April 27, 2013
The situation in Iraq has reached a perilous inflection. The continuous Sunni protests against the Maliki government since December 2012 had been, with one exception, peaceful. They remained so even through the provincial elections on April 20, which took place in 12 Iraqi provinces with the exception of Kirkuk, Anbar, and Ninewah. This week, after the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) opened fire on protesters in Hawija, Kirkuk, killing 20 and wounding over 100, a wider mobilization of Sunni tribes and militant groups has led to intensifying violence. This bloodshed has occurred especially along the Disputed Internal Boundaries between Arab and Kurdish Iraq, and has even Prime Minister Maliki offering concessions lest civil war erupt. Perhaps the most worrisome development, tribes in Anbar announced the formation of a tribal army to protect their communities against armed groups, including the Iraqi Army. The arming of Sunni tribes against the state sets conditions for future violence.
The circumstances surrounding the incident in Hawija are, of course, disputed among the Iraqi Security Forces and the protesters. The ISF had surrounded the protest site in Hawija, Kirkuk on April 19 after clashes between protesters and a nearby military post resulted in the death of one soldier and the injury of three others, according to the military. The ISF demanded that protesters hand over those alleged to have taken part in the attack. Protest organizers claimed, however, that those killed were protesters who were attacked by the nearby military units. On April 23, Iraqi Security Forces from the Iraqi Army’s 12th Division, including subordinate brigades, Rapid Response Forces, and Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) teams, entered the sit-in location in Hawija. The violence began at about 5 AM on April 23, when according to the Ministry of Defense (MOD), the forces were attacked and fired back in return. The MoD added that 3 military personnel were killed and 9 were wounded. Further, 75 people were arrested and 45 weapons of various types were found during the operation. The MOD further stated that the Iraqi military did not intend to use lethal force but only sought to search the location.
The clashes and death of protesters triggered wide and violent reactions. The MoD reported that armed men attacked two military posts in the Rashad area of Kirkuk. Iraqi defense officials stated that 6 “terrorists” were killed by the ISF’s response. Thousands of tribe members in Kirkuk and Salah ad-Din reportedly mobilized and vowed to seek revenge for the death of the Hawija protesters. In Anbar, clashes between the ISF and unknown gunmen were also reported in Ramadi and Fallujah.
Anbar tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha demanded that the Iraqi army withdraw from the “revolting towns” and hand over security responsibilities to the police. He warned of “dire consequences” if Maliki did not comply. Meanwhile, tribal leader Ali Hatem Al-Suleiman called on tribes to carry arms. He also gave ISF personnel not from Anbar the choice of either “leaving the province or to remain in their barracks.” On 26 April, federal police were reportedly withdrawn from Fallujah after they had clashed with unknown gunmen. On the same day, tribes in Anbar announced that they have formed the “Army of Pride and Dignity” to act as a community defense force from any possible attackers, including the Iraqi military.
Almost immediately after the Hawija operation, security sources and witnesses reported that tens of “armed men” and ISF personnel were killed and wounded in clashes that erupted after an attack on a police station in the town of Suleiman Beg in Salah ad-Din Province. Gunmen were able to take control of Suleiman Beg just 24 hours after clashes the subsequent withdrawal of local ISF units. After a truce was brokered between tribal leaders and local officials on April 26, Iraqi military forces were able to regain the town. The other area that witnessed major clashes in the days following the Hawija incident was Qara Tapa in Diyala Province. Jaysh Rijal Al-Tariqah Al-Naqshabandia (JRTN), an insurgent group linked to the Ba‘ath Party, engaged in continuous clashes with the Iraqi military. The Iraqi military resorted to using its helicopters to repel the attack. Clashes have continued in Mosul and Fallujah.
At the national level, Speaker of Parliament Osama Al-Nujaifiannounced that he called Iraqi Shi‘a leaders Ammar Al-Hakim and Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, as well as President Masoud Barzani of Iraqi Kurdistan, to discuss the events in Hawija. Nujaifi revealed that a parliamentary delegation will be sent to Hawija to investigate the events, and that a delegation was sent to Kirkuk on April 26 to carry out a fact-finding mission. Nujaifi also called on the tribes to “cease fire” in order to calm the crisis. For his part, Barzaniissued a statement on the events in Hawija stating that “we condemn the use of the army to oppress unarmed protesters and we consider that a violation of the constitution and all laws.” His chief of staff, Fouad Hussein, announced that Barzani has ordered all hospitals in Iraqi Kurdistan to be ready to receive any casualties from the events in Hawija. Reflecting Iraqi Kurdish concerns about a cascading of events, Kurdistan Regional Government’s ministers of Interior and Peshmerga visited Kirkuk immediately after the Hawija operation to review security affairs with security officials in Kirkuk.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdadissued a statement on the events in Hawija to “condemn the events that led to the death and injury of civilians and ISF members.” The statement also called on “both sides to immediately refrain from any provocative or violent acts,” and stated that, “American officials contacted senior Iraqi leaders to help in deescalating these political and sectarian tensions.” Martin Kobler, the top United Nations’ representative in Iraq, arrived in Kirkuk immediately after the Hawija operation. Kobler expressed his “regret and anger” over the events, which he thought could have been stopped.
Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki took steps to recover his miscalculation to besiege the protesters in Hawija. After gauging the reactions of other leaders, -Maliki’s office announced the formation of a committee to investigate the incidents. Deputy Prime Minister, Saleh Al-Mutlaq, was assigned to head the committee, which is tasked with “identifying the perpetrators and holding them accountable.” Maliki also ordered compensation to the victims and ordered the treatment of the wounded “inside and outside of Iraq if necessary.” The committee started its work by meeting with the security officials in Kirkuk from the Dijla (Tigris) Operations Command. It further announced that “all victims [of the Hawija operation are] martyrs who will enjoy all the rights and privileges” and that all who were arrested as a result of the events will be released. Maliki was thereby trying to calm the situation by making concessions that would appease tribal sentiments of vengeance.
Prime Minister Maliki has fared well in provincial elections this week, and would typically be negotiating from that position of strength to achieve further gains. He is nevertheless making concessions. Even he seems to recognize that situation is dangerous and that he is not necessarily able to manipulate it easily. Prime Minister Maliki also gave a speech on April 25 in which he attempted to decrease tensions by calling for dialogue and warning that a renewed civil war could have disastrous consequences for all Iraqis. Maliki also emphasized that it is imperative to respect the military. Other political and religious leaders have continued efforts to counter the inflammatory rhetoric and further escalation. During Friday’s prayers, a Sadrist preacher called on the military not to “assault the protesters” while calling on the protesters not to “provoke the army.” The reported withdrawal of police forces from Fallujah is also likely intended to placate protesters’ demands.
Reactions in the first Friday protests since the Hawija operation are also telling. Protests took place in Anbar, Mosul, Baqubah, and Samarra in the “Friday of Burning the Demands,” referring to the list of concessions protesters have asked of Prime Minister Maliki since January. In all of them, protesters’ tone was defiant and indicated that they will continue protesting. In Mosul, protesters demanded that the Iraqi military withdraw. In Anbar, thousandsjoined in protests to condemn the government and its actions and expressed distrust in Maliki and his government. Fallujah and Ramadi witnessed the largest sit-ins since the beginning of the anti-Maliki protest movement. Protesters in Ramadi had previously demonstrated a more moderate stance, willing to negotiate demands with Maliki.
These events have the potential to spiral out of control quickly. The actions of the Iraqi military and the deaths of the protesters only fuel the narrative of these groups that a Shi‘a-led government in Baghdad is not interested in treating the Iraqi Sunnis as equals. The aftermath represents a recruitment boon for both AQI and JRTN, and both groups will likely use Hawija as a rallying point for their future operations. Finally, it is likely that AQI and JRTN will seek to provoke the Iraqi military into more violent reactions in order to consolidate their positions.
Iraq has proven resilient in the face of clashes and provocations because the memory of the calamities of 2006 and 2007 remains fresh. Fear of a return to the horrors of that period has repeatedly driven Iraqi political and tribal leaders, as well as common people, to de-escalate conflicts and return to the negotiating table. It is possible that this case will prove no different, that Maliki will make the necessary concessions to persuade both political and tribal leaders to pull back again from the brink of outright civil war. But the political context does not leave hope for much optimism. Maliki’s determined efforts to marginalize Sunni Arab political leaders have reduced their influence within their own communities while simultaneously feeding the narrative that an Iranian-backed government in Baghdad is seeking to establish a Shi’a dictatorship.
The very determination of Sunni political leaders to find ways of remaining in the Iraqi political game have, unfortunately, also undermined their credibility in the eyes of many of their constituents, who see them as selling out. Tribal leaders such as Sheikh Ali Hatem and Ahmed Abu Risha find themselves in a very difficult place. Their road to greater influence with their angry people lies in taking more extreme stands than the political leaders—but they may precipitate the collapse of the political system entirely by going too far toward violence.
There is also the question of when—and if—Sunni Arab communities will once again decide, independently of their representatives and tribal leaders, that they face an existential threat from Baghdad and decide to fight with such allies as are available to them, including AQI and JRTN. Precisely such decisions by local communities led to the horrific communal strife that nearly ripped Iraq apart in 2006. As much as memory of that horror is a deterrent to extremes and violence, memory of the fear that drove the communal violence in the first place may also accelerate the descent into its renewal. It is too early to say with certainty anything other than that the prospects for restoring peace and maintaining the preeminence of politics over violence in Iraq hang now by a slender thread.