Friday, June 14, 2013

From Protest Movement to Armed Resistance: 2013 Iraq Update #24

June 14, 2013

By Stephen Wicken and Jessica Lewis

Anti-government demonstrations have been shrinking in size and receiving decreased media attention in recent weeks as violence has risen in Sunni Arab-majority areas. The developments in tandem suggest that Sunni Arabs are abandoning protests to form tribal militias or join established insurgent groups such as the neo-Baathist Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandia (JRTN). The insurgent groups are likely to absorb other protesters after the elections in Anbar and Ninewa on June 20. Given mounting evidence of Shi‘a militant mobilization in and around Baghdad in recent weeks, the threat of widening sectarian conflict in Iraq continues to grow.

Since December 2012, competitors to represent Iraq's Sunni Arabs have presented the Sunni population with the options of protest, federalism, or insurgency. Protests have diminished in size in recent weeks, however. Regional autonomy and outright rebellion have become the main poles around which protest sentiment has re-organized. The divisions have hardened between the pro-federalism camp, centered on Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi’s Mutahidun (United) political coalition and Sunni clerics such as Jordan-based Abd al-Malik al-Saadi, and the pro-insurgency camp, most strongly concentrated in Fallujah, Mosul, and Tikrit and linked to insurgent groups such as Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and JRTN.

The social media outlets that had helped organize and document the anti-government protests in Iraq have changed in character. In recent weeks, widely “liked” Facebook pages that since December 2012 have been devoted to disseminating information on the protests  have been posting fewer and fewer images and videos of protests inside Iraq.[1]Where the pages do reference the ongoing protests, they seldom make reference to the number of attendees, and visual evidence shows that demonstrations are visibly diminished in size. Instead, the more popular pages – particularly that of the Iraqi Revolution – refer to the “heroic” activities of revolutionary “tribal rebels” (thuwar al-‘asha’ir) attacking Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), particularly the federal police. Although these rebels are not designated by group names, it is possible in many cases that they are representatives of the tribal militias formed in response to the Hawija incident in April.

Increasingly, these social media accounts are referring to three key indicators of growing sectarian conflict both in Iraq and beyond. Firstly, a number of spectacular attacks across Iraq in recent weeks point to growing efforts on the part of AQI to push Iraq back into sectarian fighting. Secondly, mounting evidence of the remobilization in Baghdad of Shi‘a militants, particularly Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq (the League of the Righteous or AAH), both to conduct ethnic cleansing of Sunni-majority areas and to gain ground from the Sadrists, raises the threat of Sunni-Shi‘a violence spreading outwards from the capital. Thirdly, the Assad regime’s offensive against Al-Qusayr in May and early June 2013 demonstrated the heightened involvement of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi‘a militias in an increasingly sectarian conflict in Syria. This conflict has exacerbated the pull of sectarian identity politics across the region, prompting protests from Ramallah in the West Bank to the Qatari capital of Doha, whence Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi called for a “Day of Rage and Support” across the region in support of the Syrian rebels. 

Qaradawi’s speech was immediately posted on a number of Iraqi Facebook pages that have served as social media platforms for the protests. Highlighting the link, on May 31, Said al-Lafi, the clerical student who has served as spokesman of the Ramadi-based Anbar Coordination Committee, spoke at a ‘Supporting the Syrian People’ conference in Doha organized by Qaradawi. Wearing a ‘Free Syria’ scarf, Lafi toldthe audience that “our revolution in Iraq is an extension of the one in Syria” in response to an Iranian “conspiracy against our religion.” Lafi called on his “Arab brothers” to be ready to intervene in Iraq, warning that as soon as Syria falls to the Free Syrian Army, “the next step will be Iraq.” 

As the key spokesman identified with the ‘Pride and Dignity Square’ protest just north of the city of Ramadi, Lafi has been a leading protest figure since his emergence in January 2013. He established himself as the voice of the protesters in the demonstrations’ early weeks, issuing the formal list of 13 demands made by protesters in Anbar, Ninewa, and Salah ad-Din in January. Lafi is no stranger to extremist statements, having in the past issuedthreats to Iraqi security forces and warnedthat Sunni Arab Iraqis would attain their rights “whether by peaceful means or not.” This provided the Maliki government with an opportunity to attempt to marginalize an influential figure, issuing a warrant for his arrest on terrorism charges and attempting more than once to arrest Lafi. 

