Doubts over Iraq’s peace plan

Even before the fanfare has died down, Iraq’s new peace plan has turned into a damp squib, writes Salah Nasrawi
A document for peace signed by Iraq’s rival politicians last week suggested that there were signs of a thaw in the tense relationships between the country’s feuding communities. Taken at face value the document, officially known as the Social Peace Initiative, amounted to a signal that Iraqis might be finally ready to work together. 
However, a closer look at the situation in the war-weary country shows that peace is still far from the streets of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, as the violence spirals and the country’s sectarian and ethnic factions remain deadlocked in a lingering government crisis.
To many Iraqis, the initiative, proposed by the Shia group in the government, seemed to be a last-ditch effort to prevent the country from sliding inexorably towards a disastrous all-out sectarian war.
Iraq is now struggling with the worst wave of sectarian violence in years, with almost daily bombings reminiscent of the bloody scenes witnessed during the civil unrest after the US-led invasion in 2003.
The bombings have been targeting mosques, funerals, markets and the country’s security forces. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq since April, including 804 in August alone, according to the United Nations.
Only this week, car bombs ripped through Baghdad, part of a series of explosions across Iraq that left hundreds dead and triggered calls for revenge from the families of the fallen.
On Saturday, two suicide bombers detonated explosives among mourners in a Shia part of Baghdad. The police said that more than 70 people had been killed and more than 100 wounded.
The bombings came hours after Sunni insurgents launched a suicide attack on a police headquarters in the city of Beiji and a police convoy station in Mosul, killing nine policemen and wounding 24 others.
On Sunday, a blast hit Sunni mourners attending a funeral in the Dora district of Baghdad, killing 16 people and wounding 35 others.
In recent weeks, the number of targeted assassinations by gunmen with silenced weapons has also increased, including shootings in houses and the killing of entire families.
In another grim testament to the chaos now roiling the Iraqi capital, dozens of decomposing bodies were found piled up in abandoned areas in Baghdad and elsewhere last week.
On Thursday, the corpses of 10 unidentified young men were discovered in an abandoned building in eastern Baghdad. The victims had been killed by gunshots to the head, and all the dead bodies were handcuffed and blindfolded.
Iraq has recently witnessed incidents of sectarian cleansing, including killings at false checkpoints, executions and people being driven from their homes, neighbourhoods and cities.
Dozens of families belonging to a key Sunni tribe were forced to leave their homes in the southern provinces of Basra and Nasiriya this month.
These attacks and the wider intimidation campaigns against the Sunnis bear the mark of Shia militias that have been dormant since the bloody days of the 2006-2007 civil war but may now have reawoken.
The Sunnis say the militias are being backed by Iran.
Haidar Al-Mullah, an outspoken member of the mainly Sunni Al-Iraqiya List, said that Assaeb Ahl Al-Haq, one of the Shia militias, was linked to Iraqi Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s Daawa Party and that members of the militia had been holding cabinet identity cards when they carried out the attacks.
In reply, Al-Maliki has accused foreign countries of “hatching conspiracies” and “stirring up sedition” in Iraq. In a speech in Nasiriya on Saturday, Al-Maliki specifically mentioned Saudi Arabia as being responsible. 
Many Iraqis now regard the tit-for-tat violence as a curtain-raiser for Iraq’s next round of sectarian strife.
Reports have recently surfaced to the effect that three Shia militias plan to join ranks to counter the Sunni insurgency and that the Shia-led government has given its blessing to the new single force, tasking it with protecting Shia neighbourhoods.
Other reports have suggested that the government is secretly building three new army battalions whose Shia soldiers are being trained in counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare.
The violence in Iraq has escalated steadily since the last US troops pulled out of the country in December 2011.
Tensions spilled out onto the streets in December, when tens of thousands of people started a protest across the country’s Sunni provinces, demanding an end to what they perceive as the marginalisation of the Sunni sect.
The Sunni-Shia political and social divide has undermined a power-sharing pact forged after the elections in 2010 between Iraq’s Kurds, Shias and Sunnis.
For months, the Iraqi government has been stalled amid internecine conflicts.
