The security and political crisis currently engulfing Iraq has its origins in a decision by prime minister Nouri Al Maliki to strike at the protest leaders of the movement in Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s western province of Anbar. Iraq has suffered a surge of terrorist attacks led by the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) last year, and Anbar has suffered the brunt of it, with numerous civilian and police officials killed or kidnapped in the past six months.
The arrest of Anbar member of parliament Ahmad Al Alwani on Saturday represents a curiously timed and ill-considered move against a Sunni opponent. Mr Al Alwani, a leader in the Islamic Party, which belongs to the national coalition led by Osama Al Nujayfi, the parliament speaker, has been a key figure in the Sunni protest movement that began in late 2012. Since December 21, Iraqi forces has been conducting operations against Al Qaeda bases in Anbar’s desert reaches. These operations gained broad public support, not only from Mr Al Maliki’s Shia base but from many of his Anbar critics. While Mr Al Alwani is a controversial figure, there is no independent evidence that he is tied to Al Qaeda.
Mr Al Maliki, emboldened by the broad support, used his Christmas Day address to the nation to announce that the protest site near Ramadi has become “an Al Qaeda headquarters” and had to be shut down. He further claimed that the provincial government had informed him that 36 Al Qaeda leaders were based inside the protest site, and that security forces had obtained confessions from terrorists that attacks in various provinces emanated from the site. The Ramadi site, which protesters call “pride and dignity square,” has been the symbolic centre of Sunni protests.
The claim that Ramadi is an Isis planning centre is dubious. One of Mr Al Maliki’s claims that Al Qaeda leaders have openly announced their presence from the podium, can be easily refuted based on open sources. I have followed Friday prayer and other protest speeches at Ramadi and other sites over the past year, and would describe their rhetoric as one based on Sunni power and identity, not on jihadi slogans. Small groups of jihadists have sometimes shown up at protests sites such as in Ramadi and Fallujah, but speakers have been in line with Iraq’s mainstream clerical establishment.
The “confessions” video run on state television on Saturday evening has all the markings of a show trial. It shows a series of Anbari detainees providing elaborate confessions of their membership of Isis and terrorist operations run from Ramadi, implicating Mr Al Alwani and Khamis Abu Risha, the nephew of Awakening leader Ahmad Abu Risha, as Al Qaeda leaders. But contradictions and non-sequitors abound. While the confessions portray the attacks as aimed at foiling the provincial elections last year, both Mr Al Alwani and Mr Abu Risha are leaders of parties that ran in the election, and their bloc, Mutahidun, ultimately won a plurality.
Also, Isis has no need to plan attacks from the protest site. It controls vast stretches of the desert, has known bases, which security forces have identified, and a network of safe houses around Baghdad. And where the 23-minute video shows footage of a protest site with Al Qaeda flags, the scenes are all recognisably from Fallujah.
On Tuesday, a week-old video was leaked from a cabinet meeting in which Anbar governor Ahmad Khalaf Al Dhiyabi is heard telling Mr Al Maliki that “by our estimates, at the most, there are 30-40 Al Qaeda members” at the Ramadi protest site. Although Mr Al Maliki’s staff clearly leaked it to support the prime minister’s public claims, Mr Dhiyabi’s wording suggests that the Al Qaeda presence wasn’t very strong. Even with attendance down, the Ramadi site still probably has a thousand or so adherents.
Mr Al Alwani is not someone who merits much sympathy, as he has a reputation of making inflammatory sectarian statements. For example, in an interview with television channel Al Sumaria in April, he referred to the “Shia threat” before adding that he meant to say “Iranian threat”. Asked in the same interview about allegations of ties to the Iraqi Hamas, Mr Al Alwani smiled and said in jest: “No, I’m Al Qaeda.” It was an insensitive statement at the time given that innocent Iraqis were dying almost daily from terror attacks, and pretty dumb in retrospect given the charges he now faces.
In a more recent statement, to which Mr Al Maliki referred indirectly in his national address, Mr Al Alwani spoke from the protest podium about Shia going to fight in Syria and threatened to “cut off their heads”. The phrase, which he probably meant to only refer to militias, could be understood differently.
Officials have long tied Mr Al Alwani and other protest leaders to the killing of five soldiers near the protest site on April 27. General Ali Ghaydan explained on Saturday that Mr Al Alwani’s brother Ali was the target and that Mr Al Alwani’s guards opened fire on security, which led to the shoot-out – that allows the state to get around Mr Al Alwani’s parliamentary immunity, since he was caught in the act.
The irony is that things had been going Mr Al Maliki’s way in Anbar. Protests, which once attracted tens of thousands, had lost momentum. And the new governor, Mr Dhiyabi, a former protest leader himself, changed his tune after his July election and began working with Mr Al Maliki, even to the point of trying to suspend the protests, though for political rather than security reasons. But with parliamentary elections set for April and Mr Al Maliki’s Shia Islamist rivals set to try to deny him a third term, Ramadi’s controversial protest site was an inviting target.
Since Mr Al Alwani’s arrest, Mr Al Maliki has cleared the protest site, inflaming tensions in the province and alienating mainstream Sunni clerics who were backing his legitimate war against terrorism. Iraqi security forces were already struggling to contain the Isis surge, and they will struggle even more now.
Kirk H Sowell is a political risk analyst based in Amman, Jordan, and the Editor-in-Chief of Inside Iraqi Politics
On Twitter @uticensisrisk