By Ahmed Ali
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) is attempting to influence the Iraqi anti-government protest movement. A major manifestation of AQI’s effort is the targeting of protest leaders. These attempts are being countered by protest leaders through formation of political groups and negotiating with Baghdad. There is tremendous risk if the protest movement is militarized. Therefore, it is imperative for the Obama Administration to advise Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during his visit this week that addressing protest demands serves the security interests of both Iraq and the United States.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki arrives in Washington this week for talks at the White House. One of the likely topics of discussion will be the role of the Iraqi Sunnis in the Iraqi state. After the December 2012 arrest of bodyguards of senior Iraqi Sunni politician Rafia al-Issawi, Sunni frustrations boiled over, and a protest movement demanding better treatment from the Maliki government was born.
Iraq’s anti-government protest movement is now entering its eleventh month. Since the beginning of the protests, the movement has persisted despite a variety of developments: protest leaders have faced arrest warrants, clashes have occurred between protesters and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), protests have been targeted by al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), and the Iraqi government has formed a number of committees to attempt to meet protester demands. The momentum of the protests, however, has stalled in the wake of the June 20 provincial elections in Ninewa and Anbar provinces.
Now the protest movement is at a crossroads. In a worrisome turn of events, masked gunmen carrying weapons and displaying the black flag of AQI appeared at a protest in Ramadi, and they seemed to act with impunity. AQI’s appearance at this site in the middle of October reflects its desire to augment its military successes with political gains. Protest leaders are attempting to counter the AQI threat by consolidating politically and restarting negotiations with Baghdad. These efforts, however, are marred by personal differences among protest leaders and their lack of a unified position. These developments are critical as security continues to deteriorate and the competition between the protest leaders and AQI to benefit from Iraqi Sunni discontent as it intensifies.
The direction of the protest movement is a crucial indicator for the future of Iraqi Sunnis. The protests have acted as a vehicle for Iraqi Sunnis to express frustrations and address grievances in a non-violent manner. If AQI is successful in changing the course of the protests, it will signal a move towards violence and increased instability in Iraq.
AQI and the Protests
Anti-government protests have remained largely peaceful despite their duration and previous clasheswith the Iraqi Security Forces. However, their non-violent nature could shift with a concerted effort by AQI to take leadership of protests or co-opt protesters. AQI’s recent resurgenceand increased capabilities have been on display in Ninewa and Anbar, thus far targeting military personnel and Iraqi Sunni allies of the Iraqi government. Through attacks targeting protest leaders, AQI now appears to be extending its efforts to influence the protests.
Several attacks on protest leaders can likely be attributed to AQI. In Ninewa, unknown gunmen killed protest leader and tribal figure, Thaer Hazem Abed, on September 23 in front of his house in Mosul. On August 19, protest leader Haitham al-Ibadi was killed in an attacknear his house in Mosul. Religious figure and protest organizer, Ali al-Shama, was fatally wounded by an attacknear the Mosul mosque where he preaches. Ninewa member of the Council of Representatives (CoR), Mohammed Iqbal, a representative of the largest Iraqi Sunni bloc Mutahidun, condemnedthe attack, noting that religious scholars have become a target due “their influential role in making the masses aware and courageous stand against corrupt saboteur elements.” Finally, prominent protest and tribal leader, Barzan al-Badrani was killed in an attack in Mosul on August 27. In the case of Badrani’s assassination, there are allegations that “militias” killed him, a reference to the possible involvement of government-backed elements. It is very likely, however, that Badrani was killed by AQI. His area of tribal influence is south of Mosul, where AQI is currently resurgen, and his absence will allow AQI the opportunity to spread influence in the area. It is also possible that Badrani was targeted because of likely ties to other armed groups in Ninewa that may compete with AQI, including Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqshabandia (JRTN) whose online outletsmourned the death of Badrani.
In Anbar, AQI appeared at the protest site in Ramadi earlier this month. In a videothat emerged online, masked gunmen appear holding AQI’s black flag and acting with apparent impunity. To be sure, Ramadi’s protest site has seen inflammatory rhetoric in the past, including, particularly after the April 23 Hawija clash, calls to wage jihad. However, it has not been more overtly violent than the Fallujah protest site, which has consistently retained a hardliner character. The appearance of AQI in Ramadi is worrisome for the protests. The re-appearance of AQI symbols and presence at protests will be an important future indicator to monitor.
