Iraq’s political dispute stinks online

Iraq‘s political dispute stinks online

With under belt fighting, Iraq’s government crisis is becoming politically so toxic, writes Salah Nasrawi.
With efforts to end Iraq’s most serious political crisis since US invasion stumble, rival politicians and groups are increasingly using hardball tactics, including rumors and hoaxes, to knock down their challengers in a tireless and vicious tug of war.
It has been a kind of a political drama and among weapons in use are numerous websites and social networks on the Internet that are providing Iraqi bickering politicians with effective ammunition to mud slug their opponents or score points with them.
For months, Iraq has been gridlocked in a government crisis over power-sharing and distribution of national resources following the US troop withdrawal in December.
The protracted dispute has escalated into demands to unseat Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki who is accused of consolidating power and marginalizing other political leaders and raised sectarian tension in the war-battered country.
Now with the row has reached a crescendo, across the battle lines stand emerging digital media which are being widely used to the advantage of the warring sides.
Although most Iraqis still get their news through radio and television stations, the Internet has become a major source of information, allowing millions of them to read different news about their country.
In most parts of Iraq, public electricity counts for 2 to 4 hours per day but some research suggested that Iraqis are spending more time online by relying on electricity provided by private generators. 
What makes reading in the online newspapers from Iraq interesting is that some of them appear to have free access to breaking stories as they happen in Iraq, a country which is marred by violence and political turmoil.
Indeed, they are increasingly becoming major sources of information and many international media, which do not have the ability to access the conflict, are now taking their news from these sites, sometimes even with little or no concern about not being able to independently authenticate the news.
Dozens of these websites which have a presence online and describe themselves as digital news outlets have no identified ownerships.
It is very difficult to know who is actually behind them but it is obvious they are serving some political interests and even reflecting well-known agendas of politicians or sectarian groups.
Experts suggest that Iraqi politicians are spending huge amounts of money on publicity including radio, television, newspapers and online media outlets.
Many of them suspect that some media, which are for hire, are very much involved in their dirty campaigns.
Some leaders, such as powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, have active personal web pages and are using them to post statements or to address their supporters.
In recent weeks, Al-Sadr, who has joined Kurdish and Sunni leaders in efforts to unseat Al-Maliki, has extensively used his website to rally his followers behind the demand, infuriating Al-Maliki’s camp.          
Some websites have recently posted a fatwa, or religious edict, by Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Kadhum Al-Haeri, forbidding support for secular politicians in their efforts to topple Al-Maliki.
Websites which support Al-Maliki drummed up the fatwa as being aimed at Al-Sadr who was accused of dividing Shias, a very serious charge in Shia Islam, tantamount to accusations of heresy.
While Al-Sadr cast doubts about the edict and described it as a lie, pro-Al-Maliki’s websites claimed that Al-Sadr will be charged and arrested for terrorism and murder, a reference to Al-Sadr alleged murder of a prominent Shia cleric in 2003 and his followers’ rebellion in 2008.
In their war of words the websites are usually abusing the animosity technique by attributing all their controversial or even unbelievable news to unnamed sources.  
For example, a website reported last week at the height of the political crisis that US Vice president Joe Biden had visited Iraq for two hours to try to help resolve the conflict.
Hours earlier the same website reported that US ambassador in Baghdad James Jeffry has warned the anti-Al-Maliki camp that Washington considers unseating the prime minister a red line.
The two faked stories were apparently posted to frustrate Al-Maliki’s opponents by claiming that Washington stands firm with the Iraqi prime minister.
Several websites reported Monday that the parliament’s speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi, who is among the staunchest opponents of Al-Maliki, had resigned, a flagrant attempt to portray the anti- Al-Maliki’s politicians as defeatists.
On Tuesday Qeraat, a pro Al-Maliki, website alleged that Al-Nujaifi’s son Saif is involved in a 12$ million scum.    
While such postings are aimed to discredit opponents others seem designed to evoke national interests in the political and sectarian conflict.
Al-Bayana Al Jadida website reported Monday that an Israeli military delegation has recently been in Erbil for talks with Kurdish government leaders.
It said the delegation met with one of the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s sons to offer Israeli weapons to Kurds to help arming them in their dispute with Baghdad.
While news about Kurdish-Israeli contacts is nothing new, the timing of the posting is indicative.
On Monday, a posting in UR, another digital news outlet, claimed that a prominent tribal leader from the Sunni western province Annbar is leading a network which is involved in smuggling Iraqi artifacts to Israel.
In another positing the website claimed that a famous tribal chieftain is being groomed by the Americans to replace Al-Nujaifi as a speaker of parliament.
Another site reported this week that Kuwaiti and Qatari officials have been meeting in recent days to coordinate their anti Shia activities in Iraq.
It said the two countries are trying to recruit Sunni tribal leaders to in activities against the Shia led government.
On Tuesday, leader of the main Sunni Iraqiya bloc Iyad Allawi dismissed these reports in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper as a cover-up for Iranian support to Al-Maliki.
Social media networks like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, have come to play an important part in the political dispute, too.
Iraq has tried to curb the internet influence.
In April the Iraqi parliament discussed a proposed new cybercrime law which human rights groups criticized for imposing harsh penalties on offenders.
Human rights groups said the law could be used to criminalize journalist for their work.
The proposal came after many Iraqis began turning to the Internet to help spread reports about what is happening in the country.
Among most popular stories published by the websites are those about creeping corruption among government officials.
Last year various websites published revelations by a former Iraqi planning minister that a Canadian registered company was able to obtain a $1.2-billion contract to build power plants in Iraq.
According to the story extensive investigations proved that the company was only existed on paper and had no capacity to complete the contracts.
This triggered a major political scandal in Iraq that toppled the minister of electricity.
On Sunday, Al-Zawra, published documents which show that the current minister of electricity Karim Aftan had appointed his son in the ministry a day after he was sent to Egypt in official business.
Last week Kitabat, a popular website revealed that senior oil ministry officials and lawmakers are involved in a scandal of stealing equipment from an oil site in Basra that worth millions of dollars and smuggle them to outside Iraq.
The website supported its claim with official papers which it claimed were forgery.
For Iraqis these are troubling times but to watch their politicians’ dirty linen on show could serve a purpose, not least watching them transformed from heroes to modern day Ali Babas.

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