Iraq: A Seething Boiler About to Explode

by | Sep 4, 2013


The pressure in the boiler which Western officials affectedly call “the new democratic Iraq” is building steadily and, figuratively speaking, the needle has entered the red zone. The deepening crisis is systemic in nature, encompasses the most important areas of life and undermines the foundations of statehood. A significant part, if not most, of the responsibility for what is happening lies with the government, headed by the founder and leader of the Islamic Call Party, Nouri Kamil al-Maliki. 

In late 2011, when the last American combat troops left Iraq and the 7-year occupation ended, Baghdad many times declared its readiness to take over the administration of the country and ensure its forward development. In practice, Prime Minister al-Maliki began by quickly and energetically concentrating all power in his own hands and essentially deciding who to punish and who to pardon at his sole discretion. The head of the cabinet of ministers began purging undesirables and those who simply disagreed with the state machinery, without any particular concern for whether there was any basis for it and without scruples over his choice of means. The opposition (and others as well) had many grounds for accusing the head of the cabinet of dictatorial ambitions. 

Following the example of the representatives of the Western coalition, which declared anyone who opposed the occupation a criminal and a terrorist, al-Maliki started accusing everyone who disagreed with his actions of terrorism and collusion with al-Qaeda. The law on fighting terrorism gave intelligence and law enforcement agencies broad powers, including the right to arrest people and hold them in detention without trial solely on suspicion of “anti-government activities” or, for example, in connection with longtime membership in the now-banned Ba’ath party (although the former ruling party had members from all levels and confessions of Iraqi society). On the basis of this law the courts hand down death sentences, which are then carried out; for example, on August 19, 2013 the most recent batch of 17 “enemies of the people” were executed, including two women… 

In December 2011 the highest-ranking Sunni at the time, vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, was accused of serious crimes (terrorism, complicity in murder, etc.) and was forced to flee first to Iraqi Kurdistan, then abroad. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to death by hanging on September 9, 2012. But it seemed that was not enough, and on November 1 the criminal court in Baghdad pronounced a second in absentia death sentence against al-Hashimi…

The highest official, the President of Iraq Jalal Talabani, was first deprived of many powers which usually belong to a head of state; suffice it to say that the Commander in Chief of the country’s armed forces is the prime minister. However, President Talabani tried to take a stand, and disagreements arose immediately between him and al-Maliki. The president refused to sign the death sentence of former Minister of Foreign Affairs Tarek Aziz, tried to overrule the prime minister’s decision to include the disputed Kirkuk province in the area of responsibility of the Tigris command center, etc. On December 18, 2012 the Iraqi federal media reported the death of the country’s president. Only two days later did it become known that Jalal Talabani was alive, but had suffered a stroke and was undergoing treatment in Germany. After that his name was not mentioned in the central Iraqi press, and it was only six months later that the Iranian news agency FARS reported that the 79-year-old president of Iraq had “returned to life after being in a coma for several months.” There was no official confirmation of this from Baghdad, nor have there been any new reports or comments since. And this is regarding the country’s president!

Since late 2012 the activities of the parliament have been practically paralyzed (over a third of the representatives are boycotting sessions). But the executive branch gets along just fine without the legislators; in some sense it’s even an advantage. As for the judicial branch and the media, they are under the strict control of the head of government’s office, and no one has any illusions on that count. 

In December 2012 in the Anbar Province, which is populated mostly by Sunnis, mass protests against political persecutions and reprisals against dissidents began. Sit-ins continue to this day, and there is no hint that the crisis is being settled. On the contrary, while in early 2013 the prime minister made some concessions (he gave orders to release women who had been in prison for a long time with no accusations made and to investigate information about violence by prison wardens, etc.), soon it became clear to everyone that al-Maliki had chosen the path of unyielding confrontation. Sunni protestors, meanwhile, have received support for their demands not only from their fellow tribesmen living in other provinces of the country, but from Kurds and even Shias in southern Iraq. The demonstrations have taken hold of other regions, including the third largest city, Mosul. Protestor tent camps have appeared in the Kirkuk province, which itself (or rather, the gas and oil fields there) is the object of fierce disagreements between Baghdad and the Kurdish autonomous region as well.

The central authorities started to get nervous, and on April 23, 2013 and order was given to disperse the tent camp in al-Hawija, a small town near Kirkuk. The army and police used weapons, and over 150 people were killed and dozens were injured. In response, on April 24 armed groups seized the city of Sulaiman Bek in the Salah ad-Din province, which neighbors Kirkuk. Government forces were able to regain control of the city just three days later; military helicopters, artillery and heavy armored vehicles were used in the operation 

The results of the municipal elections testified to a drop in the authority of the central authorities and growing discontent with it among the majority of the country’s population. In April 2013 the State of Law Coalition, headed by al-Maliki, lost gubernatorial posts in such key provinces as Baghdad and Basra (and the new governors are people who are close to Islamists). It is worth noting that elections were held in only 12 out of the 18 provinces of Iraq; in another three the elections were postponed from April until June, and the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan demonstratively refused the proposed date in order to emphasize their special status. 