At the moment, AQI is demonstrating a great degree of capability in Anbar as evidenced by the repeated attacksin the towns of Fallujah, Rawa, Ana, and Rutba. According to Anbari tribal leader Ahmed Abu Risha, AQI is currently widely present in Anbar province. Security sources statedthat “gunmen” – likely AQI – are freely and in broad daylight appearing in Qaim, west of Anbar. Abu Risha – who fought against AQI during the awakening from 2006 onward – argued that part of AQI’s resurgence is due to the ISF’s poor treatment of the population. He particularly singled out the commander of the al-Jazeera and Badia Operations Command, General Hassan al-Baythani.
All of this suggests that with increased freedom of movement in both Ninewa and Anbar, AQI’s strategy is intended to decapitate the leadership of the protests in order to gain influence over their followers. It is also likely that the targeted protests leaders have been resistant to pressure from AQI either to join an armed insurgency or to tolerate AQI’s presence. The absence of these leaders could facilitate a push by the movement towards violence and allow AQI to recruit members among the disaffected Iraqi Sunnis taking part, or at least to compel them more easily.
The Political Future of the Protests
The protest movement is launching an effort to better organize itself politically. On October 12, the formation of the “Popular Trend [Hirak] Movement” was announcedin Anbar. According to Samarra preacher and the spokesman for the protesting provinces Mohammed Taha al-Hamdoun, the trend will advocate on behalf of the Iraqi Sunnis and will act as a “social lobbying group.” This counters early reports indicating that the trend would participate in 2014 parliamentary elections as a political entity. Hamdoun has taken on a leadership role in this new group. His selection highlights the further significance that the Samarra protest site has attained since Hamdoun began acting as the spokesperson for the protests in May of this year after his selectionby the protests’ “Popular Committees.” It is important to note that despite his title as spokesman of the protests, Hamdoun faces challengesfrom the other protest leaders. However, his prominence, along with the prominence of Samarra’s protest site generally, are likely to due to support from the Sunni clerical establishment.
The formation of the trend was supportedby the largest Iraqi Sunni political bloc, Mutahidun. A statement from Mutahidun viewed the step as a move to create “organized and needed institutional work” that will assist in fulfilling the goals of the protests so far. The trend was also endorsedby the clerical establishment during prayers in Qaem, Anbar. Importantly, the trend was also blessed by prominent Sunni religious leader and early protest supporter Abed al-Malik al-Saadi. He highlighted the trend’s significance by describingit as a step that will “block the road in front of those who are lurking.” This statement is very important since Saadi is considered by many to be the preeminent Sunni cleric, and his reference to “those who are lurking” is likely reference to AQI or other armed groups that are seeking to militarize the protest movement.
Nonetheless, reaction to the formation of the trend demonstrates leadership disagreements within the protest movement. Shortly after the announcement, two statements were issued by groups alleging to be on the side of the protesters. In the first, a group named the “Pride and Dignity Square Revolutionaries Council” condemnedthe new trend and denied that it had authorized any group to represent them. The statement added that it will continue to protest. Meanwhile, the “Youth of Anbar Revolution” issueda similar statement and urged the founders of the new trend to reconsider their decision. Hamdoun respondedto critical statements made by Fallujah protest leader, Khalid al-Jumaili, who denied there had been any authorization given to Hamdoun. Hamdoun accused Jumaili of acting only out of self-interest and that the goal now should be “the unity and the preservation of civil peace,” not the pursuit of positions. Given the escalating violence by AQI, it is important to highlight Hamdoun’s expressed desire of preserving peace. This statement reflects Hamdoun’s fear that the social situation is at a tipping point.
Negotiations with Baghdad
In a further sign of a lack of unity amongst protesters and a change in momentum, protesters in Anbar authorized the governor of the province, Ahmed Khalaf al-Dulaimi, and the chairman of the Anbar provincial council to negotiate with the government. The October 3 authorization was announced in a statementthat detailed the decision. According to the statement, the decision was taken after consultation with Anbar’s protesters, tribal notables, and religious scholars who desired to refute government claims that there “is not a clear side to negotiate with.” The statement also added that the governor and chairman were authorized because they are elected officials and because protesters are considerate of “civil peace.” Reflecting the seriousness of the effort, the statement urged other protesting provinces to take similar steps and negotiate with the government. On October 5, Governor Dulaimi met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and according to a press release from Maliki’s office, the prime minister stated that protesters demands will be fulfilled as long as they are “legitimate.” This statement is similar to previous announcements by Prime Minister Maliki and suggests that the negotiations are still at a very early stage.
