Friday, July 19, 2013

Protesters Turn Out During Ramadan Despite Rising Violence: 2013 Iraq Update #29

Protests against the Maliki government continue in Iraq’s Sunni Arab-majority provinces despite the underwhelming electoral performance of politicians close to the protest movement. Protesters continue to face raids from the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), who have arrested protest organizers in Anbar and Kirkuk. At the same time, protest sites have become targets for attacks bearing the signature of Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). These attacks are likely to increase during Ramadan, historically a time of increased AQI activity. The growing violence will pose a stern test to the commitment of the protesters, even as they are galvanized by the religious holiday. Caught between AQI and the ISF, and with Sunni Arab political leaders closest to the protests focused on provincial government formation, it remains unlikely that the protests will return to their early-2013 peak.

Recent weeks have seen renewedattendanceat anti-government protests in Iraq’s Sunni Arab-majority provinces, now in their seventh month. Visual evidence from social media shows crowds at Friday protests larger than in May and early June, although still significantly smaller than during the protests’ apex in early 2013. Protest spokespersons have renewed their calls for the release of Sunni Arab detainees and the implementation of a general amnesty law, while continuing to distance themselves from the efforts of politicians seeking to represent them and their demands.

Prayers in Ramadi on June 6, 2013. Image: Iraqi Spring Media Center

In persisting with their protests, however, Sunni Arab demonstrators continue to face threats both from the ISF and from extremist groups, particularly Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The former have continued to target protest leaders, arresting prominent organizers in Anbar and Kirkuk. The latter have conducted spectacular attacks on protest sites in Salah ad-Din, part of a continuing campaign aimed at pushing Iraq into outright sectarian conflict.

Protests have persisted in Sunni-majority areas as Sunni Arabs continue to insist upon the fulfillment of their demands. The persistence is marked in view of the fact that the political bloc that has identified itself most closely with the protesters, Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi’s Mutahidun, fell significantly short of the overwhelming electoral victories it had expected in Sunni-majority provinces. Mutahidun failed to outperform Maliki ally Ahmed Abdullah al-Jubouri in Salah ad-Din, won only a small plurality in Anbar, and trailed the Kurdish list in Nujaifi’s native Ninewa. This performance highlights the failure of Mutahidun and other political blocs, including Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak’s Arab Iraqiyya, to leverage the protests – and the protesters’ enduring demands– for political purposes.

Posts on Facebook pages that have played a key role in protest mobilization suggest, however, that protesters in Sunni Arab areas may be drawing renewed energy from protests against the Maliki government elsewhere in Iraq. Demonstrations beganin Dhi Qar in June over the government’s failure to provide sufficient supplies of electricity. These protests spreadto Basra in July, drawing supportfrom newly installed Basra Governor Majed al-Naswrawi. In Baghdad, Dhi Qar, and Najaf, moreover, demonstrationshave taken place over delays in the amendment of the Unified Retirement law.  These protests do not compare in size or intensity to those seen in Sunni-majority areas, and lack those demonstrations’ sectarian dimensions and revolutionary iconography. Approving references to them on Sunni protest-oriented Facebook pages, however, suggest that visible discontent with the Maliki government is having a slight but visible galvanizing effect.

Prayers in Ramadi on July 18, 2013. Image: Media Support Committee for the Iraqi Revolution

Despite decliningmedia attention paid to the protests and less active mobilization efforts on social media resulting in reduced availability of photos and videos of the demonstrations, those that exist show significant crowds at Friday prayers. Protest organizers and spokespersons, moreover, have increased their calls for persistence in the face of security force raids and arrests. Samarra protest preacher Thiab al-Samarrai declaredon July 12 that protests would continue until demonstrators’ demands were met, pointing in particular to the general amnesty law and “thousands of innocent people” in detention. Khaled Hamoud al-Jumaili, a spokesman for the Martyr’s Square protest in Fallujah, struck a more provocative tone, announcingthat “the delegations to negotiate with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government have failed.” Only the “internationalization” of the issue, to involve the Arab League and the United Nations, Jumaili continued, could lead to the successful ending of the protests. Ramadi protest organizer Mahmoud al-Janabi, meanwhile, issueda further repudiation of attempts by politicians – principally Mutahidun, but also Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak – to represent the protesters electorally, accusing politicians of seeking to “exploit” public opinion. Ramadi demonstrators would not negotiate with the government, Janabi declared, until members of the security forces responsible for the deaths of protesters at Fallujahand Hawijawere brought to justice, and “the killing and arrest of Sunnis” by “the militia, Maliki, and Iran” had ceased.

Janabi’s statement highlights the multiple points of pressure being brought to bear upon the protesters. While negotiation initiatives have failed to bear fruit, Maliki’s security forces have continued to chip away at protest leaders, seeking to deprive the protests of their loudest voices. On June 21, security forces under the Tigris Operations Command (TOC) arrestedKirkuk protest coordinator Khalid al-Mafraji, an outspoken Maliki critic. Mafraji was held without charge for a number of weeks, prompting the popular committees behind protests in Kirkuk province to holdunified prayers at seven sites across the province on July 12 under the slogan “Ramadan is the month of patience and victory,”  demanding Mafraji’s release. In response to these heightened protests, the TOC also issuedan arrest warrant for another member of the Kirkuk coordinating committee, Akram al-Obeidi, accusing him of inciting attacks on troops around Kirkuk, where security has long been a serious problem.

