Iraqi Politicians Face Tough Choices in Responding to Protests

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As sectarian crises escalate in Iraq, Mushreq Abbas analyzes the difficult path ahead for both Shiite and Sunni politicians in responding to protesters' demands.

Since the Anbar protests broke out late last year, figures close to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been at a loss. Conflicting advice has been offered to solve the crisis — all of which rests on a common ground: the crisis is “political," incited by “regional motives” and could be solved by the type of “deal” we have grown accustomed to.

While Maliki himself has acknowledged that the protestors have “some legitimate demands,” he has also warned that “terrorists” and Baathists have infiltrated the protests. He set up committees to “sort through the demands,” released a few detainees and amended some aspects of the de-Baathification process. Meanwhile, he continued to speak of a “plot” against “the Iraqi experiment” and to warn of “sedition looming on the horizon, after it was thought to have been completely eradicated.”

These protesters, who broke the "fear" barrier in Anbar province last December and have taken to the streets of the main Sunni towns, have left political figures perplexed. The confusion extends to Sunni leaders, too, who quickly found themselves unable to control the situation. Although the Anbar protesters were initially encouraged to protest by Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi, demonstrators soon excluded all political leaders, leaving the power in the hands of religious and tribal leaders.

This new religious and tribal leadership did not emerge at random. Sunni politicians have lost popularity, as protesters believe that their political representatives are to blame for the situation Iraq is in today. During the first month of protests, those close to the government strongly believed that a political deal could solve the problem or at least placate the people’s anger, leading to a new series of discussions between political leaders. This confidence resulted from extensive experience in managing internal conflicts, which, for seven years, have been dealt with on the surface — only to result in further “crises” and “challenges.” 

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The delay in acknowledging the severity of the crisis stemmed from Maliki’s conviction, throughout the first weeks of demonstrations, that solutions would happen by exerting pressure on traditional Sunni figures, setting up committees and exchanging accusations. In the early days of the crisis, some politicians threatened to dissolve the parliament, and various accusations were leveled against the protesters. Traditional political circles viewed these demonstrators as an isolated “bubble.”

It later became clear that a political decision issued by Sunni officials would not put an end to protests, and that influential religious and tribal leaders, such as Abdul Malek al-Saadi, could hardly be lured into compromises.

The government’s response in the face of protests has revealed a structural dysfunction. The government admitted to holding innocent people in prison and says that — through decisions issued by the committee headed by Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Hussein al-Shahristani — it can solve the complaints of hundreds of ex-Baathists about corrupt and unjust mechanisms used to implement the Justice and Accountability Law.

Protesters weren’t the only ones questioning the government’s practices. Prominent Shiite political and religious figures had their own concerns: “If the protesters’ demands are legitimate and could be answered through government decisions and special committees, why has the government waited so long to address this injustice?” These concerns are especially valid given that the injustice has not been a secret; Sunni politicians have always talked about it, and it has been the core of their crises for years.

Amid accusations leveled against the protesters since day one — notably that they are linked to foreign powers and sectarianism, and have waved the flags of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Free Syrian Army — they have acted unpredictably, further confusing politicians, including Sunni ones. This can be summed up through the following: “Protesters refuse to be represented by politicians, while at the same time they refuse to choose representatives to negotiate on their behalf.” This has proven baffling given the attack against Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and the protesters' refusal to negotiate with government delegations. It has become clear that the protesters, along with the religious and tribal leaders, have agreed not to negotiate with the government and to move forward with protests until their demands are met — and perhaps even after that, too. This allows the protesters not only to continue protesting, but also to escalate their demands to the point of calling for the toppling of the government.

Maliki’s supporters believe that the true aim of these protests is not to achieve their stated demands, but rather to ignite sectarian conflict. His supporters responded to calls for annulling the terrorism and de-Baathification laws by taking to the streets in support of these laws.

The Sunni protests in Fallujah and Mosul have paved the road for Shiites to address the mistakes of Maliki’s government. Those mistakes don't related to the crises that have been going on for seven years with Sunnis and Kurds; instead, they relate to the response of Iraqi Shiite Cleric Ali al-Sistani to the following question: “How do you, as a Shiite authority, assess governance in Iraq?” Out of the five points mentioned in Sistani’s recommendations for overcoming the Iraqi crisis, the most significant sentence read, “by laying the foundations for a civil state based on constitutional institutions in which rights and duties are respected.”

For the first time, this Shiite cleric publicly expressed his wishes for a “civil” state, not one that is “religious, Shiite or Sunni.” This is a state based on partnership and not predominance; “all parties in Iraq must bear the responsibilities and all parties must be held equally accountable.”

Sistani ended his recommendations by saying: “Many issues are politicized — something that is, and will, lead to more crises. These issues must be addressed independently through laws and the constitution, without political interference. Hence, all political leaders are asked to take a neutral stance without taking advantage of these issues in order to make political gains.”

“Why is Sistani opposed to early elections?” The government has tried hard to avoid this question, since its implications go beyond the crisis. Sistani doesn’t want the premiership to be limited to Islamic parties, notably the Islamic Dawa Party, to transform into a “political custom.” Sistani’s desire is not accidental. Shiite figures and parties have been limited, with the Islamic Dawa Party the sole generator of prime ministers. This fact is gradually becoming the status quo.

During 2013, Maliki’s camp hopes to preserve the reins of power, while controlling the political, social and security crises. This would help re-engineer the political map and ensure a third mandate.

Maliki’s opponents have sent a fierce message by endorsing the law on “limiting presidential terms” that is meant to oblige Maliki to give up on a third mandate. But the opposition knew that the law had no chance of passing and could be easily negated, since it contradicts the essence of the constitution and the philosophy of the parliamentary system. Nonetheless, the opposition sees it as a “message” rather than as a “political stance.” Some observers believe that this message was also addressed to Sistani, in a bid to support his definition of a “civil state.”

The year 2013 could bring misfortunes — or solutions. Iraqis' ability to negotiate a new deal and to redefine coexistence and the mechanisms of rule will decide whether or not the number 13 will be a jinx. It is yet to be decided if this year will be a step back or a step forward.

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Found in: sunni, sectarianism, protests, nouri al-maliki, iraqi politics, iraq, baath party in iraq, baath
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