Fallujah, Iraq – Qutaiba has no intention of joining Iraq’s historic anti-government protests. The more Baghdad bursts into defiant chants, the less the 36-year-old from Anbar province wants any part in his countrymen’s uprising.
“Anbaris have learned their lesson,” said Qutaiba, who asked that his real name not be used.
Since early October, Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest against corruption and the government’s failure to deliver services and economic opportunities. In recent weeks, protesters’ demands have widened to include a complete overhaul of the political system and the resignation of the government. Over the past month, at least 264 people have been killed and thousands wounded by security forces.
But the streets of towns and cities in Anbar, a Sunni-majority area, have remained calm and the population has shied away from being vocal about the demonstrations that have swept through much of the country.
“Every individual in Anbar knows that the protests won’t lead to anything good, that they will not resolve anything,” he told Al Jazeera.
“How do I know? Because I was part of the 2012 protests for a whole year.”
The Iraq protests that began in 2012 were a largely failed and often violent Sunni-led mobilisation against corruption and unemployment. The movement was fuelled by perceptions among Iraq’s Sunni minority that they had been marginalised by the Shia-dominated government instituted by the United States in 2003, following the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Iraq’s Sunnis, who make up about 30 percent of the population, had dominated politics under Hussein’s rule. However, the US policy of de-Baathification, which saw the dismantling of Hussein’s Baath party and the removal of over 100,000 civil servants linked to the party, stripped them of their power.
But while Anbar and other Sunni-majority areas have remained calm during the current uprising, they are not exempt from the issues which are driving protests elsewhere in Iraq, including unemployment. Perceived Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs is also a widespread grievance, from Basra to Fallujah.
On Tuesday, protesters in Karbala attacked the Iranian consulate, demanding that Tehran stop interfering in Iraqi politics, while protesters in Baghdad this week painted the Iranian flag on roads for people to tread on.
But in Anbar, memories of 2012-13 are still raw. Taking root in Fallujah, the unrest spread quickly to other cities, until the main demonstration camp was shut down by security forces in late 2013. More than 200 people were killed during the year of protests and few concessions were made.
Every Friday, after prayer, a younger and more idealistic Qutaiba joined these mass protests.
Today, Anbaris blame the demonstrations for creating the conditions that led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group in January 2014, when the armed group took advantage of the civil unrest and mounting Sunni grievances and launched a successful campaign to take over the province.
By June 2014, the group had captured 70 percent of the area, displacing hundreds of thousands of civilians , including Qutaiba and his family.
As a result, most Anbaris are choosing not to take part in demonstrations.
“If we join, they will displace us again,” said Qutaiba, whose life continues as normal despite the deadly clashes elsewhere in the country.
Mahmoud al Qais, 37, also took part in Anbar’s protests seven years ago.
“Displacement was a painful lesson for us, and we learned from our mistakes, we can never support any protests any more,” he said.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), authorities in the province have also sought to limit public shows of support for the protests.
The Anbar Police Command on October 24 issued a statement calling on Anbaris to head to work and continue “with construction, preserving security, supporting security forces, and benefitting from past lessons, from which the province has only gotten destruction, killings, and displacement.”
But not all Anbaris have remained quiet. According to HRW, two men were arrested last week for posting messages of solidarity with the protesters on Facebook, while a third was questioned and a fourth fled to Baghdad.
“These arrests could signify a serious retrogression in free speech in some parts of the country,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of HRW’s Middle East and North Africa Division, said. “It’s crucial for these cases to remain the exception.”
An official close to the governor of Anbar confirmed that two popular activists had been arrested for using social media to show support for the ongoing protests. The activists were held in prison for a week, where their hair was shaved and they were asked to sign a contract saying they would abstain from showing any support for the demonstrations, he said.
“Most of Anbar is sympathetic towards the protests, but they are afraid. If Anbar joins the protests, they will be accused of being ISIS or Baathists,” the official told Al Jazeera.
Major Muhammad of the Anbar police force told Al Jazeera that he was not aware of any people being arrested for social media posts supporting the protests.
Although it is not against the law to show support for the uprising, the province’s tribal guidelines have made it clear that those who do will be punished for it.
But in a region where residents have only recently started to rise from years of violence and turmoil, Anbaris seem unlikely to choose free speech over peace.
A sheikh from one of the province’s largest tribes said that while the protesters’ concerns are legitimate, Anbaris would not be supporting them. “We’ve already lost everything, now we just want to observe from a distance.”
Far from the chaos that has engulfed Baghdad and other major cities over the past month, Fallujah is living a rare moment of respite.
Reconstruction projects are ongoing, and both the economy and security have vastly improved since 2016, when ISIL was defeated in the city.
In recent weeks, some families have even left the chaos in Baghdad for the tranquillity of Fallujah, where they are renting homes in hope of returning as soon as the violence in the capital subsides.
Ali Hamed’s friends suggested he relocate to Fallujah after clashes between protesters and security forces near his home in Baghdad. He arrived in the city in mid-October.
“I checked the security situation and found it was better than Baghdad,” said Hamed, who requested his real name not be used, citing safety concerns.
“Since I moved here, I’ve not felt that anything could affect my safety or my family’s safety.”
Worlds away from the chaos in the capital, at a riverbank cafe, young men sit around plastic tables smoking shisha and playing board games against the backdrop of the Euphrates and a picture-perfect sunset.
People in Fallujah are exhausted from years of conflict, said Kamil al-Fahdawy, a prominent imam in the city.
“The displacement, the security situation, the fighting – they lost so many souls, there was so much bloodshed,” he said.
“People are just looking for a reason to live, they just want to live a normal life.”