In the wake of all these conflicts and with the efforts of local and foreign parties, the so-called “sit-in squares” in Sunni-dominated provinces were created. A list of demands centered on the amnesty, terrorism and confidential informant laws were raised that affected the entire staff of the Iraqi state in the era of former President Saddam Hussein by the Accountability and Justice Commission, which included demands to re-hire the employees who were laid off. However, this bloc quickly took a turn toward political and sectarian conflict and turned into a scene that looked like clusters of pre-civil strife.
As-Safir interviewed a number of participants in the sit-ins and asked about their views and demands, as well as the reasons that led them to engage in those protests. It also asked them about the circumstances that accompanied the transformation of those squares into platforms for inciting sectarian speeches, and then into a base for the recruitment practiced by terrorist groups represented by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS).
The injustice of de-Baathification
Abu Ahmed al-Ojeili, a former officer in the Iraqi army who worked in the Interior Ministry after 2003 and was dismissed from his job under the de-Baathification law by the Accountability and Justice Commission because he worked in a sensitive security department during Saddam’s era, talked to As-Safir about his participation in the sit-in. He said that it was “the result of the injustice suffered by Ramadi’s residents at the hands of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government,” which, according to him, “marginalized and suspended employees on the grounds of a prior loyalty to the former regime, through the Accountability and Justice Commission, which acted with double standards.” Ojeili criticized how “senior politicians remained in their positions, while only the citizens were affected and the soldiers who have been better to take advantage of the expertise they had gained previously, were dismissed under pretext of de-Baathification.”
Ojeili noted that he used to work “at the Ministry of Interior after the regime was overthrown.” He was a prominent officer and had several degrees. He emphasized that his only concern was “for Iraq to stay away from sectarianism. But I was laid off under the pretext of de-Baathification since I was one of the officers who were working before the Accountability and Justice Commission made this decision.”
Ojeili explained how he joined the sit-ins, saying, “A relative of mine, who is a cleric and whom I trust, told me that peaceful sit-ins were being organized during the Friday prayers to be held in Ramadi. These sit-ins called for the rights [of the people]. Indeed, we participated in them and demanded services and called for putting an end to the Sunnis’ oppression.”
Ojeili explained that the protesters noticed when the slogans of their sit-ins changed. “After a period of sectarian slogans, they now have a sort of revenge aspect, calling for a military coup and going to Baghdad,” he said. “Sit-ins went off track, since certain politicians had not been honest in interpreting our sufferings and they only wanted to take advantage of the election atmosphere to abuse the people to benefit as much as possible.” He withdrew from the demonstrations when the government did not respond to the demands. He said, "This has also created a sense of the futility of pretending, after the procrastination by the government toward the legitimate claims and rights was made obvious, until we got to where we are today: death, destruction and displacement, in addition to the IS occupation.”
Nizar Hares, from the village of Mqishifiya in Salahuddin province, who has a master's degree in English literature, told As-Safir as he participated in the sit-in, “The village is suffering from the deterioration of services in all their forms, in addition to unemployment. This has made people resort to demonstrations, which turned into a political platform, from where slogans that do not really contribute to changing the reality have been raised.”
Hares told As-SAfir how the army was treating the demonstrators, saying, “The army was keeping its distance and was only there to provide protection for us, but some of them were shouting sectarian phrases and trying to provoke the demonstrators, leading to escalation and verbal altercations,” he said. “The sit-ins have only brought Sunni provinces destruction and devastation, where everyone contributed to the destruction of our provinces, in particular the government and some of the protesters, who made speeches and then fled to the Jordanian capital of Amman.”
Hares explained his current situation after the events which led to the IS invasion of certain Iraqi provinces last June, including Salahuddin. “My house was bombed and IS forced my family and me to leave. We went to Erbil, where we now live in tents to escape IS and search for safety, but we do not know what to expect in the future.”
Meanwhile, Thawra al-Tikriti, an activist in civil society organizations and a member of the Red Crescent, told As-Safir that the first sparks of the sit-ins flared in Samarra, and then some other areas such as Tikrit joined “after certain Samarra residents called the residents of Tikrit cowards and accused them of being afraid of confrontation, such as the rest of the Sunni provinces, in order to claim their rights.” She added, “Money has been collected from the rich to put up a platform, buy supplies for the sit-ins and provide food. The political figures then asked the young audience to come during the day, where they were photographed and recorded chanting slogans. Such gatherings include meals and long chats until everyone returns home at night.”
