Iraq falling apart

Iraq is unravelling nearly 11 years after the US-led invasion, with this year being the country’s most violent since the Sunni-Shia bloodbath of 2006-07, writes Salah Nasrawi
Not very important — at least not from the point of view of the Iraqi Ministry of Interior spokesman or the local and Baghdad-based international media.A Sunni family of five was killed in their home in a Baghdad neighbourhood on 27 November. Days later, the only account of this horrible story to appear was that the five family members, including two boys and a girl, had been killed by gunshots in their house in a Shia-majority neighbourhood of Baghdad.
The trouble was not that the spokesman was uncaring or that the reporters didn’t have enough information for a solid story, but that because Iraq’s story of daily killings has become so routine, if not boring, it is now failing to make front-page headlines.The world’s mainstream newspapers and TV networks have allowed the news of the costly conflict to slip off their radar screens because their editors perceive that Iraq-related stories cannot now get a prominent position without some local link.
Yet, Iraqis continue to bleed in the unrelenting violence. The same day that the family was gunned down, police found more than a dozen bodies around Baghdad and in Basra of people who had been killed in execution-style killings.A wave of bombings and shootings then hit markets, schools and mosques in several other towns, and by midday a total of 33 people had been killed and 76 wounded.
This year has been Iraq’s most violent since the Sunni-Shia bloodbath of 2006-2007, only now with a resurgence of sectarian killings as well as a growing insurgency campaign of bomb and gun attacks targeting security forces and civilians.
The United Nations has estimated that just under 9,000 civilians and members of the Iraqi security forces have been killed, with thousands more injured.
Iraq is suffering from its worst surge in violence since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-led regime of former president Saddam Hussein, with Sunni insurgents this year stepping up their bombing campaigns against the Shia-controlled security forces and mostly Shia civilians.
Violence has also developed its own momentum, with inter-community disputes sometimes bursting into bloodbaths. Scenes of the corpses of what it seems may be tit-for-tat kidnappings and assassinations littering the streets are now common.
The violence in Iraq has escalated steadily since the last US troops pulled out of the country in December 2011. It has been fuelled by many complicating factors, in particular sectarian Shia-Sunni tensions and the continuous political deadlock over sharing wealth and power.  
Tensions spilled out onto the streets in December, when tens of thousands of Sunni Arabs started a protest across the country’s Sunni provinces demanding an end to what they see as a Shia monopoly of power and the marginalisation and exclusion of their sect.
As the Sunni protests, seen by Shias as an attempt to regain the Sunnis’ former supremacy, have escalated, the struggle within the Muslim community has become more and more vicious.
A peace plan put forward in September by the Shia alliance to resolve some of the Sunni grievances in exchange for halting the insurgency has crumbled.
The initiative suggested measures to include Sunnis in the government, army and security forces, but it fell short of being a fully-fledged agreement on the fair distribution of wealth and power and demographic realities.
The violence is also taking place within the context of a civil war in neighbouring Syria that has been worsening sectarian tensions and highlighting security shortcomings.
One of its worst consequences is that Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has banded together with extremists in Syria in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has now extended its influence from northern Syria to towns in the area that forms a Sunni demographic belt around Baghdad.
From there, terrorists can now infiltrate into Baghdad itself to carry out attacks in mostly Shia-populated neighbourhoods. In recent months, the group has also widened its geographical scope, creating devastation in the north and south of the country which have historically seen less violence than other regions.
In September, Al-Qaeda attacked the Kurdish Regional Government’s Interior Ministry building in Erbil, killing six security guards and wounding more than 60 people. Some Al-Qaeda-type attacks have also been taking place in Sunni-dominated areas.
The spiralling rise in the violence indicates the failure of government efforts to combat Al-Qaeda. Nearly two years after the US withdrew its last troops from Iraq, government security forces remain incompetent, untrustworthy, corrupt, and sectarian-oriented, and they have been largely blamed for failing to stop the bloodshed.
In recent weeks, the Baghdad government has launched a security sweep in Sunni-dominated provinces and neighbourhoods of the country in order to try to round up suspected militants.
Hundreds of suspects have been arrested in the crackdown, which the government says will continue until Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated.
Behind the scenes, however, the government is also building new Shia-only security forces that are being trained in counter-insurgency and guerrilla warfare. Reports suggest that Shia militias have been remobilised and that they are working in secret with the security forces.
Iraq’s cycle of violence seems to be becoming unbreakable and even more vicious. Many Iraqis blame the government and the political groups for not doing enough to prevent the bloodletting. Others accuse the country’s greedy and corrupt political parties of fuelling the hatred or even of encouraging or engaging in violence themselves as a way to make up for lost power or to divert attention from their failure to resolve the country’s problems.
In addition, Iraq’s neighbours, especially Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have been responsible for some of the violence, either by siding with the feuding communities or by paying too little attention to efforts to bring peace to the beleaguered country.
While the regional power struggle has enhanced local tensions, the region’s ever-deepening Shia-Sunni divide has also been fuelling broader antagonisms and violence inside Iraq.
Unfortunately, this sectarian schism is expected to grow further after the nuclear deal that Iran reached with the West last month, which many believe has the potential of turning Iraq into a playground for regional powers.
For now, and until the grievances and fears that are feeding the violence in Iraq are addressed, security in the country and the overall region will remain uncertain.
The violence in Iraq, after having been institutionalised, is increasingly turning into a norm of life. Violence at the levels of the individual, the family, the clan, the district and the town is increasingly becoming a critical source of social chaos and political instability.
In recent weeks, cases of assassinations by silencer-mounted guns and the bullet-riddled bodies of people killed in execution-style killings found on the streets have risen.
Unidentified gunmen routinely storm into houses and kill whole families including children before they leave. Residents in the very few remaining mixed towns and neighbourhoods have been leaving their houses after receiving death threats.
Such surges in arbitrary violence have been complicating matters further and driving Iraqis to lose all hope of regaining stability.
Sadly, all this makes the prospect of next year for the Iraqis even dimmer. It is an election year, and Iraqis know that their power-greedy leaders will most probably not only resort to murky means to achieve power, but will also attempt to incite sectarianism and bigotry.
Nothing is more likely to succeed in this than further bloodletting.

