Behind the Iraqi crisis: the crushing of the nonviolent Sunni uprising

IssueAugust 2014
Feature by Milan Rai

The crisis in Iraq has reached truly frightening proportions, with the brutal ‘Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’ (ISIS) controlling a large swathe of territory in both countries – something that may trigger the partition of Iraq.

It is easy to get the impression from the mainstream media that violent conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims in Iraq is something that goes back millennia, and has merely re-surfaced in the recent conflict between Sunni ISIS and the Shia-dominated government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. This is a serious distortion of a complicated reality.

Noam Chomsky has observed: ‘By now, Shiites and Sunnis are the bitterest enemies, thanks to the sledgehammer wielded by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney (respectively the former US Secretary of Defense and vice president during the George W. Bush administration) and others like them who understand nothing beyond violence and terror and have helped to create conflicts that are now tearing the region to shreds.’

Chomsky points out that the violence engulfing Iraq is a direct consequence of the US/UK invasion of 2003, and the sectarian system the two powers imposed on Iraq. For example, the US occupiers set up a governing council for Iraq in July 2003 structured along sectarian lines. Responsibility for the current violence lies with the aggressors.

Two kinds of ISIS

Having acknowledged this truth, we can look at another part of this complex story.

The Maliki government was offered the opportunity last year to satisfy the legitimate concerns of the Sunni minority and to heal some of the divisions in the country.

That opportunity was offered by a nonviolent Sunni uprising in north-western Iraq that ran from December 2012 to December 2013.

It was Maliki’s decision to denigrate, harass and then attack the Sunni protest movement that laid the basis for the dramatic Sunni military uprising in June.

While the mainstream media gave ISIS all the credit for the insurgency, Michael Stephens of the Royal United Services Institute has pointed out that the June turmoil was ‘a more general uprising by large groupings of disaffected communities throughout north-western Iraq and a product of years of social exclusion, poor governance and corruption by the Iraqi government.’

Stephens was told by a Sunni university student from Mosul (which fell to ISIS-led forces in June): ‘There are two types of ISIS, those with the religion and the long beards, and those who are fighting to free us, don’t confuse the two.’

Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote on 14 June: ‘It is becoming clear that Isis is not the only Sunni militant group involved in the Sunni insurgents’ multipronged offensive that was carefully co-ordinated. Among those engaged are the Jaish Naqshbandi, led by Saddam Hussein’s former deputy Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, former members of the Baath party, the Mukhbarat security services and the Special Republican Guard. It is these [secular] groups, rather than Isis, which captured Tikrit.’ (Tikrit was the home town of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, leader of the fascist Ba’ath party that ran Iraq until 2003.)

Truth force

The alliance which has this summer triumphed over disintegrating Iraqi government forces is rooted in last year’s Sunni nonviolent uprising. The protests were sparked in December 2012 by the arrest of aides to the then-finance minister Rafia al-Issawi, and threats to arrest him. Issawi, a Sunni, is from Fallujah.

Peace researcher Victoria Fontan was one of the few non-Iraqis to visit the heart of the movement in Fallujah in Anbar province in western Iraq.

Fontan, professor of peace and conflict studies at the University of Duhok in Iraqi Kurdistan, visited what she refers to as ‘Occupy Fallujah’ in July 2013, seven months after it began.

She wrote about the project in glowing terms in Counterpunch: ‘Somewhere far away from their capital city, a group of concerned citizens set up to physically occupy a piece of land at the entrance of their town: they humbly call it “the demonstration”. Its physical presence consists of a circle of tents articulated around a podium where they run their general assemblies. They maintain a twenty-four hour presence in this space, where they share everything from organic food to moral support. On Fridays, they distribute food to the poor and homeless. They meditate several times per day in a specially allocated tent to center themselves. Overall, they seek to share ideals of consensus, coherence with their spiritual beliefs, and inclusiveness with their local community….’

The leader of Occupy Fallujah, sheikh al-Hamoudi, told Fontan she was the first Westerner to visit the encampment: ‘As we parted, he asked me to think about the following point: if no one listens to Occupy Fallujah when they are employing Western non-violent collective action strategies, how else could they make their voices heard?’

