Troubled times for Iraq

Iraq has had another bad year, and it is entering 2013 amid increasing uncertainty, writes Salah Nasrawi

A year after the last US troops pulled out from Iraq, the beleaguered country has slipped into a state of ongoing and escalating political turmoil as sectarian violence shows no signs of abating.
Iraq has remained gripped in its worst political deadlock since the US-led invasion of 2003 amid confessional divisions, rival clashes and terrorist attacks that have sparked concerns about the country’s post-war stability.
Corruption and human rights abuses are rampant, while government mismanagement and the lack of health and social services and basic supplies, such as electricity, water and sewage systems, remain epidemic. Ultimately, the situation in Iraq nearly ten years after the US-led invasion is anything but encouraging.
A few weeks before the year ended, the political deadlock took a sharp and perilous course as the country’s Shia-led government and its Kurdish and Sunni partners engaged in a bitter power struggle and military standoffs.
On 21 December, Iraq’s Sunni leaders accused Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki of a political crackdown after troops raided the Sunni Finance Minister Rafea Al-Essawi’s office and home and arrested dozens of his guards and staff members.
The crackdown has built on tensions that have been running high since December 2011, when Al-Maliki moved against Vice President Tarek Al-Hashemi, who fled Baghdad for Turkey in order to avoid prosecution on charges of terrorism and running death squads.
The Sunni Al-Iraqiya bloc, which includes the groups of both Al-Essawi and Al-Hashemi, has accused Al-Maliki of trying to consolidate his power at its expense.
Al-Iraqiya leaders say Al-Maliki, who controls the army, security forces and intelligence services, is trying to subdue the country’s Sunnis to his autocratic tendencies. They also accuse him of relying on Iraq’s compromised judiciary and corrupt bureaucracy as weapons against his rivals.
The situation has also infuriated some of Al-Maliki’s Shia allies, who believe he is fabricating and politicising terrorism or criminal cases against his enemies. “The way he deals with the security files has made everybody lose confidence in him,” said Amir Al-Kinani, a top Shia lawmaker from the Shia Sadrist Trend.
The raids and detention of Al-Essawi’s staff came a day after troops from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Region opened fire on Iraqi army helicopters, the second such incident in a week, underscoring mounting tensions between Baghdad’s Shia-led government and the Kurdish Region.
Iraq’s central government and the country’s northern Kurdish region have in recent months remained gridlocked after Kurdish leaders accused Al-Maliki of trying to orchestrate a power grab.
Tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish Region have risen after Al-Maliki formed a new military command covering disputed territories in September, in order to address the deterioration in security in areas that have been the scene of terrorist attacks in recent months.
In retaliation, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has dispatched massive troop numbers to the same areas, ordering them to be renamed “Kurdistan areas outside the region”, which Baghdad considers to be provocative.
Relations between the country’s Kurds, who make up about 20 per cent of the population, and the Shia-led government have also worsened over other long-running disputes, including power and resource-sharing.
The Kurds have been pursuing separate oil-and-gas exploration deals with foreign companies, and they have started selling oil on international markets in independent export deals.
The moves have aggravated tensions with Baghdad, which considers the sales to be illegal and a challenge to its claim to full control over Iraq’s oil.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has initiated a reconciliation effort to defuse the disputes, but the talks have come to a stalemate after Talabani himself recently suffered a stroke.
Now there are increasing fears that if he dies or is permanently incapacitated, Iraq will face further political turmoil.
While the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq led to the creation of a Kurdish semi-autonomous region, the recent disputes have raised fears that the Kurds are now drifting further from Baghdad, raising questions about the possible secession of Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of the country.
On the other hand, sectarian violence and killing continue to rise, and attacks targeting both Iraqi security forces and civilians killed more than 4,000 Iraqis in 2012.
The United Nations said it was concerned that the violence was increasing a year after the US forces left, noting that “the attacks were often more deadly, with a few attacks claiming scores of victims.”
As the political conflicts and violence continue, respect and protection of human rights in Iraq have deteriorated. While acknowledging the responsibility of the armed groups for some gross human rights abuses, including the indiscriminate killings of civilians and kidnappings, international rights groups blame the Iraqi government for serious violations, such as unlawful detention and torture in detention centres.
Executions remain of great concern in Iraq, with the number of people executed in 2012 exceeding 129, the highest since 2005, drawing criticism from international rights groups. Further death sentences were ratified last week pending execution.
“Respect for human rights is the basis of any democracy, and strong action needs to be taken by the Iraqi authorities to ensure that each and every person in this country can fully enjoy his or her fundamental rights,” said Martin Kobler, UN special envoy for Iraq.
Corruption remained one of the main obstacles to economic development and good governance in Iraq over the course of the year. Reports have suggested that corruption has reached the highest levels of the government and negatively impacted every aspect of Iraqi life.
As usual over the last 10 years, the international group Transparency International has ranked Iraq among the most corrupt countries studied in its 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. A US government report quoted Abdel-Baset Turki, Iraq’s chief auditor, as saying in October that almost $800 million was flowing out of the country illegally each week.
In November, Iraq cancelled a $4.2 billion deal to buy arms from Russia because of concerns about corruption. Lawmakers accused several of Al-Maliki’s aides of personally profiting from the deal.
Iraq’s internal bickering aside, 2012 will also be remembered as the year when Iran managed to protect its alliance with the country’s government and increase its standing with Iraq’s Shia political groups, which dominate the Baghdad government.
Iran’s resolve to increase its influence in Iraq, including by building a military and security alliance with the Shia-led government, has raised concerns among Iraq’s Sunni neighbours, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
Relations between Iraq and Turkey remained strained over a host of issues, including accusations by Baghdad that Ankara was interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs.
On Saturday, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Iraq was “passing through a critical period” and described the Shia-led government as “a minority government.”
Baghdad has repeatedly accused Ankara of sectarian bias and has blasted Ankara for supporting both the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs.
Distrust and suspicion between Iraqi Shias and Saudi Arabia continued to block reconciliation with the Arab world’s heavyweight oil-producer. Iraq now plans to increase its own oil production, which could trigger a decline in international prices, setting the two countries on a collision course.
Relations between Iraq and Kuwait also remained cool, signalling difficulties in ending issues emerging from former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991.
The main disputes include Kuwait’s refusal to lift the UN sanctions imposed on Iraq following the 1991 invasion and a new port on the Arabian Gulf that the emirate has started constructing that many Iraqis believe is blocking entrances to Iraqi ports.
Iraq also faces daunting challenges over Syria as it seeks to contain the spill-over from the crisis in the neighbouring country.
Fearing that Iraqi insurgents will unite with extremists in Syria in order to wage a two-front battle for Sunni dominance, Iraq has implicitly supported Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and allowed Iranian weapon airlifts through its airspace.
This has put Iraq at loggerheads with the United States and other countries, which are pushing for Al-Assad’s ouster.
All this makes Iraq today as fragile as it has ever been since the US-led invasion in 2003. No lasting solution to the country’s instability can be brought about until the decade-old struggle over power and wealth is dealt with.
Though the failures of the Iraqi political groups have been well-documented, it is time for them to contemplate other options or else to watch the pattern of perpetual conflict in the country continue.

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