Lafi’s Doha speech, however, which ended with the chant “Sunni blood is one!”, marked a significant escalation in rhetoric from a figure close both to Mutahidun’s political leaders and to the protest’s spiritual leader, Abd al-Malik al-Saadi. (Lafi was the target of an arrest attempt on April 30 while meeting with protest leaders at the home of Mutahidun leader and Anbari Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) chairman Ahmed al-Alwani.) Highlighting this connection to Qatar, Mutahidun spokesman Thafir al-Ani on June 13 announced that a number of members of the Renewal List (Tajdeed) – the splinter from the Iraqi Islamic Party formed by fugitive former Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi – had joined Mutahidun for the upcoming elections in Anbar and Ninewa. Hashemi has appeared repeatedlyon Qatar’s Al-Jazeera in recent months making exaggerated claims about the need for a Sunni region in Iraq in order to avoid a sectarian civil war, and any connection to his list will only solidify the Mutahidun’s sectarian and federalist credentials at voting time. 

In his speech, Lafi made reference to another key development that threatens to detonate Iraq’s sectarian tensions, claiming that “an entire Sunni generation is being demolished in Iraq at the hands of Shi‘a militias.” Mounting evidence points to the remobilization of these militias, AAH in Baghdad, where AAH has been implicated in an attack on senior Sadrist figure Hazem al-Araji. While AAH historically has been active in Baghdad and predominantly Shi‘a southern Iraq, the group established a political office in Tal Afar in Ninewa in September 2012 and has also sent delegations to Mosul.

This remobilization of Shi‘a militias and the growing regional weight of sectarianism has encouraged Mutahidun leaders to represent themselves to voters in Anbar and Ninewa as the protectors of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. At an election rally in northern Mosul on June 9, Thafir al-Ani warned that if the people of Ninewa do not choose a “strong” bloc to govern the province, “Asa‘ib Ahl al-Haq and [Iraqi Hezbollah militia] the Army of the Chosen and [its leader Wathiq al-] Battat will enter the alleys of Mosul and kill those who worship.” It is not enough, claimed Ani, to participate strongly in the elections – voters must choose “owners of brave attitudes and principles.” Following Ani at the podium, Ninewa Governor Atheel al-Nujaifi – brother of bloc leader Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi – sought to bolster the bloc’s Sunni nationalist credentials, paying tribute to the province’s resistance to American occupation as well as to the “bullying” of the central government. The Mutahidun leaders’ use of Shi‘a militant threats and the history of Sunni resistance as campaign topic highlight both the coalition’s efforts to project strength and the increasing utility of using sectarian rhetoric to do so.

Protest leaders and spokesmen have also issued warnings of the threats posed by Shi‘a militias to Sunni Arab communities. On June 13, Abd al-Razzaq al-Shammari, spokesman for the Popular Committees tied to Lafi’s Coordination Committee, announced that the Ramadi protest on Friday, June 14 would take the name “You Are Higher,” explicitly intended to send “a clear message to our brothers and our families in Baghdad, Diyala, and other provinces that they are above the militias.” The organizing committee of the Fallujah protest went a step further, declaring the formation of popular committees to protect residential neighborhoods in the city from armed groups and militias. Ahmed al-Tai, a protest organizer in Fallujah, claimed that security forces would not protect Anbaris from militias paid by “political parties” to assassinate civilians. 

