December 30, 2013 7:42 pm

Western Iraq on brink of rebellion against Shia regime

Gunmen fighters walk in streets of the city of Ramadi

Gunmen patrol the streets of the city of Ramadi

Iraq’s volatile western region was on the verge of all-out rebellion against the central government on Monday. It followed the weekend arrest of a prominent lawmaker and the dispersal of a largely peaceful protest in the city of Ramadi that left at least 13 dead, according to news agencies.

Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shia-dominated government has alienated the country’s Sunni Arab and Kurdish minorities, described the dispersal of the anti-government protest and other military operations in Anbar province as a blow against al-Qaeda extremists. This year has brought a resurgence of terrorism in Sunni parts of the country with a campaign of bombings in the capital, Baghdad, and elsewhere.

“The ongoing military operations in Anbar have united Iraqis under the armed forces and this is a real victory,” Mr Maliki said on Monday, according to Iraqi news sources. “The Anbar operations are the biggest blow to al-Qaeda, which has lost its safe haven in the sit-in [protest] camps.”

Iraq’s smouldering civil tensions have been in danger of reigniting into full-blown conflict for months, stoked by perceptions that Mr Maliki has a sectarian agenda favouring the Shia majority, as well as by jihadists entering Iraq over the Syrian border. The latest escalation of violence in Anbar province – a centre of resistance during the US-led invasion in 2003 and subsequent occupation – has alarmed international observers.

Iraq’s vast energy reserves have piqued the interest of international businesses while its strategic location has made it a battleground for influence between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

“I am concerned about the current developments in Anbar and call on all to remain calm and to abide by the agreements reached in the course of the last two days,” Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s special envoy to Iraq, said in a statement. “The government has a constitutional responsibility to protect all citizens from terrorism, while observing the rights of ordinary Iraqi citizens, providing for their humanitarian needs, and showing maximum restraint in the use of force.”

The latest violence began on Saturday after government forces stormed the Ramadi home of Sunni lawmaker Ahmed al-Alwani on vague terrorism charges. In the reported shootout that followed, Mr Alwani was wounded while his brother and at least five of his bodyguards were killed. Nearly 20 people, including members of the security forces, were also hurt.

Forty-four Sunni Arab lawmakers have resigned in protest at Mr Alwani’s detention and the continued military campaign in Anbar. Local political and tribal leaders have demanded that Mr Alwani, now in a prison hospital, be released.

Ayad Allawi, opposition leader and former prime minister, presented Mr Maliki on Sunday with a list of demands, including the removal of military forces from the protest camps, negotiation with the demonstrators and the release of Mr Alwani from prison on the grounds of parliamentary immunity.

But negotiations between government officials, Anbar provincial council members and tribal sheikhs failed. Ali al-Moussawi, the government’s spokesman, claimed the protesters were hoarding weapons.

Other Sunnis in western Iraq have taken up arms, attacking government checkpoints and setting fire to military vehicles. Pictures posted to internet sites showed men holding AK-47s and vowing revenge against Iraqi security forces in both Ramadi and Fallujah, where mosques called on the faithful to violate a provincial curfew and help protesters.

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