The civil war in neighbouring Syria, which has contributed to the resurgence of sectarian tensions across the Middle East, has also exacerbated discontent in Iraq’s minority Sunni population.
Now the question is whether the new initiative will be able to bring about a lasting solution in the violence-ripped country and in particular whether it will be able to find a solution to the Shia-Sunni divide.
The violence is largely sectarian and has been fuelled by many complicating factors, including the political deadlock in Baghdad.
The Initiative, sponsored by Iraqi Shia Vice President Khudair Al-Khozaei, contains a number of components, including measures “to confront the militias and terror groups and to dry up their resources”.
It also states that signatories will set up a follow-up committee that will suggest measures to solve the problems of former members of the former ruling Iraqi Baath Party, which ran the country under former president Saddam Hussein.
Such people were banned from public service after the Shia empowerment following the ouster of the Saddam regime.
The initiative says that this committee should make recommendations to ensure equal opportunities in public-service jobs and to combat corruption in the government.
However, the deal is flimsy because it will be very hard to enforce, critics describing it as merely “ink on paper” and warning that its prospects are bleak. 
Some believe that the plan is designed to boost Al-Maliki’s credentials ahead of the elections in 2014. They describe it as a smoke-screen to portray the Sunnis as stalling on reconciliation, allowing Al-Maliki to present himself as the defender of the Shias.
The initiative comes two weeks before an expected trip by Al-Maliki to Washington, where he is expected to be urged by the Obama administration to bring about reconciliation with the Sunnis.
Al-Maliki hopes to convince the US administration to give the green light to billions of dollars worth of US arms sales to Iraq that his government has requested and has supported by portraying Al-Maliki as a peace-maker.
Few Sunni leaders have signed the document, however. Prominent Sunni leaders such as Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutleq have refused to sign, arguing that the plan is a whitewash.
Some have even said it will only inflame sectarian tensions.
All previous national reconciliation efforts between Iraq’s ethno-religious communities, seen as imperative to stemming the country’s sectarian violence, have failed.
The polarisation and turmoil that have afflicted Iraqi politics and society have grown out of a number of underlying problems that have not been addressed.
Unless genuine efforts are made to convince Iraqi Sunnis to buy into a power-sharing agreement, it is hard to believe that the current levels of internecine fighting will come to an end.
A few of the plan’s elements, including de-Baathification and the release of Sunni detainees, have been implemented, but nothing of substance has come of them.
In his speech in Nasiriya, Al-Maliki renewed his rejection of such demands, saying that a “sea of blood” still separated his government from the Sunnis, whom he described as a “deviated and straying faction”.
Speaker of the Iraqi parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi promptly fired back by accusing Al-Maliki of backtracking on the Initiative. “This is the last nail in the coffin of the Peace Initiative,” Al-Nujaifi said in a statement on Sunday.
Given that the Iraqi factions care more about controlling state resources and power than they do about solving the crisis in the country, the peace plan has grossly underestimated the mismatch between Shia expectations and Sunni grievances, and it is therefore more likely to prolong the crisis than resolve it.
Conflict over the shape of the future Iraqi polity can only be resolved by the negotiation of a new social contract, and this seems to have thus far eluded the country’s political class.

Electoral uncertainty in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is bracing itself for crucial elections next week that could reshape the political landscape, writes Salah Nasrawi
Voters across the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq are going to the polls for parliamentary elections on Saturday amid mounting tensions, uncertainty and allegations of irregularities.
The elections are expected to determine the future of Kurdistan region President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is facing one of the biggest challenges to its long-time grip on power, also threatening the party’s “strategic alliance” with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
The balloting also comes amid a controversy over Kurdistan’s draft constitution, which has been put on hold because of a dispute with the main opposition parties over political and democratic reforms to the region’s government.
The elections will be held in three Iraqi provinces that are under the control of the Kurdistan Region government to choose a new legislative council for the next four years.
Some 2,803,000 people are eligible to vote to send 111 representatives to a fourth Kurdish parliament. More than 1,000 candidates, representing 30 political lists, are standing in the elections.
