Sunday, April 28, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #17B: Iraq On The Edge

April 28, 2013

By Marisa Sullivan

Iraq continues its slide towards widespread violence. Over the weekend, the Iraqi government has issued an ultimatum to anti-government protesters following an attack in Anbar province that left five soldiers dead. In Kirkuk, the deployment of Kurdish forces into disputed areas threatens to broaden the conflict. Possible Iraqi government involvement in an airstrike in Syria may indicate the growing potential for regional spillover. As the crisis continues, political efforts to diffuse the tension have yet to bear fruit, though additional meetings are scheduled for this week.
More than 200 people have been killed in five days of clashes following the attack on protesters in Hawijah (click here for a detailed analysis of the incident and its immediate aftermath). The violence continued over the weekend when five Iraqi Army soldiers were killed outside a protest camp in Ramadi. Accounts of the incident vary. Anbar tribal leaders claimed that the soldiers were dressed in plainclothes and had run through two Sunni checkpoints and fired on a third. Government sources blamed Sunni gunmen for instigating the attack.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed that his government would respond to the incident. Authorities issued a curfew in Anbar province. The head of the Anbar Operations Command demanded that protest organizers hand over those responsible for the attack within 24 hours. Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, a prominent Anbar tribal leader, stated that the protest organizers would find and turn over those responsible for the attack; Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha alsoannounced the arrest of two individuals suspected of involvement. Their statements and actions may constitute an effort to avert further government reprisals by demonstrating tribal justice, although Sunni leaders have recently taken a more combative approach and have formed a tribal army to defend Anbar. Whether the government will follow through on its threat of a “firm response” to Saturday’s incident is unclear. On Sunday, Maliki took the ceremonious step of appearing at the funeral for the soldiers at the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad.
As the confrontation between Sunni Arabs and the government intensifies, there is also a growing danger that Arab-Kurd tensions along the Disputed Internal Boundaries may escalate into broader violence. In a provocative move, Kurdish officials announced on Saturday that Peshmerga forces would deploy to “to fill the vacuums in general, and especially around the city of Kirkuk.” This move would violate a local understanding between Kurdish and Iraqi Army forces, and potentially expand Kurdish control over disputed areas. Peshmerga forces said the move was taken to address the growing militant threat to Kurdish communities; however, Iraqi Army officials portrayed the move as a political maneuver and placed the security forces on alert. General Ali Ghaidan, the head of the Iraqi Ground Forces Command, said the Kurds were seeking to occupy Kirkuk’s oil fields.
While the Kurds may indeed be concerned about the increasing presence of Sunni insurgent groups, they may also be attempting to take advantage of the government’s preoccupation with the uprising to advance Kurdish interests along the disputed areas. At various points in recent years, Kurdish and Iraqi Army forces have narrowly averted armed confrontation over similar actions. The current crisis has already enhanced the potential for miscalculation between the two sides, making the announcement of Peshmerga deployments particularly destabilizing. Furthermore, it creates positive conditions for AQI and JRTN, which thrive on ethnic tension.
Prime Minister Maliki and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani are scheduled tomeet in Baghdad on Monday. The issue of security force deployments is likely to be one of the many contentious issues that the two sides will discuss. Other issues will include the ongoing dispute over oil revenue sharing, as well as Maliki’s recent effort to remove Kurdish cabinet officials.
Maliki has struggled to calibrate his response, as the protests have turned violent in the wake of the Hawijah incident. The Prime Minister has appealed for calm and offered some concessions, but he has sought to contain the current violence and address the renewed Sunni insurgent threat. Maliki has warned of a return to sectarian civil war, and he has portrayed his actions as efforts to prevent this outcome. Yet Maliki’s own policies have marginalized the Sunni within the government, and sectarianism has been on the rise in Iraq since the 2010 parliamentary election that returned Maliki to power.
