On December 30, 2013, Iraqi security forces stormed the al-Ramadi protest square, forcibly dispersing protesters. The move resulted in open clashes between the army and the security forces, on one side, and armed members of the al-Anbar tribes, on the other. Although the media has been banned from reporting the clashes, it is becoming absolutely clear that the government is facing an increasingly hostile environment. The attack prompted Sunni religious authorities, such as Sheikh Abdul-Malik al-Saadi and Iraq’s Grand Mufti Rafi Rifai, to issue strong statements, accusing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of adopting sectarian policies. They have also called for people to resist the attacking government forces. Furthermore, over 40 Iraqi parliamentarians have submitted their resignations to the Speaker of Parliament in protest, stating that the al-Anbar clashes represent “a war that is far from terrorism, and is certainly not a war of the army against the people, or Sunnis against Shiites, it is the lust for power and political privileges.”
The crisis began with the arrest of Iraqi MP Ahmad al-Alwani, a prominent leader of the protest movement. Al-Alwani was accused of inciting violence and sectarianism and insulting Shiites, although a parliamentary investigation committee concluded that the charges were false. Al-Alwani’s hostile language was, in fact, directed primarily at a few Sunni parliamentarians from al-Anbar who took a negative stance toward the protest movement. The government disregarded the committee’s findings, and ordered the arrest of the “dissident” MP at his home in the city of Ramadi on December 28, 2013. The operation was carried out by the counter-terrorism apparatus and led to the killing of al-Alwani’s brother, alongside a number of his bodyguards. This action was in clear violation of Article 63 of the Constitution, which grants legal immunity to members of Parliament. The article also states that it is not permissible to arrest an MP until after immunity has been lifted, which can only be done with the approval of an absolute majority in the parliament.
The Background of the Crisis
The failure of the ruling elites to address major problems since the American invasion in April 2003, was the latent force behind the protest movement, which started in the Sunni regions in December 2012.
The central government has held a negative position regarding these protests since the beginning. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki resorted to threats and intimidation, framing the protests as externally-backed acts of treason. The Protestors remained adamant nonetheless, and thereby forcing al-Maliki to consider a different approach. He created official committees to study the protestors’ key demands while at the same time attempting to link the protest movement to al-Qaeda, and specifically to the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS). Furthermore, in order to justify issuing arrest warrants on “terrorism” charges, the government accused the protest movement’s leaders of inciting violence and sectarianism, forcing most of them to leave Iraq.
Yet, the truth that goes unheeded by many analysts is that the leaders of these peaceful protests are the same people who fought and defeated al-Qaeda when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was leading the organization. They were called the Awakening (al-Sahwat). They acted as a replacement to the political parties and the state institutions during the American occupation. They accuse the central government today for being sectarian, discriminating against Sunni regions, and being subservient to Iran.
Having tested their resolve and failed, al-Maliki decided to use force against the protesters, taking advantage of the atmosphere surrounding a major al-Qaeda operation against the Iraqi Army.
On December 22, 2013, ISIS targeted and killed the commander of the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division, Major General Mohammad al-Karawi, alongside dozens of other high ranking army officers. General Al-Karawi was commander of the Brigade that stormed the protest square in Hawija on April 23, 2013, leaving at least 163 protesters dead and wounded. The reaction of al-Maliki to the killing of General Al-Karawi was hysterical. He threatened to burn the protesters’ tents, claiming that they were not just a place for recruiting terrorists, but for sheltering them too. The biggest political forces in Iraq, including the Sadri movement, the Iraqiya List, president of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, and the Supreme Islamic Council, have all denounced al-Maliki’s threats, calling instead for dialogue, a distinction between al-Qaeda and the protesters, and the meeting of the people of Anbar’s demands.
Al-Maliki’s strategy was to create confusion about different issues so that he can shoot many birds with one stone. He would order a military operation against armed groups in the Anbar desert i.e. al-Qaeda, storm the sit-ins in Ramadi and arrest MP al-Alwani, whose name has figured prominently as the archenemy of the Shiite in the laments of Ashoura and other religious Shiite events.
He acted in this way so that he could use these considerations as leverage in the Council of Representative elections scheduled for April 30, 2014. Al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition experienced a decline in popularity in the April 2013 provincial elections in comparison to 2009. Though al-Maliki received 1,709,318 votes in the last election (excluding votes from the provinces of Diyala and Salah al-Din), approximately 400,000 more than he received in 2009, this increase is the result of his coalition’s joining with the Reform Movement, headed by Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the Islamic Virtue Party, and the Badr Organization, headed by Hadi al-Amiri, an offshoot from the Supreme Islamic Council. The end result was that the State of Law Coalition has not been able to keep the votes it received during the 2009 elections.
In order to boost his popularity, and attempt to return for a third term, al-Maliki used Ahmad al-Alwani’s arrest to mobilize Shiites and play upon their emotions. This would be an operation through which he would be able to present himself once again as the strong man of Iraq and a defender of the Shiites in the face of “Wahhabis/terrorists and Baathists,” labels he indiscriminately applies to all Sunnis. According to al-Maliki, these people want to “regain power and produce mass graves anew.”
