Militants, presumably Sunnis, attacked a checkpoint run by security forces and soldiers near the northern Iraqi town of Hawija, Kirkuk province, on April 19. The Iraqi Defense Ministry said the militants seized weapons from the checkpoint before disappearing into a crowd of Sunni demonstrators that had already assembled in tents as part of a sit-in in Hawija to protest the al-Maliki government's alleged unfair treatment of Sunnis.
Iraqi security forces reportedly warned the protesters to disband before storming the protest area early April 23 to arrest the suspected militants. As Iraqi forces tried to make arrests, they reportedly came under fire from somewhere within the crowd. Reports on casualties vary widely depending on the source, but the Iraqi Defense Ministry has claimed that 20 militants were killed, along with an army officer and two soldiers. Security forces detained 75 people and reportedly seized an assortment of weapons from the protest camp, including machine guns, hand grenades, knives and swords.
A Deliberate Provocation
Several aspects of this incident suggest that the clashes were the work of a Sunni militant faction intent on spurring already disaffected Sunnis to take action against the al-Maliki government. Jihadists have repeatedly attacked Sunni and Shiite targets over the past several months. Some of these maneuvers are meant to intimidate Sunnis and keep them out of the political process — for example, attacks against poll stations and Sunni politicians. Others, such as attacks on sensitive Shiite religious sites, are meant to encourage the Shia-dominated security apparatus to crack down harder on Sunnis.
These attacks have occurred against a tense political backdrop, as Sunni protests since December 2012 have spread from western Iraq in Anbar and Ninawa provinces to other areas with large Sunni populations in Salah ad Din, Diyala and Baghdad. Sunni militant groups, including local al Qaeda node Islamic State of Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Naqshbandi Army, which includes many former Sunni Baathist officers among its ranks, have publicly endorsed the Sunni protests. These groups hope that the spread and intensification of Sunni dissent against the Shiite government in Baghdad will revive the Sunni insurgency. The Naqshbandi Army is the most active group in the Kirkuk area and has the support of many local tribes. Indirectly aiding their cause, a growing Sunni rebellion in Syria against the Iran-backed Alawite regime has increased the traffic of militants and weapons in the Sunni borderland linking western Iraq and eastern Syria.
In the summer of 2012 a new group emerged, modeling itself after the Free Syrian Army and calling itself the Free Iraqi Army. The group reportedly includes former Iraqi Baathist officers and members of the Awakening Council, which previously aligned with the United States against jihadists in Iraq. Though the group still appears to have limited capabilities and geographic reach, the Free Iraqi Army has carried out small-scale attacks on security forces in Mosul and Anbar provinces — attacks on what the group refers to as "Safavid" checkpoints, a reference to the Persian Empire that reveals the group's perception that Baghdad is run by Iranian foreign agents. The Free Iraqi Army has spoken publicly of its coordination with jihadist groups in Iraq, but it has carefully distinguished itself as an organization fighting on behalf of Iraqi Sunnis who have been sidelined by the Shiite government in Baghdad. Should this group expand its presence on the battlefield in the coming months and draw more members of Iraq's Awakening Council, it will be a clear sign that al-Maliki's efforts to appease segments of Iraq's Sunni landscape are faltering.
The Limits of Appeasement
Fearing the effects of potential collaboration between disaffected former Baathists and jihadists active in the country, al-Maliki has tried to defuse the escalation of Sunni unrest through security crackdowns, direct payments and offers of political appeasement. Most recently, al-Maliki proposed to amend the highly controversial de-Baathification law that aims to bar Saddam Hussein-era officials from serving in the government. The Iraqi Cabinet's proposed amendments would place a time limit on the de-Baathification process, allowing the Justice and Accountability Commission that runs the process to blacklist former Baathists only until the end of 2013. This would theoretically help mitigate future political discrimination against Iraqi Sunnis, particularly during the process of vetting election candidates, but the proposal already faces stiff resistance from Shiites and Kurds in parliament and may end up being an empty gesture.
The Hawija clashes carry special significance. The town is a prime target for jihadists — a destitute town home to some 40,000 people, the overwhelming majority of them Sunnis who were well cared for during the Saddam era and lost their livelihoods when he fell. Hawija sits on the ethnic and sectarian crossroads of Iraq, just below the Kurdish autonomous region and on the path to Mosul to the north, Kirkuk to the northeast and Salah ad Din to the southwest. Since 2003, Hawija has served as an important haven for Sunni insurgents. The town's proximity to the Kurdistan Regional Government's boundaries may also be of value to the fighters. Kurdish leadership is locked in an escalating dispute with Baghdad over energy rights and Kurdish autonomy that could also turn violent and further undermine the ability of Iraqi security forces to maintain control.
The Challenge for Shiite Leadership
Deep divisions within the Sunni camp have thus far allowed the al-Maliki government to manage the various political and militant manifestations of Sunni opposition to the government while also addressing opposition from the Kurds and from rivals in his own Shiite camp. But the deaths of civilian protesters — regardless of government claims that only al Qaeda militants and Baath party members were killed — will reinvigorate Sunni protests against the government, and these protests now are likelier to turn violent.
Already, protesters and Sunni tribal sheikhs from Mosul in Ninawa province and from Fallujah in Anbar province have announced their solidarity with Sunnis in Hawija and have declared their intent to take up arms and drive the Iraqi army out of these areas. Sunni protesters in Salah ad Din province have also threatened to form an army for self-defense. In what may be a similar provocation to the one that instigated the clashes in Hawija, suspected Sunni gunmen reportedly attacked a police checkpoint on the same day in Tikrit, the capital of Salah ad Din province. Kirkuk's governor has meanwhile demanded the withdrawal of the Iraqi army from the province following the Hawija clashes, and curfews have been announced in Mosul, Fallujah and the Muqdadidiya district of Diyala province. With the suspicion that the Hawija clashes could be part of a broader campaign to instigate clashes that result in Sunni civilian deaths, Iraqi security forces are attempting to clamp down in areas with a heavy Sunni population in order to pre-empt attacks and demonstrations.
Neighboring powers such as Saudi Arabia may also have an interest in quietly encouraging these protests in order to further weaken Iran's foothold in Baghdad. While his government has no alternative to security crackdowns as violence escalates, al-Maliki can try to pay off select tribes and attempt to force through his amendments to the de-Baathification law as a form of political appeasement. However, if al-Maliki's political concessions are perceived as insufficient, the coming security crackdowns designed to stamp out Sunni unrest may well end up enflaming it, which is exactly what jihadists hope.