Special Report

Behind the Iraq Protests

Dispelling some common myths, whether about pending civil war or Syrian spillover.

By 4.18.13

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Beginning in December of last year with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s arrest warrant against the bodyguard retinue of Rafi al-Issawi, who has since then announced his resignation as Finance Minister, Iraq has seen continual protests in Sunni Arab areas. At the broadest level, these protests denounce perceived discrimination by the Shia-led central government against Sunni Arabs. However, throughout the course of these demonstrations, some myths have emerged that need to be debunked. The first of these is the notion that during the protests, the Sunni Arabs have formed a united political front.

The sources of these perceptions primarily come from remarks by certain Sunni Arab interviewees to reporters such as Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Patrick Cockburn for Western media outlets.

Further, one Iraqi outlet -- al-Masalah -- has published a list of thirteen demands that are supposed to represent the aims of the protest coordination committees in Anbar and Ninawa provinces.

Nonetheless, there are several points that tell against the conception of a united Sunni Arab front.

To begin with, consider the reactions of Iraqiya -- the very loose coalition that broadly enjoys the support of the Sunni Arab community -- through the course of protests. At present, one can observe a split between the bloc led by deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and other prominent figures in Iraqiya like Osama al-Nujaifi, the speaker for the parliament.

Mutlaq, who was chased away by protesters in Anbar and then initially tried to court support by denouncing Maliki as a dictator, has been working with the premier since last month to address some of the protesters’ demands. He has also undoubtedly been the main figure behind pushing the recently announced amendments to de-Baathification put forward by the cabinet. Even so, Nujaifi and others -- as part of Iraqiya’s official boycott -- have criticized him for returning to work with the government.

Besides this split at the level of Iraqiya, the coordination committees and protesters at the grassroots level in various areas differ strongly in what specific demands and slogans they articulate.

For example, the protest coordination committee in Ramadi has endorsed negotiating with the government, but others in the same city -- primarily affiliated with the cleric Abd al-Malik al-Saadi -- reject this approach, denouncing those who support negotiations as traitors.

In fact, as the authors of Inside Iraqi Politics note, Saadi is likely to be the author of the thirteen demands, and he calls for the complete abolition of de-Baathification. A “no negotiations” stance has also been recently observed in some rallies in Kirkuk, while supporters of Mutlaq in the city have come out to call for an end to the Iraqiya boycott of the government.

Elsewhere, the protest coordination committee in Samarra believes that the primary obstacle to reform is Maliki, and so on one occasion called for the independent Shia Islamist MP Sabah al-Saedi to replace Maliki as prime minister. Saedi, who currently has an arrest warrant against him, is a vocal critic of Maliki and frequently purports to expose massive corruption scandals in government.

More extreme sentiments can be found in the city of Fallujah, where al Qaeda banners have been observed in some of the demonstrations together with calls for jihad to overthrow the government and banners endorsing terrorist incidents like the attack on the “Safavid” Ministry of Justice in Baghdad. The term “Safavid” is widely used among extremists in the protests to attack the Iraqi government as a mere satrap of a Persian Shia empire.

Protest organizers in Fallujah do issue statements officially distancing themselves from such sentiments and it is certainly true that the majority of people in Fallujah do not endorse violent confrontation.

Yet one must agree with consultant Kirk Sowell that the fact that the protest organizers do not bar people waving al Qaeda banners from rallying is telling. Such flags would not be allowed in Ramadi, and in turn, the Baghdad protests are marked by a conspicuous absence of the Saddam-era Iraq flag.

In this context, something needs to be said about the presence of Free Syrian Army (FSA) flags. These too are primarily to be found in Fallujah and the immediate vicinity and even then are not all that frequent in occurrence. From time to time, FSA flags appear in conjunction with the al Qaeda banner.

It is only in this sense that some protesters can really be said to draw on the insurrection in Syria (cf. this video: featuring a Syrian speaker in Anbar and ending with a call for jihad), pace the conventional wisdom that the demonstrations in Iraq are broadly inspired by the Syrian rebellion.

In fact, the narrative that the protests in Iraq are essentially spillover from Syria is the line widely adopted in pro-government circles. It makes more sense however to interpret the protests on their own terms: namely, resulting from long-standing grievances about perceived discrimination.

The final myth to be debunked is the issue of the Sadrist movement -- led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- and its view of the protests. It is widely believed that the Sadrists sympathize with “Sunni demands” and the protests. A look at the actual record demonstrates that this apparent sympathy is nothing more than populist opportunism for the upcoming provincial elections.

The fact that Sadr has said the protesters have “legitimate” grievances is nothing particularly special: it is in reality a pro forma line adopted by all of Iraq’s politicians, including Maliki himself, as well as the likes of Sheikh Jalaluddin al-Saghir of the Supreme Islamic Council (a significant Shia political faction with the closest links to Iran).

The Sadrists may have accused pro-Maliki demonstrators of being paid government agents and joined Iraqiya in boycotting the Council of Ministers, but at the same time they have accused al Qaeda and Baathists of being behind protests and have refused open participation.

Further, with the announcement of amendments to de-Baathification, both of the Sadrist blocs in parliament -- namely, Ahrar and Fadhila -- issued statements denouncing the reforms.

Ahrar’s leader Bahaa al-Araji has vowed to do everything to prevent the amendments from passing in parliament, while Fadhila denounced the amendments as an injustice to the victims of the former regime.

These statements reflect that the Sadrists are far more hardline on de-Baathification than Maliki. Meanwhile, the National Alliance -- a Shia coalition that includes the Sadrists -- has issued an official statement affirming that all blocs were consulted on the amendments and no objections were raised.

The demonstrations will likely continue for quite some time -- even with the likely passing in Parliament of amendments to de-Baathification that both Iraqiya and Maliki support. Even so, the protests at present do not appear to be pointing toward the development of a violent civil war. The environment of resentment does provide better opportunities for insurgents to operate, however, and overall violence can be expected to be higher this year. By looking at the common myths about the protests -- namely, on supposed “Sunni unity,” Syrian “spillover,” and Sadrist sympathy for demonstrators’ demands -- it is to be hoped that a better understanding of the dynamics of the situation in Iraq will be attained.

A wider appreciation of the myths behind Sunni unity and Syrian “spillover” in U.S. policy circles in particular could help Washington regain some leverage with the Iraqi central government by reassuring Baghdad on some of its concerns regarding the protests rather than reinforcing those fears. In turn, there are two advantages to reassurance through dispelling myths about the protests: internal political tensions can be reduced and Baghdad might be persuaded to drop its passive support for Assad, which is rooted in the idea that if the regime in Damascus falls, then sectarian civil war will engulf Iraq.

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About the Author
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.