Iraq Update #52 - Demonstrations against Maliki after Issawi bodyguard Arrest

Weekly Iraq Update #52B

By Stephen Wicken

Protests swell in western and northern Iraq on Friday

Protests against the government of Nouri al-Maliki continued in Anbar province on Friday, December 28. Tens of thousands of people blocked the main highway through the city of Fallujah after Friday prayers, holding signs declaring a “Friday of Honor.” Some demonstrators raised Ba’athist-era flags, while others set fire to Iranian flags, shouting slogans denouncing Iranian influence in Iraq. Protesters at another large demonstration in Ramadi held pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in support of his recent criticisms of Maliki. A mock funeral was held in Ramadi mourning the loss of independence of the Iraqi judiciary. Around 3,000 people gathered in Mosul in Ninewa province, chanting the Arab Spring slogan, “the people want to bring down the regime.” There were also smaller protests in the cities of Samarra and Tikrit in Salah al-Din province. Reports suggest that army units prevented some would-be demonstrators from entering Anbar, while journalists attempting to travel to Ramadi to cover the protests there were stopped at an army checkpoint for up to six hours, preventing them from reaching the protests. Delegations from the Kurdistan region, Diyala province, Samarra and from the south-eastern cities of Amara in Maysan province and Basra, are reported to have reached Anbar nevertheless.

Maliki has responded to the protests thus far by calling for dialogue, while implying that the protesters are driven by sectarianism. In a speech at a Sovereignty and Reconciliation Conference in Baghdad, Maliki admonished demonstrators for blocking highways, insisting that “cutting roads and stirring sectarian strife” are “not acceptable.” In a limited gesture of concession to one of the demonstrators’ demands, however, Maliki approved the transfer of female prisoners who have complained of abuse, including rape, in prison in Baghdad to Anbar, according to Anbar Governor Qassim al-Fahdawi. 

Terrorist groups threaten Turkish, American, and Christian targets

A Shi’a peaceful and militant backlash is beginning, however.  During a smaller protest in the Shi’a holy city of Najaf on December 28, a crowd denounced Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s criticisms about Maliki. The demonstrators also criticized Iraqiyya MP Ahmed al-Alwani, who is alleged to have made a statement at a recent protest in Anbar denouncing the “agents of Iran” in Iraq, likely referring generically to Shi’a politicians.

In a more worrying sign, Iranian-backed Shi’a militant group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) reportedly released a statement threatening Turkish interests in Iraq in response to “blatant interference” in Iraqi’s internal affairs. AAH is reported to have stated that “any attempt to rip apart Iraq by playing on sectarianism and spreading the poison of division damages the interests of all, and whoever does this will not be safe from harm.” The head of AAH’s political wing, Adnan Dulaimi, subsequently insisted that although the group had warned against provoking sectarianism, it had not threatened the use of force against Turkish interests in Iraq. The threat does not appear on its website.  If AAH did indeed threaten violence against Turkish targets, the group may be using the pretext of Iraqi politics to take actions against Turkey because of events surrounding the civil war in Syria.  Iranian senior officials have expressed numerous concerns about the deployment of Patriot missile systems to Turkey, which Tehran fears will be used to threaten Iranian interests both in Syria and at home, and may be seeking to respond asymmetrically through proxies.

In what may be a related development, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a security message for U.S. citizens in Iraq on December 28. The message warned that “terrorist elements may target U.S. interests in Baghdad, including the United States Embassy, as well as churches in Baghdad and Kirkuk, on or around December 31, 2012.” The extent or source of the threat is unknown.

Iranian-backed Shi’a militants, including AAH, have been responsible for attacks on the U.S. Embassy in the past. AAH explicitly demanded the removal of the U.S. Embassy and diplomatic missions from Iraq as recently as September 16, 2012. Sam Wyer’s December 2012 report, The Resurgence of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, documents AAH’s revival as a political and militant organization in 2012, its footprint in Iraq, the expansion of its religious education programs in Iraq and Lebanon, and its participation in the Syrian civil war.