On Sunday, Iraqi officials announced the suspension of ten satellite channels, including Al-Jazeera, on grounds that they were inciting sectarian agendas. Nine of the ten stations are owned or operated by Sunni Arabs. All the stations have been critical of Maliki, and several, such as al-Jazeera, are linked to the Gulf States. This suspension may be a move by Maliki to combat what he believes is an effort by regional Sunni states to incite sectarian violence in Iraq and neighboring Syria. The announcement that the border with Jordan would be closed on Tuesday may be another step by Maliki to cut off support for the protesters. The move is likely to further anger Sunni Arabs, however, and exacerbate their feelings of persecution and marginalization in Maliki’s Iraq.
Maliki is expressing deep concern about spillover from Syria. In a speech on Saturday, the Iraqi prime ministerfingered the violence in Syria as the cause for the renewed sectarianism and recent unrest in Iraq. Maliki has frequently warned that the toppling of Assad in Syria may result in the spread of civil war to Iraq. An unusual incidenton Saturday may indicate the Iraqi government’s willingness to act more directly to forestall such an outcome. Activists in Syria’s eastern city of Deir ez-Zour reported that military aircraft flew into Syria from Iraq and carried out airstrikes. Syrian rebels blamed the Maliki government, but this accusation could not be confirmed.
Others have suggested that the plane was a Syrian MiG fighter that crossed into Iraqi airspace before turning back into Syria. This is plausible considering that Iraq has had difficulty controlling its airspace since the departure of U.S. forces in 2011. The Maliki government, however, has not commented on the airstrike or on the potential violation of Iraqi airspace. At the very least, this silence suggests Maliki’s support for the attack. If Iraqi planes were involved, it would be a significant escalation in the Maliki government’s support for Assad. 
Political efforts to resolve the crisis continue, but with little success thus far. Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi attempted to hold a parliamentary session to discuss the Hawijah incident, but he was forced to downgrade it to a “confidential consultative meeting” due to a lack of quorum. No Members of Parliament (MPs) from Maliki’s State of Law Alliance were present, and there were reports of a verbal altercation between Nujaifi and a Sadrist MP over the Hawijah attack. Nujaifi has called for another parliamentary session tomorrow. It will be difficult for any side to negotiate a political solution to the crisis as long as violent clashes persist.
The situation in Iraq is fast evolving. Various factors will determine whether and how Iraq’s security and politics will continue to unravel. Continued and increased clashes in Sunni areas might indicate whether Sunni Arabs will seek violent solutions to address their grievances and if Sunni insurgent groups like a-Qaeda in Iraq will capitalize on Sunni protests to perpetuate violence. It will also be important to watch if Maliki will exercise restraint or react more forcefully in response to continued clashes by closing protest camps, shutting the border, deploying Iraqi Security Forces, or broadening ISF arrests. For example, Iraqi security forces recently arrested a tribal leader in Mosul who had helped organized the protest movement. Maliki will likely react to the Kurdish Peshmerga deployment with similar movements of Iraqi Security Forces. On Saturday, a SWAT team was dispatched from Diwaniyah to Salah ad-Din in response to earlier violence in the province. Maliki may move additional troops into Kirkuk to check Kurdish expansion.
It will also be important to watch how the Shi’a respond to the crisis. It is possible that Iraqi Shi’a may mobilize in support of the Maliki government as they did in response to the early weeks of the Sunni protest movement. A demonstration was held recently in al-Amarah, Maysan province, where protestors voiced their support for Maliki and the Iraqi Security Force and denounced sectarianism. The Maysan demonstration was rather small. Rapid growth in the size and geographic scope of pro-government protests may indicate broader Shi’a mobilization. Attacks upon Shi’a communities and holy sites may also indicate a deliberate intent to incite a violent Shi’a sectarian response. The reaction of Shi’a political blocs to the crisis will also be important to watch. As politics become more polarized along sectarian lines, the Shi’a may decide to act in unison to boycott certain parliamentary meetings in order to stymie efforts by Sunni political leaders. The outcome of the current crisis is very much in doubt, but the events of the next week may offer important indicators on whether and how Iraq’s security and politics will continue to unravel.
Marisa Sullivan is a Fellow at the Institute for the Study of War.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #17: Iraq’s Sunni Mobilize

