Gunmen in Falluja patrol the streets during clashes with Iraqi troops in January. Photo: AP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - The majority of people in the Sunni province of Anbar believed that they had taken a wise step, six years ago, when they sided with the Iraqi government and took up arms against Islamic militants in their region.
They believed the alliance with Baghdad would bring a new era of development, job opportunities, the release of detainees and -- above all -- true reconciliation with the government.
Now, with the army pounding Anbar to flush out Islamic militants, and the numbers of dead and homeless rising every day, the Sunnis of Anbar feel bitterly betrayed by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
“My city is going through its darkest days from the indiscriminate devastation and shelling,” regretted Abdullah Muhammad, a 38-year-old school headmaster in Falluja. “People have been forced to leave their homes to escape death,” he told Rudaw.
He complained that the Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had failed to honor the trust that Anbar’s Sunnis had placed in his government in 2007. That was when tribal leaders in Ramadi and Falluja established the Awakening Councils that pushed out al-Qaeda and other Islamic groups after fierce fighting.
Instead, Muhammad and his family have been made homeless, forced to flee Falluja under heavy Iraqi bombardment. Like tens of thousands of others, they have sought refuge in the northern Kurdistan Region, the only peaceful enclave in Iraq.
“The artillery shells do not differentiate between militants or civilians. That is why the majority of the dead and wounded are innocent people,” said Muhammad.
He charged that, by ordering recent attacks on Falluja and other cities in Anbar, Maliki is trying to project a tough image, hoping that will boost his chances with Shiite voters in parliamentary elections at the end of this month.
“Candidates in other countries promise reforms, research centers, scientific developments, new universities, jobs and a better future,” said Muhammad. “But Nuri al-Maliki has a different opinion: He sees the bloodshed in Falluja as his link to his Shiite supporters and population in order to maintain his post.”
Anbar again became a war zone this year, after complaints that Maliki’s government was only paying attention to Iraq’s Shiite regions turned into widening demonstrations throughout the province. The protesters demanded development, the release of prisoners and better basic services.
But after a year-long sit-in, which turned into a virtual tented-city in Ramadi, Maliki charged that the protest site had become a convenient place for Islamic fighters to hide. He sent in troops early this year to clear out the protests.
That added fuel to the seething anger of Anbar’s Sunnis, who complain that their past cooperation, and peaceful protests, had amounted to nothing.
Sheikh Mohammad Saleh al-Bejari, the spokesman for Falluja protesters, said that people in Anbar had meant to solve differences with the government in peace, but that the Iraqi prime minister had chosen war.
“Maliki still continues killings and the displacement of the population of Anbar, at a time when we were waiting to resolve the crisis peacefully, without resorting to fighting,” he told Rudaw.
“The sit-ins lasted more than a year and we did not choose to fight. But it seems that Maliki chose war and made us regret very much the trust that we put in his government.”
The Sunnis of Anbar feel especially betrayed because, in return for fighting al-Qaeda and other militants in 2007, they had hoped for better treatment.
Instead, the good relations with Baghdad that accrued after al-Qaeda was driven out, were short lived. Soon, tribal leaders and some Sunni officials in the government were reporting house raids against Sunnis by the Iraqi army, and arrests by the thousands.
“That is why we regret our previous support for the army and government,” said Bejari. “We've become victims of Maliki’s policies.”