Attacks on churches in Iraq have generally been the preserve of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda in Iraq affiliate, and other Sunni jihadist groups, particularly in Ninewa province. ISI has been relatively inactive in the past week. Its operations may have been restricted by severe weather across central and southern Iraq, or diminished temporarily due to the protests in Sunni areas or the negotiations between Sunni and Kurdish politicians. ISI is more likely holding back its firepower in order to prepare large-scale attacks on the Shi’a holiday of Arba’een, which falls on January 3, 2013, during which many pilgrims travel to Karbala, south of Baghdad. Violent attacks next week are consequently fairly likely.

Weekly Iraq Update #52

By Stephen Wicken

Demonstrations in Anbar and Samarra after Maliki arrests Issawi’s bodyguards

Demonstrations, sit-ins, and acts of civil disobedience have been ongoing in Ramadi and Fallujah in Anbar province and in Samarra in Salah al-Din since December 23 in protest of Maliki’s arrest of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi. Demonstrators travelled from as far afield as Basra, gathering to call for the removal of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.  The largest demonstrations took place on December 26 in Ramadi and Fallujah, with participants blocking the highways to Baghdad, Syria, and Jordan. Issawi himself made a speech at the Ramadi protest in which he denounced the arrest of his security detail, the politicization of the judiciary, and the Maliki regime’s corruption. Issawi stressed that the demonstrations represented all of Iraq and were not based upon sectarian concerns. By contrast, fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the target of similar arrests a year ago that forced him to flee to Turkey, accused Maliki of “lying, sectarianism, and the marginalization of Sunnis,” predicting Maliki’s overthrow and a return to civil war in Iraq. The Iraqi Islamic Party also waded into the fray, accusing the Maliki government of “daily violations of human rights.

Iraqi security forces do not seem to have attempted to quell the ongoing demonstrations, but unconfirmed reports suggest that a military cordon has been set up in neighboring Ninewa province to prevent Anbar’s demonstrations from spreading. A protest did take place in Mosul on December 27, however, when a group of Sunni Islamist demonstrators called for the removal of Iraqi army and federal police forces from the city and for the release of innocent detainees.

A sectarian opposition?

Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose involvement would be required in a strong Sunni-Kurdish-Sadrist coalition to withdraw confidence in Maliki in parliament, announced the Sadrist Trend’s support for the demonstrations and their concerted effort to reject “corruption and dictatorship.” In a letter, Sadr praised the efforts of the Anbar demonstrators but denounced the use of sectarian slogans, stating that he would “cut off the tongue of those who speak sectarianism, whatever his position.” Meanwhile, leaders of another Shi’a group historically opposed to Maliki, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), met on December 27 with leaders of President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a party with whom ISCI has formed working alliances in the past, raising questions about ISCI’s possible alignment in the event of a campaign to oust Maliki in parliament.

Members of a number of Shi’a political groups and Maliki allies, including Ibrahim al-Jaafari and representatives of Fadhila, the White Bloc, and Maliki’s own State of Law Coalition have also denounced sectarianism.  They are likely attempting to bolster their own nationalist credentials ahead of next year’s scheduled provincial elections. State of Law MP Abd al-Mahdi Khafaji, meanwhile, accused the Sunni bloc of attempting to incite a sectarian war in Iraq. Iraqi National Congress head and former Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi was excluded from a Shi’a Iraqi National Alliance meeting, possibly because he had been present at a meeting with Iraqiyya leaders at Speaker Nujaifi’s residence in Baghdad on December 20.

Negotiations among Iraqis

Extreme weather and floods from Baghdad southward have likely hampered some of the movements of Iraq’s political leaders and international actors.  Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, one of the key members of Issawi’s Iraqiyya coalition, traveled to the Kurdistan region on December 22, a significant aberration for the Nineweh-based leader. Iraqiyya MP Mohammed Khalid, who announced the visit, admitted that Nujaifi had met with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani to discuss adopting a unified stance towards the Issawi arrests, but denied that they had discussed the issue of withdrawing confidence from Maliki. On December 27, Tariq al-Hashemi claimed that Iraqiyya leaders had coordinated with the Kurdistan Alliance to withdraw from government and parliament. Parliament has been postponed under January 8, however, undermining the effect of such a boycott.