Many very serious unresolved political and economic problems have built up in the relations between Baghdad and Arbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan): the status of the autonomous territory, which is not fixed in the constitution; disputed territories; the procedure for developing oil and gas fields; the status of the Peshmerga Kurdish military formations; etc. The three northern provinces of the country are de facto no longer under the control of the central government and conduct their own policy, the main goal of which is to declare an independent state. 

On September 15, 2013, the first national conference of Kurds in history will open, with delegations from Iran, Turkey, Syria and Armenia; it is expected that at the conference a declaration will be made about the indivisible Kurdish nation and the issue of creating a united “sovereign state of Kurdistan” will be raised. On August 10 the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, touching on the situation in Syria, in the north of which clashes between Islamist fighters and Kurds continue, stated, “If it turns out that innocent Kurdish citizens, women and children are threatened by death and terrorism, Iraqi Kurdistan will be prepared to defend them.” 

A side note: According to UN figures, there are already over 180,000 refugees from Syria in Iraq, mostly elderly people, women and children, and this stream is growing every day. If strikes are made against Syria and a total massacre follows, it is to Iraq that the main stream of refugees will go, as around 1.8 million people from Syria have already found refuge in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, and these countries’ capacity to take them in has been exhausted. Iraq does not have the conditions to take them in and house them either (which is why there have been relatively few of them), and furthermore, there are almost 1.7 million “internal refugees” (or forced migrants) in Iraq, but the Syrians will have no other choice. This will further exacerbate the situation in Iraq. 

On September 21, by the decision of the president and government of the region, parliamentary and presidential elections are to be held in Iraqi Kurdistan in which a new Constitution for the region is expected to be passed; the Kurdistani leadership sees this as an important step in the advancement of the idea of independence. The supreme electoral commission in Baghdad demanded that the elections be postponed to November 21 in order to hold them at the same time as the elections to the provincial councils. It is unlikely, however, that the Kurdish authorities will abandon their plans, especially since President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani plans to run for a third term.

Such political decisiveness has a solid economic basis; in September 2013 the commissioning of an oil export pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan into neighboring Turkey with a capacity of 1 million barrels a day is planned (currently exports are around 30,000 barrels a day, which are transported by truck).

Consulates General of many countries have been opened in Arbil, foreign companies and banks are operating, a favorable investment climate has been created in Iraqi Kurdistan, security has been established and there are understandable rules of the game which do not change sporadically and unilaterally. As for the rest of Iraq, only oil extractions sites have been restored and are in active operation; practically the entire volume of oil extracted is exported, forming the main source of currency earnings (over 94 billion dollars in 2012). However, there is an acute shortage of diesel fuel on the domestic market, and there are periodic “gas crises”; the capacities of the local refineries is insufficient, and petroleum products are purchased in neighboring Iran and a few other countries. Iran supplies gas, electricity, many basic consumer goods, automobiles and motorcycles, etc.

The obvious inability of the central government to dramatically improve the situation is causing oil-rich provinces to seek their own ways of resolving problems, stimulating decentralization. In August 2013 the council of the Wasit Province began considering the possibility of creating an oil company which would be independent of the Midland Oil Company and would be responsible for developing the oil industry in Ahdab and Badra. Oil extraction in the province has exceeded 100,000 barrels a day, and the fight to control the revenues is gathering momentum. A similar “local” company was formed earlier by the government of the Maysan province, and this experience is now being studied attentively. The government of another province neighboring the Maysan province, Basra, has already repeatedly expressed its extreme displeasure at the unfair distribution of revenue from oil exports (only one dollar per barrel of oil sold is allocated to the province from Baghdad) and hinted transparently that if the situation does not change a Confederation of Southern Iraq may be created, and then they would decide for themselves how much money to leave for development in the region and how much to allocate to Baghdad. Baghdad sensed that such intentions are not a bluff, and in early August the Iraqi parliament passed an amendment to the law “On the Powers of the Provinces” giving local governments the right to somewhat increase allocations to local budgets from the revenues received from oil extraction by foreign operators. 

