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Iraq needs a local solution, not another intervention

  • 23 June 2014

Standing on an overhead bridge in Ramadi on Iraq's main highway to Baghdad just over a year ago, I witnessed the extraordinary sight of about half a million people gathered — as they did every Friday — to peacefully protest the sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki.

There were chants and speeches by local Sunni politicians and religious leaders, and from leaders of other provinces and sects across Iraq, including Shia clerics, but little response from Baghdad and virtually no western media coverage.

The protesters, led by tribal elders from the western Anbar province, resisted the call to violence made by bands of Islamist fighters (ISIS) who were circling in the desert around the protest camp and planting car bombs in Baghdad. Instead, the tribal leaders insisted on putting their objections in writing and continuing nonviolent protest to draw attention to their plight, with the aim of engaging the Iraqi Government in dialogue.

After more than 12 months of peaceful protest in Anbar and other cities, the Government still refused to negotiate on key demands and rather harassed, arrested, attacked or even killed protesters. In December Iraqi security forces were sent to sack and dismantle the camp. Protest moved to armed resistance; the bombing of Fallujah followed, causing hundreds of civilian deaths, a new wave of refugees and widespread destruction.

The response to Maliki's aggressive sectarian rule was, inevitably, an aggressive sectarian response.

ISIS has been quick to exploit the divisions and piggyback on the Sunni uprising, extending its violence to northern Iraq. It is Iraq's Sunni tribes and militias — who hold little in common with ISIS and reject its extreme ideology — who could withhold the Islamists' march to Baghdad, should they have the motivation to do so.

Understanding the context of today's turmoil is the key to any de-escalation of violence and a guide to the type of assistance foreign nations can bring. 

Those who have been watching Iraq the last 11 years have not been surprised by the past week's events. They point to disastrous 'divide and conquer' policy blunders by occupation forces in Iraq; the nature of the invasion and occupation itself; and support of the Maliki regime, despite its discriminatory policies, human rights violations, and violence against its own citizens, as the foundation for today's mess.

The fall of Mosul without resistance has drawn some belated attention to the mistakes and crimes of the Maliki regime. Media commentators and Western governments have