2013 Weekly Iraq Update #1

Protests heighten political crisis

By Sam Wyer and Marisa Sullivan

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.

Past Updates

2013 Weekly Iraq Update #1: Protests heighten political crisis

Iraq Update #52- December19-December 27, 2012: Protests swell in western and northern Iraq

Iraq Update #51- December 12-December 19, 2012: Talabani suffers stroke

Iraq Update #50- December 06- December 12, 2012: Jabhat Nusra designation highlights AQI’s regional ambitions

Iraq Update #49- November 29- December 06, 2012: Jordanian Terror Plot Reveals AQI Regional Network

Iraq Update #48- November 21- November 29, 2012: Tentative agreement reached on disputed territories standoff

Iraq Update #47- November 15- November 21, 2012: Freed Daqduq travels to Beirut

Iraq Update #46- November 7-November 15, 2012: Rumors surround Daqduq release

Iraq Update #45- November 2-November 7, 2012: Tigris Operations Command Continues to Cause Concern

Iraq Update #44- October 24-November 2, 2012: Iraq Sets Date for 2013 Provincial Elections as Maliki Renews Push for Majority Government

Iraq Update #43- October 17-October 24, 2012: Kurdish delegations arrive in Baghdad

Iraq Update #42- October 11-October 17, 2012: Central Bank governor suspended amid political disputes

Iraq Update #41- October 3-October 11, 2012: Iraq confirms massive arms deal with Russia

Iraq Update #40- September 26-October 3, 2012: Iraqi leaders gather in Ankara

Iraq Update #39- September 19-September 26, 2012: Protests present political opportunities

Iraq Update #38- September 12-September 19, 2012: Anti-film protests spread throughout Iraq

Iraq Update #37- September 6-September 12, 2012: Vice President Hashemi sentenced to death

Iraq Update #36- August 31-September 6, 2012: Iran resumes shipments of military equipment to Syria through Iraqi airspace

Iraq Update #35- August 22-August 31, 2012: Communications Minister resigns

Iraq Update #34- August 15-August22, 2012: Data suggests rise in violence along historic fault lines

Iraq Update #33- August 3-August 15, 2012: Baghdad’s Tensions with Irbil and Ankara Diminish

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 32- July 27-August 3, 2012

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 31- Al-Qaeda Leader Claims Credit for Deadly Attacks

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 30- July 16-July 20, 2012: Rebels Take Over Syrian Border Checkpoints

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 29- July 6-July 16, 2012: White House Says Daqduq Issue Not Closed

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 28- June 29-July 6, 2012: Sadrists Back Down

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 27- June 16-June 22, 2012: Maliki Requests U.S. To Stop Exxon Operations

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 26- June 9-June 15, 2012: Sadr Returns To Najaf, Speaks With Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 25- June 1-June 8, 2012: Sadr Goes To Iran, Pressure Likely To Increase

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 24- May 25-June 1, 2012: The Numbers Game

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 23- Efforts To Remove Maliki Intensify

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 22- May 22-May 18, 2012:Hashemi Trial Begins

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 21- May 4-May 11, 2012: Daqduq Case Dismissed

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 20- April 27-May 4, 2012: Ultimatum Issued To Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 19- April 20-April 27, 2012: Maliki Visits Tehran

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 18- April 14- April 20, 2012: Iraqiyya, Kurds Consider Vote to Unseat Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 17- Members Appointed To Human Rights Commission

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 16- March 30- April 5, 2012: KRG President Massoud Barzani Visits Washington

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 15- March 23- March 30, 2012: Baghdad Hosts Arab League Summit

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 14- March 15-March 23, 2012: Barzani Disparages Maliki

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 13- March 8- Maliki Visits Kuwait, Emir to Attend Arab Summit

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis,  Update 12- March 6- Diyala Appoints New Governor

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 11- Diyala Governor Reportedly Resigns

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 10- Judiciary Sets Hashemi’s Court Date

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 9- Investigation Escalates Hashemi Case

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 8- Iraqiyya Ends Boycott of Council of Ministers

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 7- Iraqiyya Returns to Parliament

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 6- Iraqiyya Contemplates Next Move

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 5- January 13- Iraqiyya Continues Boycott

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 4- December 30- January 13, 2012: Kurds Walk Out of Parliament Session in Protest

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 3- December 23- December 30, 2011: Tensions Increase between Maliki and Sadrists

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 2- December 19- December 23, 2011: Crisis escalates in Iraqi Media

Iraq's Post-Withdrawal Crisis, Update 1- December 19, 2011: Timeline of political crisis