April 27, 2013

The situation in Iraq has reached a perilous inflection. The continuous Sunni protests against the Maliki government since December 2012 had been, with one exception, peaceful. They remained so even through the provincial elections on April 20, which took place in 12 Iraqi provinces with the exception of Kirkuk, Anbar, and Ninewah. This week, after the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) opened fire on protesters in Hawija, Kirkuk, killing 20 and wounding over 100, a wider mobilization of Sunni tribes and militant groups has led to intensifying violence. This bloodshed has occurred especially along the Disputed Internal Boundaries between Arab and Kurdish Iraq, and has even Prime Minister Maliki offering concessions lest civil war erupt. Perhaps the most worrisome development, tribes in Anbar announced the formation of a tribal army to protect their communities against armed groups, including the Iraqi Army. The arming of Sunni tribes against the state sets conditions for future violence.

The circumstances surrounding the incident in Hawija are, of course, disputed among the Iraqi Security Forces and the protesters. The ISF had surrounded the protest site in Hawija, Kirkuk on April 19 after clashes between protesters and a nearby military post resulted in the death of one soldier and the injury of three others, according to the military. The ISF demanded that protesters hand over those alleged to have taken part in the attack. Protest organizers claimed, however, that those killed were protesters who were attacked by the nearby military units.  On April 23, Iraqi Security Forces from the Iraqi Army’s 12th Division, including subordinate brigades, Rapid Response Forces, and Special Weapons And Tactics  (SWAT) teams, entered the sit-in location in Hawija. The violence began at about 5 AM on April 23, when according to the Ministry of Defense (MOD), the forces were attacked and fired back in return. The MoD added that 3 military personnel were killed and 9 were wounded. Further, 75 people were arrested and 45 weapons of various types were found during the operation. The MOD further stated that the Iraqi military did not intend to use lethal force but only sought to search the location.

The clashes and death of protesters triggered wide and violent reactions. The MoD reported that armed men attacked two military posts in the Rashad area of Kirkuk. Iraqi defense officials stated that 6 “terrorists” were killed by the ISF’s response. Thousands of tribe members in Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din reportedly mobilized and vowed to seek revenge for the death of the Hawija protesters. In Anbar, clashes between the ISF and unknown gunmen were also reported in Ramadi and Fallujah.

Anbar tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha demanded that the Iraqi army withdraw from the “revolting towns” and hand over security responsibilities to the police. He warned of “dire consequences” if Maliki did not comply. Meanwhile, tribal leader Ali Hatem Al-Suleiman called on tribes to carry arms. He also gave ISF personnel not from Anbar the choice of either “leaving the province or to remain in their barracks.” On 26 April, federal police were reportedly withdrawn from Fallujah after they had clashed with unknown gunmen. On the same day, tribes in Anbar announced that they have formed the “Army of Pride and Dignity” to act as a community defense force from any possible attackers, including the Iraqi military. 

Almost immediately after the Hawija operation, security sources and witnesses reported that tens of “armed men” and ISF personnel were killed and wounded in clashes that erupted after an attack on a police station in the town of Suleiman Beg in Salah ad-Din Province. Gunmen were able to take control of Suleiman Beg just 24 hours after clashes the subsequent withdrawal of local ISF units. After a truce was brokered between tribal leaders and local officials on April 26, Iraqi military forces were able to regain the town. The other area that witnessed major clashes in the days following the Hawija incident was Qara Tapa in Diyala Province. Jaysh Rijal Al-Tariqah Al-Naqshabandia (JRTN), an insurgent group linked to the Ba‘ath Party, engaged in continuous clashes with the Iraqi military. The Iraqi military resorted to using its helicopters to repel the attack. Clashes have continued in Mosul and Fallujah.

