Fallujah Sunnis, once favoured by Saddam, now 'marginalised' by Iraq's Shiite-led government
FALLUJAH // By the time the imam reached a rhetorical crescendo with a story of a tyrant who tormented his people, the cheering crowd attending Friday prayers stretched out of sight down a motorway on the outskirts of the Sunni-dominated town.
"Religious people told him to be careful," the imam cried. "So now, I am warning politicians, all of them who wanted to burn us: go back to God and repent because there will come a day when nothing will help you."
The bellowing throng before him waved Iraqi and black Islamist flags and brandished signs saying: "Baghdad, we are coming."
Yet as quickly as the multitude were whipped into euphoria, the atmosphere calmed as the men silently organised themselves in lines for the fal prayers. Worship in Fallujah is now a passionate, thinly disguised, weekly protest against the government.
Fallujah, along with Ramadi and Haditha, is one of the main cities in Anbar province, which put up the fiercest resistance to the presence of foreign soldiers in Iraq. It has now become the centre of a Sunni-dominated movement of protest against the Shiite-headed government, a sign that the Pandora's box of sectarianism opened 10 years ago is still far from closed.
Under Saddam Hussein, a mostly Sunni elite enjoyed a privileged position and dominated his regime. Under almost any semblance of democratic government that replaced it, the once-marginalised rural population, who are mainly Shiites, were likely to fare better.
The outcome of Saddam's overthrow was a reduced status that Sunnis, under any circumstances, were not going to find easy to accept. The means of his removal - an invasion by a foreign army - only compounded their rage.
The expanse of western Iraqi desert that encompasses Fallujah is dominated by Sunnis and was wracked by some of the worst fighting that followed the US-led invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.
A year later, the province seethed with anger at the occupying foreign forces. The fury reached its zenith when four security contractors were killed and mutilated, and then two of the corpses were strung up from a bridge while crowds cheered beneath.
"The Americans lost thousands of soldiers, in the first and second battles of Fallujah," said Khalid Hammoud Al Jumaili, referring to two bloody bouts of fighting in 2004.
"Of course this is something we are still proud of. In any country, in any place, I am proud to say that I am from Fallujah," said Sheikh Al Jumaili, an imam who is leading the protests.
The area also became one of the strongest bases for Al Qaeda's Iraqi branch. Americans and their allies battled against the stiff resistance, and every family has a story about a husband, brother, son or all three killed in the intense fighting between 2006 and 2008.
Very slowly, the violence ebbed, after American and Iraqi authorities paid men - some of them militants - to fight on their side and restore security to their neighbourhoods. Partly due to the so-called "awakening" initiative, security is better now.
But residents of Fallujah and the rest of Anbar province feel strongly that today's Iraq is not a place in which a Sunni is treated fairly, that the stigma of the community's association with Saddam Hussein has not faded and that though the Americans are gone, they still need to fight against unjust treatment.
Since the beginning of the year, demonstrations have gathered steam, apparently taking some inspiration from the Arab protest movements of the past two years.
A dozen tents in bright patterned canvas have sprung up in a grey square on the outskirts of Fallujah, in which senior tribal leaders and their almost exclusively male followers sit on white plastic chairs and discuss their resentment of the government.
"We have many demands," said Sheikh Al Jumaili. "We want to cancel the terrorism law, to reform the constitution, to release men and women from prison." He referred to a piece of legislation passed in 2011, under which many people have been arrested on suspicion of promoting terrorism.
In conversations with aggrieved Sunnis, it is often difficult to distinguish between grievances rooted in what they say is discrimination based on their branch of Islam and those stemming from piqué at losing privileges they enjoyed under Saddam's regime. Many Sunnis feel they have been unfairly targeted under the law. They also allege that the elected government, which is dominated by Shiite political parties, has failed to employ a proportionate number of Sunnis in government jobs and in the security forces.
Speaking in a trailer emblazoned with a logo reading "Free Iraqis Uprising, Media Centre, Martyrs' Square in Fallujah", Mr Al Jumaili said that the original demands of the protests were for reform. But now, feeling his demands ignored by the government, he calls for the fall of the government and the scrapping of a constitution written under the supervision of Americans, calling it racist.
He said the people of Anbar want to take their demonstrations to the capital. There have been similar protests in other Sunni-dominated provinces, but government officials are quick to condemn them as an attempt to exacerbate the country's lingering sectarian issue.
"We know that the groups who dominate or control the demonstrations, foreign countries and political groups, are trying to start a civil war," said Kamal Al Saadi, an adviser to the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, in a recent interview.
As he spoke, soldiers were erecting more concrete barriers around the already heavily guarded parliament building. He predicted that the sectarian violence that tore the country apart was on its way back.
"This time we believe it's more dangerous than in 2006 and 2007," he said. "Then, Al Qaeda was doing explosions and killings. But now, its aim is to have a peaceful cover."
Now, on Fridays, Sunnis are prevented at checkpoints from moving around Baghdad, and cannot head from the provinces to the capital. In January, soldiers killed five protesters in a crackdown on the demonstrations, provoking outrage among local people.
"I think the American forces had more mercy than the Iraqi government," said Muhammad Darra Al Jumaili, one of the protesters in the tents. In 2008, his unarmed father was shot by US soldiers, he claimed, because they suspected him of being an Islamist militant: the old man had a beard and was driving a lorry.
"But I think when they found he was unarmed, they were sorry," he said. His father was taken to hospital, although his wounds proved fatal. But when Mr Al Jumaili's nephew was injured when Iraqi soldiers shot protesters on January 25, he was shot again in the head and killed when he tried to move.
"The government is acting in a sectarian way," Mr Al Jumaili said. The demonstrators have worked to make their grudges a cross-sectarian affair and received delegations from the Shiite south, where living conditions are also difficult. A spokesman for the anti-Maliki Shiite leader, Muqtada Al Sadr, said that his group supports "legitimate" demands by protest leaders.
But for most people participating in the rallies, this seems to be an attempt to voice their anger at marginalisation of the Sunnis. The calls for the protests to remain peaceful are still loud, and people fear sectarian splits and violence, and yet the problem is not likely to go away soon, said Falah Al Naqib, a Sunni lawmaker from Salahaddin province.
"Most politicians, the Sunnis, want the demonstrations to remain peaceful, because this could go towards civil war," he said. He despaired of the mainly Sunni Iraqiya political bloc, who were outmanoeuvred after 2010 elections by Mr Al Maliki and now threaten to boycott the government.
"As long as the political situation remains like this, nothing will be solved," he said. "They have to not think about politics, they have to think about the destiny of the nation."
"The government hasn't made any solution and I don't know if the prime minister has any intentions to solve it," he added. "This is a country everybody has to share."