On 28 December 2012, protesters in the western Iraqi governorate of Anbar marked the fifth day  of their sit-in as demonstrations in their support were held in several other Sunni-majority parts of the country.
The protests were triggered  by last week’s arrest of the bodyguards of Iraq Finance Minister Rafi al-Issawi. Government sources told Al-Akhbar that the bodyguards had confessed to carrying out bombings on the minister’s personal orders. Whether true or not, the assertion is serious enough to prevent releasing the men. It’s also possible that a warrant could be issued for the arrest of Issawi himself.
The most significant aspect of the Anbar sit-in and the accompanying demonstrations has been the growing number of voices calling for the establishment of a self-governing region in western Iraq similar to the Kurdish region in the north . Others have gone further, advocating the creation of a breakaway “State of Western Iraq” consisting of the country’s western governorates as well as neighboring Jordan in the event of the monarchic regime there falling.
Observers of domestic and regional politics expect these voices to grow louder if Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government moves forward in the Issawi case.
“The aim of these sit-ins and demonstrations is absolutely clear,” said political analyst Ahmad al-Sharifi. “It is a prelude to the issue of partitioning Iraq. This is a project that several of the country’s political leaders have adopted. We’ve seen the demonstrators raising flags of the Free Iraqi Army and the Kurdistan Region. This is part of the plan for the New Middle East."
Al-Sharifi argued that Maliki’s recent visit to Jordan and offer of financial support to the kingdom was aimed at countering this alleged scheme. “It is part of his plan to back the Jordanian regime and prevent it from collapsing. The kingdom had announced prior to Maliki’s visit that it was going through very hard times,” he noted. “Maliki knows that if the Jordanian regime collapses and Islamist forces come to power, that would provide the cornerstone for the declaration of a State of Western Iraq.”
Sharifi also noted that there had been major oil and gas finds in western Iraq, including the discovery of more than 53 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.
He added that the long-running political row between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, which he described as having become “unsolvable,” was another factor pushing in the direction of Iraq’s partition and its dissolution into mini-states.
“If local and regional conditions remain as they are, in six months time we could be hearing of this as an official project,” he warned.
But Baghdad University political science professor Saadi al-Hadithi said it was premature to talk of a serious secessionist movement taking shape in western Iraq.
“The protests and sit-ins we have seen in Sunni majority provinces are an expression of outrage and highly charged emotions in response to the arrest of Issawi’s bodyguards. In one sense they are a way of letting off anger,” he said.
“But they stand little chance of generating enough popular pressure to force the government to change its line on this issue,” he added. He explained that Maliki’s coalition is in control of the government and the other sides, like the Iraqiya bloc which Issawi is a part of, are incapable of exerting pressure on it.
Haditihi said calls for autonomy or independence for western Iraq “cannot be considered to be genuine calls, especially not with regard to the idea of declaring a State of Western Iraq. Even the calls for a federation made in the past were not followed up.”
However, it is possible that Iraqiya leaders may revive earlier demands for a distinct region within Iraq that would comprise the country’s Sunni-majority provinces, as allowed for under a procedure spelled out in the Iraqi constitution.
“That option is completely valid. It is a right stipulated by the constitution, and if the central government in Baghdad rejects it, it will have to amend the constitutional text,” Hadithi pointed out. In practice, though, the government would be more likely to try to thwart any such bid by referring it to the federal courts for consideration, “which would mean many months of foot-dragging and procrastination.”
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