Iraq’s Sunni Spring

The below article examines the protests taking place in northern Iraq in Anbar and other primarily Sunni provinces. An edited version of this article is scheduled to appear in The National, later today.

Iraq’s Sunni Spring

In 1964 Iraq’s Shia population of the south gathered together in the holy city of Karbala, to protest against the predominantly Sunni sectarian government of ‘Abdul Salam al-Arif. According to witness accounts as well as US and UK diplomatic cables, tens of thousands, if not more than a hundred thousand, were rallying against Iraq’s regime, which had just come into power following a 1963 military coup.

The 1960s was characterised by heightened tensions between an authoritarian Sunni-dominated government and a marginalised Shia community, which at the time fell victim to policies that detrimentally impacted the daily life and bread of the Shia. For many decades later, Iraq’s Shia continued to be increasingly and violently oppressed under the Ba’ath regime and its dictatorial leader, Saddam Hussein.

More than 50 years later, in 2013, the tables have turned. It is now primarily Iraq’s Sunni population complaining of marginalisation, complaints voiced through peaceful as well as violent means. The past few weeks have seen thousands protest in Iraq’s Anbar province and other primarily Sunni provinces to the north, which, like Anbar, formed the heartbeat of the post-2003 Sunni insurgency.

Anbar’s population is protesting against what they call the marginalisation of the Sunni, underpinned by a lack of political recognition, basic services and allegedly indiscriminate anti-terror raids and arrests. The protests followed the controversial arrest of Sunni politician and Finance Minister, Rafi Issawi’s bodyguards. The arrests came just a year after the equally controversial arrest warrant issued against the country’s vice-president, Tarek al-Hashimi, who is now exiled in Turkey.

Firstly, before anything else, the protests are reflective of the dysfunctional politics within Baghdad. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to lead anything even remotely resembling a serious, efficient and effective government. After damaging relations with the Kurds, potentially beyond repair, through a series of standoffs between Baghdad and Kurdish forces in Iraq’s disputed territories of the north, which could have led to a devastating civil war, the Prime Minister has pushed his back against the wall by moving on yet another major representative of the Sunni population, provoking them into uproar as a result.

The Sunnis have reluctantly accepted their status as a minority in the new Iraq, even though it took them a bloody civil war and a pointless insurgency to come to terms with this. Their grievances may be legitimate. But the picture emerges more complicated.

In Iraq, Sunni complaints of marginalisation might seem plausible and not without any basis. Yet, Iraq’s other groupings can also claim marginalisation, given that this has more to do with Maliki’s consolidation of power and his marginalisation of rivals, rather than any inherently anti-Sunni political strategy.

Like the Sunnis, the Kurds and indeed other major Shia players like Muqtad al-Sadr, have complained of political marginalisation and Maliki’s increasing hold on power. Al-Sadr, who has a confrontational and bloody history with Maliki, was quick to attempt to capitalise on the opportunity presented by the Anbar protests, calling them Iraq’s Arab Spring. That, however, was not translated into any major active support from his supporters and nor from the broader Shia community, apart from minimal and tokenistic efforts by some delegates from the south, who visited Anbar to provide their support to the protests.

In other words, the Anbar protests show that, ten years on, Iraq remains scarred by communal and sectarian divisions, exasperated by the conflict in Syria. The protests lost any hope of legitimacy when, from the outset, they were dominated by anti-Shia slogans and the hoisting of Saddam era flags, inscribed with the former dictator’s handwriting. Anti-Iran sentiments were also voiced, with observers looking at these as being a disguise for further anti-Shia sentiments. Some protestors carried photos of Recep Tayip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister.

The protests are, therefore, reflective of the growing polarisation between the Sunni and Shia, both within Iraq and beyond in the region, as the Syria conflict continues to pit Sunni ideological forces against Shia ideological forces, the former represented by the Saudis, Gulf States and Turkey; the latter by Iran, Hezbollah and indeed Iraq.

Who emerges winner from all this is still unclear. With Sunni and Kurdish disenfranchisement growing, Maliki will turn to his Shia constituencies, who could see recent political challenges as challenges against the Shia themselves.

Further, Syria remains unpredictable, which equates with uncertainty for Iraq’s future. The battle for Damascus and the aftermath could still be played out on Iraqi soil. The rising prowess and ascendancy of Sunni ideological forces in the region means that al-Sadr might have been close when he called the Anbar protests Iraq’s version of the Arab Spring, only that they are more a part of the Sunni Spring unfolding in Iraq and the region.

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