January 26, 2013

Iraqi Protests Highlight U.S. Insensitivity To Asymmetry

If a government genuinely seeks to deescalate a political confrontation with its citizens, opening fire on a rally entitled "Friday of No Retreat" would not be part of its agenda. Iraq's Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, believes otherwise: that he has limited need for support outside his Shia base, and that he can maintain power through his second term regardless of the opposition massing against him. 

On Friday al-Maliki's security forces (he unconstitutionally holds the Interior and Defense Ministries) fired into an enormous anti-Maliki rally in Fallujah, killing five protesters and wounding at least 40. This dangerous omen of future events also extracted a small amount of "concern" from one of al-Maliki's foreign allies.

"We are concerned about the use of deadly force during today’s protests in Iraq," the State Department's Victoria Nuland told reporters after Friday's shooting. "We understand that the Iraqi Government has now issued a statement indicating that they are initiating a very prompt investigation into the incidents, and that they have called for restraint by security forces. We obviously stand ready to assist in that investigation if asked, but we would also say that as the government and government forces show restraint, the demonstrators also have a responsibility to exercise their right to protest in a nonviolent manner, as well as to continue to press their demands through the political process."

More obvious is the fact that the White House wasn't prepared to respond unless prompted to, whereas the same outburst in neighboring Iran or Syria is liable to trigger a harsher critique. An established pattern of U.S. bias can be traced back to the start of Iraq's latest outbreak of demonstrations, one determined by the Obama administration's personal relationship with al-Maliki - which connects a direct line of responsibility to Washington. As the White House has been unresponsive to Iraq's two-year crisis between al-Maliki and a diverse opposition of Sunni, Shia and Kurdish actors, so too has the Obama administration taken another pass on the protests that have sprung from this gridlock. 

At no point have protesting Iraqis been seriously addressed by the Obama administration or international community.

Instead they have been ignored, or else told to refrain from violence and engage in "dialogue" with the uncompromising Premier. Two weeks ago Martin Nesirky, spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told reporters that Martin Kobler, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Iraq, had "called on the protesters to refrain from violence and to maintain the peaceful character of their demonstrations." Nesirky added that Kobler expects Iraqi security forces to exercise "the utmost restraint in maintaining law and order," and hopes that all sides “engage without delay in a peaceful and constructive dialogue... in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution and Iraqi law."

Nuland stated on January 3rd, "Again, I think I said that we have been concerned about incidents of violence that – by various parties. And so we are again making it clear that if protests are peaceful, that’s one thing, but if there are incidents that incite violence or that are violent on any side, that would take Iraq backwards.”

This thinking is demonstrably backwards. While citizens generally have a responsibly to express their political beliefs and demands peacefully, Iraqis don't occupy an ordinary position. A majority didn't vote for al-Maliki's coalition and have no interest in his leadership, but are stuck with a tyrant until the opposition can remove him through political means. Al-Maliki's second term is a product of his savvy, the Iraqi opposition's inability to unify the necessary numbers to sideline him, and the foreign powers - mainly Washington and Tehran - that assisted in returning him to office. Iraqis have been shut out of Baghdad's political process and suppressed by their own government, therefore civil disobedience and low-intensity violence become legitimate political expressions. 

In terms of dialogue, al-Maliki's unconditional grip on various Iraqi ministries, agencies and courts invalidates a dialogue "in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution and Iraqi law." As The Trench has repeatedly pointed out, these demands are non-negotiable and should not be treated as such by foreign diplomats. 

Ceding his unconstitutional powers should be a precondition for a dialogue on national issues.

Attempts to compare protesters' actions with the governments' are similarly inaccurate; the responsibility to abstain from violence rests on the government before individual citizens. Diverging accounts explain why security forces began shooting, but both outcomes are inexcusable. Witness and government accounts claim that protesters began throwing rocks and other objects at Iraqi soldiers deployed to maintain order (and intimidate protesters), forcing them to defend themselves. Other Iraqis said that the soldiers opened fire after ordering protesters to stop filming their rooftop positions around al-Etisam Square.

In either case, oppressed citizens are within their natural rights to throw stones and don't deserve to be shot with live ammunition. Disproportionate force is a common tool - and a common weakness - of authoritarian regimes.

Efforts to equate two unequal levels of violence are more concerned with slandering anti-government protesters than maintaining peace and security. Al-Maliki would reinforce his counter-narrative by announcing that Fallujah's events didn't surprise him, and cited the "conspiracies" of regional intelligence services, Baathists and al-Qaeda's Syrian cohorts as the sources of instability. Anything and anyone except his own poor leadership. 

An anonymous official at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad also says that the Obama administration "expressed concern that the protesters' peaceful expression of their viewpoints must not be usurped by extremists trying to provoke violence."

These political tactics are doomed to escalate Iraq's crisis, endanger lives and further weaken U.S. influence in the country, wasting any benefits gained by U.S. and allied forces. The Obama administration has no visible intention of providing responsive and unbiased mediation. U.S. policymakers simply wish that Iraqis would stop protesting, return home and allow al-Maliki to complete his second term uninterrupted.

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