The arrest of Sunni protest leader Iraqi MP Ahmad al-Alwani in December 2013, following a crackdown on the anti-government Ramadi protests, led to violent clashes between government security forces and armed tribesmen in the western Iraqi province of al-Anbar, paving the way for wider sectarian conflict.
Over the past year, in the rebellious province of al-Anbar—along with the Iraqi provinces of Diyala, Salah al-Din, and Mosul; large swathes of Kirkuk; and Baghdad—has witnessed increased anti-government tension leading to uprisings demanding political rights, services, and employment. Topping the list of grievances is the sectarian discrimination suffered by Iraqi Sunnis, specifically with regards to the controversial provision of Iraq’s anti-terrorism law, dubbed “Article 4 Sunna,” in reference to the fact that the law essentially targets Sunni Arabs. The protesters also called for an end to the Accountability and Justice Law that has superseded the de-Baathification law.
The protesters’ demands reflect hardships that all Iraqis suffer from, such as marginalization, corruption, and the lack of services, yet the government insists that these demands have Sunni sectarian goals, a ploy meant to incite fear of a return to “Sunni dominance,” mainly addressed at the Shiite community. Taking advantage of the increased terror inflicted by al-Qaeda in Iraq, the government has been able to widen the divide between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite. For instance, the Shiite-majority provinces of the south have not supported the legitimate and patriotic demands of the six provinces in revolt. Most comments and tweets by young Iraqis from Shiite and Sunni communities reflect sectarianism despite the fact they both share similar grievances.
Events in al-Anbar can be traced back to the beginning of the Syrian revolution, when calculations were made about the likely implications the Syrian revolution would have on Iraq. The government predicted that fighting would spread to the three western Iraqi provinces that border Syria—Anbar, Nineveh (Mosul), and Salah al-Din—and then toward Diyala, Kirkuk, and Baghdad. They also expected a “Sunni” unity to take place between the western and central provinces of Iraq. Baqir Solagh, a member of the (Shiite) Iraqi National Coalition, predicted that the fighting would reach the walls of Baghdad were the Syrian revolution to succeed.
For this reason, considerable thought is given to the possibility of a successful revolution in Syria, with even greater concern at its possible spread to Iraq and the major strategic implications this would have on Iran’s regional position and its interests in Syria and Lebanon. Against this backdrop, al-Anbar forms the weakest link in Iran’s calculations, developed when it decided to exploit the US occupation of Iraq.
The land route linking Iraq and Syria, via which Iranian supplies reach Bashar al-Assad’s regime, was threatened by factions of the Syrian opposition and the fighting raging in parts of eastern Syria. This route had not been secure since the start of the al-Anbar uprising in December 2012. On many occasions, rebels in al-Anbar confronted military convoys that were trying to cross the highway heading toward the border with Syria. This route has also been cut at Fallujah and Ramadi.
Government control over routes leading out of Iraq is inconsistent since most of them pass through areas where the majority of the population supports the opposition. The province of Diyalato east of Baghdad, for example, dominates the strategic transportation route linking Iraq and Iran. Here, the government uses every means available to control this province, including population transfer on a sectarian basis around vital junctions on this route, particularly in the Sunni-majority Miqdadiya area close to the Iranian border. In this area, the government gave the militias free reign to implement sectarian population transfer in an effort to tighten control over the international highway between Iraq and Iran where it emerges from the Hamrin Mountains situated to the east of Miqdadiya. The same applies to the road joining Baghdad and Mosul, which also crosses areas inhabited by Sunni tribes, and the two roads linking Baghdad and Basra via the Tigris and Euphrates, which cross Sunni-majority areas for some 50 km from Baghdad.
Blocking roads that lead out of Iraq represents a strategic threat to the current Iraqi government and its ability to impose its authority throughout Iraq. Al-Anbar represents a real challenge in this respect, particularly after the uprising when the international highway was blocked for periods of time, and again as a response to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s recent military intervention at the eastern gateway to Fallujah (60 km west of Baghdad).
Popular support for Prime Minister al-Maliki is declining at a time when support is desperately needed to ensure victory in the coming elections and secure a third term. This decline was evident in the recent provincial assembly elections, which his Shiite rivals benefited from, particularly the Supreme Islamic Council, which forms part of the Iraqi National Coalition uniting the Shiite political parties, including that of al-Maliki. The Sadrists have rejected this Coalition, with some leading figures in al-Maliki’s Rule of Law Coalition having resigned. In addition, rumors concerning the influence that his son has begun to wield in matters of state have been spreading in circles close to the prime minister. As a result, al-Maliki has started to feel under threat, especially in Baghdad where he won the most votes in the last parliamentary elections. Inflating the threat posed by al-Anbar in a ploy to win over the majority of Shiite public opinion in Iraq, thus makes electoral politics a factor behind the escalated crackdown on protest arenas in al-Anbar.