Presidential elections that were scheduled to be held simultaneously with the parliamentary polls were delayed after Barzani accepted an extension of his term in office for two more years, passed by the outgoing parliament in July.
The Kurdish Region government, which is led by a coalition between Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK, is struggling with lingering power, resource-sharing and land disputes with the Baghdad government, as well as a constitutional crisis and a regional dynamic that includes an influx of Syrian refugees.
But at the top of the pre-election agenda is the stability of Iraqi Kurdistan.
As Iraqi Kurds gear up for the polls, accusations of manipulation by the two ruling parties and vote registration flaws have been rampant.
One of the major concerns of the opposition parties is the potential for voter fraud, with tens of thousands of dead people still registered to cast ballots.
The opposition has repeatedly demanded that Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission removes the names of thousands of people whom it claims have died since the electoral roll was renewed in 2005.
According to the opposition, some 179,000 names of dead people are still registered as eligible voters.
The opposition also claims that there are thousands of duplicate or inaccurate names on the electoral roll, mostly in areas under Barzani’s party’s control. It fears that the KDP will use the irregularities to rig the vote in its own favour.
Like in the rest of Iraq, there has been no census in Kurdistan for years, and officials at the electoral commission say that it received the names of eligible voters from the Ministry of Health.
The opposition parties also accuse the two ruling parties of abusing state resources, such as the government-controlled media and security forces, to swing results and help their candidates win the election.
Allegations of a lack of impartiality by the electoral commissions in favour of these candidates have also been reported.
KDP and PUK officials, however, deny any accusations of electoral malpractices. 
Meanwhile, the election campaigns, kicked off on 29 August, have been marred by violence triggered by the tension and exchange of blame.
On Saturday, gunmen opened fire on a PUK campaign gathering in Suleimaniya, killing three people and wounding several others. A man and a woman were killed in two separate election rallies also in Suleimaniya last week.
The Kurdish media reported on Monday that at least 18 people had been believed killed during the election campaign. The government blamed the violence on “anarchist and irresponsible elements.”
At least one candidate was arrested in Erbil while campaigning in the city centre, accused of disturbing public order.
Since the beginning of Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliamentary election campaigns, attacks on journalists have also increased.
The Metro Centre to Defend Journalists, an NGO, reported on Sunday that there had been 18 reported attacks on journalists by party supporters since the campaigning started.
The election campaigns feature familiar themes such as the monopoly of power by the two ruling parties, corruption, nepotism, human rights and press freedoms abuses, and the mismanagement of the region’s resources.     
But people are also raising concerns about the future of the self-ruled region, which remains vulnerable amid growing instability in Iraq and raging Middle East conflicts.
Given the Kurds’ traumatic history, much of Kurdistan’s stability and prosperity seems to now depend on how its nascent political system will be able to overcome the challenges of political diversity and draw a common map for its people to move forward.
The elections will be a crucial test of whether Iraqi Kurds will be able to move towards that goal of building a shared future in what has been touted as an oasis of democracy and prosperity in violence-ripped Iraq.    
Since the Kurds established their autonomous region after an uprising against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1991, the region has been governed by the two ruling parties, which have shared power according to what they have termed a 50/ 50 partnership agreement.
Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, which was endorsed in 2005, declared Kurdistan to be a federal region with an autonomous parliament and government.
Since then, the KDP and PUK have formed a common bloc in the parliament and the government, even though they have stayed separate as entities, each with its own security forces.
While the KDP’s political support remains strong in Erbil and Duhok, Kurdistan’s third major province Suleimaniya is the stronghold of the PUK. The two areas are divided by linguistic, political and social differences.
Both parties arose out of the years of resistance that the Kurds have put up against successive Iraqi governments since the modern Iraqi state came into being in the 1920s.
Though their agreement might have brought stability to the troubled region, many Kurds believe that the partnership formula has divided Kurdistan into two separate fiefdoms, splitting power and revenues among Talabani’s and Barzani’s families and cronies.
In the last election in 2009, the two parties won 75 seats altogether, giving them an absolute majority in the parliament.            There is no question about whether the KDP will get more seats than the other parties this time around. Instead, the question is whether it will maintain its partnership with the PUK, which has decided to run in the election separately. 