At the national level, Speaker of Parliament Osama Al-Nujaifiannounced that he called Iraqi Shi‘a leaders Ammar Al-Hakim and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, as well as President Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan, to discuss the events in Hawija. Nujaifi revealed that a parliamentary delegation will be sent to Hawija to investigate the events, and that a delegation was sent to Kirkuk on April 26 to carry out a fact-finding mission. Nujaifi also called on the tribes to “cease fire” in order to calm the crisis. For his part, Barzaniissued a statement on the events in Hawija stating that “we condemn the use of the army to oppress unarmed protesters and we consider that a violation of the constitution and all laws.” His chief of staff, Fouad Hussein, announced that Barzani has ordered all hospitals in Iraqi Kurdistan to be ready to receive any casualties from the events in Hawija. Reflecting Iraqi Kurdish concerns about a cascading of events, Kurdistan Regional Government’s ministers of Interior and Peshmerga visited Kirkuk immediately after the Hawija operation to review security affairs with security officials in Kirkuk.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdadissued a statement on the events in Hawija to “condemn the events that led to the death and injury of civilians and ISF members.” The statement also called on “both sides to immediately refrain from any provocative or violent acts,” and stated that, “American officials contacted senior Iraqi leaders to help in deescalating these political and sectarian tensions.” Martin Kobler, the top United Nations’ representative in Iraq, arrived in Kirkuk immediately after the Hawija operation. Kobler expressed his “regret and anger” over the events, which he thought could have been stopped.
Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki took steps to recover his miscalculation to besiege the protesters in Hawija. After gauging the reactions of other leaders, -Maliki’s office announced the formation of a committee to investigate the incidents. Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh Al-Mutlaq, was assigned to head the committee, which is tasked with “identifying the perpetrators and holding them accountable.” Maliki also ordered compensation to the victims and ordered the treatment of the wounded “inside and outside of Iraq if necessary.” The committee started its work by meeting with the security officials in Kirkuk from the Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command. It further announced that “all victims [of the Hawija operation are] martyrs who will enjoy all the rights and privileges” and that all who were arrested as a result of the events will be released. Maliki was thereby trying to calm the situation by making concessions that would appease tribal sentiments of vengeance.

Prime Minister Maliki has fared well in provincial elections this week, and would typically be negotiating from that position of strength to achieve further gains. He is nevertheless making concessions. Even he seems to recognize that situation is dangerous and that he is not necessarily able to manipulate it easily. Prime Minister Maliki also gave a speech on April 25 in which he attempted to decrease tensions by calling for dialogue and warning that a renewed civil war could have disastrous consequences for all Iraqis. Maliki also emphasized that it is imperative to respect the military. Other political and religious leaders have continued efforts to counter the inflammatory rhetoric and further escalation. During Friday’s prayers, a Sadrist preacher called on the military not to “assault the protesters” while calling on the protesters not to “provoke the army.” The reported withdrawal of police forces from Fallujah is also likely intended to placate protesters’ demands.        

Reactions in the first Friday protests since the Hawija operation are also telling. Protests took place in Anbar, Mosul, Baqubah, and Samarra in the “Friday of Burning the Demands,” referring to the list of concessions protesters have asked of Prime Minister Maliki since January. In all of them, protesters’ tone was defiant and indicated that they will continue protesting. In Mosul, protesters demanded that the Iraqi military withdraw.  In Anbar, thousandsjoined in protests to condemn the government and its actions and expressed distrust in Maliki and his government. Fallujah and Ramadi witnessed the largest sit-ins since the beginning of the anti-Maliki protest movement. Protesters in Ramadi had previously demonstrated a more moderate stance, willing to negotiate demands with Maliki.

