He concluded his email on a stark note, reminiscent of the sorts of things I regularly heard when I was in Iraq covering the brutal results of the U.S. occupation. "Horror, fear, arbitrary arrests, indiscriminate bombing, killing, an uncertain future -- this is the new democratic Iraq."
And don't for a second think that this summer it's just Sunni communities who are living in fear. Claims of massacres and other atrocities being carried out by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the group spearheading the Sunni revolt across the northern and western parts of the country, abound along with well-documented accounts of their brutal tactics against Shiites.
In one incident, according to witnesses, ISIS forces kidnapped at least 40 Shia Turkmen, blew up three Shia mosques and another Shia shrine, and raided homes and farms in two Shia villages near the city of Mosul. And that's just to start down a long list of horrors. Meanwhile, the sectarianism shredding the social fabric is being stoked further by the posting of images online that show at least 10 ancient Shiite shrines and mosques destroyed by ISIS fighters.
The Disintegration of Iraq
As for myself, I can't claim to be surprised by the events of recent weeks. Back in March 2013, on a visit to the embattled Sunni city of Fallujah (twice besieged and largely destroyed by U.S. troops in the occupation years), I saw many signs of the genesis of what was to come. I was at one point on a stage there alongside half a dozen tribal and religious leaders from the area. Tens of thousands of enraged men, mostly young, filled the street below us, holding up signs expressing their anger toward U.S.-backed Prime Minister Maliki.
Having written about the myriad human rights abuses and violations Maliki's regime was responsible for, I was intimately familiar with the way the bodies, dignity, and rights of much of the Sunni population in Fallujah's province, al-Anbar, had been abused. That same month, I had, for instance, interviewed a woman who used the alias Heba al-Shamary and had just been released from an Iraqi prison after four grim years.
"I was tortured and raped repeatedly by the Iraqi security forces," she told me. "I want to tell the world what I and other Iraqi women in prison have had to go through these last years. It has been a hell... I was raped over and over again. I was kicked and beaten and insulted and spit upon." Heba, like so many Sunnis the Maliki regime decided to detain, torture, and sometimes execute, had been charged with "terrorism."
That very month, Amnesty International released a report that highlighted what it called "a grim cycle of human rights abuses" in Iraq. When I was in Baghdad, it was common to hear Maliki referred to in many areas as "worse than Saddam [Hussein]."
In late 2012, the young among the politically disenfranchised Sunni population began to organize peaceful Arab Spring-style rallies against the government. These were met with brute force and more than a dozen demonstrators were killed by government security forces. Videos of this went viral on the Web stirring the already boiling tempers of youths desperate to take the fight for their rights to Baghdad.
"We demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah. We demand they allow in the press [to cover the situation]. We demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions. We demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons." This was what Sheikh Khaled Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the demonstrations, told me just before I went on stage that day. As we spoke, he clutched a photograph of one of his nephews killed by Maliki's forces while demonstrating in the nearby city of Ramadi. "Losing our history and dividing Iraqis is wrong, but that and kidnapping and conspiracies and displacing people is what Maliki is doing."
As I wrote at the time, the sheikh went on to assure me that many people in Anbar Province had stopped demanding changes in the Maliki government because they had lost hope. After years of waiting, no such demands were ever met. "Now, we demand a change in the regime instead and a change in the constitution. We will not stop these demonstrations. This one we have labeled 'last chance Friday' because it is the government's last chance to listen to us."
"What comes next," I asked him, "if they don't listen to you?"
"Maybe armed struggle comes next," he replied without a pause.
Maliki's response to the Fallujah protests would, in fact, insure that the sheikh's prediction became the region's future.
The adrenaline-pumping energy on stage and in the crowd that day mixed electric anticipation and anxiety with fear. All of this energy had to go somewhere. Even then, local religious and tribal leaders were already lagging behind their supporters. Keeping a lid on the seething cauldron of Sunni feeling was always unlikely. When a tribal sheikh asked the crowd for a little more time for further "diplomacy" in Baghdad, the crowd erupted in angry shouts, rushed the stage, and began pelting the sheikhs with water bottles and rocks.
In pockets of that crowd, now a mob, the ominous black flags of ISIS were already waving vigorously alongside signs that read "Iraqis did not vote for an Iranian dictatorship." Enraged shouts of "We will now fight!" and "No more Maliki!" swept over us as we fled the stage, lest we be hit by those projectiles that caught the rage of the young, a rage desperate for a target, and open to recruitment into a movement that would take the fight to the Maliki regime.