There is no clear evidence, however, that AAH has mobilized in Mosul or Tal Afar. Managing security in and around the city, a historic base for both AQI and JRTN, has long been a problem for the security forces, however. A number of provincial elections candidates were killed in Ninewa prior to the postponement of elections in March. More recently, three candidates were killed around Mosul in early June. Fadel al-Hadidi, a candidate for the Ninewa-based National Tribal Gathering of the Mother of Two Springs, was shot to death in central Mosul on June 8; Luay Abd al-Wahid Hussein Fathi, of the independent Good and Tender Iraq list, was killed by gunmen east of Mosul on June 12; and Muhannad Ghazi al-Murad of the Iraqi Republican Assembly affiliated with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak's list, was gunned down after Friday prayers in the Zahra neighborhood on June 14. On June 13, a member of the office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Daawa Party, Khalil Dhiab Shehab al-Sumaidaie, was killed by gunmen while traveling north of Mosul. The latter attack was praised on social media by an account connected to Sunni cleric Taha al-Dulaimi, an outspoken proponent of Sunni federalism. Atheel al-Nujaifi, meanwhile, survived an assassination attempt on June 13, the thirdin two months, when his motorcade was targeted by a car bomb that killed two civilians nearby. MG Ahmad Hassan al-Jabouri, who transitioned from the role of Ninewa Police Chief to the Border Protection Forces last week, was also woundedin an IED attack on his motorcade south of Mosul on June 11.

The assassinations in Mosul constitute an interesting subset of a larger trend of increasing attacks, including a wave of 10 vehicle-borne explosive (VBIED) attacks that rippled across Iraq on June 10, 2013 in what was likely a coordinated AQI operation. Most were suicide attacks (SVBIEDs), an AQI signature, and the cumulative casualties exceeded 180. The wave consisted of two distinct efforts. 

The first effort centered on Baghdad, exploiting traditional sectarian fault lines in the capital, Taji, and Diyala in order to continue AQI's apparent effort to mobilize Shi'a militias and fuel sectarian war. The highest casualties were inflicted by this effort, in the open markets of Tajiand Jadidat al-Shat and near the police station in Kadhmiyah. The SVBIED attack against the police station in Kadhmiyah occurred just one week after the assassination attempt on Hazem al-Araji, a leading Sadrist. The Araji event pointed to a rise in intra-Shi’a violence as former Mahdi Army elements wrestle to respond to the threat posed by AQI, especially since Baghdad has resurfaced as AQI's main effort, most visibly in the wave of SVBIED attacks on 20 and 27 May

The second effort was concentrated in northern Iraq in Kirkukand Ninewaprovinces, and it uniformly targeted headquarters of Iraqi Army and Iraqi Federal Police. Examining the northern wave of SVBIED attacks more closely, they constitute a separate effort to combat Iraqi Security Forces in the provinces. These attacks are likely attributable to AQI since they are contemporary with continued attacks in Baghdad, as well as correlated with historicAQI VBIED attack patterns. They also illuminate additional threat streams that are present in the north. Ansar al-Islam has re-emerged in jihadist virtual forums to claim creditfor SVBIED attacks in Ninewa. Both AQI and Ansar al-Islam share a jihadist vision and communicatewithin the realm of al-Qaeda associates; however, Ansar al-Islam is traditionally considered to envision objectives within the geographic bounds of Iraq, whereas AQI is formally affiliated with al-Qaeda core and its transnational vision. As recently as November 2012, Ansar al-Islam credited AQI's front group in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) for its role in jointattacks; however, over recent months, the group has begun to complainbitterly of persecution by ISI. A report that ISI leader Ayad al-Ayesh was killedin Mosul at the hands of Ansar al-Islam also suggests in-fighting among jihadist organizations operating in the city.  

It is possible that this infighting among Sunni extremist groups explains other attack patterns visible in Mosul in June 2013. There have been reports of unexplained targeted killings against individual civilians, for example. The majority of recent attacks in Mosul have instead been effective small arms fire attacks against army and federal police forces, executed with a degree of surgical precision indicative of ex-military forces, according to sources on the ground. 

This attack profile points more directly to JRTN, whose members include skilled former military personnel. The group retains a great deal of capacity, including in western Mosul. Its members are well-trained, drawing strongly from the ranks of the Baathist-era military, and continue to conduct organized attacks using automatic weapons and occasionally mortars. JRTN’s lethal activities, like those of Ansar al-Islam, are likely centered on Ninewa and Kirkuk provinces. The group is also careful to target the army and federal police, avoiding attacks on local police drawn from the communities within which it operates. Through its political arm the Free Iraq Uprising, JRTN has long had a strong presence at a number of protest sites, particularly in Fallujah, Mosul, and Tikrit, in addition to its key role at the Hawija site. JRTN has likely increased in membership and influence over the course of the anti-Maliki protest movement. Its rhetoric is revolutionary, callingfor the overthrow of the American-installed constitution and the “Safavid” government it produced. This makes JRTN the likeliest group behind an emerging threat against the ISF in the north. 