Various estimates suggest that the KDP will maintain a lead in its strongholds of Erbil and Dohuk and will probably receive 30 seats.
The PUK, meanwhile, is expected to lose some of its 29 seats in the outgoing parliament.
Its standing has been shrunk by the prolonged absence of its leader, Talabani, who is believed to be in a coma since he was admitted to a German hospital in December after suffering from a stroke.
Moreover, the two parties’ dominance of Kurdistan’s politics is now being strongly contested by a new reform movement that is bent on jettisoning the government in next week’s elections.
The new party, Goran, or Change, was formed shortly before the 2009 elections on an anti-corruption and pro-reform platform, and it surprised observers when it received a quarter of the votes.
Now the party expects to increase the number of its seats considerably. It hopes that it can form a coalition with the smaller opposition parties that are expected to win some 20 seats. 
Most of Goran’s members are former members of the PUK, who left in protest over Talabani’s mishandling of the party, the corruption of his family and closest aides, and his partnership with Barzani. 
On Saturday, Goran’s leader, Noswhirwan Mustafa, promised a big election victory which he said would enable the party to form a government.
“The era of scaring people and buying their votes has ended. These were practices used by despotic and failed governments,” he told an election rally.
“This election will be like a court of Justice that punishes the bad and rewards the good,” he said. “Our next move is to be in power.”
This might seem to be just rhetoric, but it has been enough to put the two ruling parties on notice. While the KDP seems ready to fight tooth and nail not to fall back, top PUK members now say that their party will rejoin the alliance with the KDP after the elections.
Yet, even if Goran fails to break the monopoly of power held by the KDP and the PUK, it has succeeded in giving Kurds an alternative to Barzani’s and Talabani’s autocracy that has dominated Kurdish politics for more than half a century.
Next week, the only thing that will matter will be whether the KDP and the PUK have a joint majority of the seats in Kurdistan’s new parliament.
If not, it will be a historic turning point for change to Kurdistan’s, and probably Iraq’s, political landscape.

Iraq’s forgotten lesson

Even when the country begs questions about the anticipated US strike on Syria, the real lesson of Iraq has been forgotten, writes Salah Nasrawi
As the drums of war are being beaten again, the debate over whether the United States should bomb Syria is increasingly being overshadowed by the fiasco of the Iraq war and the systemic devastation it unleashed on the country’s people.
One key question that is being raised as US President Barack Obama crafts his sales pitch on Syria is whether the world has learned any lessons from Iraq and whether it should try harder this time to stop the destruction of another Arab country.
This will not be another Iraq, Obama has argued in the face of bitter resistance to his adventure in Syria, pledging that it would instead be a limited and targeted action with no US land invasion or protracted war.
But if Syria bears any comparison with Iraq, it should not be about the scope of the US assault, or its duration or even its causes, but rather about its long-term objectives and its ensuing far-reaching consequences.
With a decade’s hindsight, the effects of the Iraq invasion are still rippling through the beleaguered country and the rest of the Middle East, and this is where the comparison should be made.
One of the arguments used by the Obama administration to justify the upcoming war against Syria is the protection of civilians, triggering the question of how a limited military strike can change the course of the two-and-a-half year civil war that has left more 100,000 Syrians dead.
Here Iraq stands as a stark precedent of how the international community has failed to help the country recover from the catastrophic legacy of the “pre-emptive” war Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, launched in 2003. This lasted nine years and ended in Iraq’s ruin.
Today, millions of Iraqis are condemned to lives led in bleak conditions. Though it sits on the world’s fifth-largest proven oil reserves and is the second-largest producer of crude oil in OPEC, Iraq is home to millions of impoverished people.
Since the US-led invasion most Iraqis have been suffering from shortages of basic services, such as healthcare, education, electricity, running water and sewerage as a result of the devastating effects of the war.
Iraq is one of the most corrupt nations in the world, and it ranks very low in indexes of freedoms, human rights and development. Worse, Iraqi civilians lack protection from the random killings that have turned the streets of Baghdad and other cities into scenes of daily carnage.
