Wednesday, 30 January 2013 00:00

Amidst Unsettled Middle East, Iraq Still Festers

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To the extent that the international media has paid attention to the situation in the Middle East, their stories have focused on the obvious and the easy: Israel’s elections, protests in Egypt on the anniversary of its corrupted revolution and, of course, a constant reminder that Iran may someday develop a nuclear weapon. The ongoing civil war in Syria garners hardly a notice, except when the international community pats itself on the back for its “aid packages.” Mali’s developing conflict, and its impact on Algeria, has filled plenty of by-lines with new stories of Islamic militancy. But, one story that is gradually slipping below the fold is the situation in Iraq.

Government chaos, economic instability, sectarian violence and the ongoing political struggles between Baghdad, Tehran and Washington have been the hallmarks of post-occupation Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is seen by many to be a would-be dictator, President Jalal Talabani is in Europe recovering from a stroke, and one on the country’s vice presidents, Tariq al-Hashemi has fled the country and been convicted of murder in absentia. Suffering infrastructure and high unemployment are set-off against the highest rate of oil exports in decades, yet still the announcement of $1 billion parliament building in Baghdad draws curious attention. Violence continues to rage between Sunni and Shi’a communities, as well as between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional capitol of Erbil. Baghdad finds itself trying to balance its ties with both Washington and Tehran, while casting weary glances towards the violence in Damascus.

The reelection in 2010 of Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd, was seen as a symbol that Iraq might have been continuing on the path to healing its ethnically divided past. Talabani’s stroke in December, however, has left his Prime Minister largely running the country. Maliki, himself a Shi’a, has instead continued on a path that many seen as designed to force a division between Iraq’s constituencies. His government has been beset by protests, led largely by Sunni Iraqis, calling for an end to anti-terror laws (which many as designed to target Sunnis) and the release of political and women prisoners who are often held without charge. Within his own constituency, Maliki is also seeing resistance. The leader of the Shi’a National Iraq Alliance, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, recently met with several Sunni and Kurd political parties to discuss alternatives to the current regime. Even noted Shi’a firebrand, Moqtada al-Sadr, has opposed Maliki in public recently.

Iraq’s economy is dependent on oil production, a commodity that it is producing at a staggering rate. Partnerships with foreign oil companies have allowed Iraq to produce more than 3.3 million barrels of oil in 2012, with a target of returning to its 1979 record of 3.8 million barrels within a year. This glut of oil, however, has not stabilized the economic picture in Iraq. Baghdad has been struggling to control the Central Bank of Iraq, while the latter is trying to prove that it is not a puppet of the Maliki regime. Lack of expertise in Iraqi ministry posts is rife in a system that doles out responsibility based on sectarian divisions in the government, most notably in the economic sectors where Baghdad has had great difficulty in attracting foreign investment. Even the oil economy is threatened as the Kurdish regional government in Erbil seeks to sever itself from Baghdad’s control, and instead deliver its oil to the market directly.

Violence in Iraq, largely along sectarian lines, is growing. According to Iraq Body Count (IBC), in 2012 approximately 4,500 people were killed in the ongoing violence that rattles the country. 43% of those killed were in the provinces of Baghdad, the capitol, or Nineveh, which borders Syria. The military and police are often the target of attacks, but civilian targets are commonly hit as well. It is the latter that places the strain on sectarian relations, as Shi’a communities fall under attack, presumably from Sunni militias, and Sunni communities face reprisal. The violence tracked by IBC increased from 2011 to 2012, the first increase since 2009, and IBC suggests that the country remains in “a state of law-level war,” with more than 120,000 killed since the US-led invasion in 2003.

The dangers are not limited to Sunni versus Shi’a, though. Tension between Baghdad and Erbil has been escalating in the last few months. In July 2012, the Maliki regime established the Tigris Operations Command, a military command based just outside the city of Kirkuk. The city is a predominantly Kurdish enclave that sits outside the region of Kurdish regional control, but also happens to sit on a massive oil field. In addition to dispatching its military to the area, Baghdad has also been unilaterally negotiating international contracts to tap into the Kirkuk oil field. In November, the regional Kurdish government ordered its own troops into the area to confront the Iraqi army. Despite a brief flare up of violence that same month, the situation has not escalated, although there is some thought that the Kirkuk standoff is merely high-stakes brinksmanship between Baghdad and Erbil.

The situation in neighboring Syria is taking its own toll in Iraq as well. In addition to Syrian refugees fleeing into Iraq, the government in Baghdad is finding itself torn in a multinational standoff over the Assad regime. As Baghdad has slowly slipped towards Tehran’s orbit since the end of the US occupation, its support for the Assad government in Damascus has been the source of ire among its own Sunni population. In an attempt to maintain its relationship with Washington, however, Iraq has succumbed to US pressure to search for weapons on Syria bound flights originating in Iran. Concerned that US weapons sales may be leveraged to control Baghdad’s support for Assad (or Tehran), the Maliki regime has been attempting to develop a relationship with Moscow, another Assad supporter, as well.

Iraq continues to suffer as it struggles to stabilize itself. Political gamesmanship, economic questions and rampant violence throughout the country have been the hallmark of the post-Saddam years. “Iraq is back with force,” said Foreign Minister Zebari last year. The question that remains, however, is where that force will carry it. Sectarian violence threatens to undo every gain the country has made since the end of US occupation, while the government in Baghdad seems unable to steer a single course for the benefit of its own people. Oil revenues alone will not solve the problem. The real solution remains elusive.

By Ted Graham, Aslan Media Columnist

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