To date, the Issawi arrests and the ensuing demonstrations appear to have drawn little response from Maliki’s allies in Iran, although Iranian Ambassador Hassan Danaiefar met with Ibrahim al-Jaafari on December 23 and with ISCI head Ammar al-Hakim the next day. The same two leaders also each met with U.S. Ambassador Robert S. Beecroft to discuss the political situation in Iraq. Since December 20, when Beecroft was reported to have visited Issawi, American involvement, too, appears to have been limited.

Maliki vs. Parliament

Maliki is continuing his campaign of intimidation against his rivals.  On December 25, President of the Cabinet General Secretariat Ali al-Allaq sent to the office of Speaker Nujaifi a letter informing parliament that Maliki intends to limit parliamentarians’ immunity from prosecution. Allaq stated that the measure was intended to halt the “unconstitutional” practice by certain MPs of making libelous accusations against political figures and state officials. Under the new interpretation of the constitution, parliamentarians would only be immune from prosecution for statements made within parliament. This stretches significantly the wording of the constitution, which states both that parliamentarians enjoy immunity while parliament is in session, and that they cannot be arrested during the legislative term of parliament unless accused of a felony and unless MPs consent by absolute majority to remove immunity from the accused. Should Maliki’s proposed interpretation be imposed, it would allow for the silencing of critics outside parliament. Azad Abu Bakr, a member of the parliamentary legal committee, confirmed on December 27 that the committee has received many requests to remove immunity from certain MPs, which should properly be addressed by the judiciary to the parliamentary speaker, suggesting that Maliki’s proposal is not meant as an idle threat but rather the beginning of a proscription of his rivals. 

Mixed signals from Baghdad-Erbil negotiations over ISF and Peshmerga tensions

On 26 December, Iraq’s Acting Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Jafar Mustafa Ali announced that a “comprehensive agreement” had been reached between the two governments on the management of security in the disputed territories. Dulaimi added that a delegation from Baghdad will travel to Erbil on December 30 to sign the final agreement, which is to be based on two working papers that had been discussed by delegations in Baghdad. A statement issued by Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs Secretary-General Jabbar Yawar explained that the KRG had presented a complete action plan that incorporated the federal government’s proposals and that binds the two sides to work together “until Article 140 has been implemented fully.”

The announcement comes after two signs that relations between the KRG and the central government are breaking down. On December 25, however, KRG President Massoud Barzani expressed his pessimism about the prospect of a resolution to the dispute, appearing to rule out the possibility that Kurdish forces would withdraw from the disputed territories first by insisting that “the withdrawal of the Peshmerga forces is directly related to the withdrawal of Iraqi troops from those areas.” U.S. Ambassador Beecroft is reported to have told Barzani to ‘tone down’ his rhetoric towards Baghdad. The same day, an adviser to the KRG Ministry of Natural Resources, Ali Hussein Balu, announced that Erbil had halted oil exports to the rest of Iraq in response to Baghdad’s refusal to make a second scheduled payment to oil companies working in the Kurdistan region.


With demonstrations in Anbar and elsewhere drawing large numbers of Sunni and support from Sadrists, and the standoff between Iraqi security forces and Peshmerga units yet to be concluded, Maliki is now engaged against two rivals simultaneously, the Kurds and the Sunni. The Issawi arrests may have the effect of pushing this ad-hoc alliance of Maliki’s opponents closer together, bringing Nujaifi, Issawi, and Barzani into a series of discussions with one another and increasing the likelihood that they will make a concerted effort to bring about a vote of no confidence.  Such a move faces significant difficulties in the absence of President Talabani and under the presumed acting presidency of Vice President and Maliki ally Khudayir al-Khuza’i. The existence of a unified opposition, on the other hand, may encourage Maliki’s more authoritarian tendencies, prompting him in future to take more extreme steps such as declaring martial law, ordering mass arrests, seeking to arrest political opponents themselves, or even proroguing parliament.