Now entering its third month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s genocidal campaign against his country’s Sunni minority shows no sign of abatement.
Indiscriminate airstrikes and shelling by security forces are thought to have displaced more than 400,000 residents of Anbar Province so far this year, and the number of casualties is conservatively estimated at 2,232.
Electricity and water supplies have been cut off in many areas, humanitarian aid is being withheld, and Fallujah General Hospital was recently forced to close after sustained and deliberate bombing killed most of the remaining doctors.
For their part, the Sunnis have reacted by taking up arms against government troops, transforming what was once a non-violent protest movement into a full-fledged insurgency.
All of this must be seen in the context of the upcoming parliamentary election, scheduled for April 30. Maliki is attempting to shore up his credentials as a Shi’ite strongman by branding the entire Sunni community as supportive of an al-Qaeda splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), and launching a phoney counter-terror blitz to crush it.
This strategy was exposed earlier this year when high-level sources inside the Iraqi government revealed to a Kurdish news outlet that the Prime Minister was broadcasting disinformation about the ISIS presence in Fallujah in order to justify “deal[ing] with [the city] in a military way.” Indeed, it is the stated policy of both the political and military leaderships to record all combatant fatalities as members of ISIS:
“Ali al-Shalah, an SLC [Maliki’s party, the State of Law Coalition] member of parliament, [said] … ‘We look at all those who fire at the military forces as members of ISIS, regardless of what they call themselves’.”(Asharq al-Awsat, January 28)
“A top security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of the tribesmen and militants … ‘If anyone insists on fighting our forces, he will be considered an ISIS militant whether he is or not’.’ (Reuters, February 1)
While some reporters and commentators take as gospel the claim that ISIS is driving the insurgency, others have taken a more nuanced view, positing that the rebels are more likely a disparate band of Islamists and Ba’athists.
Yet this, too, is inaccurate. Tempting though it is to sort anti-government fighters into neat ideological boxes, serious analysts regard such generalisations as unfounded.
“In Fallujah,” writes Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center, “defected local police personnel and armed tribesmen … arguably represent the superior force.” Such people are motivated by necessity, not ideology.
However, insofar as the uprising can be defined in political terms, “nationalist and, by the standards of Iraq, democratic” is how an internal memorandum of the European Parliament’s Friends of a Free Iran intergroup, seen by the author, describes it.
Islamists do not fare well among the Sunnis of Iraq, who voted overwhelmingly for the secular, non-sectarian Iraqiyya Coalition in the 2010 election. According to the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, “the influence of Islamist political currents on Sunni public opinion in Iraq is very limited.”
As for rumours of a strong Ba’athist contingent within the Sunni protest movement, these seem to derive from the simple misidentification of flags waved at demonstrations. Even reputable news agencies like the BBC and Associated Press have fallen into this trap, mistakenly captioning images of the national flag in official use between 2004 and 2008 – and still favoured by Iraqi liberals today – as a “Ba’ath-era” or “Saddam Hussein-era” symbol.
(Incidentally, the BBC photograph also depicts a large banner expressing a warm welcome to Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi, a prominent Sunni cleric who was arrested and tortured under Saddam Hussein for his opposition to Ba’athist rule.)
Maliki is already reaping the electoral benefits of conducting a war against the Sunni population under the pretext of fighting terrorism. Around thirty-six political parties from Anbar Province and neighbouring Sunni areas have decided not to participate in the April election due to the parlous security situation, and election officials have been unable to distribute voter identity cards to citizens of the restive province.
This suits Maliki perfectly. Meanwhile, several arrest warrants have been issued for Sunni representatives on trumped-up terror charges, while the overzealous and highly politicised de-Ba’athification authorities have disqualified somewhere between 378 and 508 parliamentary candidates, almost all of them Sunnis with the most tenuous links to the old regime.
Popular Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s recent announcement that he is disengaging from politics, which came eight days after one of his candidates in the upcoming election was shot to death by men armed with silenced pistols, is yet another boon for Maliki.
Sadrist officials believe that unbearable pressure from the Iranian regime to support the Prime Minister’s bid for a third term in office prompted their leader’s shock resignation. Sadr may have been “physically threatened,” to quote Michael Knights of the Washington Institute, and saw withdrawing from politics as the only alternative to compliance with the mullahs’ demands.
Of the other assassination attempts on high-profile political figures since the beginning of this year, all have targeted members of the Mutahidun Coalition: the Speaker of Iraq’s Parliament, the Governor of Nineveh Province, and two leaders of the Iraqi Turkmen Front.
Generally considered to be the electoral wing of the Sunni protest movement, the Mutahidun Coalition poses the greatest non-Shi’ite threat to Maliki’s re-election. For this reason, many Iraqis – the Speaker’s brother, for example – reject the official explanation that these attacks were random acts of terrorism.
Whether Maliki will win another term as premier depends principally upon his ability to trick the Shi’ite majority into perceiving him as their protector against ISIS and the Sunnis, whom Maliki has sought to portray as one and the same.
To quote Abraham Lincoln, “You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” The question that ultimately will decide the outcome of the April election is, how many Shi’ites can Maliki fool, and for how long?