Internal fragmentation among the Sunni population forms another reason prompting al-Maliki to storm the protest camp in Ramadi. Years of control has meant that al-Maliki has gradually created allies from among the Sunni Arabs. Although these leaders have at times opposed al-Maliki, they gave his governance legitimacy and the pretense of participation. Their failure to summon al-Maliki before parliament for questioning or to withdraw confidence from the government has helped consolidate the reality represented by the government’s total dominance over the country.
Although the (Sunni) Islamic Party of Iraq has always been an ally of al-Maliki, and consistently prepared to provide him with cover in exchange for minimal gains, it represents a minority on the Iraqi political scene, taking only a few seats in the 2010 elections. Hence, one can deduce that the influence of the Islamist political currents on Sunni public opinion in Iraq is very limited. In fact, the Sunna of Iraq were behind the non-sectarian Iraqiya List’s victory in the last parliamentary elections. That the List was deprived of its right to form the government was due to an agreement between the US and Iran, joined at the time by Turkey, which ensured al-Maliki remained prime minister after his electoral failure against the Iraqiya List.
The protests in the Iraqi provinces symbolize the uprising of one portion of the Arab community in Iraq against the attempts to belittle and marginalize it and to take its will hostage, and against a policy of marginalization that has been followed by the post-occupation governments from Ibrahim al-Jaafari to al-Maliki. The symbol of the protests has caused anxiety to the political parties that dominate power, not just because it is a symbol, but also because it could be transformed into a goal of exerting control in regions whose area exceeds half of Iraq. Al-Anbar alone occupies more than one third of the territory of Iraq.
The crackdown on the protests aims to break the growing will of these regions’ citizens to participate in running the affairs of their country. It also aims to prevent the creation of a new leadership more able to express their aspirations and revive or reproduce the role of conciliatory figures in the Sunni community who approved of the current political process in return for minor personal gains. These are the people whom the prime minister invited to negotiations on the basis that they are the “true people of Anbar.”
In his endeavor to split the tribal ranks in the region, al-Maliki derives considerable strength from the presence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). This group’s intervention in the crisis, and its attempt to exploit it, were a major blow to al-Anbar’s popular uprising. Additionally, it gave al-Maliki the chance to accuse local protesters of being al-Qaeda sympathizers. ISIS is a source of confusion and distortion and an embarrassment to the uprising’s elite and popular base alike. They reject the idea of being in the same battle as ISIS, but find themselves seemingly fighting on the same front.
Toward Further Complications
Al-Maliki might have succeeded in clearing the protest camps, but the crisis does not appear to be nearing a solution, but seems to be destined for more complications. ISIS’s involvement in the crisis, in the cities in particular, will give al-Maliki’s allies, foremost among them the Islamic Party and the former Awakening grouping, the pretext to call on the government to come to the rescue. This will transform the crisis from its current binary polarization (the people of Anbar versus the al-Maliki government) into a crisis involving al-Maliki, his local allies, ISIS, the protesters, and the citizens of al-Anbar who fear the fighting will move inside the cities. Al-Maliki’s reversal of his decision to withdraw the army, the return of the army to the cities, and the involvement of ISIS in the conflict between the government and the people of Anbar form an explosive mixture that becomes even more dangerous with the approaching parliamentary elections. It is, then, crucial for the people of Anbar to remove ISIS from the equation and pre-empt al-Maliki from turning it into a way to get votes domestically and more support on the grounds that he is fighting terror.
The success of the uprising in al-Anbar depends on achieving its initial goal and returning the uprising to its true course, as represented by the protesters rightful demands in the face of injustice and sectarian policies. Only with such a policy can the support of all the Iraqi provinces, irrespective of their sectarian and ethnic affiliations, be obtained, and not just that of the provinces already sympathetic. In this context, the protesters would do well to remember that the sectarian language and political division in Iraq today is a result of the policies of the occupation. It is essential to go beyond this language and once again recognize that the Shiite in Iraq are Arabs and Iraqis and should not be pushed toward Iran. In this effort, the Iraqis need Arab participation that reaches out to Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite, equally.
*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on January 7th, 2014 can be found here.
 Demonstrations with a Shiite majority took to the streets in southern Iraq in July 2013 demanding al-Maliki’s resignation. See “Popular mobilization and demonstrations in southern Iraq for nine straight days demanding al-Maliki’s resignation and al-Shahristani’s removal,” Al-Sharq Al-Awsaat, July 27, 2013, http://www.aawsat.com/details.asp?section=4&issueno=12660&article=737866#.Uskcbdyno3w