It is not the first time that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has clashed with his opponents. He has been repeatedly accused of consolidating his rule over the last year of his term by opening fronts and expanding crises to stay in power. However, waging battles against politicians differs from doing the same against influential clerics who possess the ability to mobilize the people.
Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has stepped up his campaign against Maliki and warned him of an “Iraqi Spring.” On the other hand, Maliki has threatened to disperse demonstrations by force.
With the return of prominent cleric Abdul-Malik al-Saadi to Iraq and his immediate joining of the demonstrations that are gaining ground in Sunni cities, sources confirm that it will not be long before Sadr’s supporters do the same in Shiite cities.
Since his return, Saadi has changed the inclination of demonstrators in Anbar and other cities. He sought to eliminate sectarian slogans and flags from the former regime and give the demonstrations a national impetus. He also called on prominent Shiite figures to give the demonstrations their blessing.
Demonstrators in Anbar and a number of cities intend to dub a million-man demonstration called for by clerics and tribes as the “Path of Hussein,” in a clear message to encourage Sadr to join the clerics who oppose Maliki’s policy.
Organizers of the demonstrations called for holding a unified prayer in all Iraqi cities called the “Friday of steadfastness along the path of Imam Hussein.”
In an apparent response to the call, Sadr said in a press conference yesterday [Jan. 1] that what stopped him from joining the demonstrations in Anbar, which he had openly supported, was “the raising of pictures of Saddam Hussein by demonstrators” during the first days of demonstrations.
Sadr directed harsh criticism against Maliki yesterday, and accused him of turning Iraq into a “farce.” He called on him to resign before he demands early elections and warned him of an “Iraqi Spring.”
The Shiite cleric, who is followed by hundreds of thousands from the poor and marginalized classes, whose conditions have not changed since 2003, did not cut off contact with prominent Kurdish figure Massoud Barzani. Barzani supported the Anbar demonstrations and called them an “uprising.”
Insiders say that Sadr fears the infiltration of Baathists and terrorists into the Sunni protest movement, which would prevent any counter-Shiite movement. The sources revealed that “daily contacts are being made between Sadr and Sunni clerics, which will pave the way for meetings that may change the current political calculus.”
Maliki is facing his biggest challenge since he took power in 2006. He tried to make concessions through Sunni clerics he met recently, like Abdul-Mahdi al-Sumaydi and Khalid al-Attiyah. Attiyah’s announcement of Maliki’s intention to release 700 female prisoners as a response to the demands of demonstrators, under a special pardon that does not include about 200 other prisoners accused of terrorism, did not affect the momentum of the demonstrations.
It seems that Maliki is employing the carrot-and stick-policy in dealing with the demonstrations. While he has announced his intention to release the female prisoners in response to the demands of the demonstrators, he addressed them firmly, saying, “Do not assume that it is difficult for the government to take action against you, or to open [the door for a solution] and end the issue. You should know that time is running out, and you need to end this issue quickly. I warn you against continuing [your movement], because it violates the constitution.”
So far, slogans raised in demonstrations have not demanded the resignation of the government. However, this is not unlikely in the event that the Shiite cities witness similar demonstrations.
There has not been an official position by the supreme Shiite leadership in Najaf regarding the demonstrations. However, it, represented by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, earlier expressed resentment over the direction of the government, and decided to boycott the entire political class. This boycott does not include the Sunni clerics, who intend to visit Sistani, according to sources close to them.