London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The struggle in Iraq between the government of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and the largely Sunni protesters occupying town and city squares across the country has been kept out of the headlines by the war in Syria. This has not been changed by the recent deaths of several protestors in confrontations with the security forces, although fears are growing that the situation could boil over and lead to a conflagration with equally serious consequences for the region.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to one of the most prominent leaders of the Anbar protests, Sheikh Ahmad Abu Rishah. He is also a senior figure in the Iraq Awakening Council, which was formed to fight Al-Qaeda in the country. He emphasized that while the protesters were prepared for dialogue, they were equally ready to defend themselves if attacked.
He said, “The participants in the sit-in are ready for two options, depending on what the government chooses. If the government chooses to attack us militarily, as they did in Hawijah [close to Kirkuk] where they killed dozens of our people, they will find us prepared to defend ourselves. If the government chooses to hold dialogue with us in order to implement our legitimate demands, they will also find us ready for dialogue with an open mind.”
Speaking by phone from the Qasr Al-Shamiyah guesthouse, Abu Rishah said that the protesters would continue until their demands were met: “We will not end these sit-ins and will not be subject to bargains until our legitimate demands are achieved and we secure our usurped rights. We will continue our peaceful sit-ins, even if the matter requires staying in the squares for years.”
He also stressed that the protesters represented a cross-section of Iraqi society, and denied having received any funding from abroad. Abu Rishah argued that the Anbar protest movement took all its decisions democratically.
“There is a higher committee for coordination between ourselves and the participants in the sit-ins in Mosul, Kirkuk, Diyala, Tikrit, Sammara and Baghdad. Our decisions are adopted collectively and are voted on in the ‘dignity parliament,’ which also includes a number of clerics, tribal chieftains and young people,” he said.
He also accused the central government of interfering in the democratic process, and of trying to prevent the emergence of rival political forces.
Abu Rishah said: “The Anbar Awakening was formed to fight terrorism and Al-Qaeda in order to help the Iraqis and maintain security in Iraq. After that, the Anbar Awakening turned into a political organization that carried the name ‘Iraq Awakening,’ and I was elected as chairman of it based on the vote that was conducted at the general secretariat of the organization.
“We took part in the provincial council elections in 2009 and came first in the Anbar Governorate. We also took part in the legislative elections in 2010 and won some seats in the Iraqi Parliament, in addition to contributing to the formation of the federal government. Today, we have established a coalition with the Muttahidun (United) bloc. We were supposed to take part in the provincial council elections, but Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki decided to postpone the ballot in Anbar and Nineveh.”
Abu Rishah denies that the movement has involved itself in militia activity, claiming that Baghdad has sought to create divisions among Iraq’s Sunnis by forming its own militia groups as a provocation.
He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We have worked as statesmen, but the government, whom we are asking to improve living conditions and to end the marginalization of the Sunni Arab community, tried to form an armed militia that carries the name of Awakening of the Sons of Iraq, and they gave it the mission of national reconciliation.
“What happened is that when they saw the extent of our popular support in Anbar, and the fact that we are a part of these masses and work for them and for all the people of Iraq, they adopted the name ‘Awakening of the Sons of Iraq’ to use it in the media in order to discredit our organization [the Iraq Awakening] and offend me personally and my history, along with those who are members of our organization.
“They have failed. The state should work to fix its problems and improve the living conditions of Iraqis instead of leading the formation of armed militias. If the state does not respect laws and the Constitution, it will turn into a mafia.”
His strongest condemnations were reserved for Maliki’s own Islamic Da’wa Party, which he claims is at the center of efforts to marginalize Iraq’s Sunnis. He told Asharq Al-Awsat: “The Da’wa Party considers the harm done to us as a great achievement. The Da’wa Party considers the marginalization of the most important community in Iraqi society [Sunni Arabs] to be an achievement, and it will not give this up. Not only do we feel that the Sunni Arabs are marginalized, we believe there is a plot by the Da’wa Party to eliminate this community altogether.”
As for the arrest warrant issued against him by the authorities on charges of terrorism, Abu Rishah described this as being “laughable and ironic” given the contribution his movement made to the fight against Al-Qaeda and the price he and many other members have paid in this regard.
“Al-Qaeda still remembers what we did to it and how we fought them. I do not forget what they did to us when they killed my father, brothers, cousins and the sons of Al-Anbar,” he said.
Abu-Rishah also claimed that in going so far, the government had damaged its own credibility. He said, “Praise be to God, this incident has revealed the truth of the government. I have received calls from tribal chiefs in southern and central Iraq. They are from our Shi’ite Arab brothers.”
“They told me that they have now confirmed that the government is lying and that the case of Tariq Al-Hashemi, the vice-president who was sentenced to death in absentia on charges related to terrorism, is a government fabrication and untrue.”