Deadly nationwide sectarian violence has been on the rise since the US withdrew its last troops in December 2011, and this has led to the deaths of almost 5,000 civilians and injured 12,000 this year alone, according to the United Nations.
The bloodshed raises concerns that Iraq may be edging towards a return to the Shia-Sunni strife that killed tens of thousands following the US-led invasion amid a long-running political deadlock.
There are concerns that a spill-over from the conflict in Syria will further threaten the fragile security situation in the country and worsen sectarian tensions.
Though the most obvious reason for the security setbacks and other shortcomings remains the failure of Iraq’s rival groups to agree on power and wealth-sharing, regional and world powers have also showed ineptitude and grave disregard, exacerbating the country’s dilemmas.
One of Iraq’s major problems is its defective security apparatus, which has failed to curb the violence and terrorism despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on the one million-man force. The Iraqi army and police lack basic training, equipment and intelligence-gathering skills.
As a result, the Iraqi government has been unable to extend its authority to large swathes of the country, enabling extremist groups, Al-Qaeda in particular, to claim considerable operating space.
Even so, this huge security challenge does not seem to have attracted world attention. The United States, which bears special responsibility for rebuilding the Iraqi security forces after dissolving the Iraqi army, has shied away from efforts to aid the Iraqi government handle the security situation.
In recent weeks, Baghdad has been reportedly seeking Washington’s help to train its fledgling security forces to fight the insurgents, but to no avail.
Last month, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki dispatched trusted aides to the US capital to request that the United States provide assistance in combating Al-Qaeda infiltrators in Iraq.
The US media reported last week that Iraq’s new ambassador to Washington, Lukman Al-Faili, had been lobbying US politicians and journalists to support Baghdad’s request for security assistance.
Iraq is apparently in need of military and security assistance that includes supplies of Apache helicopters and sophisticated intelligence systems to help in counter-terrorism operations, including the fight against Al-Qaeda.
But while Washington says it might supply Baghdad with the required anti-air defence systems, it does not seem to be ready to sell the Iraqis sophisticated weapons including attack helicopters.
In any case, the United States seems to have put Iraq behind it, though it is legally and morally responsible for assisting the Iraqis in rebuilding the damage of the war.
Iraq does not seem to be on the list of the United Nations’ priorities either, or on those of other world and regional groupings. Although the United Nations did not endorse the 2003 war, it agreed after the invasion to help in Iraq’s rebuilding and stabilising efforts.
It established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), which was supposed to assist the government and people of Iraq on issues such as advancing national reconciliation and promoting the protection of human rights.
The mission was also authorised to provide assistance on humanitarian affairs and the electoral process. One of its obligations was to facilitate regional dialogue between Iraq and its neighbours.
However the United Nations has hardly fulfilled its objectives in Iraq, and the UNAMI’s former head, whose term ended this summer, came under fire from many Iraqis for what they perceived to be his poor performance.
The EU, too, has diverted its attention away from Iraq and has lost any appetite to discuss, much less address, issues of growing insecurity in the country.
The Iraq’s Neighbours Group, formed to help stabilise the war-torn nation after the US-led invasion, has been dissolved after it failed to stop the meddling of regional powers in Iraq’s internal affairs. 
The 22-member Arab League has also offered only tepid support for efforts to stabilise Iraq.
Though the league extended diplomatic recognition to the Iraqi governments following the US-led invasion and the toppling of former president Saddam Hussein, it has remained largely ineffective in Iraq.
Its major failure came with the two conferences on national reconciliation in Iraq that never bore fruit. Few Arab states have established permanent diplomatic missions in Iraq, a huge disappointment for Baghdad.
In July, the Cairo-based league closed its offices in Baghdad citing financial difficulties and the deterioration of the security situation in Iraq.
All this shows how little attention the world is paying to Iraq today, except of course when it comes to doing lucrative business and keeping oil pouring into the international energy markets to maintain low prices.
It also leads to the important question of whether the situation in Syria will be different, should the US decide to attack the country.
