Wednesday, May 1, 2013

2013 Iraq Update #18: Maliki Continues to Target Protesters and Calls for Majority Rule

May 1, 2013

By Stephen Wicken

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has declared a majoritarian government is the only political solution in Iraq. He has continued to send security forces to intimidate and harass Sunni Arab protest leaders, forcing them to negotiate to prevent or witness a repeat of last week’s violence in Hawija.

The situation in Iraq remains tense, one week after the attack by Iraqi Security Forces of a protest camp at Hawija. The Hawija incident sparked a wave of reactionary protests and violent incidents across Iraq’s Northern provinces, reflecting a mélange of sectarian, ethnic, and anti-government themes. Iraqi Security Forces under the control of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have attempted repeatedly to arrest organizers of anti-government protests. Militant groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) continue to conduct attacks in order to ignite sectarian tensions, though elements of local Sunni Arab leadership appear to be trying to avoid stand-offs with Iraqi Security Forces that Maliki has sent their way. Maliki’s actions hold new significance in conjunction with Maliki’s renewed statement that “there is no solution to the political process in Iraq but to resort to the national political majority.” Rather than merely to contain a potential security crisis, Maliki may be able to capitalize upon the limited options that are left to Iraqi Sunni leaders to express grievances without igniting violence.

Threatening to repeat his actions in Hawija, Maliki deployed a significant security force to Ramadi on April 29. Ramadi protest spokesman Abd al-Razzaq al-Shammari announced that a military convoy comprising 120 vehicles was heading from Baghdad to Ramadi with the intention of storming the protest site that night. To deter an attack on the protest, said Shammari, a number of Anbari politicians and leaders, including former Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha, Anbari Iraqi Islamic Party MP Ahmed al-Alwani, and Anbar Provincial Council Chairman Jassim al-Halbusi, had decided to spend the night at the protest camp “in order to prevent a repeat of the Hawija scenario.” Anbar Provincial Council Vice Chairman Saadoun al-Shalan stated subsequently on April 30 that the provincial council and protest representatives had reached an agreement with Anbar Operations Command for local police to return to “protect the sit-in site” and “end all armed manifestations” at the camp. Under the agreement, police would be allowed to enter the protest site and arrest wanted individuals. The chairman of the provincial council’s security committee, Hikmat Edayeh, subsequently announced that local police had entered the protest site, accompanied by committee members. In contrast with the raid on the Hawija protest camp, the police found no weapons at Ramadi.

Deterred from raiding the Ramadi protest itself, Maliki then targeted a number of its key leaders at the home of Ahmed al-Alwani. On April 30, Anbar Operations Command offered a reward of 100 million dinars (more than $86,000) for the delivery of Ramadi protest spokesmen Said al-Lafi and Qusai al-Zain, and Ahmed Abu Risha’s nephew, Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha. The three were accused of involvement in the shooting of five soldiers near the Ramadi camp on April 27. A Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team and police forces then attempted to storm the Alwani’s Ramadi residence – a common meeting place for Ramadi protest leaders – to arrest tribal leader Mohammed Abu Risha and Said al-Lafi. According to Alwani, the MP’s guards surrounded the house, forcing the security personnel to withdraw. Reports conflict on whether there was contact between security forces and guards. One source claimed that two SWAT team members were killed, although other sources stated that only warning shots were fired. The SWAT team ultimately withdrew without making arrests.

Salah ad-Din was also the site of a raid on protest leadership by security forces. On April 28, a SWAT team was redeployed from Diwaniyah to Tikrit to support the security effort in Salah ad-Din, where security forces were involved in a stand-off with gunmen on April 26. On April 30, security forces arrested Samarra protest leader and preacher Mohammed Taha Hamdoun on his way to the protest camp. Hamdoun was released after three hours and returned to the protest site, where he was greeted warmly.

