicken and Sam Wyer
The Iraqi Army’s fatal shooting of eight anti-government protesters in Fallujah on Friday, January 25, has increased fears that violence will escalate further. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has attempted to use a combination of concession and repression to deescalate tensions and gradually force the reduction of anti-government protests.
The Iraqi Ministry of Defense, for example, quickly opened an investigation into the Fallujah shooting. The army also withdrew from Fallujah to avoid further confrontations with angry protesters or radical elements. Maliki then held a joint security meeting with provincial security officials in order to stress the Iraqi Government’s “keenness to deal positively with the demonstrations and the demonstrators.” Meanwhile, the head of the committee tasked with addressing demonstrators’ demands, Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, announced on January 29 that the government would increase the salaries of around 41,000 members of the Sahwa movement. The move is likely aimed at discouraging Sunni tribesmen from joining or supporting al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).
Maliki has also begun to move against the tribal leaders who have assumed leadership of the protest movement, however. Maliki was reported to have removed the security detail of prominent Anbari Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha on January 30. In response, the Council of Anbar Tribes pledged to protect Abu Risha in the absence of government protection. Then on January 31, an Iraqi Army force—reportedly deployed from Baghdad—arrested Sheikh Meshaal Nawaf al-Hassan and his two sons in Tikrit. Hassan is thought to be a strong supporter and prominent organizer of the Salah ad-Din protests.
Sunni tribal leaders largely have refrained from calling for a violent reaction to the Fallujah incidents, and many have urged restraint. It is possible that Abu Risha and Dulaimi tribal leader Ali Hatem al-Suleiman are awaiting Maliki’s response to the former’s ultimatum that the government turn over the troops responsible for killing protesters in Fallujah within seven days – a deadline that would expire this coming weekend. Various Iraqi tribal representatives held a Conference of Iraqi Unity in Najaf  on January 28,in which they called for the rejection of sectarianism, the release of uncharged detainees, the unity of Iraq, and the de-escalation of the tension in Anbar. The possibility remains, however, that tribal leaders are quietly mobilizing forces in anticipation of further clashes.
As tribal leaders take an increasingly prominent role in Sunni political landscape, Sunni parliamentarians appear to be receding in importance. This is likely due to their inability to formulate or communicate a clear response to the political crisis. This is particularly evident in the case of Saleh al-Mutlak, who was reported on January 28 to have resigned from his post as Deputy Prime Minister in protest at the government’s failure to meet demonstrators’ demands. Subsequent facts challenge this report, however.  On January 30 Mutlak’s website stated that he had received the Jordanian Ambassador to Iraq, Mohammed Mustafa Qura’an, in his capacity as Deputy Prime Minister. Mutlak was also said to have met with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft on Thursday 31 January to discuss bilateral relations.
Mutlak’s ambiguous status further obscures Iraqiyya’s response to the ongoing crisis. Iraqiyya’s ministers are thought to have been boycotting cabinet meetings but continuing to run their ministries. After Maliki announced on January 24 that he would place boycotting ministers on “compulsory leave” and replace them, Iraqiyya denied boycotting the meetings, insisting that it would attend “all sessions” concerning the interests of Iraqi citizens. On Thursday, January 31, however, Iraqiyya MP Liqa’a Wardi appeared to confirm that Iraqiyya members were boycotting both the cabinet and parliament “in solidarity with the demonstrators.” The absence of a coherent and clearly communicated strategy on the part of Sunni politicians stands in contrast to their apparent unity in parliament on January 27, when they joined Kurdish, Sadrist, and ISCI MPs to garner 170 votes to limit the terms of the president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker – a symbolic vote clearly aimed at Maliki. Iraqiyya’s MPs seem to have turned out in force and voted in unison for the measure.
The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the umbrella group of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and other radical groups will likely find more opportunities to exploit widespread disillusionment about Sunni political marginalization, increasing the potential for violent confrontation. In retaliation last Friday’s shooting in Fallujah, ISI militants attacked Iraqi Army posts around Fallujah, forcing the army to withdraw. Following these attacks, on January 30 ISI released an audio statement calling for Iraqi Sunnis to take up arms against the Maliki government. ISI spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani urged Sunnis to “continue with your blessed demonstrations, and prepare to hold weapons, which the apostate will force you to carry.... only at that time will we restore our dignity.” This raises the possibility that AQI might attempt to provoke further confrontations by attacking security forces during Friday’s protests.
Protests planned for Friday, February 1 have been labeled ‘Friday of Loyalty to Fallujah’s Martyrs’. These protests, particularly in Fallujah, will indicate whether demonstrators are committed to nonviolent opposition to the Maliki government. The behavior of the crowds will illustrate how much control tribal leaders are able to maintain. The protests will also test security forces’ ability to maintain restraint in the face of heated rhetoric and popular anger. Friday’s protests will therefore provide a significant indicator of whether the anti-government protest movement escalating on a path to confrontation and violence.