FALLUJAH, IRAQ – This restive Sunni town, the first to rebel against U.S. troops a decade ago, is rising up once again, this time against the government the Americans left behind.
In an echo of the Arab Spring protests that have overturned regimes elsewhere in the region, angry residents have been staging weekly demonstrations against the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, calling, among a host of other demands, for him to step down and for Iraq’s U.S.-brokered constitution to be replaced.
The Friday protests have also drawn huge crowds in towns and cities elsewhere across the Sunni provinces, as the passions of the Arab Spring collide with the bitter legacy of the Iraq war.
The protests first erupted in December in response to the detention of the bodyguards of a Sunni minister in al-Maliki’s coalition government, which reinforced widespread Sunni perceptions that he is intent on eliminating his Sunni political rivals.
But they have evolved into a far deeper expression of the many grievances left unresolved when U.S. forces withdrew a little over a year ago, ranging from abuses committed disproportionately against Sunnis by the Iraqi security forces to what Sunnis perceive to be an unequal distribution of power among the sects.
With their huge turnouts, these largely peaceful demonstrations have the potential to present a far bigger challenge to al-Maliki’s hold on power than the violent and still stubbornly persistent insurgency, which continues to claim scores of lives every month without any discernible impact on the political process.
At a time when civil war is raging in neighboring Syria, the demonstrations also risk becoming embroiled in the wider regional conflict already spilling beyond Syria’s borders.
“It is very dangerous,” said Hamid Ahmed al Hashem, the head of Fallujah’s local council, who nervously says he supports the protests. “The demonstrators are fed up and we don’t know for how long they will be patient. Maybe we won’t be able to control them if they get really frustrated.”
In Fallujah, the birthplace of the insurgency against American troops, the dangers as well as the limitations of this Iraqi version of the Arab revolts are apparent.
Friday prayers have become the focus of the protests, as they were in revolts elsewhere, with tens of thousands of people converging on the nearby highway linking Iraq to Jordan and Syria to chant slogans that echo those used around the region.
Evoking Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a half dozen or so tents have been erected on the edge of the town to serve as impromptu headquarters for the protest organizers, who have an Internet connection young activists can use to upload videos of their protests.
The protesters say they don’t have leaders, and the Sunni politicians in al-Maliki’s government have drawn some of the deepest ire. The deputy prime minister, Saleh al-Mutlaq, was chased away from the nearby city of Ramadi by rock-throwing crowds when he tried to address the demonstrators; according to a video of the event posted on the Internet, he also seems to have been met with several gunshots.
“We are against all politicians, and the Sunni politicians are the worst,” said Khaled Hammoud, a Sufi sheik who once belonged to the Mujaheddin Shura Council that challenged U.S. troops in 2004; now he has emerged as a top spokesman for the protesters.
“We voted for them to bring us our rights and they failed.”
Hammoud insists the protest movement is committed to remaining peaceful, a novel concept in a city with a long history of violent rebellion. But the shooting deaths of seven demonstrators late last month by the Iraqi Army, in a hail of bullets illustrated just how easily the unrest could spin out of control.
The Islamic State of Iraq, the umbrella extremist group affiliated with al-Qaida, is already seeking to exploit the heightened tensions, calling on the Sunni protesters to take up arms against the Shiite government.
The protesters insist that their motives are not sectarian and that their demands for reforms to a corrupt and abusive judicial system will benefit all Iraqis. There have indeed been scattered sympathy protests in some Shiite towns, and several Shiite politicians, including Muqtada al-Sadr, have expressed solidarity with the Sunni demonstrators.
The grievances also are real, as was articulated two weeks ago in a Human Rights Watch report condemning the “draconian” measures used by the government to curtail its opponents. The report cited widespread allegations of abuse within the criminal justice system including torture, the rape of female prisoners and arbitrary arrests, as well as the successful suppression of an earlier attempt to organize Arab Spring-style demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere in 2011 .
But inevitably in Iraq this outpouring of Sunni frustrations is serving to aggravate the sectarian divide opened up by the ouster of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni minority government and its replacement by one led by Shiites.
Al-Maliki has cast the demonstrations as part of a conspiracy hatched by the Sunni governments of Qatar and Turkey, the chief backers of the rebels in Syria, to extend the reach of a largely Sunni revolt into Iraq. And he appears to be counting on ordinary Sunnis to tire of the demonstrations. “They will end gradually, not in one day but over time,” predicted al-Maliki spokesman Ali Musawi.
The residents of Fallujah say they won’t give up. They plan to take their protests this week to Baghdad — which would pose a far bigger challenge to al-Maliki.
“(Al-)Maliki doesn’t care if people protest in Anbar. It’s too far,” said Mustafa Alani, director of defense and security studies at the Geneva-based Gulf Research Center. “The secret of any revolution is the capital.”