The Desire for Change Iraqi demonstrations mark the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq! The Iraq Civil Society Solidarity Initiative (ICSSI) Written by: Ismaeel Dawood and Terry Kay Rockefeller 18/01/2013

10 years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, 2013 is witnessing Iraqis’ overwhelming desire for change. Massive demonstrations and sit-ins denouncing the current government and its policies are ongoing in many places in the west and north of Iraq including Ramadi and Fallujah in Al-Anbar governorate; Samara in Salah al-Din governorate, Kirkuk in Kirkuk governorate and Mosul in Nimewa governorate. At the same time, there is a growing political crisis as opponents of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demand an end to political sectarianism and reform of the Iraqi system of justice.

(1) Political Sectarianism

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has led the Iraqi government since 2006. He formed the current cabinet (his second) following the 2010 elections. It includes members of all the major political parties: a Shiite political alliance that includes al-Maliki’s party, followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, and the al-Hakim party, a largely Sunni political alliance described as national and secular, and the Kurdish Alliance. Nevertheless Maliki is accused by many, both inside and outside the political system, of building alliances based largely on personal loyalty to him. On many occasions members of the Kurdish, Sunni and Sadr parties have described al-Maliki as a dictator attempting to reestablish military control in Iraq. The partisan and the sectarian divisions in Iraqi politics are deep. They dominate the current political process. These divisions are an enduring legacy of decisions about how to divide up power that were made under Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority and during the long U.S. occupation that followed. As a result, today most Iraqi politicians think and act on the basis of advancing their religious or ethnic group instead of being Iraqi and working for the common good!  Government institutions have been divided on the basis of religious and ethnic quotas through application of the so-called principle of “balance between the components”; this has happened even in institutions that are supposed to be independent. As a result of this quota system, the country suffers today from a dramatic escalation of financial and administrative corruption. And, all the while, basic services continue to deteriorate, the independence of the judiciary has been compromised, people have lost confidence in the judicial system, and restrictions on public freedoms have multiplied. Now with the approach of elections, as all the political parties attempt to appeal to the Iraqi street, they hurl accusations of corruption and sectarianism at one another.  Ironically, we can say that the claim that another party is sectarian is becoming the most common type of sectarianism in Iraq today!  

(2) The System of Justice in Iraq

Torture and the humiliation of detainees and prisoners, including women, have profoundly undermined the Iraqi judicial system. Many now view the system as totally illegitimate. There is great uncertainty surrounding the course of justice in Iraq when there are such gross violations of human dignity,  human rights law, and the laws and Constitution of Iraqi itself.

Iraqis have long suffered torture at the hand of their own government. Sadly this continues on a daily basis today. Politicians ignore the suffering of victims and grave threats to the legitimacy of the judicial system. Instead of denouncing torture, the current Prime Minister describes defenders of prisoners’ rights as “supporters of criminals who ignore the suffering of the victims of violence”! This twisting of the facts clearly reflects the current government’s policy to employ torture and grant immunity to those who carry it out. Rape in prison and deaths following torture have become common. While the government justifies using torture to force suspects to confess crimes, in fact victims of torture will “confess” to anything, whether they are guilty or not, simply to end their suffering! As a result, the Iraqi system of justice is no longer founded upon the principle of truth. The second force undermining Iraq’s system of justice is politicization of the judiciary and the courts. This phenomenon escalated last year, following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq when guards of Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi were accused of being involved in violence and armed operations against civilians. Al-Maliki’s government televised recordings of these guards’ confessions. Al-Hashemi insisted he could never get a fair trial in Baghdad, where the courts are under al-Maliki’s control. But the Judiciary rejected proposals to try al-Hashemi in Kirkuk rather than Baghdad and al-Hashemi fled the country.  After his escape, the court tried him in absentia and sentenced him with the death penalty. Meanwhile, some of his guards were detained and tortured, and died as a result. Now, apparently the al-Maliki government plans to accuse other politicians of being involved in violence in Iraq. This was confirmed when more than one hundred guards of Iraqi Minister Rafie al-Issawi a Sunni leader from Al-Anbar in the west of Iraq, were arrested, sparking major demonstrations in Al –Anbar.

Rather that working together to ensure judicial independence, opposition parties and the current government have escalated matters with a series of political ads that greatly insulted the Iraqi judiciary, whose reputation was already extremely fragile. At the same time, al-Maliki’s government is using transitional laws, including the “Justice and Accountability Law”, what is known as the modification of the “De-Baathification Law”, and paragraph 4 of the “Anti-Terrorism Act”, selectively against the opposition. It is well known by both supporters and opponents of the government that these laws are used to curb political opposition. Those loyal to al-Maliki  or belonging to his party or his sectarian front are immune from charges. Disputes over these laws are escalating. Protesters and opposition politicians are demanding their repeal as well as an end to the death penalty.  Al-Maliki and his supporters maintain that the laws are necessary to guarantee security and protect the political system. Due to the lack of any serious dialogue or willingness to find durable solutions to these problems, tensions over these laws and indeed the whole system of justice in Iraq continues to rise. Propaganda supporting each party’s position escalates the tensions and deepens the divisions. And all the while application of death penalty in Iraq continues!   (3) Questioning Protesters’ Demands Demands to end political sectarianism and to reform the Iraqi system of justice are legitimate. If achieved, they would serve all Iraqis. To ignore these challenges will only increase political tensions. These demands were first raised during peaceful protests, which deserve to be respected, seen as legitimate and protected by law. The “Days of Rage” that gripped Iraq in 2011 made very similar demands.  But the 2011 protests started in Baghdad with significant involvement of youth, women and civil society, not just members of the traditional power structures dominated by tribal and clerical leaders.  After the Days of Rage spread to the south, west and north of Iraq, the protests were severely repressed by the Iraqi police and army, especially in Baghdad. Today’s protests are different. In order to avoid repression, demonstrations have been organized in cities far from Baghdad, such as Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, Salah al-Din, and others, largely under the direction of traditional religious and tribal leaders. Thus we hear criticism that the recent protests are mainly being organized in “Sunni cities”; that youth, women and civil society are not involved; and that protesters have raised old flags with sectarian slogans. Indeed, there were some anti-Shia slogans seen in some of the early protests, but these have vanished. Moreover, given the government’s responses to the Days of Rage, one can understand why at the present protests are concentrated in western and northern Iraq, with limited support declared elsewhere. But this should in no way diminish the importance and legitimacy of the recent protests. That the supporters of the protests time and again describe the Iraqi demonstrations of 2011 and today as part of the Arab Spring, underscores the depth of the desire for change felt by many Iraqis.  Belief in the importance and legality of most of the demonstrators’ demands is widespread among Iraqi citizens today. Rather than seriously addressing those demands, the current government and its supporters instead block the protests where possible, organize counter demonstrations, and punish the protesting cities by closing their borders. Ignoring the need for change and failure to recognize the weaknesses of the political system that was created over the past ten years must end. Political sectarianism, torture and politicization of the judiciary must be addressed or they will continue to threaten the peace and unity of Iraq.