These events have the potential to spiral out of control quickly. The actions of the Iraqi military and the deaths of the protesters only fuel the narrative of these groups that a Shi‘a-led government in Baghdad is not interested in treating the Iraqi Sunnis as equals. The aftermath represents a recruitment boon for both AQI and JRTN, and both groups will likely use Hawija as a rallying point for their future operations. Finally, it is likely that AQI and JRTN will seek to provoke the Iraqi military into more violent reactions in order to consolidate their positions.     

Iraq has proven resilient in the face of clashes and provocations because the memory of the calamities of 2006 and 2007 remains fresh. Fear of a return to the horrors of that period has repeatedly driven Iraqi political and tribal leaders, as well as common people, to de-escalate conflicts and return to the negotiating table. It is possible that this case will prove no different, that Maliki will make the necessary concessions to persuade both political and tribal leaders to pull back again from the brink of outright civil war. But the political context does not leave hope for much optimism. Maliki’s determined efforts to marginalize Sunni Arab political leaders have reduced their influence within their own communities while simultaneously feeding the narrative that an Iranian-backed government in Baghdad is seeking to establish a Shi’a dictatorship. 

The very determination of Sunni political leaders to find ways of remaining in the Iraqi political game have, unfortunately, also undermined their credibility in the eyes of many of their constituents, who see them as selling out. Tribal leaders such as Sheikh Ali Hatem and Ahmed Abu Risha find themselves in a very difficult place. Their road to greater influence with their angry people lies in taking more extreme stands than the political leaders—but they may precipitate the collapse of the political system entirely by going too far toward violence. 

There is also the question of when—and if—Sunni Arab communities will once again decide, independently of their representatives and tribal leaders, that they face an existential threat from Baghdad and decide to fight with such allies as are available to them, including AQI and JRTN.  Precisely such decisions by local communities led to the horrific communal strife that nearly ripped Iraq apart in 2006.  As much as memory of that horror is a deterrent to extremes and violence, memory of the fear that drove the communal violence in the first place may also accelerate the descent into its renewal. It is too early to say with certainty anything other than that the prospects for restoring peace and maintaining the preeminence of politics over violence in Iraq hang now by a slender thread.      

Friday, April 19, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #16: Provincial Elections Key Tests for Maliki, Protesters

April 19, 2013
By Stephen Wicken

Iraqis in 12 provinces will vote tomorrow in the first elections since U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011. The provincial elections – the third set of such elections since 2005 – will elect 447 provincial council members from more than 8100 candidates. 265 political entities (certified political parties or individual candidates) were registered by the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), most of them joining one or more of the 50 registered political coalitions. The provincial councils to which the candidates will be elected function much like state legislatures in the United States, electing provincial officials and issuing provincial legislation. Elections will not be taking place in Kirkuk province, while voting in the predominantly Sunni Arab provinces of Anbar and Ninewa, where demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been ongoing since December, was postponed, ostensibly for reasons of security.

The elections will constitute a key test for Maliki, who has centralized power heavily around his personal office, creating a de-facto majority government. Maliki’s State of Law Alliance is competing separately in 10 predominantly Shi‘a Arab provinces, and as part of large pan-Shi‘a coalitions in the Sunni-majority provinces of Diyala, Salah ad-Din, and Ninewa. As Marisa Sullivan writes in her new report, “Maliki’s Authoritarian Regime”: “The prime minister is determined to avoid a repeat of the 2010 election, where he came in second place … Maliki’s control of the state gives him a powerful network of patronage and other resources to use in the upcoming elections. With few checks on his power already and a fractured political opposition, Maliki is already poised to do well in the provincial vote, particularly in the Shi‘a-dominated areas of central and southern Iraq. A strong performance in the provincial elections … would set him up well for 2014 parliamentary elections.”

