Iraq’s Anbar province is seeing increasing tension. Since December there have been two large protests going on in Ramadi and Fallujah. After the government raid upon the Hawija demonstration site in Tamim governorate in April 2013 there has been an uptick in attacks as well. In May, things picked up with raids upon the residences of two leaders of the protests, as well as the kidnapping of several dozen soldiers and police, and the collapse of an offer to talk with Baghdad. With the way things are going this could be leading up to a security crackdown in the governorate aimed at not only clearing out militants, but shutting down the demonstrations as well.
The latest incident was a raid upon Mohammed Khamis Abu Risha, the nephew of a leading Awakening chief and organizer of the Ramadi protests. On May 18, there were clashes between tribesmen and security forces outside of Ramadi as the latter were looking for Abu Risha. That resulted in the deaths of a woman and her three children, and four army vehicles being set on fire. Abu Risha has an arrest warrant out for him for his alleged involvement in the murder of five soldiers on April 27. The government blamed the leaders of the protest movement for the incident, including Abu Risha, the demonstrator’s spokesman Said al-Lafi, and a prominent preacher Qusay al-Janabi. Abu Risha is the nephew of Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha who helped found the Awakening movement in the province, and is currently one of the organizers in Ramadi. Initially it appeared that local politicians and the protesters were attempting to defuse the situation by cooperating with the authorities. The Anbar provincial council for instance, said that it worked out a deal with the security forces to allow them to search the protest area in Ramadi to look for the culprits, and turned over the names of three suspects soon after the soldiers were killed at the end of April. The Sunni Endowment demanded that the demonstrators hand over the killers, while Sheikh Abu Risha claimed that two people had been given to the Ramadi police. That obviously didn’t work as the army and police are still looking for the younger Abu Risha as the raid showed. The fact that the incident led to fighting is also bad news as it can only increase the already high tensions in Anbar.
Sheikh Sulaiman now has an arrest warrant out for him on terrorism charges (Los Angeles Times)
The government also has an arrest warrant out for Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman on terrorism charges. On May 16, Sulaiman told CNN that the army raided a farm he owned near Ramadi looking for him. His tribesmen surrounded the army headquarters in Ramadi in response, telling them they had to withdraw from the governorate, and threatening violence by the Pride and Dignity Army if they didn’t. Sulaiman is allegedly one of the organizers behind the tribal army, which was set up to defend the Ramadi protesters after the Hawija incident. The sheikh is a member of the powerful Dulaim tribe, and has attached himself to the Ramadi protests. He has been known to give inflammatory speeches threatening violence against the security forces and government, which might be why they are looking for him. This could be another cause for increased violence in Anbar as it could lead Sulaiman’s followers to follow through with his threats.
On top of that insurgents are attempting to exploit the anger in Anbar for their own ends. Gunmen ambushed and kidnapped a number of police and soldiers in the province on May 18. At first, it was reported that 10 policemen were taken at a fake checkpoint outside of Ramadi. Then a spokesman for the Defense Ministry said that 35 soldiers had also been abducted. The Anbar Salvation Council later stated that the army launched an operation around Ramadi looking for the missing security force elements. The Council blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq for the incidents. Three people from Karbala who were travelling through Anbar after visiting Jordan were also said to have been kidnapped. Immediately afterward, a member of the Anbar Tribal Chiefs Council Mohammed Alwani condemned the security force members being taken. It also prompted the protest leaders in the province to hold a meeting to talk about the deteriorating security situation. They told the press they were trying to keep the demonstrations peaceful despite the worsening situation in Anbar. In the last couple years Al Qaeda in Iraq and other insurgent groups had lost most of their standing in the governorate. The Awakening movement started there, and successfully pushed the militants to the outskirts of Anbar with the help of the Americans. Now, after Hawija, the insurgency has a new life exploiting the growing resentment Sunnis have towards Baghdad. It has used Hawija to claim that the government will ignore their demands, and that the only alternative then is to fight the authorities, which they claim are Persians controlled by Iran. As a result, there has been a dramatic increase in attacks in Anbar and other provinces in the last few weeks.
Spiritual leader of the Anbar protest movement Sheikh Saadi said he gave up on talks with the government (Al Sharqiya)
Finally, the Ramadi movement has given up on negotiating with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Sheikh Abdul Malik Saadi who is the spiritual leader of much of the protest movement in Iraq said that he was ending his initiative to talk with the government. He blamed Baghdad for ignoring his offer, and warned that there might be “dire consequences” as a result. In May, Saadi endorsed forming a committee that would meet with the government. He suggested Samarra in Salahaddin as a suitable site since it is in a predominately Sunni province, but the city holds a holy Shite shrine. The idea of talks between the two sides seemed to come about after the efforts of Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq to meet with various officials such as Governor Qasim al Fahadawi, protest organizers, and tribal leaders in Anbar. Afterward, they agreed to negotiate with Baghdad. Saadi then announced that a committee be formed. How far any talks would have gone is an open question. The protest movement has some unrealistic demands such as completely ending deBaathification and calling for the removal of Premier Maliki. At the same time, negotiations could have helped the two sides come to some kind of compromises. Now that option has ended for now.
Anbar has been a hotbed of opposition to the government for the last several months. When arrest warrants were issued for former Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi’s bodyguards in December 2012, Anbar immediately began organizing protests in support since the minister was from Fallujah. This eventually became the impetus for similar movements across several other provinces. Originally, the demonstrators voiced complaints about what they saw as their victimization by the authorities such as mass arrests, the use of the anti-terrorism law, and secret informers. Since then the movement has become more militant and sectarian with constant denouncements of Baghdad being run by Iran, and some organizers being connected to the insurgency. The recent raids, kidnappings, and the end of the call for talks with the authorities can only add to this growing fire. Even if the mainstream protest movement like the one in Ramadi attempts to remain peaceful, it is apparent that more and more people in the governorate are at least open to the passive if not active support for attacks upon the security forces. That is giving new life to the insurgency, which has been attempting to exploit the demonstrations since they began as an organizing and rally point for a renewed fight against the government. The political deadlock in Baghdad is not helping the matter, because parliament is incapable of passing any legislation right now that might satisfy some of the demands made by Anbar. This all might be leading to a larger and sustained security operation in the province to crackdown on the insurgency, and perhaps end the protest movement at the same time. That would end two problems for the prime minister with one stone. If that choice is made there’s no telling what the lasting effects might be. It could simply make the situation worse by proving the militants’ propaganda correct that the government has no intent of dealing with the demonstrators, and that violence is the only answer. That doesn’t mean Iraq is heading for a new civil war, but security is definitely worsening with no end in sight for the immediate future.
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