The avoidance of repeated clashes between Sunni Arabs and the security forces is due in part to attempts by tribal and provincial leaders to cooperate with the army and police to isolate militants in Sunni-majority areas. Anbar Provincial Council has been playing a key role in defusing tensions at Ramadi. On April 30, Provincial Council Chairman Halbusi announced that Anbari tribes had handed over 16 suspected AQI members to the police, including “eight prominent members representing the al-Qaeda generation of the 2003-2005 period.” In Salah ad-Din, a tribal council with past ties to the Maliki government publicly rejected the formation of tribal militias. In Kirkuk province, moreover, tribal representatives from the Hawija area signed an agreement stipulating support for the security forces and prohibiting attacks on federal troops, a copy of which was to be sent to the government to demonstrate good faith. Such agreements demonstrate the desire of these tribal leaders to distance themselves from militants groups such as AQI and Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN), the latter of which has a historic base in the Kirkuk area and has been successful in drawing security forces into confrontation. Tribal leaders are not unanimously in favor of compromise, however – Anbari leader Ali Hatem al-Suleiman was reported to have vowed to respond with force if security forces stormed the Ramadi protest site.

A number of bombings targeting Shi‘a areas and attacks on members of the anti-AQI Awakening movement, however, suggest that AQI continues to seek to exacerbate sectarian tensions. On April 29, car bombs in the predominantly Shi‘a towns of Amarah (Maysan), Diwaniyah (Qadisiyah), and Karbala, as well as in the Shi‘a neighborhood of predominantly Sunni town of Mahmoudiyah, just south of Baghdad, killed at least 26 civilians and wounded dozens more. A bomb at a coffee shop in the mixed town of Muqdadiyah (Diyala), historically part of AQI’s area of operations, killed another civilian and wounded nine more, while another car bomb in the Shi‘a-majority Baghdad neighborhood of Husseiniyah killed four civilians. Meanwhile, on May 1, a suicide bomber assassinated 12 Awakening members at their barracks east of Fallujah; another Awakening member and two policemen were wounded by gunmen in an attack on a checkpoint at a village north of Baghdad. These events indicate that AQI will continue to target Iraqi Shi‘a and moderate Sunni in order to exacerbate sectarian tensions, hijack protests, and provoke responses from security forces and Shi‘a militant groups in mixed areas.

Responses to the week’s events in the national political realm suggest that the security crisis and Maliki’s recent actions will either to end in exclusion of significant Sunni participation in government or in negotiated settlement that legitimizes majoritarian rule. On April 29, Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi proposed a set of demands involving the resignation of the Maliki government and the dissolution of parliament, to be followed by new parliamentary elections. Nujaifi’s proposal echoes that of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who made an identical call for Maliki to resign in January. Nujaifi’s suggestion may be regarded as an opening volley for negotiations, but is unlikely to meet with greater success than Allawi’s.

Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, one of Maliki’s few Sunni allies in recent months, immediately rejected the possibility of early elections. Mutlak is in a difficult position, having gambled heavily on returning to Maliki’s government in March only for provisional provincial election results to demonstrate his lack of popularity among Sunni Arabs in Salah ad-Din, Diyala, and Baghdad. This, in turn, may limit his appeal as a partner in the “national political majority” government that Maliki once again called for on May 1.

The Kurdistan Alliance announced the same day that its ministers would return to cabinet sessions this week, and its MPs will return to parliament next week. The details of Maliki’s agreement with the Kurds to bring them back into government have yet to be released. The timing of the return, however, following closely upon the release of provisional provincial election results that suggest that Maliki will lose some provincial council seats compared to 2009, indicates that Maliki has discerned a renewed need for Kurdish support as he approaches a majority government. Saleh al-Mutlak, meanwhile, is now attempting to maneuver delicately, presenting himself once more as a legitimate Sunni Arab representative in announcing that excessive force was used against protesters at Hawija, while opposing early elections.  

The immediate aftermath of the Hawija incident demonstrated the depth and breadth of ethno-sectarian tension in northern and western Iraq. It also demonstrated Maliki’s willingness to deploy ISF into protest camps and to target influential Sunni personalities, as well as the willingness of many Sunni Arab leaders to negotiate in order to avoid clashes with ISF. Sunni Arab leaders are torn between the need to address longstanding popular grievances and systematic political marginalization and the need to prevent extended conflict with Maliki’s security forces. The latter desire may cause some Iraqi Sunni to tolerate a move by Maliki to cement a majoritarian government. It may also cause a vocal minority to identify with AQI and JRTN, such that protests diminish and attacks against civilian and government targets increase in the coming months.

Stephen Wicken is a Research Analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.