In a new article focused specifically on these elections, “Iraq’s Provincial Elections and Their National Implications,” Ahmed Ali notes, “Iraq enters these elections at a decisive moment. Unlike 2009, Maliki has now firmly consolidated his power in the face of a weak and divided opposition. The Iraqi Sunnis feel marginalized by the Baghdad government and have resorted to protests to express their dissatisfaction. The Iraqi Kurds feel threatened by Maliki and his policies and have decided to consolidate relations with Turkey to counter Baghdad’s policies. For the Iraqi Shi‘a, Maliki’s dominance in state institutions signals to them that he is not interested in power-sharing, but rather in establishing himself as the leader of the Iraqi Shi‘a community. Provincial election outcomes will signal to Maliki how aggressively he can pursue his majoritarian objective. Washington and the international community should pay close attention to these elections and their aftermath.”

Over 600,000 members of Iraq’s security forces voted in a special ballot on April 13, in order to be available to protect voters on April 20. Given Maliki’s personalized control over the security forces, many of his political opponents have voiced fears that commanders loyal to Maliki pressured members of the military and police to vote for Maliki’s candidates. Ali al-Timimi, an MP belonging to the Ahrar bloc, the political wing of the Sadrist Trend that is likely to be Maliki’s key competitor for Shi‘a Arab votes, has claimed that a number of abuses took place in voting centers in Baghdad on April 13, including security officers forcing their troops to vote for a particular list and election materials for Maliki’s coalition being displayed inside voting centers. The Mutahidun, the coalition headed by Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Maliki’s key Sunni Arab rival, has argued that similar practices took place in Mosul. According to one source, an officer in the 17thBrigade of the Iraqi Army, stationed in Baghdad, has admitted that the brigade’s deputy commander ordered subordinates to vote for Maliki’s list. Although IHEC has denied that any “serious electoral or security breaches” occurred on April 13, rumors of such practices raise serious concerns about the integrity of the elections, not only during special voting but also on April 20, when the same security forces will be present in order to guard polling centers.

Such a security presence is necessary, however, given what appears to be an escalation in violence across Iraq in the run-up to the elections. A number of electoral candidates have been assassinated ahead of the elections, while workers at polling centers in Baghdad and Diyala have resigned after receiving death threats from al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). In addition to targeting government officials, security forces, and Shi‘a civilians, AQI opposes Sunni Arab participation in Iraq’s political process. The group is likely behind a number of spectacular attacks in recent days, particularly a wave of coordinated car bombs that killed at least 31 people across Iraq on April 15.  

AQI has also sought to infiltrate and radicalize anti-government protests ongoing in Sunni-majority provinces, particularly in Fallujah in Anbar province, historically a hotbed of insurgency. Although attempts to incite violence among protesters have met with extremely limited success thus far, the protesters remain divided over their approach to the political process and to negotiation with the Maliki government. The Ramadi protest appears to be the center of a more moderate faction, represented by the Sunni religious establishment and Nujaifi’s Mutahidun, that opposes Maliki and is reticent about negotiation but rejects violence. The Fallujah protest, meanwhile, increasingly appears more hardline. As election results are released, reactions from these and other protest sites in other majority-Sunni areas may be important harbingers of the future of the protest movement, as well as indicators of how voting will play out in Anbar and Ninewa when elections are allowed to take place there. 

As Ahmed Ali notes, “the outcome and the process will carry lessons for the 2014 national elections. IHEC’s technical abilities will be tested, and its willingness to remain independent will be an opportunity to correct any mistakes before the 2014 elections. Additionally, the results of the elections can redraw Iraq’s political map. National figures like Maliki, Nujaifi, and [Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq leader] Ammar al-Hakim boost their coalitions when they campaign for them. Nonetheless, the results will demonstrate if their national appeal can overcome the voters’ assessment of the local candidates representing them. Similarly, the results will show if national election themes will trump voters’ local grievances and issues.”

