The city, along with Ramadi, is the focus of growing discontent, this time against the Iraqi government.
On Friday 25 January Iraqi troops opened fire on the unarmed demonstration in the city, killing at least five people. Their funerals drew tens of thousands of mourners, and revenge attacks on Iraq regime troops.
The Fallujah protests are part of the “Iraqi Spring”, a growing popular rebellion against the government of Nouri al-Maliki. This movement has been marked by mass peaceful demonstrations and street occupations that have cut the main route west to Jordan.
The movement is tapping into bitterness at the Iraqi regime that has the potential to spill across the country’s ethnic and sectarian divide. At its heart is the growing anger at government’s failure to meet the basic needs of the Iraqi people.
One year after the withdrawal of US troops, and nine years after the invasion, life for ordinary people remains hard.
The levels of violence have dropped dramatically since the end of the occupation – in 2006 more than 35,000 civilians were killed and last year this dropped to 1,578. But the poverty and misery continue – as do electricity cuts and shortages. Millions of Iraqis still rely on food rations, while unemployment, corruption and nepotism are rampant. Some 2.7 million Iraqis remain internally displaced.
Maliki has concentrated power, and all the key ministries, into his hands despite coming second in the 2010 elections. He has presided over a repressive and deeply corrupt class that emerged out of a shabby compromise that ended the US occupation.
His government is using Saddam-era laws to ban trade unions, while the country’s prisons are filling up with his political opponents.
The legacy of the occupation hangs heavily over the country. Iraq is effectively split into three: the southern and central regions controlled by the Maliki government, the restive and marginalised Sunni Muslim western provinces, and the semi-autonomous north under the control of US backed Kurdish parties.
Underlying these geographical, sectarian and ethnic divisions is a struggle for control over Iraq’s oil future. This rush for oil is breeding dangerous military tensions between the Kurdish regions and the central government, as well as fuelling sectarian attacks among Sunni and Shia Arabs.
Iraq is now the world’s third largest oil producer. Its exports are at a 30-year high. Last year the central government netted £52 billion in oil revenues (compared with £3 billion in 2003). The country is in the middle of an oil investment boom.
These oil dollars are being ploughed back into maintaining Iraq’s burgeoning security forces now grown to more than 670,000 – as well as deeply unpopular arms deals that include plans to buy 36 F-16s warplanes from the US.
ExxonMobil and other US, Western and Turkish oil majors have been drawn towards the semi-autonomous northern regions, despite the objections from the central government.
In the south, Chinese oil companies have edged out western oil companies. China has long-term ambitions on Iraqi oil and is projecting that it will consume 70 percent of the country’s supplies by 2035.
In 2010 China wrote off 80 percent of the Baathist-era debt (estimated at £5.4 billion). This opened the door for the China National Petroleum Corp to win the lion’s share of lucrative southern oil reserves, including the giant Rumaila field. By undercutting Western companies, Chinese companies are also hoovering up many of the major infrastructure contracts.
Turkey’s peace overtures to its Kurdish regions are a recognition of its growing interest in Iraq’s Kurdish oil fields. The prize is an upgraded pipeline linking the Iraq city of Kirkuk to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan and running through the restive Kurdish regions of south east Turkey.
The strategic shift in Turkey’s “friendly neighbour” policy, and its courtship of Iraq’s Kurdish north, puts it at odds with the Baghdad government. There is much at stake.
Despite the general discontent, the Fallujah protests have been labelled a Sunni Muslim rebellion against a Shia Muslim government. This characterisation masks a deeper malaise that cuts across ethnic and sectarian divides.
The powerful Shia cleric Moktada el-Sadr, who commands support from among poor Shia neighbourhoods, openly endorsed the Fallujah protests. In 2011 popular discontent with the Kurdish regional government touched off its own “Arab Spring” movement. There were smaller, but significant, demonstrations in the Arab areas that echoed the angry rebellions across the Middle East.
Across all these communities there is simmering anger at poverty, corruption, nepotism and repression. This rebellion points to deeper anger that can overcome divisions. In 2003 an uprising in Fallujah triggered a nationwide resistance movement against the US occupation. The demonstrations that have broken out ten years later have the potential to do the same.
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