2013 Iraq Weekly Update #4c: Iraq Moves Toward Civil War
January 26, 2013
By Marisa Sullivan
Thousands of Iraqis gathered in Fallujah on Saturday, 26 January, to bury the protesters killed the day before by Iraqi Army fire. At a protest following the funerals, demonstrators denounced the government in language reminiscent of the early stages of the uprising in Syria, chanting "Listen Maliki, we are free people" and "Take your lesson from Bashar.” Many protesters displayed Saddam-era flags, signaling their sympathy with the former Ba’ath regime. Photos from the funeral also show demonstrators waving the black flag of al-Qaeda.
In a televised interview broadcast on Saturday, prominent Anbari tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha issued an ultimatum giving the government seven days to turn over those responsible for killing the protesters or face "losses among their ranks." Abu Risha’s statements echoed threats that other prominent tribal sheikhs, including Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, had issued on Friday. Tribal leaders, rather than local or national Sunni politicians, are likely guiding the crowds’ responses to the crisis, for now. But it is difficult to see how Maliki can meet the sheikhs’ ultimatum.
Also on Saturday, militants continued their attacks against Iraqi army positions in and around Fallujah. Iraqi media reported clashes between gunmen and security forces in the Moheet and Julan neighborhoods of eastern Fallujah. Militants also overran a military post in northern Fallujah after attacking it with mortars and RPGs. In a separate incident, the Iraqi Security Forces, via the Anbar Operations Command, reported that protesters overran and set fire to an army checkpoint, but that no one was hurt in the incident. Three off-duty soldiers en route to Baghdad were also kidnapped south of the city that day.
The al-Qaeda linked Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which claimed responsibility for Friday’s attacks against government forces, is likely linked to Saturday’s incidents. The group has tried to escalate current crisis through provocative attacks, and it is possible that it could draw increased support from disaffected Sunnis as the standoff with the government turns violent. It is also possible that the group’s actions are being tolerated right now by Anbari tribal leaders who have sought to maintain control of their constituents while satisfying demands for revenge.
The Iraqi Army seems to be attempting to exercise restraint rather than escalating the confrontation. The Iraqi government announced it had pulled army forces from the Fallujah following the deaths of six soldiers and police were killed in incidents on Saturday and another early Sunday. Other anti-government demonstrations took place in Mosul, but the federal police forces withdrew from the protest area fearing a violent confrontation.
As the events unfolded in Fallujah, the Iraqi parliament passed legislation barring the prime minister from seeking a third term in office—a move prompted by the violent events, as well as longstanding fears over his consolidation of power and authoritarian tendencies. The bill drew support from 170 parliamentarians, including those from Iraqiyya, the Kurdish parties, and the Sadrist Trend. The move was significant for opponents of Maliki, who have previously struggled to gain a 163-vote majority required for a no-confidence vote in the prime minister. Political parties do seem to be rallying against the Prime Minister in the wake of the shootings.
Yet the term limit initiative is unlikely to result in real limitations on the prime minister. In 2010, the judiciary ruled that only the cabinet could draft new legislation, effectively limiting the legislative power of the parliament. Members of Maliki’s State of Law coalition have already indicated they will challenge the bill and will likely receive judicial support for their appeal. The Federal Supreme Court might also strike down the term limits on grounds that it attempts to alter constitutional provisions while bypassing the prescribed amendment process. The Parliament has in fact demanded that Maliki show his hand and his intent to retain or relinquish power through electoral means. Maliki has refused.
Maliki had previously tried to contain the protests through non-violent means. Maliki had offered notional concessions by standing up a committee led by Maliki ally Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani to investigate protest demands and releasing some detainees. He had also closed the Jordanian border, a critical commercial node in Anbar’s economy, in order to strangle off the protests and logistics supporting them. Yet Maliki had also warned that he would not allow the demonstrations to continue indefinitely.
The recent violence leaves Maliki with few good options to prevent the conflict’s escalation while retaining power. He is not likely to be able to meet the sheikhs’ demands to turn over the Iraqi soldiers responsible for the violence, because to do so would enervate his entire army. He might offer promptly to pay compensation or involve tribal leaders in a joint investigation, but such concessions will not likely suffice even if made rapidly.
Friday’s escalation and the subsequent attacks against Iraqi Security Forces may ultimately require Maliki to respond with force, even though he may not wish to do so as of today. The violent confrontation will likely persist as both sides take retaliatory measures. Anbari tribal sheikhs’ restraint is not likely to last more than the seven days that they have given Maliki to act. Increasing sectarian polarization has deterred meaningful negotiation and compromise, and reduces the likelihood of a political solution to the crisis. Iraq may be tipping toward a destructive civil war.