What Iraq’s Shiites Think of Sunni Protests

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With Sunni protests occupying much of Iraq’s media coverage in the past months, Shiite opinions in this regard often do not receive as much attention.

It is not difficult to find out how Shiite circles are portraying the popular protests in the geographically and societally Sunni-dominated areas in northern and western Iraq. This view clearly shows what 10 years of sectarianism have done to Iraq.

Simply put, the majority of Shiites in Iraq portray the protests as evil, considering them to be “dens of the Baath [party] and al-Qaeda terrorism,” even when the protesters went to great lengths to accentuate the peaceful aspects of their demonstrations. The protesters even raised the Shiite slogan of “persecution,” in reference to the convictions of political, cultural and social Shiite elites who believe they have been subject to oppression since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state, namely during the 1968-2003 Iraqi regime.

In the Shiite region, the official rhetoric echoes: The protests are a “political plan crafted by Sunni leaders who are supported by outside countries.” According to Shiites, protests erupted when the “independent” Iraqi judiciary system prosecuted the bodyguard of Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi over charges of conducting terrorist operations. The minister then resigned and the prosecution was referred to as part of a “systematic targeting of the Sunnis.”

In the same vein, the Shiite circles widely criticize the control that clerics maintain over the protests’ rhetoric … considering “the leaders of the protests to be sectarian and working hard on reviving history, the wars and old persecutions. They also described the Shiites as ‘pigs.’” Even though this term was said to be used by MP Ahmad al-Alwani, the special parliamentary commission found no proof. However, with the sectarian rhetoric taking over the media outlets, including the public ones, Alwani’s use of this term continued to be accepted as true due to the heavy media coverage and the persistence of politicians, commentators and journalists to pass the message on.

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Shiite academics, writers and opinion leaders used to emphasize the “sectarian” aspect of the popular movement in the Sunni-majority areas, and used the same terms that were used in the protest squares to describe the prominent Shiite figures, the least of which are “traitors [working] with Iran and the United States.”

Shiites characterize protests as “terrorist” and “Baathist”

Many do not hesitate to describe the protests as “Baathist, and aimed at reviving the former regime.” They recount how the protests used a significant number of slogans, political and media expressions, songs and even old Iraqi flags that date back to the era of the late Saddam Hussein and have become a trademark of that regime. All of this has aroused the suspicions of the Shiites in regard to the protests and underlined further what the government and influential Shiite parties warned about in terms of using the protests as a way of reviving the old regime — so to speak bringing back to life the “systematic persecution of Shiites.”

Additionally, the support of the Baath Party and al-Qaeda for the protests added another reason to perceive the leaderships of the popular movement as evil, not only in the eyes of Shiites but also in the view of Kurdish circles, who dread any activity carried out by the Baath Party or al-Qaeda and fiercely stand against them.

What is the stance of “moderate” Shiites?

Those who believe themselves to be “moderate Shiites” say: “The protests are experiencing a sectarian isolation, have lost the clear, direct support of prominent Shiite leaders — such as the movement of Muqtada Sadr — and the indirect support of the leader of the High Supreme Council, Ammar Hakim, as much as they lost the support of intellectual and media Shiite elites who stood by the protests in the hope of taking Iraqi politics in a new direction, one of peaceful protest against the government.”

Moderate Shiites point out, “Instead of affirming the fact that protests erupted peacefully against the government, pursuant to the article of the new Iraqi Constitution that stipulates the right to peaceful protests, and putting the government in a delicate situation that would force it into undoing its measures against the protesters, many speeches shouted the slogan of ‘down with the constitution.’” In other words, the protests seemed to want to undermine the constitutional course that allowed them to launch the peaceful popular movement in the first place.

The critics of the protests added that the fact that protesters continually chanted — “Baghdad, we are coming” — has damaged the protests. The extremist Shiite circles took it as a call to take the country back to pre-2003 times.

Besides the control of “sectarian” clerics, the rise of tribal chieftains added fuel to the fire of hatred. The collective Shiite memory remembers them as “death traders who killed Shiites during the sectarian war through vengeful operations on the highways linking Baghdad and Anbar, when the Shiites used to travel back and forth from neighboring countries.”

The Shiites circles reiterate that the protests represent only the “sectarian Sunnis,” pointing out the stance of Saleh al-Mutlaq, the deputy prime minister and a leading member of the Iraqiya List, and that of another key member in the same list that represents the Sunnis, the head of the Solution Movement, Jamal al-Karbouli, in addition to the views of interim Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi, who refused to withdraw from the government and insisted on working from inside to fulfill the demands of the protests. These stances ignited wrath within the protest squares and led the clerics and tribal chieftains to fiercely attack these figures, describing them as “traitors.”

While the media coverage of the protests portrayed an image that does not match that of the Shiite circles, since it underlined the peaceful aspect of the popular movement and the ongoing zeal, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki succeeded through his control over the executive agencies in the country to punish the majority of TV channels for their live and detailed broadcasting of the protests by withdrawing their licenses and prohibiting reporters from covering the events. Maliki’s political and media outlets were then able to establish the evil idea about the protests by means of a systematic work performed by political and media figures affiliated with the prime minister, his party and allies. Tightening the grip over the media was meant to prohibit it from bearing witness to the military crackdown that took place in Fallujah, Mosul, Hawija and lately in Baquba, and to make the “brutal” image of protests persist in the minds of the Shiite circles.

Are the protests a way in for Jabhat al-Nusra?

The Shiite circles believe “the protests leaders are placing their bets on the armed groups winning in Syria and toppling President Bashar al-Assad, since such an event would end the geographical and logistical isolation of the protests, shift them into an offensive position against the government and allow them to, once again, kill and take revenge on the Shiites through the expected support of the anti-Syrian-regime armed groups, who are reduced in the eyes of the Shiites to terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra.” This view has given birth to a Shiite movement that justifies volunteering to fight in Syria under the pretext, which has developed into a conviction, of protecting the Shiite shrines in Syria and saving them from takfiri and terrorist attacks. When the announcement of “digging up the tomb of the Prophet Mohammad companion’s Hajar Bin Udai” became public, banners and flags filled the streets and squares in Iraqi Shiite areas, raising slogans denouncing such acts or calling on fighters to defend the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab. Politicians and leaders also engaged in the sectarian wave, raising slogans and inciting the public.

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