Hundreds of anti-government demonstrators have been detained in Iraq since October 25, and arrests in Anbar indicate intimidation by the authorities.
The protests in Iraq began in Baghdad on October 1 and quickly spread to mostly Shia-dominated southern cities, including Karbala and Basra.
Although the majority of protesters are Shias, their slogans are neutral: “We’re not Shia, we’re not Sunni, we’re Iraqis!”; and “One Iraq, Iran out!” These chants are heard the most.
In some Sunni majority areas, however, an uneasy calm has settled in the streets. The residents are fearful of voicing their support for the protests.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), authorities in Iraq’s Sunni-majority Anbar governorate are suppressing the right of dissent against both the Shia-dominated government and the growing Iranian influence in the country.
“In recent days, they have arrested two men for merely posting messages of solidarity on Facebook, questioned a third, and sent a fourth into hiding,” the HRW report on November 4 said.
“Eight Anbar residents told Human Rights Watch that Anbaris did not intend to hold protests there, concerned that authorities would not allow them given the recent history of ISIS [Daesh] taking control over much of the governorate.”
This is not the first time the Shia-dominated government in Iraq is being challenged by street protests. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, a quota system in parliament was introduced, deepening the sectarian divide. Hundreds of thousands of Sunnis revolted against the Shia-led government in 2012 for being institutionally marginalised.
This time, however, protests are not driven by sectarian sentiments. Both Shia and Sunni communities have common concerns: corruption, a lack of jobs and basic services, and Iranian influence in the country.
Yet, the residents of Anbar HRW interviewed say they do not want to participate in the protests because they fear the authorities would not tolerate it.
On October 24, Anbar Police Command relayed a message to citizens via Facebook. He said that they should “work and continue with construction, preserving security, supporting security forces, and benefitting from past lessons, from which the province has only gotten destruction, killings, and displacement”.
The Sunni majority residents of Anbar felt the Facebook post was laced with intimidation. Knowing that Anbar residents won’t be taking to the streets, one man who wanted to participate in the protests decided to relocate to Baghdad, the HRW report said.
Iraqi authorities have arrested hundreds of people since the second phase of the protests began on October 25, but HRW says Anbar arrests stand out.
In Baghdad, the Sunni majority neighbourhoods also participated in the protests.