Hope can be a powerful drive. It can eventually change the world, one little step at a time. Somewhere far away from their capital city, a group of concerned citizens set up to physically occupy a piece of land at the entrance of their town: they humbly call it “the demonstration”. Its physical presence consists of a circle of tents articulated around a podium where they run their general assemblies. They maintain a twenty-four hour presence in this space, where they share everything from organic food to moral support.
On Fridays, they distribute food to the poor and homeless. They meditate several times per day in a specially allocated tent to center themselves. Overall, they seek to share ideals of consensus, coherence with their spiritual beliefs, and inclusiveness with their local community. They perceive themselves as the voiceless, the economically and politically downtrodden in a country filled with natural resources which they, and many others, have no access to. They hope that their physical presence in a limited space will afford them visibility, and that eventually they will rally support from outside their immediate community, and maybe even abroad. They hope that the government will eventually listen to their demands, which they have been formulating for almost ten months. They know that this model of collective action has worked elsewhere in the world, and that while tents are also part of their traditional way of life, they have become a symbol of democracy. While not in numbers, they are the 99% in spirit. They deserve to be acknowledged, and eventually to be listened to.
Food distribution on a Friday.
This is not another sketch of the TV series “Portlandia”. There is a catch. The “demonstration” is set in Fallujah, as in, the infamous “Six Days in Fallujah” video game. To many around the world, the name Fallujah evokes conflict, death, and horror. It is the town where four Blackwater contractors were ambushed in March 2004, and whose bodies were hanged from its now infamous British-engineered bridge across the Euphrates river. This incident sparked two separate battles in the following April and November of the same year, which destroyed more than seventy-five percent of the city, and where, according to a peer-reviewed academic study, chemical weapons were used by the US military, among which white phosphorus and enriched uranium. While it is reputed to be the toughest city in Iraq regarding the endurance and the fierceness of its people, Fallujah is also extremely resilient. Nine years on, the city is completely rebuilt and only a few gun-scarred buildings remain as a vestige of its epic past. More than ever, its people are proud and committed to defending their rights and their way of life against any outside interference. To its own people and the rest of Iraq, Fallujah is the city that never surrenders.
So when the people of Fallujah set up their own “occupy” movement, it is not to be taken lightly. It ought to be embraced as an olive branch, a golden opportunity for the mainly Shi’ite Iraqi government to make peace with its fiercest contender as embodied by the exclusively Sunni population of Fallujah, for as long as Sunnis are not an integral part of the Iraqi government, Iraq as a whole will not be at peace. As he receive me in the Bajari tent, each Fallujah “tribe” has its own tent, media relations officer Sheikh Mohammed argues that the demands of Occupy Fallujah are very straightforward. First, they demand the end of what they see as the exclusion of Sunni Muslims from government employment, which relates to the 2003 US-representative’s ruling to “de-Baathify Iraq,” a decision that led to the banning of more than a million former Baath Party members from holding government jobs. Not only was this ruling devoid of any logical sense, since more Shi’ites were Bath party cardholders than Sunnis due to the demographics of the country, it also harmed future reconstruction effort, since many of those individuals were skilled and experienced professionals whose work ethics would have undoubtedly benefited Iraq as a whole. Occupy Fallujah’s second demand for the government to end all talks of federalism, which would further divide Iraq and undoubtedly lead to great conflicts over its natural resources. In essence, Sheikh Mohammed pleads for Iraq “not to become like Lebanon,” which he considers to be a power-sharing political system established by the French to benefit their Christian clients, which has led to endless conflicts ever since. The third demand is for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to step down and free and fair elections to be organized.
Those demands have emerged in a Fallujah mosque as early as December 2012. They not only spread across the city but also throughout the Anbar province and four other governorates, all harboring a majority of Sunni Muslims — Nineve, Salaheddin, Kirkouk, and Dyiala–, and representing approximately 30% of the total Iraqi population. The Iraqi government has repeatedly ignored them, and the demonstrations that spread across those governorates have culminated in the killing of dozens of protesters in Hawija, near Kirkouk, last April. If carried out any other country, the government’s brutal repression would have been widely condemned. After all, NATO members invoked the possibility of such a government-backed crime against humanity for its 2011 intervention against President Gaddafi. Iraq is not Libya, and Nouri al-Maliki’s government was established as the rightful heir to the US-led occupation of Iraq. The fact that the 2005 general elections, mainly organized to replace the never-found weapons of mass destructions in the psyche of US tax payers, not only crystalized the marginalization of Sunni Muslims from Iraqi political life, but also established the dictatorship of an Iranian-backed Shi’ite government, goes against any Western-proclaimed ideal of democracy, good governance, or human rights. Yet it is acceptable to turn one’s gaze away from this inconvenient truth.
