|Top right: Placard raised in Anbar demands release of Sunnite women detainees|
Tens of thousands of Sunnite protesters in Iraq’s west today kept the main highway to Syria and Jordan blocked for a ninth straight day.
The mass protests in Iraq’s Anbar and several other Sunni-dominated provinces accuse Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of mounting an organized campaign against their sect and of being an ally of the Syrian regime and a surrogate of Iran.
The protests erupted December 21 in Anbar province after troops loyal to Maliki detained bodyguards and aides of his finance minister, a Sunni. The move evoked attempts to arrest Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi in December 2011. Hashemi was later sentenced to death in absentia.
An attempt by Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, one of the most senior Sunnite officials in the government, to defuse the crisis ended in chaos, with his bodyguards opening fire and wounding two demonstrators in Ramadi.
The protesters want an end to what they perceive as Maliki’s targeted marginalization of Sunnites and the release of Sunnite females rounded up after the detention of their male relatives under terrorism charges.
When women in Iraq are arrested, they routinely go through three gruesome phases, starting with humiliation, followed by torture, and often ending with rape (see report).
“Clouds of divorce” is the inspired title of a leader comment today focusing on Iraq by Ghassan Charbel, editor-in-chief of pan-Arab daily al-Hayat.
He recounts how he called on a senior Iraqi official for a nameless briefing on the situation in the country.
Since I want to talk candidly, the official said, the situation is very bad and the days ahead are far from looking rosy.
He then pulled out from his pocket a note, which he started reading.
He said the number of Sunnite staff at the Interior Ministry that was so-and-so has dropped to this much; same thing at the Defense Ministry -- the Agriculture Ministry wasn’t spared either.
The Sunnite positions in the Armed Forces are also dwindling non-stop, the official added.
“A few days ago, a senior officer was assassinated, most probably by a man in uniform,” he blurted out.
When I asked about his expectations, he said: “The Iraqi Sunnite street is at boiling point. No Iraqi Sunnite accepts being a second-class citizen. Where would the Iraqi Sunnites’ wrath lead? Beyond what you imagine! I don’t fancy that, but I am afraid that’s where we’re heading.”
After the meeting, I felt distraught. It’s unusual for a state official to talk so plainly to a journalist he was meeting for the first time.
When protests broke out in Anbar a few days back, I called another Iraqi politician, asking how serious the unrest was.
He told me in no uncertain terms: “It is more serious than many people imagine. If Maliki persists in his exclusion, marginalization and monopolization policies, I don’t rule out Iraq heading to partition.
“His (Maliki’s) policies are destroying Iraq’s political fabric. He has taken relations with the Kurds to the verge of war and reneged on his promises to them.
“He is now driving Arab Sunnites to challenge his rule in the open.
“Add to that another split among Iraqis over Iran and happenings in Syria.
“It is in your interest as a journalist to visit Iraq because it is at a critical juncture. Sadly, we can’t now hide behind our finger and cover up our divisions by blaming the (U.S.) occupation and the remnants of Saddam Hussein.”
While the clouds of divorce were gathering in the skies of Anbar, UN reports and correspondents’ dispatches spoke of the Syria conflict turning overtly sectarian. This probably explains Lakhdar Brahimi’s remark on his return from Moscow predicting “hell” and a breakdown of Syria into a “new Somalia” in the absence of a negotiated settlement.
Taken in the context of Brahimi’s earlier call for “real and deep change” in Syria, chances are that “hell” is more likely in 2013, particularly that the Syria conflict is now on the Sunnite-Shiite fault line stretching from Baghdad to Beirut, passing by Damascus.
The winds of divorce whipping Syria are lashing Lebanon as well. Sectarian affinities have brought down the sanctity of international borders and built up the appetite for risk-taking. The Lebanese are divided over the Syrian Revolution, the Syrian regime’s future and the flow of refugees fleeing the Syrian inferno.
The “hell” Brahimi talked about won’t necessarily respect international borders that are porous anyway.
Gambles taken by allies of the Syrian regime, and by some of its opponents, are also inviting strife.
Together, the clouds gathering in Iraq’s Anbar and the winds of divorce lashing Syria and Lebanon show the Iraq-Syria-Lebanon triangle gushing forth to “hell.”