One of the main reasons for the catastrophic state of the economy (and other areas) is believed to be embezzlement, which encompasses all levels of authority and has become almost a norm. According to a study by Transparency International, since 2003 Iraq has constantly been among the ten most corrupt states in the world. According to data from the parliamentary anti-corruption commission, in the period from 2003 through 2009 embezzlement of state funds amounted to 139 billion dollars. Since then the situation has taken on a more threatening scale, but the measures being taken are clearly inadequate; the abovementioned commission is physically unable to manage the “epidemic of corruption” (16860 cases were examined in 2011 alone), and its powers are substantially limited. In all, in the course of several years dozens of high-ranking officials (including six ministers) have fled the country, obviously not empty-handed; the losses to the treasury are estimated at 195 billion dollars.

Besides the problems described above, there is one more which is of literally vital importance to the country’s citizens: security. While in 2011 4,147 people in Iraq were killed as a result of terrorist attacks, since the beginning of 2013 over 5,600 people have already been killed, more than in all of 2012 (4574); this is the highest figure since 2008. Since April – May 2013, every week there have been no less than 200 acts of terrorism and armed attacks, with numerous victims… 

Escalation of violence has overtaken most of the country’s provinces, and while previously terrorist attacks targeted mostly crowds near mosques, hospitals, at markets, etc. and the attacks were made, as the saying goes, on the sly (homemade explosive devices, car bombs with timers or remote detonators, more rarely suicide bombers or killings from weapons with silencers) this year both the scale and the nature of the attacks have changed.

Attacks on oil industry sites have abruptly become more frequent; since the beginning of the year export of oil via the Kirkuk-Ceyhan (Turkey) pipeline has been disrupted over 30 times as a result of bombings; pumping stations and convoys of tanker trucks have been attacked; and on August 17 a terrorist attack took place at the strategically important port of Umm Qasr when a powerful explosive device (according to expert estimates, over 250 kg) planted in the fuel tanks of a trailer detonated. 

Army and police checkpoints, military convoys, garrisons and well-fortified strongholds are more and more frequently the object of attacks. On July 23 armed attacks were made on two prisons (in Abu Ghraib and in Taji, a suburb of Baghdad), as a result of which over 1000 prisoners escaped. In some regions of the country genuine battles are taking place; since the beginning of the year over 400 members of federal military and law enforcement agencies have been killed, and over 1200 have been wounded.

Among “priority targets” are preeminent political and religious figures, officials of various rank, and army, police and intelligence officers. No one can be certain of his own safety, even well-guarded persons. For example, on August 8 Lieutenant General Hasan Karim Hudeir, the commander of the new operative command center al-Jazira, was shot to death by one of his own guards. In mid-August under the guise of “obtaining information on planned attempts on the prime minister and the seizure of parliament” almost all army and intelligence divisions in a specially guarded “green zone” were replaced. During an inspection trip to a “palace” military unit which had been deployed near Baghdad, the personal guard of the Commander in Chief of the Iraqi armed forces Nouri al-Maliki consisted of a dozen foreign mercenaries…

In Baghdad they do not trust even the highest army and police officers, and personnel “purges” and chaotic appointments take place periodically. On July 31, 2013 the commander of a group of troops in the Anbar province, Major General M. al-Mahlawi, was removed from his post with the explanation “for noncompliance with orders to detain people accused of terrorist attacks. In late August it was announced that there would be large-scale changes in the leadership of military and law enforcement structures, including the return of previously dismissed generals and senior officers to the ranks of the armed forces and police . Constant movement of troops and police forces from one place to another testifies to the fact that the federal authorities are not in control of the situation, and the number of “trouble spots” is constantly growing. In Baghdad they see a lack of military equipment and an insufficient level of training among military and law enforcement personnel as the reason.

In July 2013 the Iraqi Ministry of Defense placed several more orders with the U.S. for deliveries of weapons and military equipment. On the list are 50 Striker armored vehicles, 12 Bell 412EP utility helicopters, etc., as well as spare parts and technical service for previously delivered armored vehicles, including M113 armored vehicles and HMMWV armored transport vehicles, for a total of 4.3 billion dollars. Over the past several years Iraq has purchased 12 billion dollars’ worth of military equipment from the U.S., and another almost two billion were spent on training programs conducted under the leadership of American advisors and instructors.

On August 15 the fourth session of the joint coordinated committee on strategic partnership between the U.S. and Iraq, created in 2008, was held in Washington. The delegations, headed by Secretary of State J. Kerry and Iraqi Foreign Minister H. Zibari, discussed the situation in the region, the Syrian crisis, and questions of macroeconomics and energy diplomacy, focusing the greatest attention on the necessity of “providing uninterrupted supplies of Iraqi energy resources to the international market”. This brief phrase is the most meaningful of all.

Reprinted with Permission.