RAMADI, Iraq -- Shortly before noon every Friday, men and boys with prayer rugs in hand tromp by the thousands through the main highway junction in the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, head down lanes meant for vehicular traffic and stake out patches of pavement. Soon they’re prostrating themselves as far as the eye can see.
It’s a massive show of civil disobedience that’s the most visible form of protests by Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority against the Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad.
U.S. forces will remember Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, as one of Iraq’s worst killing grounds, a place where Sunni supporters of Saddam Hussein gave way to al Qaida in Iraq, which all but governed the province until tribal sheikhs rebelled at the same time that the U.S. troop “surge” was beginning in 2007. Of the 4,486 Americans who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, 30 percent fell in Anbar.
The province remains in rebellion, though a peaceful one.
Along both shoulders of the road, the tribal leaders have erected more than 100 canvas tents, where they display posters with their 17 demands, all couched as fitting within current legal order. There s a threat, however, of other means: A hand-painted banner at a political rally that followed a recent religious servicesummed up the mood best: “Beware the patient man, if he gets angry.”
Ten years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq is still a broken country. Its government is democratically elected, but nearly everyone sees it as dysfunctional, and many observers wonder whether the country can hold together and function as a normal state. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is widely criticized for what critics call his manipulation of the political process, though they concede that at least some of the problems he faces were inherited from the U.S. occupation.
Everyone is watching to see how he handles the Sunni protest in Anbar, which will have consequences for the country as a whole.
So far, Maliki has avoided direct confrontation and acquiesced to traffic being rerouted over secondary roads, even though the protest here blocks the main highway linking Baghdad with Jordan.
He’s denounced the protesters as “bubbleheads,” provoking a furor, but he’s also set up several committees to examine their demands, which are widely seen elsewhere in Iraq as legitimate. Among them: releasing all women held without charges on suspicion of aiding terrorists, moving detainees charged with crimes to provincial prisons, releasing male detainees arrested without charges, closing down military commands that Maliki set up without parliamentary approval, withdrawing the army from cities and limiting any prime minister’s tenure to two five-year terms.
Still, many in Anbar think that Maliki has gone out of his way to humiliate Sunnis, and the reaction is a rejection of the government and even of parliamentary representation.
The tension is great. The flags waving over the Ramadi highway are not the banner the new Iraq adopted after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, but those that flew here when Saddam ruled.
Clearly, the central government would prefer that the rebellion receive no attention. A McClatchy reporter traveling to Ramadi was kept for seven hours at a military checkpoint on March 7 before being allowed to proceed. The next day, military authorities announced that foreign reporters were banned from traveling to Ramadi.