The anti-Maliki protest movement has receded since the Hawija incident on 23 April 2013.  The observed recession in protest activity, combined with reflections of emerging Sunni nationalist rhetoric and rising attack trends with and without AQI signatures, raises the concern that insurgent activity is replacing the protest movement as an accepted means of resisting the Maliki government. Small arms fire attacks and IED attacks against ISF targets are also historically attributable to Sunni insurgent or revolutionary groups, many of which are likely associated now with JRTN.  

These attacks raise questions about the future of Sunni Arab disposition within Iraq. Clerical and tribal voices still call for the continuation of protests until protesters’ demands are met, but their influence appears to be waning. That the protests are shrinking in size and receiving diminishing coverage both in news and social media implies a change in strategy for Sunni Arabs seeking to address long-held grievances against the Maliki government.

A high turnout at the upcoming provincial elections may indicate continued interest in the political process, but as Iraq’s recent history has shown, politics and violence are by no means mutually exclusive. AQI opposes all political participation, and is likely behind the attacks on provincial election candidates, especially those who were former members of the anti-AQI Sahwa (Awakening) militias. 

As an explicitly Sunni-oriented but Iraqi nationalist group, JRTN is better placed than AQIto gain widespread Sunni Arab support. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs turned away from AQI in huge numbers in 2007-2008, and the group’s commitment to targeting government forces and Shi‘a civilians in order to provoke renewed sectarian conflict, while apparently successful in encouraging Shi‘a militant remobilization, is not a promising strategy for winning widespread Sunni support. Although JRTN was known to attack Sahwa members while US forces were still in Iraq, AQI has targeted them continually, assassinating scores of popular and influential tribal figures who also played significant political roles.  

Negotiation remains a possible avenue for easing Iraq’s growing crisis, but a slim one. Osama al-Nujaifi has sought to present himself as a mediator between the government and the protests, but has been rebuffed by protest spokesmen outside his own camp and forced to state his support for Abd al-Malik al-Saadi’s ‘goodwill’ initiative, which Saadi has insisted should have no involvement from politicians. Saadi’s negotiation campaign, however, has yet to advance beyond the announcement stage. 

Instead, a preponderance of factors point to Sunni Arab mobilization, some of which has already occurred and more of which is likely in Iraq’s immediate future. AQI continues to conduct massive waves of spectacular attacks on the ISF, is likely behind assassinations of Sunni political figures, and has prompted the remobilization of Shi‘a militias in Baghdad. The fall of Al-Qusayr has prompted a growing use of sectarianism for political ends across the region, and its reflections inside Iraq are already heightening sectarian tensions. A surge in political campaigning as the provincial elections draw closer may focus Sunni Arab attention on the vote in the short term, but is also driving sectarian rhetoric. Rallies and voting centers, meanwhile, will constitute key targets for AQI, while security deployments in Anbar and Ninewa increase the likelihood of confrontation between the ISF and JRTN and between the ISF and tribal militias. While Sunni anti-government protests may be diminishing in size, sectarian tensions and violence trends are by no means following suit.  Instead, levels of violence in predominantly Sunni Arab areas continue to point toward the likely re-emergence of a widespread Sunni Arab insurgency in Iraq.

Stephen Wicken is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and Jessica Lewis is its research director.      

[1] For example, the “Iraqi Revolution” Facebook page, established in February 2011 to cover Iraq in the context of the Arab Awakening, grew steadily in popularity in the early months of the protests, reaching more than 100,000 “likes” by early February. While its popularity has continued to grow, the rate has slowed dramatically in recent weeks. Where the page once featured multiple posts per hour on protests across Sunni Arab-majority Iraq, including photos and videos, it now features primarily images of militants and slogans about revolution.