Mass Demonstrations and Car Bombs Mark Anniversary of Iraq Invasion
The ninth anniversary of the American led invasion of Iraq was marked by mass protests and car bombings across the country.
IHS Global Insight Perspective
Nine years on from the American-led invasion of Iraq, followers of Moqtada al-Sadr took to the streets of Basra yesterday (19 March) to protest against government corruption. The following morning (20 March) a deadly wave of attacks across the country killed at least 44, wounding many more.
The events of the last 24 hours underscore Iraq's internal fragility, with the Sadr movement a part of the country's uneasy power-sharing government. The fragile government is struggling to cope with the security vacuum caused by the December 2011 withdrawal of US troops, with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) attacks continuing.
As the government seeks to restore its regional influence it will be keen to demonstrate that it can restore internal stability across the country, especially ahead of next week's Arab League summit in Baghdad. However given the high profile nature of the event, further AQI attacks can be expected as the group seeks to capitalise on the additional international attention it will attract.
Mass Protests in Basra
Thousands of Iraqi Shi'as took to the streets in Basra yesterday (19 March) on the ninth anniversary of the American-led invasion of Iraq, to decry government corruption, poor provision of services, and unemployment. The exact size of the rally remains unclear; Basra police estimated that it attracted between 700,000 and 1 million protestors, while a Reuters correspondent placed the figure in the hundreds of thousands.
The rally was organised by Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's nationalist movement which retains high levels of support amongst the country's poor Shi'a community. Protestors travelled from across the country to attend the rally in Iraq's Shi'a-dominated second city. Reuter's yesterday interviewed one of the demonstrators from Baghdad's "Sadr City" neighbourhood who stated that "Lawmakers are looking out for themselves while the state ignores the poor".
Followers of Shi'a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr during a
protest in Basra, Iraq, 19/3/2012. PA.13092378
Although the protests were ostensibly organised to mark the ninth anniversary of the invasion and to decry the lack of progress that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government has achieved since its formation in December 2010, it is likely that it was a show of force from the Sadr Movement ahead of next week's Arab League Summit (27-29 March). Although the Sadr Movement is a part of the power-sharing government, relations with Maliki's State of Law bloc are tense, with the two camps ideologically opposed to each other regarding the presence of US troops in the country.
The scale of the protest demonstrated Sadr's continued standing within the Shi'a community and while the cleric has committed to a ban on protests during next week's summit, yesterday's rally demonstrated the embarrassment he could cause to the government should he reverse his decision. Such politicking underscores the precarious nature of Iraq's political balance, where Maliki is attempting to instigate reforms, combat corruption, and streamline the government, without alienating Sadr and other tentative partners. The government would risk disintegration should Sadr withdraw. Although such an eventuality is highly unlikely and would be of no benefit to Sadr, the rally serves as a timely reminder to Maliki of Sadr's importance as well as enabling the cleric to distance himself from the government in the eyes of his followers and avoid attracting blame for the state of the country.
Concerted Attacks Across the Country
A series of attacks across Iraq in the early hours of this morning (20 March) have resulted in at least 44 deaths, with a further 180 reported wounded by Agence France Presse (AFP). The series of bombings and shootings represent the worst attack in Iraq in more than two months (see Iraq: 6 January 2012: Scores Dead As Iraqi Sectarian Tensions Rise on Political Crisis). Although the political crisis which had increased sectarian tensions in Iraq was ended when the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc ended its boycott of parliament in February, tensions remain high and fears abound over the ability of the Iraqi security forces to maintain stability in the country.
The co-ordinated attacks occurred in more than a dozen cities across the country, targeting government facilities and Shi'a areas. Although it has not yet been confirmed, the attacks are likely to have been carried out by the Sunni militant group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Despite greatly increased security measures in the capital Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in a car park opposite the Foreign Ministry, raising concerns over the government's ability to provide security for next week's Arab League Summit (see Iraq: 13 March 2012: Iraq Admits Security Concerns Ahead of Arab League Summit).
Given the necessity of providing protection to delegates attending the summit, the prospect of security forces effectively closing down Baghdad, raised last week, is becoming increasingly likely. Officials announced last week that Baghdad International Airport would be closed for the duration of the summit, as well as stating that they were considering closing the roads to traffic (see Iraq: 14 March 2012: Iraq's Baghdad Airport to Close During Arab League Summit). Such an outcome would be a damning indictment of the government's inability to end the internal unrest that has plagued Iraq since the 2003 invasion.
Equally worrying is the sectarian nature of the attacks, with a car bomb targeting a police station in the Shi'a holy city of Karbala. Sectarian tensions have been growing in the country for some months, with the prime minister being criticised in October 2011 for arresting hundreds of individuals with alleged links to the former ruling Ba’ath party; Sunni figures alleged that those arrested were targeted for their religious identity rather than political affiliation. The issuing of an arrest warrant for the most senior Sunni political figure, Vice-President Tareq al-Hashemi, in December further fanned the sectarian flames which continue to be a cause for concern in the country.
Outlook and Implications
Despite the return of Iraqiya to government, many Sunnis in the country feel themselves to be increasingly politically disenfranchised and certainly the bloc has lost influence as a result of their boycott. In sharp contrast, Moqtada al-Sadr remains highly influential, despite his differences with Maliki, to the concern of the Sunni population who retain a hatred of the firebrand cleric due to his previous involvement in sectarian violence. Any perceived marginalisation of the Sunni community would enable Sunni militants such as AQI to stoke further sectarian violence.
This morning's attacks demonstrate the challenge facing Iraqi security forces in the wake of the US troop withdrawal and raise concerns over their ability to protect delegates at next week's Arab League Summit; concerns that could cause some senior delegates to not attend. Such an outcome would be damaging to Iraq's intentions of reasserting its regional influence and be of great embarrassment to the government.
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