Protests surge in Iraq's Sunni regions, testing Maliki

Across majority Sunni Arab towns in Iraq today hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets,, complaining Sunnis are being targeted by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Khalid Mohammed/AP
Iraqis chant antigovernment slogans as they wave national flags during a protest in Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday. Tens of thousands of Sunni protesters blocked a major highway in western Iraq on Friday, as an Al Qaeda-affiliated group called on Sunnis to take up arms against the Shiite-led government.

In Iraq's vast western Anbar province, anger over arrests by Iraqi security forces and government neglect has prompted spreading protests that pose the biggest challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki since the country’s 2006-2007 sectarian war.

On Friday in Fallujah and Ramadi, hundreds of thousands of men held Friday prayers on the main highway instead of in the mosques. The peaceful demonstrations, the biggest in Anbar Province since Saddam Hussein was toppled, were called to commemorate the killings of at least seven protesters by Iraqi soldiers a week ago. Tens of thousands of demonstrators turned public squares into prayer grounds in Mosul, Samarra, Baquba, and other Sunni communities and cities.

The Anbar demonstrations began in December, with protesters demanding an end to perceived targeting of Sunni Muslims after the arrest of the Sunni finance minister’s bodyguards on terrorism charges. But it is the arrests of dozens of Iraqi women that have infuriated many in this fiercely tribal area. That anger has spread to Sunni areas in Baghdad and to provinces farther north, and both Al Qaeda in Iraq and mainstream political figures have been quick to join the fray.

The Al Qaeda umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq, appealed to Sunnis this week to arm themselves against the Iraqi government and security forces. Hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on Thursday, meanwhile, threatened to withdraw cabinet ministers from Mr. Maliki's coalition government if the protesters' demands weren't met. 

The unrest in Iraq’s Sunni-majority provinces is spurred by the belief that Iraqi security forces, particularly elite units answering to the prime minister, are being used to indiscriminately arrest and torture young Sunni men under the guise of counterterrorism operations. As calls for Maliki to step down have intensified, the combination of political opposition and unrest on the ground has raised the specter that both Maliki's Shiite-led government and Iraq as a unified country might not survive.

‘We came out for the sake of women arrested and to defend the oppressed,” says Abdul Qadar Falah at a now six-week-old sit-in in Ramadi that has blocked the main highway to Jordan. “We had 19 demands before but now we have only one – to bring down Maliki.”

Common experience of arrests

At a protest in Ramadi on a recent day, almost everyone in a group of more than a dozen young men had either been arrested or had relatives in jail. Many of them said they had been tortured – a practice human rights organizations say is widespread in Iraq.

Almost all their stories had an undercurrent of the religious strife that had been thought to be essentially extinguished since it tore Iraq apart during the civil war, mirroring warnings from Iraqi officials that sectarian sentiment is rising again.

“They raided our house in the middle of the night last week,” said Qahtan Hamad from Tarmiyah, a mostly-Sunni area outside Baghdad. “The officer told my mother: ‘Why do you stay here –aren’t you afraid the Shiites will come and murder you?’ She told him, ‘We’ve been living together for the last 25 years, Sunnis and Shiites.’”

Mr. Hamad said he and three other families left their homes and their land the next morning to take refuge with relatives in Ramadi.

Unnamed informants

In Iraq, suspects can be arrested on the basis of unnamed informants and sentenced to death on the basis of a confession, which human rights groups say are commonly obtained through torture.

“They arrested me and my brother,” says another young man who asked that his name not be used. “The officer said, ‘I will torture you if you don’t admit you attacked checkpoints.’ ” He said he was hung from the ceiling with his hands cuffed behind him, beaten and shocked with electric cables.  The young man, who had scars on his wrists and ankles, says they were released, but his brother was re-arrested and is still in prison.

While Maliki has survived more than a year of attempts by Kurdish, Sunni, and even Shiite political parties to engineer a vote of no confidence in him, the unrest on the ground appears to have provided an opportunity for his many political enemies. 

Iraq’s parliament just passed a term limits law that would prevent Maliki from running again next year. While the law is unlikely to be upheld in court, the ability of an often-deadlocked parliament to muster enough votes to pass it was an indication of how much opposition the prime minister faces, even among his coalition partners. Although the government has demonstrated a remarkable ability to withstand crisis, not since its civil war has it faced the combination of political turmoil and unrest on the ground.

“I think everything is wide open,” says Juan Cole, a leading analyst on Iraq and a professor at the University of Michigan. “The other big question is, if Damascus falls and if we had a strong Sunni government in Syria, what would that do to the dynamic in Iraq.… I think it’s really in the hands of Iraqi politicians whether they can heal and come together or, ironically enough, come to a Biden sort of situation.”

US Vice President Joe Biden was widely criticized in Iraq for suggesting while he was a senator that the country might be better off split up into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish territories. 

Prisons full of innocent young men?

In recent protests in Anbar, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces, demonstrators have demanded an end to a sweeping antiterrorism law used to detain and execute prisoners, reform of de-Baathification laws that have disproportionately left Sunnis unemployed, and the release of female prisoners – a particularly volatile issue in Iraq's conservative tribal areas. They say prisons are full of innocent young men. 

“They just create accusations against them and torture them until they confess…. They brought in women and said ‘your wife is here – we’re going to rape her,’ ” says Firas in Fallujah, speaking of a cousin in Kathamia prison in Baghdad who he says was forced to confess to a bombing.

Maliki's limited overtures so far fall far short of what protesters are demanding. While announcing an amnesty for all male and female prisoners not accused of terrorism, he has also invoked security concerns, saying that Al Qaeda, former Baathists, and regional intelligence agencies were behind the recent violence, provoking the Army to open fire on demonstrators.

On the same day as the fatal demonstration in Fallujah, unknown gunmen killed at least two Iraqi soldiers at checkpoints near the city – a frequent target of insurgents.

Governor: protesters have legitimate rights

After the US-led invasion, Anbar Province became synonymous with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Its fighters seized control of Fallujah while the organization set up safe houses and supply routes in the desert near Syria. 

At the provincial headquarters in Ramadi, Gov. Qassim Abid Hammadi says talk of Al Qaeda here is vastly exaggerated. 

“Ninety-five percent of the protesters have legitimate rights,” says the governor. “The others include maybe 1 percent Al Qaeda, maybe 1 percent who do not know what they are doing, maybe 1 percent of people from other countries who are trying to damage things – but the majority of the protesters, they have rights.”

Officials here are grappling with how to revive cities badly damaged by fighting by fighting here during the war. On the highway near the city, a sign advertises the construction of  Ramadi’s new  "five-star hotel" due to be completed next year. Mr. Hammadi, a German-educated engineer, has plans for more than 1,000 projects worth more than $500 million this year but the unrest makes the goal of prosperity and stability even further out of reach and adds to the despair here. Anbar Province's porous border with Syria is another concern.

The Iraqi government has been so afraid of the spillover of fighting from Syria that it temporarily closed the borders in January. A separate and rare closing of the border with Jordan was done to prevent fighters and weapons from coming from that country, according to a senior official.

Hammadi rejects Iraqi government accusations that other countries are responsible for the unrest in Anbar.

“I don’t think this is the major factor,” says the governor. “There is interference from Turkey, from Syria, from Saudi Arabia – this is normal. If you open your doors, anyone can come from anywhere, but the major factor is in Iraq – we have to find a way how to live together, how to cooperate, how to understand each other. This is the major part – the other is the minor one.”

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