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100 days on
sunni protests won’t stop – but will they become violent?

Mustafa Habib
Over 100 days have passed since Sunni Muslims began protesting their treatment by the Iraqi government. Neither side trusts the other and some say the violence may begin soon.
4.04.2013  |  Baghdad
Sunni protestors in Iraq hope for victory.
Sunni protestors in Iraq hope for victory.

Last Monday marked the 100th day since anti-government protests by mainly Sunni Muslim protestors began.

And as yet, nobody has come up with any kind of solution to the protestors’ demands. So there’s no doubt demonstrations will continue. And there’s also no doubt that fears of the protests becoming violent are also still current.

The protests’ leaders say that they will continue to demonstrate against the fact that ever since the end of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, Sunni Muslims have been marginalized and mistreated in Iraq. Hussein himself was a Sunni Muslim and gave his own sect preferential treatment. Since 2003, the tables have turned as Shiite Muslims have been in power most of that time and, according to some, have been making up for injustices practiced by Hussein’s regime upon them. In doing so, the Sunni Muslim protestors say, they have been unfair, unjust and violent.

Some political observers suggest that the mainly Shiite Muslim politicians who have been in power since 2003 have not managed to change the power structure established by Hussein much, except they’re now using it against the other sect. They also say that the Shiite Muslims believe that the Sunni Muslims are still loyal to Hussein and the old, undemocratic government, even though Hussein himself was executed in 2006.

And the Sunni Muslim demonstrators themselves say that they’ve been targeted by assassins, by campaigns of arrests and displacement; they say they are also discriminated against in the civil and military service.

Complaints have been being made for a while. But the demonstrations started seriously in late December 2012, after the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, arrested members of the country’s finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi’s body guards. Ten of them were accused of terrorism. Al-Issawi is one of the country’s most senior Sunni Muslim officials and he comes from Anbar, where his tribe is very influential.

This comes on top of other arrests and attempted arrests of top Sunni Muslim politicians.

And the Sunni Muslim protestors have been taking to the streets ever since. Every Friday, they demonstrate and give the demonstration days similar names to those used by neighbouring countries as they went through their own revolutions during the so-called Arab spring.

For example, among them, Fridays called: “no to a government of chaos”, “go” (as in, leave now al-Maliki) and “hand in hand to maintain our rights”.

In response, al-Maliki has formed several committees to look into protestors’ complaints. And the committees did issue a series of potential actions.

Al-Maliki has also continued to use a “carrot and stick” approach. His security forces continue to arrest people involved with the campaigns and imposing strict security regimes on Sunni Muslim-majority cities. This behaviour is in fact provoking the demonstrators even more.

On the other hand, the Prime Minister has also released some detainees, promised to re-appoint Sunni Muslim army officers who lost their jobs and cancelled several de-Baathification measures.

However the protestors say they do not trust other measures will be implemented, especially in regard to the government’s ongoing breach of trust.

“Unfortunately the protestors don’t trust al-Maliki because he is known for not keeping the promises he made to his opponents during the political process," said Ali Hatem Suleiman, a tribal leader and prime mover behind the protests in the Anbar province, who also played a large part in the US-founded initiative, the Awakening Movement, which was started to combat al-Qaeda in Iraq.

And on the other side of the bargaining table, it seems that al-Maliki and his advisers don’t trust the Sunni Muslim protestors either. They see them as a threat to the political process in Iraq and they also say they know there are members of al-Qaeda, the Sunni Muslim terrorism group, taking part in the demonstrations.

Investigations in other parts of Iraq have confirmed that some Sunnis Muslims taking part in the protests are indeed from organisations connected with, or belonging to, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq, an extremist religious group affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Al-Maliki has mentioned the protestors’ demands in his speeches, saying they have some legitimate grievances. But he often also adds that there are terrorists among them as well as members of the Baath party, the political party headed by Saddam Hussein.

"It’s true that members of al-Qaeda have infiltrated the demonstrations,” Ali al-Shala, an MP for al-Maliki’s State of Law party, told NIQASH. “They are making the same demands as the demonstrators and chanting slogans - but they want the peaceful demonstrations to become militarized. They want to become violent and take up arms. There are also those who’d like to see the country’s political process come to an end. It’s very serious.”

One of the biggest problems facing the demonstrators now, observers say, is that most of their leaders are religious men. They don’t have any political experience and they don’t know how to negotiate with the government. Apparently protestors wanted the clerics to lead them because they didn’t trust any local politicians, feeling that politicians would only use the situation for their own personal, political gain.

“It’s true that the clerics are monopolizing the speeches at demonstrations,” one protestor from Mosul told NIQASH. “they have a lot of influence and their speeches are often very emotional, which leads the protestors to become angrier and angrier.”

Another problem the demonstrators have is a lack of unity. In Anbar, some have again suggested that the province break away and become a semi-autonomous state like Iraqi Kurdistan, a sort of homeland for Sunni Muslims within Iraq. However others – including Sunni Muslim spiritual leader Abdul Malik al-Saadi - completely disagree, saying it would divide the country. Religious fatwas, or decrees, have actually been issued against the idea.

“Right now the idea of creating an independent region is not an option,” Anbar’s MP, Ahmad al-Alwani, told NIQASH. “But we do not know what the future will bring if the government doesn’t change its current policies. The Sunnis just want to see an end to government oppression.”

And judging by the current scenario, this may take some time.

“The government has threatened demonstrators, it has tried to bribe them too – but all attempts to stop people from demonstrating have failed,” Saeed al-Lafi, a spokesperson for the demonstrators in the city of Ramadi, in central Iraq, told NIQASH. “The government is taking its time and placing its best on the fact that the demonstrators will get tired from protesting every day. They believe they will soon return home. But they are wrong.”

In fact protestors have ignored government demands that they return to their homes. They’ve started camping on the streets, in tents, in the various cities they’re protesting in and staying overnight.

“Here demonstrators have planted palm trees by the side of the road, next to where they’re demonstrating,” one of the tribal leaders organizing protests in Fallujah city in the Anbar province, Salam al-Isawi, told NIQASH. ‘And they’re waiting for the palms to bear fruit so they can eat them.”

The average date palm takes between four and eight years to fruit.