Indeed, Al-Maliki would prefer to postpone the elections so that his government could stay in power in the absence of parliament. This might prove difficult however because article 39 of the elections law places three conditions for the postponement of elections. Firstly, a request to postpone the elections must be made to the Board of Commissioners in the Independent High Electoral Commission; secondly, a decision to postpone the elections must be issued by the Council of Ministers; and, lastly, the approval of Parliament is needed. In practice, therefore, it is almost impossible to postpone elections without a Shiite-Sunni-Kurdish consensus. Thus, any decision made by the Board of Commissioners will depend primarily upon the positions of all the political parties.
Indeed, the decisions made by the Council of Ministers are often dominated by the prime minister not only because there is no internal decision-making system, but also because many ministers make their decisions at the behest of al-Maliki’s rather than representing the position of their political blocs. This is particularly true for the ministers of the Iraqiya List. The Sadris and the Kurdistan Alliance ministers, holding only 12 portfolios, would have a difficult time trying to block a decision to postpone the elections. Conversely, for over three years, al-Maliki has failed to pass any law in Parliament, signifying that the Parliament approval would be even more difficult to obtain. The political forces are well aware that postponing elections would effectively mean allowing al-Maliki to rule with absolute authority in light of President Jalal Talabani’s absence and since the extension for Parliament is simply not possible. Article 56/1 states that “the electoral term of the Council of Representatives is four calendar years, starting from its first session and expiring at the end of the fourth year.” Further, the Iraqi constitution stipulates that the elections take place “within forty-five days after the end of the previous election cycle (Article 56/2).” From a constitutional standpoint, these timings effectively eliminate any real possibility to postpone elections.
Having realized the trouble he got into by choosing to face the tribes of western Iraq, al-Maliki was forced to issue a more conciliatory statement. In response to the demands of the resigned MPs, al-Maliki announced on December 31, 2013, that the army would withdraw from the cities and turn them over to the local and federal police forces. Indeed, the prime minister backed out and kept the army in the cities of al-Anbar. But even if the army had withdrawn, no real change would have occurred as the federal police force would have preserved the Ministry of Interior’s control over security issues in these provinces.
Al-Maliki has placed himself in a real predicament because the opposition will not allow him to exit al-Anbar as easily as he entered, particularly after the arrest of MP al-Alwani and the storming of the protest squares. Arms were raised in the face of the army, and they will not be returned to their hiding places, without having made a change to al-Maliki’s blatant sectarian policies. The self-confidence the tribes have earned after halting the offensive of the government forces would also translate into further challenge to al-Maliki’s authority. On the other hand, al-Maliki will not be able to free MP al-Alwani as al-Anbar’s tribes desire because doing so would simply mean total submission to their will. This would affect the image al-Maliki has been trying to create for himself through his reign and threaten by extension his chances of winning the upcoming elections.
The decision to use violence to resolve political differences has thrust Iraq into an open confrontation that might develop into a full-fledged civil war. The events following the 2006 bombings of the Shrine of the Two Imams might prove minor incidents compared to what we might see today, given the wider sectarian tension in region. Al-Maliki and his coalition, must engage in genuine dialogue with the other political forces in order to avoid this possibility and agree on the foundations of a new Iraqi state. Exclusion, marginalization, and sectarianism must hence be abandoned or Iraq will descend into the most horrifying scenario.
**This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on January 2nd, 2014 can be found here.
 Foremost among these are the agreement on the state’s structure and political system and the distribution of power and wealth in a just manner by establishing a democratic system based in citizenship.
 The Reform Movement gained 268,510 votes and the Islamic Virtue Party gained 141,601 votes in the 2009 elections; that is, the total is 409,750 votes, exceeding the increase that the State of Law Coalition obtained, which amounted to 338,709 votes in the 2013 elections. This is excluding the votes received by the Badr Organization, which were difficult to determine from the 2009 elections because they were part of the Supreme Islamic Council.
 The independent Liberal Bloc received 423,076 votes in 2009; the four lists of Sadrist movements received 883,268 votes in 2013; the Shahid al-Mihrab list and independent forces received 452,183 votes in 2009; and the Citizen Coalition, representing the same bloc with a change of name, received 921,260 votes in 2013.
 The issue of postponing the elections was completely overlooked in the laws for provincial elections in 2013, allowing Maliki to postpone the elections in both the Anbar and Ninevah provinces. This was widely seen as a political decision aimed at influencing the outcome of the elections in these two provinces. There was then a legal controversy relating to who has the authority to postpone elections that the law has overlooked.
 The Board of Commissioners consists of nine members chosen based on sectarian quotas (4 Shiites, 2 Sunnis, 2 Kurds, and 1 Turkmen). Politically, the Commission members are selected by a committee from the Council of Representatives.
 These forces are: what remains of the Iraqi list, the Kurdistan Alliance, the Movement for Change (Gorran), the liberal bloc (the Sadrists), and the Citizen bloc (the Supreme Islamic Council).
 Also known as the Shrine of al-Imamayn Ali al-Hadi wa al-hassan al-Askari.