Today, according to Human Rights Watch, scores of Iraqis, mainly Sunnis, are being held and tortured in Iraqi prisons. The means utilized are as familiar as they are gruesome: rape, electrocution, and mutilations, to mention only a few. People feel restricted in their beliefs, economically, but also in their movements. While it was the US-led coalition’s “brilliant” idea to impose religious beliefs on ID cards, in the same way that Belgian occupiers polarized Rwanda with their revival of Hutus and Tutsi “ethnic groups” during colonial times, the mention of Sunni or Shi’a is being specified alongside one’s location. Mohammed, a Fallujah resident, explains: “I have family in Takhmiya,” a Shi’a-Sunni mixed district of Baghdad, “I cannot visit them because if I cross a checkpoint and the police sees that I am heading in a direction that is not my home, they can detain me on suspicion of terrorism.” For foreigners, the same applies. Visas are given on the basis of one’s location for the duration of one’s mission. Should I have a visa to be in Baghdad, and I try to visit Fallujah, I will not be allowed in, and could well face the inconvenience of being detained, yet not tortured, since, so far, Western foreigners are not being physically harmed.
The Occupy Fallujah platform.
When I made it to Occupy Fallujah last July, Sheikh al-Hamoudi, its leader, was very surprised. He said I was the first foreigner to make it to Anbar since the beginning of the demonstrations. He told me how the UN Under-Secretary general Martin Kobler had done nothing to help them validate Occupy Fallujah’s demands to the government, while according to him, the UN has been seen to openly support other groups in the South of Iraq. He complained of how the UN, over the years, has denied Fallujah any assistance, especially for the children born with congenital malformations due to the use of chemical weapons by the US in 2004. Despite being a Westerner, and a woman, Occupy Fallujah welcomed me with open arms. I kept wondering if it would have been the same at a Tea Party rally somewhere in the United States.
Hope can be constructive when rewarded, and devastating when betrayed. Occupy Fallujah is a movement that also is affiliated to the same figure who led the Fallujah resistance against the US in 2004, Sheikh Abdallah Janabi. Until very recently, Sheikh Janabi was fighting in Syria as part of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, an al-Qaeda affiliate. The fact that he is back in town means that Occupy Fallujah will not be waiting forever, and that slowly but surely, the olive branch that it indeed represents will mutate into an open armed conflict between Fallujah, the people of Anbar, and the government of Iraq. While, according to Sheikh Mohammed, Baghdad has managed to co-opt other Sunni movements elsewhere in Iraq, it is undeniable that, should the conflict escalate, the polarization between Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites will be irrevocable. “We are not afraid of confronting Baghdad,” said Sheikh Janabi, “if they do not listen to our demands, we are ready to take them on, on our own grounds, and this time, there will be no one to betray us, because we have learned a great deal from the past.” He was referring to the common perception that it is disloyal foreign fighters who lost the second Battle of Fallujah in 2004. Ranks are much tighter this time, devoid of any foreigner, and the community is re-emerging stronger than before. It is dedicated, well organized, and has a clear plan to increase its leverage against the Iranian-backed Maliki government.
Escape from Abu Ghraib. Photo by Abu Ammar.
Yesterday’s attack of Tadji and Abu Ghraib prisons, which freed around twenty commanders and four emirs –local chiefs–, is part of a well-orchestrated plan to re-group before an impending regional assault. One of the guards who collaborated to the operation alongside al-Qaeda is adamant, “give them a few weeks and the people we liberated will be back to work.” Fallujah has always stood out and always will. The fact that Occupy Fallujah is affiliated to al-Qaeda should not deter anyone from engaging with them.
Think “Portlandia” and “give peace a chance.”
Dr. Victoria Fontan is an Associate Professor at the University for Peace, in Costa Rica. She is currently researching for an MPhil in War Studies at King’s College, London, on the resilience of insurgencies. Visit her website on www.victoriacfontan.com