Fallujah, Iraq – For months now, thousands of mostly young Iraqis have defied a violent crackdown to demand political change as a spontaneous and leaderless protest movement quickly spread from the capital, Baghdad, to several southern and central provinces.
But in the western province of Anbar, which makes up a third of the country’s territory, the anti-government rallies that erupted in October have been conspicuously absent.
“The protests haven’t spread here because we have not forgotten what happened last time we had mass demonstrations,” said Ibrahim Abushahd, owner of a food store in Fallujah, a city some 60km (37 miles) from Baghdad.
“We saw horrors no one has ever seen before.”
In 2013, Anbar province was rocked by a series of protests triggered by allegations that then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government was using an anti-terror legislation to target the Sunni minority, who controlled the country until the overthrow of long-time President Saddam Hussein in 2003.
For many in Fallujah, the fallout from the mass 2013 protests set in motion a chain of events that culminated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group taking over in early 2014 as it began seizing large swathes of Iraq.
“Our city was the first one to fall under the control of ISIL,” said Muayad Zubeir Mahmoud, assistant professor of political science at Anbar University.
“The original protests, despite calling for the same demands that the October protest movement is asking for, resulted in it being maligned and ruined by the government, which led to chaos and an opening for ISIL to wreak its havoc.”
Known as the city of the mosques, Fallujah still carries the scars of devastation caused by years of war and destruction – from the 2003 invasion by the United States and the 2006 al-Qaeda takeover to the ISIL domination in 2014 and the subsequent offensive by the Iraqi army and Shia militias to drive the group out of Anbar.
The capture of Fallujah saw ISIL’s fighters blowing up houses that belonged to police and security officials, while the Iraqi army and Shia militias’ campaign to retake the city resulted in street battles that inflicted further damages on homes, public squares and government buildings.
Tens of thousands in the city of nearly 100,000 people fled to the countryside and other parts of Iraq to escape the violence.
The Iraqi army recaptured Fallujah in 2016, and according to district administrator Muayyad Farhan Mohammad the city is now “stable and in the process of rebuilding” after the “huge amount of destruction” it suffered over years.
“The average citizen in Fallujah and Anbar now has greater awareness of where these actions might lead to,” Mohammed said, citing the residents’ traumatic experiences of displacement, killings and destruction to explain that current lack of “appetite” for protests in the province.
“We are still bleeding from our wounds,” he added, warning “there are fears that ISIL will return to Anbar province if protests erupted here.”
According to Kawthar Muhammadi, a 29-year-old civil activist, ISIL still has sleeper cells in Fallujah. This is something that “everyone knows, but does not want to talk about,” she said.
“Anbar is part desert and it is easy for an ISIL member or affiliate to travel through Fallujah, the closest city to Baghdad, and infiltrate the protest sites there and in the south of the country,” she added.
Mahmoud, the political analyst, said despite officials in Anbar openly stating that whoever wants to join the anti-government protests should do so in Baghdad, they have been keeping a close eye on activists.
“Local activists have been subdued and large gatherings are not allowed here,” he said. “Social media pages of activists are being monitored, and anyone that publicly expresses support for these protests could be subjected to arrest.”
Muhammadi said most activists cannot risk being physically present at protest sites in Fallujah or in Baghdad and other cities because of “where we are from”.
“Although there are a handful of activists from Fallujah present at Tahrir Square [the epicentre of the protests in Baghdad], they know to keep a low profile and not say where they are from or be photographed,” she said.
Otherwise, she added, security forces will be quick to use someone from Anbar as a scapegoat and blame them for disrupting the protests and causing violence.
Against this backdrop, residents in Fallujah are quick to express their solidarity with the anti-government protesters in Baghdad and southern cities, but are far from ruing a lack of action on their own turf.
“We are finally living in a stable reality for the first time in years, so we don’t want to risk losing it to chaos,” said Omar, a butcher in the city’s old marketplace.
“Life now is very good compared with before,” he added. “Security is stable, we have food on the table every night, and all we can do is hope for an even better future.”
However, Salam Turki, a university student, argued nothing will come out of the protest movement.
“It’s been four months already,” he said.
“I don’t have hope that the government will listen to the demands of the protesters, even if they are legitimate. We have had our share of demonstrations and the repression that came with it.”