As Iraqi soldiers withdraw from Anbar province after a successful but deadly offensive to remove a Sunni protest camp, the focus is moving to deciphering what this portends for the nation. But although prime minister Nouri Al Maliki ordered the troops out in a bid to defuse the situation, what had already happened – deaths of protesters and soldiers, the mass resignation of 44 members of parliament in protest and the arrest of a prominent Sunni MP – will continue to reverberate within Iraqi politics.
Based on the competing narratives that have begun to emerge, this was either further marginalisation of Iraq's Sunni minority at the instigation of Mr Al Maliki ahead of his re-election bid in April or a strike with bipartisan support against Al Qaeda militants who were said to be based at the anti-government protest camp in Ramadi, the provincial capital.
The use of deadly force to remove the camp reinforces many of the fears of the Sunni community. Tensions were already high following the arrest on Saturday of Ahmed Al Alwani, another Sunni MP and one of the key organisers of the protests, on charges of terrorism and inciting violence against the Shia majority. The raid at his Ramadi home led to a shoot-out in which his brother, five of his guards and two Iraqi soldiers were killed.
The heavy-handedness of the government’s response to the Sunni protest movement prompted 44 Iraqi MPs – mostly Sunnis – to resign. Their demands included a withdrawal of troops from Anbar province, to which Mr Maliki acceded, but also the release of Mr Alwani and to expedite the trials of Sunni women who have been languishing in Iraqi jails. The women’s situation has been exploited by Al Qaeda as a recruiting tool.
These events have contributed to the steadily rising tide of violence in Iraq throughout 2013, which was the deadliest year since 2008. Force of the kind seen in Anbar province this week cannot provide a way forward for Iraq, which needs to address the Sunni minority’s concerns – such as economic development in Sunni areas and the draconian antiterror laws that some view as targeting Sunnis.
In the case of the Sunni women in jail, the answer should be simple: they deserve due process and a timely trial, just like every other Iraqi citizen. Sectarian violence will never end unless all Iraqis are treated equally.
As 2014 begins, divisions within Iraqi society are wider than ever, and at a time when the nation desperately needs unifying gestures and conciliatory leadership. All signs point to the necessity for Mr Al Maliki to do better than he has managed.