Repression by Iraq’s Shia regime sparks Sunni revolt
Failing conciliation, Anbar uprising could spark full-scale Sunni rebellion
Fighters of al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant carry their weapons during a parade at the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, near the border with Turkey January 2nd. The Al-Qaeda-linked organisation has exploited the unrest in Iraq by moving into byattacking police stations and looting weapons depots. Photograph: Yaser Al-Khodor/Reuters
Baghdad’s forcible detention of a Sunni lawmaker and brutal dispersal of a Sunni protest sit-in at the city of Ramadi has sparked a tribal revolt in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
Sunni tribesmen have taken control of portions of the city, the provincial capital, and half of the nearby city of Fallujah. The al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) has exploited the unrest by moving into both cities, attacking police stations and looting weapons depots.
Armed with a warrant for his arrest on vague terrorism charges, security forces stormed the home of Sunni legislator Ahmed al-Alwani on December 28th, wounding him and killing his brother and five guards.
On the 30th, army and special operations units came under fire from tribesmen defending the year-long encampment on the highway on the outskirts of Ramadi. Human Rights Watch said 17 were slain and quoted Fadel Barwari, commander of Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces, who stated: “I will kill those dogs and those who are with them. I will wipe them out.”
The protest was against Sunni exclusion from the political system, dominated by fundamentalist Shias since the US occupation of Iraq, and the unjust targeting of Sunnis by security agencies.
Two years ago, Sunni vice- president Tareq al-Hashimi was accused of operating death squads and was driven into exile. Last year, 10 bodyguards of finance minister Rafe al-Essawi were detained on “terrorism” charges.
During 2013 security forces fired upon and killed peaceful protesters in at least four other sites. An attack at a camp at the city of Hawija killed 51.
Forty-four Sunni deputies resigned from parliament, demanding the withdrawal of troops from Ramadi, an end to repression in Anbar and the release of Alwani.
Support for the Sunnis has also come from radical Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who opposed the US invasion of Iraq.
Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has blamed the rising Sunni insurgency on the Isis, which has staged a resurgence since 2012 when Sunnis began protesting marginalisation and victimisation, and fundamentalists joined battle against the secular regime in nearby Syria.
During 2013, 7,818 civilians were killed in Iraq and 17,981 injured, while 952 troops were slain, the highest toll since 2008.
Alarmed over the deteriorating situation, Washington has delivered surveillance drones and 75 Hellfire missiles to the government. The US also plans to provide Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter jets to Iraq during 2014.
There is concern, however, that these weapons could be used against dissident Sunnis as well as Isis. This would further alienate Sunnis angered over exclusion from the army, security forces and civil service and encourage them to join Isis, where they can receive training, arms and a salary.
Iraqi and western analysts argue that instead of bolstering Mr Maliki with missiles, Washington should be tackling him over Shia domination, corruption and his autocratic rule.
Before Mr Maliki’s latest moves against Alwani and the protest camp, Sunnis had expressed determination to participate in April’s national election. This showed that they were prepared to give democracy a second chance, in the hope that the Sunni community, Iraq’s second-largest, would be reintegrated into political life.
In 2010 Sunnis joined and voted for the secular Iraqiya list, headed by Ayad Allawi, which won the largest number of seats, but, after months of negotiations, Mr Maliki was named prime minister in a deal brokered by Tehran between his State of Law faction and two other Shia groupings.
If the Anbar revolt continues, or is put down ruthlessly by Baghdad, Sunnis in Anbar, Salahuddin, and Nineva provinces may seek redress by launching a full-scale rebellion and join with the Isis to bring down Mr Maliki, who is regarded by opponents as “illegitimate”.
A Sunni rebellion is likely to enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar, the regional powers providing the funds and arms fuelling the uprising against the secular government in Syria, which is aligned with Shia Iran and Lebanon’s Shia Hizbullah movement. Consequently, unless Mr Maliki is persuaded to conciliate the Sunnis rather than repress them, Iraq could be caught up in a Shia-Sunni conflict that has already spilled over into Lebanon and could engulf the entire region.