Saturday, February 2, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #5a: Largest Turnout of Sunni Protesters in Iraq Since Crisis Began

February 2, 2013
By Marisa Sullivan and Omar Abdullah
Tens of thousands of Sunnis participated on Friday, February 1, in a day of demonstrations called the “Friday of Loyalty to Fallujah’s Martyrs,” a reference to the violent protest in Fallujah the week prior during which Iraq Army forces killed eight demonstrators.  Friday’s anti-government protests were the largest since the movement began in late December. Demonstrators in Anbar, Ninewa, Salah ad-Din, Diyala, and Baghdad reiterated their demands that the government cancel Article 4 of the Counter-Terrorism Law (which facilitates arrests on security charges), release Sunni detainees held under that law for extended periods without charges or trials, and reform the de-Baathification legislation that has barred many Sunnis from government employment. Crowds also denounced the Fallujah incident and called for the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Students in Mosul condemned the “invasion” of university campuses by Iraqi Army forces, and demanded that security forces act in the national interest and be less aggressive with Iraqi citizens. Demonstrators in Mosul also burned the Iranian flag and carried signs demanding “Nouri, Leave!”
The largest protest occurred in Anbar, where popular committees protected the crowds and searched attendees in order to ensure that they were unarmed, lest anyone attempt to escalate into violence.  Sizable demonstrations also took place in Ninewah and Samarra, with smaller protests in Bayji, Salah ad Din; Baqubah, Diyala; and Baghdad’s Adhamiyah, Ameriya and Doura neighborhoods. The protests remained notably peaceful, and clerics rebuffed calls from al-Qaeda in Iraq for Sunnis to take up arms against the Maliki government. While pro-government protests staged during the early weeks of the crisis have since tapered off, supporters of the Iranian-backed, militant proxy group Asaib Ahl al-Haq gathered in Kut on Friday to denounce Turkey and recent statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to form an “rational government” in Iraq.
Amidst the demonstrations, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq met to discuss the current crisis and the protesters demands with several Shi’ite politicians from the National Alliance, including Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Hadi al-Ameri, and Khalid al-Attiyah. Mutlaq said the meeting was productive, unlike previous ones, and that they reached an agreement to follow up on detainee cases and transfer those held by the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior to facilities run by the Ministry of Justice.
Also on Friday, Muqtada al-Sadr called his ministers to Najaf to discuss the possibility of withdrawing from the government if the protesters’ demands are not addressed. Sadr last pulled his ministers in January 2007, after Maliki refused to set a timetable for the US withdrawal. It is not clear how serious Sadr is in threatening a similar boycott. The move may be an effort to exert leverage over Maliki, and Sadr may not follow through on his rhetoric. Last year, for example, under pressure from other Shi’a parties and Iran, Sadr pulled back from previous threats to side with Iraqiyya and the Kurds in the no-confidence effort even after a much-publicized visit to Erbil.  Nevertheless, the Sadrists are not cooperating with Maliki right now.  On Thursday January 31, Sadrist MP Bahaa al-Araji refused Maliki’s request that Sadrists fill the posts of Iraqiyya ministers who are currently boycotting the cabinet. Prominent Iraqiyya leader and Finance Minister Rafa al-Issawi applauded the Sadrists’ actions and said that Maliki’s effort to enforce compulsory leave for Iraqiyya ministers was unconstitutional.
On Saturday, Maliki called for dialogue to resolve the political crisis in a news conference with Ammar al-Hakim, the head of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq. Maliki stressed that the current standoff does not serve anyone, while Hakim urged the Iraqiyya list to end its parliamentary boycott in order to “create the right climate to speed implementation and application of the resolutions of the Council of Ministers and meet the needs of the demonstrators." Hakim had recently returned from a trip to Iran where he consulted with leaders including Iranian parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the current political crisis.
Also on Saturday, hackers calling themselves “Team Kuwait” targeted the prime minister’s website, posting a picture of two mourning women declaring their support for Iraqis who were fighting Maliki’s oppression. The pictures were removed within several hours, and the Maliki government did not comment on the incident, which was the second cyber-attack against Maliki’s office in the last two weeks.
Friday’s protests show that Sunni tribal and religious leaders are continuing their strategy of peaceful demonstrations, despite fears that the current political crisis would escalate into widespread violence following last week’s incident. The peaceful nature of the protests also suggest that tribal leaders have retained control and influence, and that thus far al-Qaeda has not been able to capitalize on disaffected Sunnis to broaden armed resistance.  Reports of outreach between tribal leaders in Anbar, Ninewah, and Salah ad-Din and southern tribes in an effort to foster a dialogue about the protesters demands also indicates a broader movement amongst Iraqi tribes to resolve the crisis. The Maliki government’s response also continues to be one of restraint. Ongoing negotiations between political blocs as well as Iraq’s tribal leaders suggest that all sides have concluded that a violent escalation is not in their interest, at least for now. Still, Maliki is unlikely to accede fully to protesters’ demands, as doing so would undermine a key pillar in his strategy for maintaining security and political dominance.