Sunni protestors in Iraq hope for victory. Pic: Getty Images
Tensions between the Iraqi government and protestors in the southern province of Anbar have been running high for some time now. The mostly Sunni Muslim protestors in the southern city Ramadi, the capital of Anbar, have been demonstrating against the government for more than five months.
The Sunni Muslim protestors say they are discriminated against and marginalised by the current Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad, headed by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.
Recently things became even more tense when Iraqi army forces, acting on behalf of the Shiite Muslim-led government, turned on mostly Sunni Muslim protestors in Hawija in the north of the country, killing around 50 demonstrators. Since then there have been a number of deadly incidents around the country.
And lately these seemed to be escalating, especially after the formation of an “army” in Anbar in late April. When over a 100 military vehicles were deployed around Pride and Dignity Square, where Ramadi’s protests have mostly been based, various groups volunteered to defend the protestors.
Then the protestor’s spokesperson, Saeed al-Lafi, read a statement in a Ramadi mosque announcing the formation of a “tribal army” in Anbar. “This army can be ready for duty in 72 hours and its role is to defend the province and to respond to any attacks against Sunni Muslim protestors,” the statement said.
But now, it seems that slowly the crisis is being resolved. The turning point in Pride and Dignity Square, where Ramadi’s protests have mostly been based, seemed to come after Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, who is Sunni Muslim, met with Qasim al-Fahadawi, the governor of Anbar.
At a meeting in the local government headquarters, al-Fahadawi said that dialogue was the only solution. “If we sit together we can prevent the political process from descending into an abyss of violence and tragedy,” al-Fahadawi said.
At first al-Mutlaq had a lot of bad press for his role in this conflict, with some calling him a traitor who was only out for his own reward and who was siding with Shiite Muslim politicians. But in recent weeks, al-Mutlaq has apparently been in contact with most of the leaders of these protests, including those who are strongly opposed to any kind of dialogue or peace.
In fact, the deputy Prime Minister headed a major meeting of protest leaders at one of the largest local tribe’s guesthouses. There the group discussed different ways of avoiding military confrontation and further violence.
The meeting, attended by NIQASH, seemed to calm the situation and although many called for al-Maliki to come to Ramadi to negotiate further, al-Mutlaq apparently convinced them this was impossible. Instead the protestors agreed to negotiate with a committee from Baghdad that would be headed by the Minister for Energy Hussein al-Shahristani, himself a leading Shiite Muslim politician.
Sunni Muslim cleric, Abdul Malek al-Saadi, who returned from Jordan to support the protestors and who was a figurehead for them, tried to advocate for peace too. He also demonstrated his potential influence with the protestors.
"I suggested the formation of a committee from among the protestors to negotiate with the government,” al-Saadi said in an emailed statement. “I was authorized by the protestors to do this. And I thank the protestors for their trust and wish them success.”
Al-Saadi called upon al-Maliki’s government “to form a committee and to give it the necessary powers to respond to the demonstrators’ demands without delay or procrastination”. He also advised anyone who spoke to the media to avoid “provocation and accusations against the demonstrators - and to abandon any behaviour that might incite hatred”.
Al-Saadi said he would reveal the names of those selected to negotiate in time for the first planned meeting with the government’s committee and he also suggested a meeting place: “The Askari shrine and mosque - peace be upon them - in Samarra because of the atmosphere of brotherhood, compassion and tolerance in these places”.
The Askari shrine and mosque in the central Iraqi city of Samarra is a very important holy place for Shiite Muslims and it is also held in high regard by Sunni Muslims.
The local government in Anbar say they think al-Saadi’s initiative is a good one and that it also planned to be present at any negotiations.
"The provincial council and its administration will be represented at the negotiating committees because of the marginalization of this provincial council and governor,” the deputy chairman of Anbar Council, Sadoun al-Shalan, told NIQASH. “But dialogue with Baghdad will depend on the way the government there responds to the protestors’ demands.”
However, unsurprisingly, not everybody was as conciliatory. One of the protest leaders who was at the meetings told NIQASH privately that there were several groups who didn’t want to negotiate with the government at all. “At the meeting some of the Sunni Muslim forces were not supportive of al-Mutlaq,” he said. “The extremists don’t like al-Mutlaq’s plans. They want to maintain the protests’ momentum to that they can unseat al-Maliki and pave the way for the formation of an [independent] Sunni Muslim region.”
Other groups had actually boycotted the meetings with al-Mutlaq and the source said these groups were ready for armed conflict, under the guise of self defence.
Nonetheless, currently these groups seem to be in the minority. Al-Saadi has proven very popular in Anbar and many of the protestors and other locals will take heed of his words. Currently it seems that whatever happens next is going to depend very much on the al-Maliki government’s reaction.
"Violence will lead to huge losses. In any confrontation, everyone will lose,” one of the protest leaders and an important tribal head, Ahmad Abu Risheh, said at the meeting with al-Mutlaq. “That means the other party in the conflict should be as serious about negotiations as we are,” he concluded.