Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki Tuesday announced the army would leave cities in Anbar province, apparently seeking to defuse simmering tension after security forces cleared a major anti-government protest camp.
Deadly clashes erupted Monday as security forces tore down the sprawling Sunni protest camp near Ramadi city, west of Baghdad, and sporadic fighting continued for a second day, leaving a total of at least 14 people dead.
Monday’s removal of the camp near the Anbar provincial capital was a victory of sorts for Maliki, who had long wanted it gone and had termed it a “headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda”.
But while the camp’s closure removed a physical sign of deep-seated grievances among Sunni Arabs, it leaves underlying issues unaddressed and is likely to inflame widespread anger among the minority community.
In a move seemingly aimed at calming tensions, Maliki announced Tuesday the army would leave cities in Anbar, a demand made by MPs who submitted their resignations the previous day.
He called on “the armed forces to devote themselves to… pursuing Al-Qaeda hideouts in the desert of Anbar” and for the army to turn over “the administration of the cities to the hands of the local and federal police,” his office said.
Maliki also praised the camp’s closure, saying it was shut down in cooperation with the local government and tribal and religious leaders.
In another move apparently aimed at placating Anbar residents, the cabinet decided Tuesday to provide aid to the province.
The oil, trade and health ministries were to provide food, fuel and medical items, and other ministries would also give “support and necessary services to Anbar province,” the cabinet said.
The violence continued in the Ramadi area on Tuesday, where fighting killed three gunmen and an Iraqi army sniper, while three militants were wounded, police and a doctor said.
An AFP journalist in Ramadi reported sporadic clashes in the area, which was under curfew, and said items including food and petrol were in short supply.
Security forces killed 10 gunmen on Monday in the Ramadi area during clashes as the protest camp was taken down, while violence also spread to the nearby city of Fallujah.
There was also political fallout, with 44 MPs, most of them Sunnis, announcing they had submitted their resignations.
They called for “the withdrawal of the army from the cities and the release of MP Ahmed al-Alwani,” a Sunni who was arrested during a deadly raid on Saturday.
The raid on Alwani’s house, which sparked clashes that killed his brother, five guards and a security forces member, also raised tensions.
While fighting broke out in the Ramadi area as the camp was closed, it was ultimately shut down without the level of deadly violence that accompanied the last major security forces operation at a protest site.
On April 23, security forces moved on a protest camp outside the northern town of Hawijah, triggering clashes that killed dozens of people, sparking a wave of revenge attacks and sending death tolls soaring.
The camp on the highway outside Ramadi, where the number of protesters had ranged from hundreds to thousands, included a stage from which speakers could address crowds, a large roofed structure and dozens of tents.
Protests broke out in Sunni Arab-majority areas of Iraq late last year after the arrest of guards of then-finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, an influential Sunni Arab, on terrorism charges.
The arrests were seen by Sunnis as yet another example of the Shiite-led government targeting one of their leaders.
The demonstrations tapped into longstanding grievances of Sunni Arabs, who say they are both marginalised by the government and unfairly targeted by security forces.
While the government has made some concessions aimed at placating Sunnis, including freeing prisoners and raising the salaries of anti-Qaeda militiamen, underlying issues remain unaddressed.
Violence in Iraq has reached a level not seen since 2008, when the country was emerging from a period of brutal sectarian killings.
Attacks in Baghdad province killed 12 people Tuesday, while more than 6,800 people have died in Iraq violence since the beginning of the year, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.