If Iraq serves any lesson today, it should be as an unmistakable warning to the Syrians that they will soon be forgotten and abandoned after the American media switch off the lights and stop the TV cameras rolling.

Khomeini haunts Iraq

Posters of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in Baghdad spark grim memories of the Iran-Iraq war and stoke fears of rising Iranian influence, writes Salah Nasrawi

In the history of Iraq’s fragmented and dysfunctional parliament, brawls are not uncommon. The Iraqi House of Representatives is well known for its fiery debate, sometimes leading to fist fights between members.
But the latest row in Iraq’s chaotic legislature is about more than the usual political mudslinging.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Iran-Iraq war, which had no clear winner, the Iraqi parliament found itself last week confronted with the ghosts of the bloody conflict that cost millions in casualties and billions of dollars in damage to both countries.
Parliament was suspended 22 August indefinitely after rival lawmakers from the Shia National Alliance scuffled with members of the Sunni Iraqiya List objecting to posters depicting Iranian leaders appearing in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.
The scuffle started after Haidar Al-Mulla of the Iraqiya bloc requested that the issue of the public display of images of late Ayatollah Rohallah Khomeini and Iran’s current supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in Iraqi cities be put to debate in parliament.
In a statement, Al-Mulla said hanging pictures of top Iranian clerics and leaders in street corners and police and army checkpoints was “an encroachment upon Iraqi sovereignty”.
“Displaying pictures of foreign leaders, in any country, needs justification because it is unacceptable under any circumstance. It’s particularly so in Iraq, given that it fought with Iran in a fierce war, and some of the pictures are provocative,” Al-Mulla said.
Al-Mulla reminded parliament that Shia politicians blasted Sunnis who raised pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during sit-ins held earlier this year in protest against the Shia-led government.
Even before Al-Mulla wrapped up his speech Shia members protested his intervention and demanded that he should be stopped. Soon, lawmakers from the Shia alliance approached Al-Mulla and other Iraqiya members and a confrontation erupted.
Then lawmakers from both sides pushed and wrestled each other, forcing parliament Speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi, a Sunni politician and one of Iraqiya’s leaders, to adjourn the session. Snapshots, apparently taken by MPs mobile phones, showed the assembly erupting in chaos as both sides exchanged shouts and blame.
Inevitably, the heated row moved soon outside the parliament’s meeting hall, signalling another proxy war among Iraq’s two rival Muslim sects already entangled in a bloody sectarian power struggle.
Leader of the Shia National Iraqi Alliance, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, accused Al-Mulla of being “ignorant” of the high status of the Iranian leaders, whom he described as “Muslim [religious] authorities”.
Al-Mulla “has failed to realise that these figures constitute an authority to their followers, regardless of their nationalities”, he said.
He wondered why pictures of “icons such as [Indian preeminent leader Mahatma] Gandhi and [Bolivian revolutionary Che] Guevara” are being raised and adorned worldwide while Iraqi Shias are denied the right to “show respect to their supreme authorities”.
Al-Jaafari, who described Al-Mulla’s remarks as “braying”, insisted that the Iraqiya lawmaker should apologise because his speech violated the sanctity of Shia religious leaders.
“These dignitaries mirror the consciousness of the umma [Islamic nation] and he [Al-Mulla] should have paid due respect to their names,” Al-Jaafari said.
He blamed Al-Nujaifi for allowing Al-Mulla to air the complaints in the first place.
Some Shia MPs said they would be seeking to remove Al-Nujaifi from his post.
Outside parliament some Shias demanded that Al-Mulla be “hanged” for transgression. They accused him of being a former loyalist of Saddam Hussein and that he worked for his security apparatus. The local government in Basra, Iraq’s southern port city, which Al-Mulla represents, decided to blacklist him.
On the other hand, the Iraqiya bloc came to the defence of Al-Mulla. Its spokeswoman, Maysoon Al-Damaluji, said Al-Mulla’s statement was in line with normal parliamentary procedures and practices.
“We have received the approval of the presidential office to raise this subject,” she said at a press conference.
