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Iraq's Sunni Protests Challenge Establishment

Sunni Muslims take part in an antigovernment demonstration at the Sunni Umm Al-Qura Mosque in Baghdad on January 11.
Sunni Muslims take part in an antigovernment demonstration at the Sunni Umm Al-Qura Mosque in Baghdad on January 11.
The Sunni protests sweeping Iraq show no sign of stopping.

For three weeks, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in prominently Sunni provinces to shout against the government led by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

In Mosul, police have fired warning shots over protesters' heads. In Anbar Province, protesters have blocked the main highway linking Iraq to Jordan for days, causing Baghdad to shut the border crossing to Jordan indefinitely out of security concerns.

The protests are the largest wave of Sunni unrest since U.S. troops withdrew a year ago and pose a major challenge for Maliki. But the demonstrators' spiraling list of demands has left the government uncertain how to contain the crisis.

The protests began in late December when police arrested the bodyguards of a leading Sunni politician, Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, on terrorism charges. Sunnis saw the arrests as part of a pattern of harassment against members of the religious minority and took to the streets to demand the 10 bodyguards be released.

That demand quickly grew to include an end to all arrests under Iraq's terrorism law and the freeing of all detained under it. The law, passed in 2005, allows the detention of people on suspicion of terrorism without requiring courts to reveal who makes the accusations. Sunnis say it is regularly used against them.

One protester in Anbar Province, who did not provide his name, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, "The people have no choice but to demonstrate and protest against the unfair and sectarian application of the law against terrorism."

Baghdad released 178 prisoners jailed under the law on January 14, bringing the total number freed in the last week to 335. Many were released after a government review found that their jail terms had expired or insufficient evidence had been found to prosecute them.

Sunni Anger Explodes

But the demands do not stop there. They also include an end to Iraq's de-Ba'athification program, which excludes former high members of toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's party from public life. And protesters have various other grievances over poor government services and corruption.

Basim al-Shaikh, an editor with the national Iraqi newspaper "Al-Dustur," says the protests are driven by anger over what many Sunnis see as second-class status in Iraq, despite the fact that Sunni parties participate in Maliki's ruling coalition and hold several important posts.

He says the anger is directed at established Sunni politicians as well as the government in general, because they are perceived to be out of touch with the people.

"These demonstrations pull the rug out from under the feet of the politicians because they charge the politicians with failing to respond to the social and economic demands of the people," Shaikh says. "The protesters say they are expressing the real voice of the people and that has the potential to rearrange the political map in the country."

Protesters hold a poster of Iraqi Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi during a demonstration calling for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's resignation in the western city of Falluja in December.
Protesters hold a poster of Iraqi Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi during a demonstration calling for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's resignation in the western city of Falluja in December.

The unexpected street pressure has sent some key Sunni politicians scrambling to catch up with the protesters' demands.

On January 13, Usama al-Nujaifi, Iraq's speaker of parliament and the most senior elected Sunni figure, championed the protesters demands after weeks of silence by calling on Maliki to pass a draft amnesty law to free detainees jailed on terrorism charges.

Earlier, protesters in Ramadi pelted the convoy of another leading Sunni politician, Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlaq, with bottles and stones when he sought to meet with them to discuss their complaints over poor government services.

Putting Out Sectarian Fire

The immediate challenge for Maliki's government is how to defuse the crisis before it deepens Iraq's sectarian divide.

With Sunni crowds railing against discrimination, some leaders are reviving calls for a Sunni autonomous region like that of the Kurds in northern Iraq. Senior Sunni cleric Sheikh Taha Hamid al-Dulaimi told demonstrators in Anbar that "Sunnism is our slogan and a region is our goal."

Such calls elicit anger among many Shi'a. Thousands demonstrated in a least five Shi'ite provinces in the south of Iraq on January 8 to chant: "No to sectarianism! No to dividing Iraq! Yes to national unity!" Hundreds of demonstrators rallied again in central Baghdad on January 12 to back Maliki.

Tensions rose further on January 13 when Finance Minister Issawi's convoy was struck by a roadside bomb. No one was injured in the explosion and no one claimed responsibility for the attack.

Politics In Action?

But preventing a deeper sectarian divide is not the only challenge for Maliki. He also has to worry that the Sunnis' grassroots protests could be echoed in other communities, sparking an Arab Spring that has yet to come to the country. A wider protest movement could be emboldened by the government's acknowledgement that the Sunni protesters are simply exercising their constitutional right to make their voices heard.

The fact that the Sunni protests have been peaceful so far could offer an encouraging sign for Iraq's political evolution, says Shahshank Joshi, an analyst with the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"It's been a very hard year for Iraq and Iraqis since U.S. troops departed the country at the end of 2011. There has been a great deal of violence, waves of suicide bombings, real sectarian bloodletting," Joshi says. "So, it is very positive and heartening to see a protest movement that is largely employing constitutional methods, peaceful protest, and that hasn't yet been hijacked by extremists or, for that matter, attacked by extremists."

But Joshi says the potential for the protests to turn violent remains high if Maliki does not find a way to make the Sunnis feel like they are real partners in the government. "There is also a great deal of frustration under the surface and it is very, very easily exploitable by Sunni fundamentalists and any other aggrieved parties," he notes.

So far, Maliki has given little clue of how he plans to deal with the crisis. In a speech in Baghdad on January 9, he said the cabinet had formed a committee to consider some of the protesters' demands.

But he also accused the protesters of causing "chaos," and said security forces could yet intervene to stop them if they continue indefinitely.

Written and reported by Charles Recknagel, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Radio Free Iraq correspondent Moyad al-Haidari