In Anbar, meanwhile, the arrest of a prominent Ramadi protest leader threatened briefly to reignite confrontation between Anbari tribal groups and security forces. Mohammed Maadad al-Dulaimi was arrestedby security forces in mid-June for reasons that protesters insistedhad not been made public. In response to the arrest, it was reportedthat protesters had blocked the highway north of Ramadi. Protest spokesman Abd al-Razzaq al-Shammari subsequently declared, however, that the road closure signified a temporary protest rather than an attempt to confront security forces, and the highway was reopenedwithin 48 hours.

Heightened tensions between protesters and security forces provide key targets for AQI and other extremist terrorist groups. A suicide bombing targeting Iraqi Turkmen in Tuz Khurmato in Salah ad-Din on June 26 killedand injured more than 100 people, a number of protesters among them. Another bombing directedat protesters in the center of Samarra resulted in more than 20 casualties on July 5. The latter attack, in particular, raised serious concerns about the prospect of renewed sectarian conflict in the city: it was a bombing in Samarra, targetingthe Shi‘a al-Askari mosque, that launched Iraq’s civil war in 2006. Although the bombing bore the hallmarks of AQI, protest leaders blamedShi‘a militias for the attack and accused security forces of complicity, allowing the vehicle used in the bombing to pass through checkpoints. The main Samarra protest site increased in significance as its imam, Mohammed Taha Hamdoun, became one of the most prominent spokesmen of the Ramadi-based “six provinces” protest group. It is likely that this prominence, as well as the “six provinces” group’s links to Mutahidun and support for Sunnis’ participation in elections, prompted AQI to target the Samarra site.

The advent of Ramadan is likely to bring further spectacular attacks on protest sites, particularly in areas with mixed ethnic or sectarian populations. AQI attacks historicallyhave spikedduring Ramadan, targeting security forces, politicians, and government officials as well as Shi‘a civilians. AQI has dramatically stepped up the range and pace of its attacks in recent months, killingnearly 1500 people in three months. The group appears to have carried out another of its waves of spectacular attacks on July 14-15, with vehicle-borne bombings in Shi‘a areas such as Karbala, Basra, Nassiriyah, and Kut; in the southern Baghdad belt at Suwayra, Hilla, and Mussayebin Babel province; and along the disputed international boundaries around Kirkukand Tuz Khurmatu. The “reset” periods between these waves required to equip new vehicles with explosives appear to be decreasing as the group regains freedom of movement and increases its capabilities, suggesting that it will have little difficulty conducting increased numbers of attacks during Ramadan. With AQI’s capabilities increasing and the ISF showing limited ability to counter the group, these renewed gatherings at protest sites will present prime targets for bombing attacks. Diyala province, in particular, is threatening to become a flashpoint: attacks on both Shi‘a and Sunnis are clearly intended to inflame sectarian tensions, and protest sites in Baquba and Muqdadiyah– historically keyterrainfor AQI – will likely become focal points as the ISF maneuver there. 

At the same time, protest leaders are using Ramadan to galvanizetheir supporters, using the religious holiday to focus attention on sectarian inequalities and demandthat the government acts justly. Indeed, the emphasis on increased prayer, social gatherings, and on providing charity, particularly in the form of food, makes the protests natural focal points for surrounding communities, which have been performing such functions for many months.

With Iraq’s balance of political power reset in the aftermath of provincial elections results, the future of Iraq’s protests remains opaque. Protests in areas such as Mosul and Tikrit that came under the increasing control of the neo-Baathist insurgent group Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandia (JRTN) appear to have declinedmost precipitously, suggesting a shift in focus away from peaceful protests and toward attacking ISF in these areas. A negotiated end to the protests, meanwhile, is as remote a prospect as ever. Prominent Sunni cleric Abd al-Malik al-Saadi, who emergedas the central protest movement’s spiritual leader in January, no longer appears to be playing a key role. Saadi’s initiative for mediation with the government died out in June when Maliki refusedto “negotiate with murderers and advocates of sectarian violence.” Other key figures in the Mutahidun “six provinces” camp, too, are far less visible than in previous months. Those who have political orientation, such as the Nujaifi brothers, Ahmed Abu Risha, and Ahmed al-Alwani, are occupiedwith post-election negotiationsin Anbar and Ninewa. Of the younger guard of protest leaders, Qusai al-Zain and Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha,who were accusedof involvement in the shooting of five soldiers in Ramadi in April, continue to appear at protests in Anbar; their co-accused, Said al-Lafi, once the most visible of protest spokesmen, has not been seen in Iraq since he appearedat a “Supporting the Syrian People” conference in Qatar organized by Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

Since the anti-government protests began in December 2012, protesters have demonstrated a significant degree of determination and resilience in the face of infiltration by insurgent and terrorist groups, attacks by AQI, and raids by the ISF. Election results in Anbar and Ninewa demonstrated little appetite among voters for the more extreme aspects of the Mutahidun platform – particularly regional autonomy for predominantly Sunni Arab areas and the formation of tribal militias – and the outcome of the provincial government-formation process may have significant bearing on the protests. Should Mutahidun be forced to take junior positions in provincial administrations, they may seek to inject new energy into the protests as a way of reasserting their influence. With protesters caught between AQI and ISF, however, and Maliki having turned away from the possibility of negotiation, Iraq’s protest movement remains unlikely to return to its early-2013 heights – and violent solutions to the core disputes at the heart of the protest movement remain a distinct and worrisome possibility.

Stephen Wicken is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. Follow him on Twitter at @skwicken.