Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have gathered in the squares of six Iraqi cities since the last week of December. During 120 days of public protest against sectarian discrimination and persecution carried out by Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki's regime, the demonstrators, along with their supporting scholars, dignitaries and tribal leaders, were keen on keeping the protests peaceful. Despite the hardships faced by the protesters, with the regime ignoring their demands, not one government institution has been attacked and no officials have been harmed. However, the Prime Minister, known for his fascist ideas and obsession with domination, power and direct control over the security agencies, especially the army, had different ideas.
From the very beginning, Al-Maliki mocked the Popular Movement and the crowd in the streets of Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra, Mosul and other cities. He described the protesters as sectarian, Ba'athists and terrorists, and threatened them. In Fallujah, Al-Maliki instructed his forces to tackle the protestors, causing a number of deaths and injuries.
However, the clarity of purpose and awareness of what the Prime Minister had sought to do drove the people of Fallujah to lick their wounds and underline the peacefulness of the c. Even so, the harassment of demonstrators by security forces and the army did not stop; in Samarra, the prime minister's forces used violence and weapons against protesters.
However, what was witnessed in the "freedom" square in the city of Hawija in the early hours of Tuesday, April 23 was something different. Without warning, while most of the people of the city and the protesters were still asleep, the army and security forces associated with the prime minister's office stormed the square with armoured vehicles, heavy machine guns and helicopters. Within moments, the protest camp was a war zone. More than hundred protesters were wounded and dozens were killed of people; some, claimed eyewitnesses, were executed in the field. In the days after the sneak attack by Al-Maliki's forces tensions remained high.
Tribal leaders and representatives of the protesters agreed to allow the police to search the square, accompanied by MPs from the region and political figures. The prevailing belief the night before the bloody attack was that the crisis between the protesters and security forces was being solved. The truth of the matter was that the crisis was actually fabricated, and that the military and security forces, under the supervision of Al-Maliki's military office, his temporary defence minister and his chief of staff, were planning to break up the Hawija sit-in by force at any cost. According to Iraqi military sources who spoke to the Arab media, the attack on the protest in Hawija was just a prelude to a massive campaign to put an end to the public protest movement through armed force. Hawija was the first target because it is relatively small, far from the centre in Baghdad and from the media, and the number of protesters is smaller compared to Ramadi, Fallujah and Samarra.
Another factor has to be taken into account, though; Hawija has a special characteristic that cannot be ignored. It is not only the most important centre for the prominent Arab tribes in north-east Iraq, but is also to a large extent a religiously-conservative city with tribal extremism. Due to the fact that the Arab tribes in the area are the Jubur and Obaidi, who have had a contentious relationship with the Kurds over territorial disputes since the beginning of the military occupation of Iraq but maintain good relations with Baghdad, there appear to be no personalised grudges between the town and the prime minister.
Hawija joined the popular protest movement to demand for equal and civil rights, an end to the marginalisation of the Sunni Arabs and the release of prisoners. The treacherous attack on the protesters in the town provoked indignant reactions in and around Hawija as well as other parts of Iraq. Within hours, Iraqi individuals, not partisan organisations, took control of the streets and, in some areas, full control of towns and neighbourhoods. Many of the political and religious leaderships in the country, both Sunni and Shiites, condemned the attack on peaceful demonstrators; some held the prime minister fully responsible for the massacre that led to the fall of Hawija and its people.
Nouri Al- Maliki did not back down, nor did he apologise or show the slightest sign of regret. His supporters, including media outlets, launched a new campaign against the people of Hawija and hundreds of thousands of those involved in the Popular Movement, calling them terrorists, members of Al-Qaeda, Ba'athists and sectarians. The campaign did not stop at the Iraqis, but affected countries such as Turkey and Qatar, which were accused of being the reason for what happened in Hawija, implementing a "Zionist" plan to destroy Iraq and the region.
A few days later, Al-Maliki, one of the most sectarian of Iraqi politicians, gave a speech at a conference held under his supervision, about bringing the sects together; he denounced the return of sectarianism to Iraq. He even accused regional forces of fuelling sectarianism. Those who listened to the language of the Iraqi prime minister expected him to take another step towards the bloody escalation of violence because they know that whenever Al-Maliki addresses the issue of sectarianism or accuses someone of stoking its flames it is followed by another massacre in the country. Just like Bashar Al-Assad and most other fascist tyrants throughout history, Al-Maliki puts his trust in security agencies and Special Forces, which are dominated by sectarianism and the belief that violence by the state can defeat any challenge to the regime. As such, although the protesters tried to avoid violence and clashes with Al-Maliki's security forces for four months, the prime minister was ordering a violent response.
The crisis in Iraq today stems from two key factors: the approach adopted by the US-led occupation, in alliance with the Shiite political forces, to build a new Iraqi state; and Al-Maliki's reckless policies following the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution.
A country of sorts was established after the invasion and occupation, and was regarded as a state shared between groups and factions, not a unified state for all Iraqi people, who have been living under the umbrella of one nation for almost a hundred years. The new state was built on the premise that the Iraqi Shiites represent the majority of the population; that they have a separate identity; and that Iraq must be governed by a system with a Shiite leadership. These factors formed the frame of reference for each step taken after that regarding the construction of the state, the electoral system, the distribution of seats in parliament to the provinces, the calls (which were ignored) for a census, drafting a constitution, passing key management-related laws for the country, the formation of various governments, and so on.
The problem is that the Iraqi Shiite political leaders, most of whom came into power after many years of exile, were unable to rise to the occasion and deal with the crisis suffered by Iraq as a result of invasion and occupation. Instead, they adopted a policy of blind revenge, aiming to take full sectarian control of the country. Thousands of cadres of Sunni Arabs, from the academic, political, military and scientific sectors, were assassinated and many Sunnis were removed from influential positions in the universities and government ministries. This included the intelligence agencies and armed forces, both directly and by adopting notorious laws such as that which purged the Ba'athists.
At the same time, while the Sunni Arabs bore most of the burden of liberating Iraq from foreign occupation, tens of thousands of Sunni young men and women were arrested and continue to be the victims of torture; many have been subject to mock trials or jailed without trial for many years. Dozens are executed on a monthly basis after convictions based on "evidence" which would not pass the credibility test of most international human rights organisations.
This is the atmosphere that has been cultivated over the past ten years in the new Iraq and Al-Maliki's administration has played a major role. Not content with this level of fear and intimidation, the prime minister has rushed to impose his sectarian control on the reins of the government and state. His actions over the past few years are sufficient to contain any reactions to his new measures that may arise. It was not only about controlling the army, the Supreme Court, the Election Commission and the Central Bank, but also to pursue prominent Sunni politicians and try to destroy them, starting with the vice president, Tariq Al-Hashimi. The attempt to arrest Rafi Al-Issawi, the deputy prime minister, sparked-off the latest crisis and provoked a huge reaction from the people. When they took to the streets, Al-Maliki realised that his regime is not as immune from criticism as he had thought, but what regime is immune from the wrath of the people?
Because he is not interested in establishing a just, free and democratic government, the prime minister has not been willing to pause in order to reflect on the situation, to review the experience of the past ten years and to assess his own policies. Al-Maliki is only interested in working to defeat the people, getting out of the crisis that he personally created, and using extreme violence if necessary. It is likely, therefore, that the massacre of Hawija will not be the last in Al-Maliki's war on Iraq and its people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.