For over two weeks, sustained anti-government protests have fueled an entrenched political crisis in Iraq, which has divided the country and threatened the power-sharing foundation of the Iraqi government. Protests broke out after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrested the security staff of Iraqi Finance Minister Rafa al-Issawi on December 20. Sunni demonstrators in the provinces of Anbar and Salah ad-Din denounced the arrests and called for the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since then, protests have spread throughout the predominately Sunni provinces of Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Diyala, and Ninewa, drawing support from various anti-Maliki tribal, clerical, and governmental figures. In general, the demonstrators are protesting against issues that they see as symbolic examples of Maliki’s politicized expansion of executive power, including the detainment of prisoners without warrants and the use of Chapter IV of the Anti-Terrorism Law.
The demonstrations are manifestations of deep-seeded Sunni discontent regarding their representation in the Iraqi state and the legitimacy of the political process. Over the past year, Maliki has accelerated efforts to strengthen his power in Iraq by commandeering independent bodies, manipulating the judiciary, consolidating control of security forces, and sidelining Sunni political leaders, such as Maliki’s move against Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. However, Maliki’s recent action against Issawi—a technocratic cabinet member with a strong base of support among Sunnis in Anbar—marks an escalation by Maliki in these efforts.
While the resulting protests have exacerbated political tension in Iraq and revealed widespread support for Issawi, they have also highlighted the inability of Sunni political leaders to form a unified opposition front. In particular, the protests revealed that Deputy Prime Minister for Services Affairs Saleh al-Mutlaq no longer has sizeable support among the Sunni constituency represented at the demonstrations. On December 30 Mutlaq was violently chased out of a demonstration in Ramadi. Given his political maneuvering throughout 2012, however, this rejection is not entirely surprising. Following the Hashemi affair of 2011, Mutlaq referred to Maliki as a “dictator” and was subsequently barred from the cabinet. Despite this, Mutlaq was reinstated soon after the ordeal, suggesting that Mutlaq submitted to a deal with a Maliki, which undermined his credibility as a Sunni opposition leader.
Maliki’s response to the protests is still evolving and has the potential to inflame the tenuous situation. Maliki’s actions during the anti-government protests in 2011 may offer hints to the direction of this evolution. Maliki has previously offered limited concessions to protesters, while also stoking security fears and threatening the use of force to quell protests. Following demonstrations in February and March 2011, Maliki promised to cut government salaries, lower electricity costs, and reallocate funding to enhance food handouts as well as pledging not to seek a third term as prime minister. Maliki also warned protesters that insurgents and foreign elements were planning on hijacking the demonstrations and create unrest. As so-called security precautions, Maliki banned all vehicles in Baghdad, imposed curfews, and deployed additional security forces in numerous cities. These initiatives failed immediately to quell protests. Demonstrators clashed with security forces, resulting in the death of around 20 people. The protests eventually quieted down in an atmosphere of tight security.
Maliki’s responses to this month’s protests have thus far followed a similar pattern. Soon after the start of the protests in Anbar and Salah ad-Din, Maliki attempted to appease the protesters by pledging minor concessions, including the release of female detainees held without warrants and the formation of a special committee tasked with investigating the conditions of Iraqi prisons. When these concessions failed to stop the demonstrations, Maliki warned that protests would not be allowed to continue indefinitely and that the government would soon intervene. He also warned of terrorist plots against protesters in Fallujah and Ramadi in an effort to deter further demonstrations. Yet these steps have failed to stem the protests. The largest and most widespread demonstrations to date occurred on January 4, with protests breaking out in over a dozen towns in Anbar, Salah ad-Din, Baghdad, Ninawa, Diyala, Babil, Kirkuk, and Dhi Qar. Still, there are important distinctions between these protests and past demonstrations. Where the focal point of the protests in 2011 was Baghdad, this month’s demonstrations are centered on Anbar province, where there has historically existed a large bastion of anti-government sentiment. Thus, Maliki may have a harder time suppressing protests by force. Furthermore, unlike in 2011, protesters are almost unanimously calling for Maliki’s resignation and have adopted phrases identical to those used in the Egyptian, Tunisian, and Syrian revolutions.
While Iraqi security officials have not responded to the current protests with force, the potential for them to turn violent remains. Based on his past behavior, Maliki may not tolerate public demonstrations for much longer before security forces intervene to disperse the crowds. Thus far, Maliki has urged security forces to use restraint. On the other hand, radical elements may use the protests as an opportunity to spark violent confrontation. Despite the potential for escalation, rival mediation efforts have been launched to defuse the crisis. Parliamentary speaker Osama al-Nujaifi has called for an emergency session of parliament to take place on the January 6 in order to discuss the current crisis and the disputed Anti-Terrorism Law. While the Sadrist Movement has pledged support, Maliki’s State of Law Coalition and the White Bloc, a pro-Maliki secular Shi’a fraction of Iraqiyya, are planning to boycott the meeting. At the same time, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the head of the Shi’a National Alliance, attempted unsuccessfully to hold a meeting with various political entities on January 4. Jaafari had previously met with Iranian ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danaifar on December 23, suggesting that the Iranians may be attempting to use Jaafari as a mediator in the conflict.
The current political crisis in Iraq has major political implications. The ultimate danger is that Sunnis will withdraw from politics altogether and return to violence. Such a situation could develop in a number of ways. First, if Sunni political leaders are unable to form a united opposition, they run the risk of further disenchanting their support base. In turn, the potential for violence as a means of political expression becomes increasingly possible as Iraqi Sunni are left without legitimate political representatives. Second, as Maliki continues to consolidate power, Sunni leaders may continue to be sidelined politically, following the precedent set by Maliki with Hashemi and Issawi. Third, increasingly sectarian rhetoric on the part of protesters and Sunni leaders coupled with a sense of opportunity might prompt Maliki to take formal steps towards establishing a majoritarian Shi’a government, which would dissolve Iraq’s power sharing agreement and have grave consequences for regional stability.