As the world focuses on the bloody civil war in Syria and the series of revolutions and counter-revolutions in Egypt, attention has drifted away from Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost in the nation since the US invaded in 2003. Since the war officially ended in 2011, the death toll has been mounting. This year, according to the UN, more than 7,150 civilians and 950 security forces personnel have been killed – the highest annual toll since 2008.
The loss of life – which is continuing despite a tight security clampdown in Baghdad – is partly due to the resurgence of Al-Qaeda, and partly to do with government repression. Added to these factors is deep sectarian tension between Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds. This has been an issue in Iraq for years – Saddam Hussein's reign saw massacres of Shias and Kurds – and some analysts suggest that the power-sharing arrangements put in place by the US may actually have made things worse. Under the US-imposed system, the government must consist of a certain number of representatives from each community, with the aim of always ensuring equal representation. However, some argue that this has entrenched divisions by defining politicians first and foremost by their sectarian allegiance.
This sectarian tinge to politics is evident in protests by Sunni Arabs, who for the last year have been calling for the resignation of (Shia) Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They accuse Maliki and his government of discriminating against Sunnis – who are in a minority – and unfairly targeting it with anti-terrorism measures. The predominantly Sunni city of Ramadi, 115km west of Baghdad, has been home to an anti-government sit-in protest by Sunni tribes since January. This has been an irritant for Maliki, who is seeking a third term in elections in April. He has repeatedly threatened to remove the camp, accusing protesters of creating discord and sheltering Al-Qaeda militants.
Today, he made good on his threats, and Iraqi security forces moved in to dismantle the protest camp. Clashes ensued; around 13 people were killed. Police sources told Reuters that the violence started when gunmen shot at police trying to enter the city.
This is just the latest outbreak of violence, and it comes after weeks of rising tension in the province of Anbar, in which Ramadi is situated. Making up a third of Iraq's territory, the province is populated mainly by Sunnis. A major operation was recently launched in the region to flush out militants after an Al-Qaeda attack killed 18 soldiers – including an army commander – on 21 December. On Saturday, a prominent Sunni lawmaker was arrested in the area after killing his brother. Following the incident, the influential Sunni cleric Sheikh Abudl Malik Al-Saadi urged protesters to prepare to "defend themselves".
So what does this Sunni resistance tell us about the current situation in Iraq? Firstly, it should be noted that many Sunnis simply resent the changed power balance in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003. Under Saddam, Sunnis dominated nearly all positions of power, despite making up only a fifth of the population. The system put in place by the US empowered the Shi'ite majority. A desire for former days is evident in photographs of the protest camps, where old Iraqi flags from the Saddam era are displayed alongside the colours of Sunni tribes.
However, it is worth also examining the grievances of the Sunnis protesting. The tribal leaders protesting at Ramadi were calling for – among other things – the reform of laws they see as unfairly targeting Sunnis. The main laws were the Antiterrorism law, and the Justice and Accountability law, which targets former members of Saddam's outlawed Baath party. Both Islamist militants and former Baathists are, in general, Sunnis, and so the impact of these laws is disproportionately felt by the Sunni community. In addition to drastically reduced political representation, the withholding of benefits and other rights for swathes of the Sunni population who had some involvement in the Baath party certainly feels like unfair discrimination.
The way in which the clearing of the protest erupted into violence does not bode well. Sectarian tension is deep in Iraq – it predated Saddam, who exploited it for his own ends, and it was the cause of a brutal conflict in 2007-8. As the civil war in Syria becomes increasingly sectarian, with Sunni rebels fighting the Shi'ite leadership, there are fears of contagion (and fears within the Iraqi government that if the Shi'ite Prime Minister Bashar al-Assad falls, it will soon follow). The mistake Maliki has made so far is to dismiss Sunni grievances on the basis of Shi'ite fears about Islamist militants and the return of the Baath party. Genuine progress can only be achieved by looking through these biases to see where injustices have been carried out, but there is little indication that this will happen any time soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.