“Instead of having a civilised discussion over the controversial issue, the debate turned into a fist-fight,” she said. “These pictures provoke the feelings of Iraqi citizens and violate Iraq’s sovereignty,” she added.
Sheikh Samir Fouad, a top cleric in the Sunni-dominated city of Samarra, accused those who are behind the posters as being “unfaithful” to Iraq.
“We tell all those who do not have allegiance to Iraq that they belong to a country that doesn’t wish Iraq well,” he told worshipers during Friday prayers.
Iraq’s parliament is not in short supply of disputes. It rarely meets and often fails to ratify laws or oversee government business. Many Iraqis consider its members as mostly corrupt and incompetent.
But this parliamentary crisis came amid spiralling violence that has raised new fears that Iraq is returning to the bloody sectarian violence that nearly tore the country apart in 2006 and 2007.
A series of terrorist attacks have rocked Baghdad and other Iraqi cities and killed nearly 5,000 civilians and wounded 12,000 others since the beginning of 2013, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq.
The explosions, car bombings and machinegun attacks targeted mostly cities and neighbourhoods of Iraqi Shia majority. In recent weeks, the security forces have carried out a series of operations in Sunni areas around Baghdad as part of a campaign the government is calling “the revenge of the martyrs.”
Numerous reported attacks on Sunni mosques or cafes frequented by Sunnis, and a series of beheadings of Shia families in sectarian mixed areas, including children, in recent weeks have raised fears of tit-for-tat sectarian killings.
On such a level, the spat over the appearance of the Iranian leaders’ images in Iraqi cities is risking adding fuel to the fire.
Khomeini and Khamenei’s posters first started to appear after the United States pulled its troops from Iraq in December 2011. But a massive display of the images appeared in Shia neighbourhoods and cities across Iraq in early August, as part of an Iranian-sponsored annual “Day of Jerusalem”, in solidarity with the Palestinians.
Many of the images remained in place since then.
Pictures of other Iranian senior clergy, such as Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi and Ayatollah Khazim Hairi, also adorn walls and in many Baghdad streets. Both clerics, who were close to Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s Daawa Party, were deported by Saddam before the war because they were of Iranian origin.
Many Iraqis consider raising posters of Iranian leaders as a sign of growing Iranian presence in Iraq. Others see the posters as a visual reminder of the physical and emotional pain Iraqis endured during the Iran-Iraq war as Khomeini refused over eight years to accept a ceasefire.
Iraqi Shias are mostly Arabs and advocate a strong Iraqi nationalism. There is a considerable minority of Shias among ethnic Kurds and Turkomans.
The posters highlight grave concerns over just how much influence Iran has been wielding in Iraq since the US invasion in 2003 and whether Iraq’s Shias can remain independent of Iraq’s Shia neighbour.
The Iraqi government has distanced itself from the posters, with local media quoting officials complaining that municipal workers fear retribution from pro-Iranian militias if they try to take them down.
Some of the posters carry signatures of Shia groups close to Iran, such as Al-Badr Organisation, a Shia militia that fought alongside Iran in the 1980-88 war. Another militia, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, has boasted that it launched the poster campaign.
Since the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 posters have acted as effective tools to disseminate theological and political messages.
During the war with Iraq, posters of Khomeini and prominent Iranians killed in war served as powerful means for mobilisation and communication with a war-weary population
Their posters were designed for mass distribution and aimed towards the Iranian public to embed political and religious propaganda. Thousands of these images still adorn public squares in Tehran and other Iranian cities.
The Iran-Iraq war was one of the most devastating human tragedies of recent Middle Eastern history. Both countries suffered collateral human and economic damage.
On 20 July 1988, Khomeini accepted reluctantly a UN-arranged ceasefire after a series of humiliating Iranian defeats on the warfronts. He likened it to “more deadly than taking a poisoned drink”. His ambition was to topple Saddam’s regime and install a government led by Shias and friendly to Iran in Baghdad.
In his speech at the time, Khomeini said: “Our nation should not consider the matter closed.” Many Iraqis are still haunted by the spectre of the conflict and Khomeini and Khamenei’s posters underline a worrying message.