Iraq or Maliki! Iraq or Maliki!’ shout Sunni Arab demonstrators as they block roads in western Iraq in protest against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and discrimination against their community.
Demonstrations by Sunni, in their tens of thousands, began with the arrest of the bodyguards of a Sunni politician on December 20 and are still continuing. For the first time since 2003 the Sunni — one fifth of the 33 million Iraqi population — are showing signs of unity and intelligent leadership as they try to escape political marginalisation in a country ruled since the fall of Saddam Hussein by the Shia majority in alliance with the Kurds.
In the first days of the protests, Sunni demonstrators held up pictures of Saddam Hussein and waved the old regime’s version of the Iraqi flag. This changed when a revered Sunni scholar, Abdul-Malik al-Saadi, taking a leadership role, instructed that these symbols of Sunni supremacy be dropped and substituted with slogans acceptable to the Shia.
Mr Saadi issued a fatwa condemning ‘regionalism’, which is the code for a semi-independent Sunni region, a demand which, if granted, would mean the break up of Iraq. He appealed instead for Sunni and Shia unity against the Maliki government. A Shia political observer noted that ‘they are aware that without winning over the Shia south of the country they face isolation and defeat.’ The new direction of Sunni opposition has met with a positive response.
The Sunni have a lot to complain about. Anger is deep over an anti-terrorism law that allows detention without trial of a suspect on the word of an unidentified informer. Sheikh Qassim al-Kerbuli, a leader in the Sunni heartland province of Anbar, says: “I know a Sunni teacher in Baghdad who threw a Shia student out of an examination because he caught him cheating. The student told the security forces the teacher was a terrorist and he is now in prison.”
Worse things can and do happen in prison. “When the security forces arrest someone they torture them with electricity,” says Nazar Abdel Hamid from Fallujah, who is helping organise the protests. ‘They are hung up by their hands or forced to sit on a broken bottle.’ This is not confined to Sunni, but they are most frequently targeted for abuse.
The demonstrators are enraged over women being detained for long periods by the security forces because their male relatives are under suspicion, but cannot be found. Sheikh Kerbuli says, “I know of one woman who has been held for six years because her husband was seen with a suspicious-looking black bag. Nobody knows what was in the bag but he escaped, so they took away his wife instead.”
Such stories are confirmed by human rights activists who have visited prisons. Pascale Warda, a former minister and one of the heads of the Hammurabi Human Rights Organisation, visited the women’s prison in Baghdad last year. She says, “There were 414 inmates of whom 169 had been arrested but not sentenced. Some women prisoners had been raped.’
Sunni grievances are much more extensive than false imprisonment and mistreatment. They feel they have been reduced to the status of second class citizens, discriminated against when it comes to getting a fair share of jobs and projects to provide electricity, water and healthcare.
They see anti-Ba’athist legislation, supposedly directed against leading members of the Ba’ath Party that ruled Iraq from 1968 to 2003, as a sectarian weapon used to take away the jobs and pensions of Sunni teachers and minor civil servants. Ghassan al-Atiyyah, a political scientist and activist, says he visited a teacher in the Sunni district of Abu Ghraib in Baghdad who “after 30 years as a school teacher is out of a job and a pension. They just sent him a message written on a scrap of paper saying ‘Go home’. He is penniless. If he was younger he would get a gun.”
Many Shia express sympathy for cases like this, but they add that Sunni in Anbar, Salahudin, Nineveh and Sunni districts of Baghdad are frequently unemployed because they used to have plum jobs under Saddam Hussein as army, police or intelligence officers. In the 1980s it was said that 80 per cent of army officers were Sunni and 20 per cent Shia, while the proportions were the reverse in the lower ranks. A retired Shia general says, “It is hypocritical of Sunni to demand back security jobs that they only held in the past because of sectarian bias in their favour.”
The Sunni demonstrations, now entering their third month, raise a question crucial to the future of Iraq: how far will the Sunni, once dominant, accept a lower status? Members of the government fear the real agenda of the Sunni is not reform but regime change, a counter-revolution reversing the post-Saddam Hussein political settlement. “Shia leaders believe they have been elected, are legitimate and any change should come through an election,” said one senior official.
Much of Iraq has been cantonised into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish areas in a way that was not true before 2003. In places, burnt out Sunni mosques, or mosques taken over by Shia, underline the extent of Sunni defeat. Abdul-Karim Ali, a real estate broker, says Sunni may want to return, but they are frightened by rumours of action against them, even when these are not true. “I was just with a Sunni family in Doura, who want me to sell a good house in Bayaa in another part of Baghdad, where they used to live. But they think it is now too dangerous for them to go there even to visit.”
Sunni hopes and Shia fears are being heightened by the struggle for power in Syria with the Sunni majority there likely to emerge the winners. This emboldens the Sunni of Iraq who no longer feel isolated and sense that they benefit from a region-wide Sunni counter-attack against the Shia led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. “Extreme Sunni and Shia both feel a sense of power,” says Dr Atiyyah, “The Sunni say we have the whole Arab world behind us. The Shia leadership says we are the majority in Iraq.” He fears these beliefs are a recipe for mutual destruction.
Many Sunni in Iraq have seen their lives torn apart by occupation and sectarian violence over the last decade and are fearful of it happening again. A Sunni friend has done better and has a middle ranking post in a ministry where he says most jobs are going to members of the ruling Dawa party of Mr Maliki. “They run it like a tribe,” he says. “Every appointee is one of their relatives.” He speaks fearfully of civil war but adds that “if the Sunni could just get jobs and pensions all this fury would ebb away.’