It’s a problem every MP faces occasionally: the constituency meeting that gets a bit “heated” as voters vent dissatisfaction with the government of the day. When your constituency is Ramadi Central in Iraq, though, it can lead to more than just a few heckles and the odd loudmouth flecking spittle on your lapel.
This terrifying video shows Saleh al Mutlaq, an Iraqi politician, running for his life after incurring the wrath of a mob during a speaking engagement near the western Iraqi city of Ramadi on Monday. Hundreds of people chase him and his bodyguards across the desert, pelting them with rocks and bottles, until they reach an armoured Iraqi police convoy, which whisks them off in a hurry. Both sides exchange a lot of gunfire, as you’ll see if you spool to about half-way through the video.
By some miracle, only a few people actually ended up wounded, which makes it handbags-at-dawn by Iraqi standards, but all the same, Ramadi is a bad place to have the crowd turn against you. The city is in the heart of the Sunni redneck province of Anbar, and during the days of the US occupation, it was regarded as even more dangerous than neighbouring Fallujah, where a mob burned and hung four US security contractors on a bridge. Anyone who encounters this kind of hostile mob will immediately have that fate uppermost in their minds, as I can testify from my own my own experience of a hostile Iraqi crowd back in 2004, , when I got shot and beaten up at a Mehdi Army prayer rally in Basra. Luckily, I was rescued after a couple of minutes, much to the disappointment of a local TV crew who were filming it all, clearly hoping to get exclusive footage of another Fallujah-style lynching.
But the reason I post this video – apart from being an excuse to trot out my old war stories again – is that it shows very vividly the kind of dangers that politicians in Iraq routinely face. It’s common for people in the West to be critical of Iraqi politicians, asking why we deposed Saddam just to get in a load of out-of-touch exiles, warlords and corrupt spivs, many of whom spend far too much time in London and Paris. But it’s fair to say that they run a very high personal risk in holding office, with angry mobs and assassination attempts all routine hazards of the job.
Take Saleh al Mutlaq himself, for example, who I’ve met a couple of times over the years. An urbane, English-speaking ex-Baathist, who has a PHD from Aberdeen University, he comes across as a fairly affable chap, the polar opposite of rabble-rousing warlords like Muqtadr Al Sadr. Yet he has paid a heavy personal price for paying office. In 2005, after he defied the orders of Sunni insurgents to boycott Iraq’s first elections, his brother was kidnapped and murdered, as were several of his bodyguards.
Yet nearly every politician in Iraq has similar stories. The former prime minister Ayad Allawi, for example, told me a while back that he’d had seven “serious” assassination attempts, “plus a few more minor ones”. Indeed, to a certain extent, anyone who hasn’t had someone try to kill them isn’t really considered very important.
But here’s the rub: it also means that anyone who wants to become a serious player in Iraqi politics has to be prepared to put their life on the line. True, the Iraqi government pays for 30 bodyguards for each of its 325 MPs, but not everyone likes being surrounded by a large group of armed men wherever they go, nor, indeed do they often trust them. It means, rather sadly, that politics in Iraq is a rough, tough game, one in which warlords, Islamists and machine politicians will feel more at home in than the kind of cuddly Facebook activist types and liberals that the West might hope to nurture.
In the meantime, what passes for the Arab Spring in Iraq are protests like the one involving Mr Mutlaq last week, which show an alarming level of anger being vented. The Sunnis of Anbar are upset about perceived discrimination by the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad; Mr Mutlaq, although a Sunni himself, was getting flak simply for the crime of being part of that government.
Tensions have been further raised by the Sunni uprising against President Assad’s Shia government in neighbouring Syria, and the recent arrest by the Baghdad government of a group of bodyguards belonging to the Sunni finance minister.
That, and of course, the usual protest that Iraq’s chaotic administration has done nothing for Sunni areas recently. True, that is a constant gripe of all Iraqis everywhere, and usually with some justification, but it is especially dangerous in flashpoint cities like Ramadi at times like this.
As Sheik Efan Saadoun, a local Anbar council leader, told the Associated Press: “They are fed up with us and the whole political process, but they don’t know how difficult it is for us to get anything for them from a government that doesn’t work properly.”
True, that’s democracy for you – the right to protest and so on. But I can’t help being reminded of something Saleh al Mutlaq himself told me when I interviewed him.
“The US and British might be proud of our elections, but personally I wish we had an Arab dictatorship which had peace and security, rather than a democracy which works on chaos.”
That, admittedly, was back in 2007, and in the context of him complaining about the sectarian chaos slaughter then raging across the country. Given his recent experience, though, I wonder whether he – and many other Iraqi politicians – might still think the same way.