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Iraq

Tensions rise between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites

Some international observers are growing concerned about renewed civil war between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites. The city of Fallujah represents a hotbed of Sunni protest against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.

Protestors gathered at a square in Fallujah.
(Photo: Birgit Svensson)

Protestors in Fallujah

One can't overlook the protest camp when entering Fallujah from the main road connecting the city with Baghdad. A smattering of tents, a stage showing photos of dead demonstrators and many flags dot a small square. The flags date back to Saddam Hussein's rule. His Ba'ath Party governed the country, and Sunnis formed an important part of Iraq's elite.

Today Sunnis say they are being repressed. After the fall of Hussein's regime, a new flag was quickly sought. But the transitional government could not come to an agreement and simply left off the green stars symbolizing the Ba'ath Party, leaving the rest of the flag's adornment intact.

In Fallujah, the stars have returned as a symbol of opposition to the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. Sheik Khaled, who is leading the protests in Fallujah, stands on stage with a microphone and calls out to those gathered that there are no intentions of clearing the square as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has demanded.

"We are not even thinking about leaving," Khaled shouted to thunderous applause.

Protestors gather at a Sunni camp in Fallujah.
(Photo: Birgit Svensson)

Protestors gather at a Sunni camp in Fallujah

Autonomous stronghold

The protests have taken place since December 2012 and continue to grow. At the time, security forces had arrested two bodyguards of the then-finance minister, Rafi al-Issawi, a prominent Sunni member of the government. The two men were accused of carrying out terror strikes against Shiites and planning a coup against Maliki's government. Now Issawi himself also faces accusations of terrorism.

The case recalls that of former Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, also a Sunni, immediately after the exit of the final US combat troops in December 2011. Three of his guards were imprisoned and confessed on Iraqi state television to having been involved in terrorist activity. Afterwards, however, they recanted their confessions and claimed to only have made them under torture. Hashimi has since been sentenced to death and has sought refuge in Turkey, where he was granted a residence permit.

For his part, ex-Finance Minister Issawi swiftly announced his resignation after his bodyguards were jailed and went into hiding in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, which has become a stronghold for protests and has asserted wide-ranging autonomy from Iraq's central government. Although Fallujah is surrounded by soldiers from the Iraqi Army, none have yet dared to enter the city itself.

Ex-Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi speaks at an event in Ramadi in early March.
(Photo: REUTERS/Ali al-Mashhadani)

Ex-Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi attends an anti-government rally in early March

Heavy violence

"The ultimatum will pass without anything having happened," believes sheik Saadon Talib El Jumeili, who is standing at the edge of the protest camp and observing the scene. The government has given the demonstrators 48 hours to end the sit-ins, threatening them with a military intervention if they do not follow through.

But the protestors in the neighboring city of Ramadi are not considering giving up. Although the recent revocation of ten Arabic TV broadcasters' licenses - Al Jazeera's among them - has resulted in fewer protest images reaching the public, those involved in the demonstrations are certain their message will still be heard. The ring of Sunni-led protests is expanding and currently encompasses nearly the entire northern half of Iraq. Starting in Anbar, the demonstrations spread first to Kirkuk and Nineveh, then to the provinces of Saladin and, finally, Diyala in the east. The most serious clashes between protestors and the Iraqi Army thus far did not take place in Anbar but in Hawija, near Kirkuk, where 69 people were killed and over 100 injured. Two days later, the town of Suleiman Beg in the Saladin province saw heavy fighting and a further 20 deaths.

The protest movement wants to do something against what they see as an army that is too powerful and too beholden to Shiites. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Maliki says that terrorists and Ba'ath sympathizers are behind the attacks and has called Anbar their hotbed.

The United Nations mission in Iraq reported that April was the bloodiest month in five years with 712 deaths and over 1,600 injuries.

"When consciousness dies in a person, the animal comes out," said sheik El Jumeili of the current situation.

Iraqi men look at the remains of a building in Fallujah.
(Photo: EPA/MOHAMMED JALIL)

Fallujah residents returned to a destroyed city after fighting between US troops and rebels in 2004

Did Iran support al Qaeda?

The sheik added that respect and dignity are part of his conception of consciousness, but that those two values have been trampled in the last five years. First it was the Americans, he says, who undertook wide-scale arrests based on the mere suspicion of loyalty to Saddam Hussein, and who treated women disrespectfully - handling them as if they were men.

"Women are jewels for us," El Jumeili explained. "Mishandling them crosses a red line."

One of the protest movement's main demands is the release of women in prison. During the Iraqi Army's raids in recent months in search of terror suspects, women were often taken away when their husbands could not be found.

"It's difficult to govern Iraq," says the 58-year-old with a sigh. When the Americans came, they sent him home and dissolved the security forces overnight. El Jumeili didn't know how he could feed his family, so he joined the resistance. His voice grows softer when he speaks about the dark years of terror. In one house he owned, terror strikes against the US were planned, and explosives were built next door. Fallujah became known as a center of resistance against the occupiers.

Then came the international terrorists. In retrospect, the resistance movement was not very helpful, the sheik admits, noting, "It opened the door to al Qaeda."

After the tribal leaders Abu Risha in Ramadi and Eifan Saadoun Al Issawi in Fallujah, who have both been assassinated, formed the Sunni Awakening movement with US forces, Jumeili joined in the fight against extremist newcomers. He says he arrested foreigners carrying dollars as well as Iranian rials.

It has long been considered unlikely that Iran would have supported al Qaeda in its actions against the US. Iran is heavily influenced by Shiites, and al Qaeda by Sunnis. The outbreak of civil war between the two religious groups in the years 2006-2007 made such cooperation seem especially unlikely. However, recent research suggests that Iran could very well have served as a crossing point into Iraq for al Qaeda members, who may have even enjoyed financial support from Iran.

Sunni fighters keep watch in Fallujah in April 2004.
(Photo: AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Sunni fighters keep watch in Fallujah in April 2004

Fears of renewed civil war

Now Iraqi politicians as well as international observers fear that the situation between Sunnis and Shiites may escalate again, potentially bringing about a civil war. Tribal leaders in Anbar have called on their followers to form a Sunni militia as a means of defense against Iraq's army. Sunni soldiers have been urged to desert the army, but bring their weapons with them.

Following US troops' withdrawal, Abu Risha's successor in Ramadi is under pressure to dissolve the still-existing Sunni Awakening alliance with the government. The alliance's mission remains working against al Qaeda. Some would like to see a new militia formed.

But the protest leader in Fallujah opposes that move. "We are not going to achieve our demands with weapons," insists sheik Khaled.

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