Friday, April 12, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #15- Maliki Hints at Post-Election Plans

April 12, 2013
by Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali

De-Ba‘athification concessions imply move to majority government
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moved closer to a political majority government this week, presenting Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak as his Sunni Arab representative in a government that increasingly is composed solely of Maliki’s allies. Mutlak, who recently broke with his former colleagues in the predominantly Sunni Iraqiyya coalition to rejoin Maliki’s cabinet, was chosen to announce that the cabinet had approved a set of amendments to the Accountability and Justice Law that governs de-Ba‘athification. The amendments, which address one of the key demands of the protesters that have been demonstrating against the Maliki government since December, are intended to position Mutlak as Maliki’s key Sunni ally, mediating between the prime minister and Sunni Arabs who feel they have been marginalized and persecuted under Maliki. With Kurdish parties continuing to boycott both the cabinet and parliament over their opposition to the passing of the 2013 federal budget, the move suggests that Maliki is comfortable moving forward with Mutlak and his Arab Iraqiyya coalition as part of a Shi‘a Arab-dominated majority government that excludes the Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs opposed to Maliki.   
The proposed amendments would allow qualified firqa-level Ba‘ath Party members – heads of party branches, the fourth-highest of the party’s ten levels – to hold government jobs. More controversially, they would also grant state pensions to some members of the Fedayeen Saddam, the Ba‘athist paramilitary organization. A further amendment would close additions to the register of those blacklisted under the Accountability and Justice Law at the end of 2013. Although these amendments fall short of the demand issued by anti-government protesters in January that the Accountability and Justice Law be repealed entirely, they constitute significant concessions to Iraqi Sunnis, who have been affected heavily by de-Ba‘athification measures since 2003. In tandem with amendments announced by Mutlak in March abolishing the “secret informer law” used by security forces to target Sunni Arabs and ending the seizure of property and funds from former Ba‘athist officials, Maliki can now present himself as having addressed some of the demonstrators’ key demands.
The amendments will face strong opposition in parliament, however. The proposed amendments have drawn strong criticism from Shi‘a political factions, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq’s Citizen Bloc, the Fadhila Party, and a number of MPs from within the Shi‘a National Alliance and Maliki’s own State of Law Alliance. The Sadrist Trend, whose ministers abstained from voting on the amendments in cabinet, has come out strongly against them. Sadrist parliamentary leader Bahaa al-Araji threatened on April 9 that the Sadrists would mobilize against the amendments. The Sadrists historically have taken a hard line on de-Ba‘athification, a position that has been extremely popular with their support base in the predominantly Shi‘a south. Attacking Maliki over the amendment as they have done this week – with Sadrist MP Hussein al-Mansouri even accusing Maliki’s Dawa Party of increasingly close relations with the Ba‘ath Party – may prove to be a successful electoral tactic as the provincial elections draw close.
Maliki does not need the amendments to pass in parliament, however, to benefit from the issue. A parliamentary vote on the amendments will not take place before the end of the voting period for provincial elections, which is scheduled to begin with special voting for members of the security forces on April 13 and end with general voting on April 20. In the meantime, the prime minister can represent himself as having responded to certain of the anti-government demonstrators’ key demands and can portray Mutlak as an effective mediator between himself and the protesting Sunni. In so doing, he can reach out to possible supporters among moderate Sunni and Shi‘a, weakening the Mutahidun (United) bloc of Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, his more hardline Sunni opponents. The renewed threat of a Sadrist government boycott over the de-Ba‘athification amendments is unlikely to concern Maliki, who appears increasingly confident in his ability to win the Sadrists back onto his side as he has done repeatedly in recent months. The ongoing Kurdish boycott of government and parliament will have little effect, and Maliki’s recent announcement that boycotting Kurdish ministers will be placed on leave represents a clear message that Maliki feels secure without their participation. Maliki has previously used the policy of placing absentee ministers on leave to good effect against Sunni rivals, splitting the Iraqiyya alliance and forcing Rafi al-Issawi out of government. Continuing their boycott, therefore, raises the prospect of permanent Kurdish exclusion from Baghdad.
