Anti-government demonstrations turned violent today as Iraqi security forces fired on protesters in Fallujah. The confrontation began when protesters in eastern Fallujah attempted to join Friday’s demonstration and were blocked by security forces deployed from Baghdad. The demonstrators began to throw rocks and water bottles at the security forces at the checkpoint. In videos from the scene, the protesters appear to be unarmed, though Prime Minister Maliki later accused the demonstrators of firing on security forces. Iraqi army forces escalated by firing warning shots into the air, but soon they began to fire directly at the crowd. Protesters also escalated by torching several army vehicles and two cars, including one belonging to an Iraqiyya politician and another to a local politician. Initial reports indicate as many as seven protesters were killed and more than 60 were wounded in the incident.
Click map to enlarge (PDF)
The Iraqi government responded by instituting a vehicle ban and curfew in Fallujah. The Ministry of Defense also announced it would launch an investigation into the incident and that federal police would replace Iraqi army units in Fallujah within 24 hours. The Iraqi Army unit involved in the confrontation is not known. Soldiers from the 1st Division (also known as the 1st Rapid Intervention Force) are present in Fallujah, but the force may have been from the 6th or 9th Iraqi Army Divisions, which are stationed in and north of Baghdad. The 6th Iraqi Army Division has a brigade stationed in Abu Ghraib, not far from Fallujah.
Several hours later, clashes between gunmen and security forces occurred in the al-Askari neighborhood in eastern Fallujah and the al-Shuhada neighborhood in southern Fallujah. In the latter incident, unknown gunmen attacked an army checkpoint in southern Fallujah, killing three soldiers. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), a group linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq, is claiming responsibility for the attacks and calling for people to join the "jihad" in Fallujah on Twitter. On Friday evening, they declared that "gunmen [were] deployed in the streets of Fallujah to protect the protesters."
That evening, tribal leaders in Ramadi attempted to calm demonstrators after the Fallujah events. Angry crowds in Ramadi chanted “the people want to declare jihad against the government,” rebuffing tribal figures. However, the tribal sheikhs responded by condemning members of the Anbar Provincial Council for being corrupted by association with the central government.
Prominent Anbari tribal sheikh Ali Hatem al-Suleiman called for an immediate investigation to name those responsible for killing the protesters. He insisted that the protesters were unarmed and had committed no crime. He threatened to take his armed men to Fallujah to confront the army the next day if the perpetrators of the violence were not named.
Maliki initially accused “a group of misguided people” of attacking an army checkpoint in a “deliberate act”. However, he also warned of attempts by intelligence services of regional actors, “remnants of the former regime,” and al-Qaeda “to drag the armed forces into a confrontation with the demonstrators.” The premier called on tribal figures from Anbar to “move to extinguish the fire of sedition,” and asked demonstrators to abstain from provoking the army.
After a meeting of Iraqiyya leaders at the residence of Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi on Friday evening, Iraqiyya called for the Shi’a Iraqi National Alliance and the religious authority in Najaf to replace Maliki. Nujaifi stated that the coalition held the National Alliance responsible for Maliki’s actions, and demanded that the bloc provide an alternative candidate who “respects Iraqi blood and preserves the unity, stability, and security of Iraq.” Nujaifi added that political dialogue was unfeasible with Maliki in place. Saleh al-Mutlak, a founding Iraqiyya leader who has become estranged from the rest of the bloc’s leadership in recent weeks, announced the withdrawal of his National Dialogue Front (Hiwar) from the upcoming provincial elections in protest at the “crimes” against the demonstrators. This is not the first time Mutlak has threatened an electoral boycott: he made similar statements during the de-Ba’athification crisis ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections, although he later retracted his threats. Mutlak was attacked by protesters in Anbar in late December, suggesting that his support among Sunni Arabs has declined recently.
Muqtada al-Sadr denounced the “assault” on the demonstrators and called on the security forces to “exercise the highest degree of restraint”, stressing the need to “provide security and protection for the demonstrators and maintain their safety.”
Today’s events suggest a significant escalation in Iraq’s ongoing crisis after weeks of anti-government protests. Sunni protesters and tribal leaders in Anbar are now threatening to abandon politics and return to violence as the primary means for addressing their grievances. A violent response by Sunni groups or security forces could prompt security and stability in Iraq to unravel.