Sheikh al-Hamoudi was assassinated (with his son) in December 2013, a killing claimed by the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, according to Fontan.

In the mainstream journal Foreign Policy, Kirk Sowell painted a rather more sceptical picture of the Sunni protest movement, which spread across the north-west: ‘each protest site was run by political parties, or at more radical sites, by insurgent front groups’. This didn’t mean that the movement wasn’t a spontaneous grassroots phenomenon as far as the participants were concerned, Sowell concedes.

According to Sowell, the Ramadi site was dominated by the Popular Committees (linked to the tribal ‘Awakening’ militias) and by the Anbar Coordinating Committee (linked to the Islamic Party).

The second-largest group of Sunni protest sites was apparently run by a front group for the Ba’athist ‘Jaish Naqshbandi’ (JRTN) militia.

Despite these paramilitary linkages, the Sunni protest movement remained largely nonviolent until the Maliki government stormed a protest camp in Huwija, in Kirkuk province, on 23 April last year.

Gunmen at the JRTN-controlled camp had killed a Sunni soldier in the government army, providing Maliki with an opportunity to rally non-Ba’athist Sunnis to the government’s cause.

Instead, he sent in heavily-armed paramilitary forces, and they gunned down 44 unarmed protesters.

There was no immediate large-scale armed confrontation, and in fact this Sunni Bloody Sunday was followed by intense negotiations, which petered out in December 2013 when it became clear the government was demanding the closure of the protest camps in return for small concessions.

The protest movement, which now had a grassroots element outside the control of any particular political party or insurgent grouping, had at its core three demands: an end to the idea of federalism; equal opportunities for Sunnis and Shias (meaning an end to de-Ba’athification); and Maliki’s resignation as prime minister – to be followed by new, free and fair elections. Maliki is hated by most Sunnis for having governed in a sectarian, discriminatory manner (with US weapons and support).

The final straw

On 21 December 2013, an ISIS ambush near the Syrian border killed the commander of the Iraqi army’s seventh division as well as several senior commanders.

Many Sunni leaders expressed strong support for the government’s resulting campaign to hunt down ISIS forces in the west of Anbar province (well away from Sunni population centres).

Sowell comments: ‘At this point Maliki had a historical opportunity to unite the country in a fight against ISIS, which had not only been launching mass casualty attacks against Shiites but had also conducted a relentless campaign of assassination and extortion against Sunnis in Anbar and elsewhere. But instead he decided to use the national groundswell to shut down the Ramadi protest site.’

Maliki claimed the camp was an al-Qa’eda headquarters; he arrested a Sunni MP (killing his brother and sister in the process); he (illegally) declared martial law on 28 December; and then he ordered the bulldozing of the Ramadi site on 30 December, leading to over a dozen deaths.

Maliki then compounded matters by first withdrawing the army from the cities in Anbar province, allowing insurgents to take control, and then beginning a shelling and bombing campaign against Fallujah.

A few months later, Human Rights Watch reported indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas in Fallujah by government forces: ‘An Iraqi government security officer based in Anbar, who spoke to Human Rights Watch on condition of anonymity, said government forces have targeted the hospital with mortars and artillery on 16 separate occasions.

By March, Sunni clerics, Ba’athists, nationalists, tribal groups, and al-Qa’eda (which had disowned ISIS in February) were co-operating in a coordinated military command.

In other words, they had re-established the Sunni insurgent coalition that devastated Iraq in 2006, and that was broken up by US bribery, turning tribal insurgent groups into anti-al-Qa’eda ‘Awakening Councils’ in 2007.

What has happened in 2014 is that most of this Sunni coalition has decided to merge with well-funded, well-trained ISIS forces, leading to the ejection of government forces from Mosul and a string of other towns and cities in June.

ISIS is attempting to stamp its authority on the entire Sunni insurgency. It is unlikely to be able to fully disarm all the other groups, and history suggests it will be unable to stop itself alienating the Sunni population, as its precursor, al-Qa’eda in Iraq, did.

That is, unless outside forces pose a unifying threat to the Sunni community.

The triumph of ISIS was far from inevitable. The descent into sectarian civil war was far from inevitable.

Topics: Iraq