Provincial elections results will be the key test for the longevity of Maliki’s political majority government. Should Arab Iraqiyya perform poorly – a distinct possibility, given Mutlak’s continued lack of popularity in Anbar – Maliki may prefer to jettison his erstwhile ally. A delegation from the Kurdistan Alliance has been engaged in negotiations with the National Alliance that may yet result in a deal that brings the Kurds back into government. The performance of the Sadrists in southern Iraq, too, may change Maliki’s calculations: should the Sadrists compete strongly with Maliki for Shi‘a Arab support, he may seek to marginalize them in government. In the meantime, however, Maliki has achieved a functioning political majority government.
Security forces raid headquarters of political party
On April 6, a security force contingent from the Baghdad Operations Command (BOC) raided the Baghdad  Headquarters of the moderate and secular Iraqi Nation Party (INP). According to the leader of the party, Mithal Al-Alusi, “at six a.m. my people saw 30 hummers, army cars. Generals were there … They said it was Mithal they looked for … They know what we have as a weapon, is our Party.” The force did not make any arrests and only confiscated “licensed weapons and properties that belong to the party.” The BOC – which answers to Prime Minister Maliki – has yet to issue an explanation for the raid or even confirm it. Therefore, it is difficult to ascertain the real purpose of the operations or to know the real motivation behind it. Reports have since emerged that Brigadier General Ali Fadhel Imran, the commander of the 54th Brigade, led the raid. The BOC has previously raided the INP Headquarters in March 2011. Then, the BOC denied that it carried out a raid, saying instead that it had requested the evacuation of the building since it was state-owned. The INP issued a statement clarifying that it rented the building from a citizen.
The consistent targeting of Alusi and the INP is emblematic of the difficulties facing secular parties in Iraq. In 2008, the Iraqi parliament removed Alusi’s parliamentary immunity after he visited Israel. He was able to regain it after the parliament’s decision was rescinded by the Supreme Court, but during the parliamentary sessions discussing his visit, Alusi was very critical of Iraqi politicians who are close to the Iranian government.
Alusi may be the target of Iraqi government pressure due to his vocal and consistent critique of Maliki and the Iraqi government’s connections to Iran and Syria. For example, in a March 19 remark during an interview Alusi stated that Maliki’s office is implicated in corruption. When the INP decided to boycott the provincial elections, Alusi criticized Maliki and stated that “the current Prime Minister [Maliki] does not believe in democracy.” These statements cause damage to Maliki’s public image, especially in the West, and the raids are possibly intended to retaliate against him. Alusi believes that by raiding the INP headquarters, “Mr. Maliki wants to give me and the party a clear signal we should be careful, [that] if we talk more about his connection to Syrian intelligence and Iranian Revolutionary Guard we will be attacked.”         
Other parties have been targeted by security forces as well. In March 2011, security forces surrounded a Baghdad office of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) and the offices of its newspaper, Tariq al-Sha‘ab. The forces ordered their evacuation, offering the explanation that the buildings were state-owned. Both operations took place against the backdrop of the February 2011 anti-government protests which the ICP supported. In March 2012, a police force raided the offices of Tariq al-Sha‘ab and confiscated the weapons of the building’s security detail. More recently, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) announced in February 2013 that an army unit raided its general secretariat building in Baghdad without warrants and confiscated weapons belonging to the building’s guards and the guards of IIP members of parliament.
It is yet to be known if there is a legal justification for the raid on the INP’s headquarters due to the lack of an official statement from the BOC. Nonetheless, the INP raid and those preceding it indicate Maliki’s continued willingness to mobilize security forces like the BOC to target political opponents. The raid comes two weeks before the provincial elections and thus raises questions about the post-elections environment. It also presents a worrying situation that should be closely monitored by the U.S. and international community since the government and Maliki face few internal obstacles to continue on this track.
Stephen Wicken and Ahmed Ali are research analysts at ISW.