Large scale protests against Iraqi’s prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government got even more serious this Friday when seven demonstrators were apparently shot by security forces in the city of Fallujah.
The shootings occurred as Sunnis in the city, who have been marching for close to a month and demanding more fairness from Maliki’s administration which is dominated by Shia Muslims, tried to take their protest to another part of town where they were denied entry by Iraqi soldiers.
Angry about being stopped, demonstrators began throwing rocks and bottles at the troops deployed at the checkpoint, prompting the soldiers to respond with full force. Judging from videos that were posted by The New York Times after the incident, the protesters were clearly surprised by the use of live ammunition. Out in the open, they ran to try to find as much cover as they could while bullets rang out toward the crowd.
In the Iraq ruled by Saddam Hussein, Iraqis would have expected a shoot to kill order. But in a country that has been free from the tyrant’s grip for nearly ten years, these cruel practices are no longer supposed to happen. The hundreds of billions of dollars in American support and the thousands of soldiers that that the United States have sacrificed in Iraq were toward one clear objective — establish a government that is accountable to its people and respectful of their demands. The killing of seven civilians at a protest in the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province shows just how far Iraq has yet to go.
At its surface, firing from government security forces at civilians is awfully similar to Syria’s initial response in March 2011 when that country’s protest movement began to take shape. Despite the similarities, there is one crucial difference between the Iraq of today and Syria in early 2011. Iraqis, for the most part, are in no mood for further violence.
All of Iraq’s major players, from Shia clerics in Najaf to Sunni sheiks in Anbar, recognize that the standoff between the Maliki government and the Sunni demonstrators needs to remain peaceful before a spate of retaliatory violence starts engulfing the region, even as four Iraqi soldiers have since died in what is being described as revenge for the killing of protesters.
Maliki’s government was quick to order an investigation into the incident and promised financial compensation for the families who were effected. The premier himself has also shown some willingness to take the demands of the Sunni demonstrators into account. Nine hundred prisoners have been released from Iraqi jails in the last several weeks.
As devastating as the shooting is, the mainstream Sunni and Shia community in Iraq realize that no side can win if violence starts to overwhelm the peaceful protests. Nothing good can occur if this type of transformation happened. Sunni anger would rise as a result and Maliki would no doubt use a period of confrontation to reverse any reform efforts that are underway. The Iraqi government, mindful of the years of sectarian carnage in the country six years ago, has an incentive to ensure that another round of shooting doesn’t happen again.