The negotiations effort was not accepted immediately by all Anbar protesters. Anbar has two major protest sites: a generally mainstream Ramadi protest camp, and more vocal hardline protest in Fallujah. With regard to the effort to negotiate with the government, Fallujah tribal leader Mohammed al-Bajari, who is a supporter of the protests, statedthat Dulaimi was not authorized to negotiate with the government. Bajari added that there have been attempts to “politicize” the protests and have one side influence them. This is likely reference to Mutahidun, which is headed by Council of Representatives (CoR) Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and of which Dulaimi is a member. Nujaifi and Maliki have recently improved their relations, lending the negotiating effort more legitimacy.
Shortly after the authorization was announced, two stun grenades targetedprotest sites in Ramadi and Fallujah. These attacks are further signs that protesters are divided with regards to negotiations. Protest organizer Ghassan al-Ithawi did not name the group that attacked the protest sites. Ithawi instead attributedtheir actions to the desire to “convey a message to those sitting-in that it is against the principle of negotiations with the government”. Ithawi added that the attackers used the attacks in order to protract the tensions with the federal government.
The step by Anbar’s provincial council to negotiate is important for several reasons. First, the anti-government protests started in Anbar, and thus the decision to enter into negotiations could encourage other provinces to do the same. To that end, Mutahidun CoR member Wihda al-Jumaili calledon other protesting provinces to name negotiators with the government. Jumaili reasoned that local governments are “representative of all protesters” and can therefore attain legitimacy when negotiating with the federal government.
The June 20 provincial elections in Ninewa and Anbar have changedthe protests’ dynamic. Prior to the elections, it was common for local politicians and community leaders to appear at the protest sites and rally the base. This type of visit has occurred less frequently since the conclusion of the elections. Politicians clearly used appeals to Iraqi Sunni protesters as a political instrument, and they likely do not view them as useful any longer. Dulaimi was likely selected as a negotiator due to his supportto the protest movement. Dulaimi’s already-established credibility as part of the protests will be enhanced by cooperating with Maliki, but it will be damaged if he is unable to deliver.
Protesters demands have not changed since they were raised at the beginning of the protests, despite their partial fulfillment through the de-Ba‘athification reform and the release of prisoners. The persistence of many of the same demands after ten months means that the new negotiations will be complicated and difficult. An early positive step on the government’s part would be the release of some of the prisoners detainedduring the ISF’s Revenge of the Martyrs campaign.
The political responses of the protest movement are indicative that the protest movement is struggling to maintain momentum. It is also clear that the rising threat of AQI is forcing protesters to devise new tactics to channel Iraqi Sunni frustration in peaceful directions. Forming the political Trend is illustrative of protest leaders’ plans to harness the remaining potential of the protests for the 2014 national elections.
The population and Iraqi Sunni politicians are clearly fearful of the AQI challenge. AQI will likely continue to target protest leaders. Their attacks may expand to other provinces other than Anbar and Ninewa. For example, one of Diyala’s protest leaders, Shihab al-Badri, was attackedon September 7. AQI’s tactics have been successful so far, but targeting Iraqi Sunni civilians has backfired against them in the past. Therefore, it will be important to watch whether the population will confront AQI. If the Iraqi Sunnis decide to challenge AQI, they will likely call on Sahwa forces who, with the assistance of U.S. forces, successfully defeated AQI in 2008. The current Sahwa forces are presently outmatched and persistently targeted by AQI. The success of the Sahwa will depend on receiving material support from the ISF. The leadership of the ISF in Ninewa and Anbar has to recognize that the gravity of the situation requires a conciliatory approach with the populace. In essence, the population has to receive tangible benefits from the government, in particular refraining from mass and random arrests of Iraqi Sunnis during ISF operations. Otherwise, AQI will be positioned to win sympathy from the population and utilize the protests for violent ends.
The negotiations with Prime Minister Maliki will likely be protracted due to the approaching elections year and also because of the past negotiation experiences. Heading into these elections, protesters and the Iraqi government have to take negotiations seriously in order to minimize AQI’s effectiveness. Furthermore, both sides should maintain reasonable expectations with regards to what can be accomplished. Raising expectations and then failing to meet them will create additional disenchantment among all Iraqis and lead to further sectarianism. These consequences will be grave for Iraq and U.S. national security interests, given AQI’s active trans-border involvement in Syria. Prime Minister Maliki’s visit is an ample opportunity for the administration to encourage him that now is the best time to address protest demands.
Ahmed Ali is a senior Iraq Research Analyst and the Iraq Team Lead at the Institute for the Study of War.