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 begun to criticise Maliki, including Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who on Thursday admitted: ‘It’s not a good government … and the problems between the Sunnis and the Shias are exacerbated by his manner of excluding them from the government.’
Removing Maliki, who did not receive the majority of seats in recent elections, could be the first step in a unification process that could ease tensions and quash the goals of ISIS insurgents. Foreign military intervention, by either Tehran or Washington, would draw in other regional players and escalate violence.
The attention on the deteriorating situation in Iraq and talk of possible Western intervention has provided a catalyst for renewed reflection about Australia’s role in the 2003 invasion. It has also raised questions about Australia’s decision-making process should the Abbott Government choose to intervene again.
It has prompted speeches in the Parliament this week by independent MP Andrew Wilkie calling for a royal commission into the Iraq War, and Greens MP Adam Bandt reintroducing a Greens ‘war powers’ bill requiring parliamentary approval to deploy Australian troops overseas.
Such calls have also been made by the Campaign for an Iraq War Inquiry (CIWI), of which I am a member, to ensure lessons are learnt from Australia’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The group, made up of prominent Australians, including former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, this week called for parliamentary debate before any Australian involvement in further military attacks on Iraq.
CIWI President and former Defence Department head Paul Barratt said the fact that the Government is considering going back into Iraq makes it all the more obvious that we need to learn the lessons from the previous invasion. ‘There should be a royal commission into the process by which we went to war in 2003, with commissioners appointed by a bi-partisan process,’ he said.
‘Also, the war powers of the Government must change so that Australians can never again be sent to war without the support of our elected representatives, the parliament.’
Labor and Coalition governments have refused to hold an inquiry into Australia’s participation in the earlier invasion of Iraq. US President Obama has said that he would consult Congress about the possibility of strikes against Iraq, but while our Prime Minister Abbott has indicated that Australia would be ready to help the US, he has not mentioned any role for Australia’s elected representatives, the parliament.
Iraq needs a local political solution, not another foreign military intervention, and there can be no moving forward until the mistakes of the past are acknowledged and addressed. This requires political work not just by Iraqi leaders, but by the nations of the ‘Coalition of the Willing’, who were too quick to jump into the invasion and occupation, and too slow to respond constructively to its disastrous legacy.