Tikriti stressed, “Most of those who attended the sit-ins were uneducated and semi-illiterate. The political figures responsible for the protests would gather youths from villages until they reach hundreds, and would then photograph them.”
One of the participants in the sit-ins from Baquba in Diyala province, Abdul Rahman Al-Azzawi, expressed no remorse for participating in the sit-ins, saying he has brothers who were put in prison as a result of the malicious betrayal of a confidential informant. He told As-Safir, “Sit-ins are a natural right guaranteed by the constitution. In light of the democratic atmosphere, we believed that this will give us our rights as Sunnis and liberate my brothers from prison.
“Some people were paid to attend, while others had real demands and had participated in sit-ins in the past, especially when it came to demanding the annulment of the anti-terror laws, de-Baathification and liberating the innocent from prisons. I insisted on attending every day, until it started affecting my work and living. But with time, I realized that these sit-ins were useless, as too much time had gone by. Our determination dwindled and terrorism and violence prevailed,” he added.
Haytham Okabi, a photographer for a satellite news channel, talked to As-Safir about the difficulties of covering such sit-ins, noting that journalists have suffered a lot for the sake of these events. “It was difficult to reach the sit-ins due to security checkpoints,” he said. “The unrest and violence that those areas have witnessed also obstructed access to them.”
During the coverage, Okabi said that in addition to “the difficulties that faced the journalists in delivering the true image of the protests, some prevented them from being present in the squares for sectarian reasons,” as some protesters accused them “of working for a Shiite channel and of being loyal to Iran.”
Milestones of the movement
Dec. 21, 2012: Former Iraqi Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi's bodyguards were arrested and his house was raided, followed by a call by the leaders of the Iraqiya List to demonstrate against the government. A few thousand protesters took to the streets of Anbar.
Dec. 27, 2012: Ali Hatem Suleiman, a sheikh of the Dulaim tribe, gave a speech in Anbar and warned the Maliki government that “the Sunnis may resort to violence” if their demands are not met. The demonstrations took place in Samarra and Mosul, during which protesters chanted slogans demanding the ouster of the regime.
Jan. 5, 2013: Former Iraqi Vice President Izzat al-Douri announced his support for the protests in Anbar in a speech that was aired on Al-Arabiya. This gave an impression that the Baath Party played a role in mobilizing the protests.
April 22, 2013: Gunmen opened fire on an army patrol near the sit-in square in the town of Hawija in Kirkuk and fled to the protesters’ camps. Security forces imposed a cordon around the protest square and demanded that demonstrators and tribes hand over the attackers of the army patrol. Then, they attacked the protest square and clashed with the protesters after they refused to hand over those who opened fire. This has resulted in the killing of 50 protesters, after which the authorities confirmed that they had had weapons. Six soldiers were killed by gunmen inside the protest square and some 93 people were arrested a few hours after the attack.
April 23, 2013: Against the backdrop of the Hawija events, violent clashes broke out between gunmen of the tribal army, which was formed by the protesters, and Iraqi security forces. At least 30 people were killed and injured and gunmen took over a police station and a military base in Sulaiman Bek.
April 26, 2013: Massive demonstrations took the streets in the so-called Sunni provinces, under the name of the “Friday of burning demands,” a reference to the shift from peaceful demands to a military conflict. A Friday preacher in the Ramadi mosque announced the formation of an army under the name of the “Pride and Dignity Army” and explained that its mission is to defend the Sunnis in Iraq and that it will depend on the tribes for its members and arms.
April 29, 2013: Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi (currently vice president of the republic) proposed an initiative to resolve the crisis and prevent a civil war. The initiative included the resignation of the Maliki government, the dissolution of parliament and early parliamentary elections.
Dec. 30, 2013: Clashes took place in Anbar after Iraqi security forces dispersed the protest camp in Ramadi and arrested deputy parliament speaker Ahmed al-Alwani.
Dec. 31, 2013: IS occupied parts of Fallujah and Ramadi and other cities in the province and announced the occupied territories were now “independent emirates.”
Jan. 2, 2014: An official source in the Iraqi Interior Ministry said that IS controlled half of Fallujah.
Jan. 5, 2014: Iraqi aircraft bombed gunmen in Ramadi.
Jan. 6, 2014: Maliki called on the residents and tribes of Fallujah to “expel terrorists from the city to avoid the dangers of armed confrontations in its neighborhoods.”