Another bogus contract in Iraq revealed 
An Iraqi Swiss-based expert unveiled Saturday that the government of Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki has signed a $6 billion contract with a bogus company.
On October 10  al-Maliki announced that his government has signed the contract to build and operate a 150,000 barrels per day (bpd) oil refinery in the southern province of Maysan with the Swiss company Satarem.
Iraqi engineer Muthna Kuba who works in Switzerland, however, said Satarem does not exist
In a letter send to al-Malki and a copy of which sent to me, Kuba said he carried a thorough investigation in Switzerland about the company and could only find that it is run by a small law firm in Zug.
Iraq said the refinery is one of four new projects designed to increase refining capacity by around 740,000 bpd and revamp Iraq‘s oil sector, left dilapidated by decades of war and sanctions.
“Today we sign a contract for an important investment project with the participation of the private sector, which will contribute towards filling the need of the country for oil products,” Reuters quoted al-Maliki as saying at the signing ceremony.

Leaning on Iran

With Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s bid for a third term in office in trouble, will Iran now come to his rescue, asks Salah Nasrawi
Embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki was a guest in the Iranian capital Tehran last week, even receiving unusually high praise from Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Al-Maliki flew to Tehran to discuss terrorism and the conflict in Syria, among other issues. But the trip may have had another agenda, being to provide an opportunity for Al-Maliki to speak directly with Iranian leaders about Iraq’s crucial legislative elections next year.
The polls are important because of their far-reaching impact on Iraq’s future, and they are widely expected to be a test of how far the violence-torn country can remain united.
Al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term in office, is facing growing opposition at home, including from two of his powerful Shia allies who say that they will contest the elections scheduled for 30 April.
Iran helped him to win his second term in office in 2010, and it would not be a surprise if Al-Maliki has now travelled to Tehran because he expects Iran to use its influence to stifle Shia opposition to his candidacy this time round.
Iran increased its influence in Iraq after the ouster of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003 and the ascent of the country’s Shias to power. Since December 2011, Tehran has been trying to fill the vacuum left by the departing Americans.
While top Iranian Shia clerics, some of them residing in Iraq, wield enormous influence through their religious pronouncements, including on whom to vote for in elections, Tehran maintains close relations with Iraqi Shia political leaders, many of them given refuge in Iran during Saddam’s rule and funded by Tehran.
In 2010, American and Iranian interests converged to lend support to Al-Maliki against Iyad Allawi, leader of the Sunni-dominated Al-Iraqiya List, which won most of the seats in the elections.
At the time of forming the government, US troops were preparing to leave Iraq, and Washington was keen to prevent a governmental crisis in order to keep its withdrawal plans on track.
Tehran, meanwhile, was adamant about keeping friendly Shia groups in power.   
This time round, Iraq’s political landscape has changed, and Al-Maliki’s task in winning a third term does not look so simple. With no American troops on the ground in the country, Washington also has little clout to be a power-broker.
Iran, however, is a key player in Iraq, and its aim is to maintain the Shia groups’ hold on power. But it is unclear how Iran will use its leverage with the divided Iraqi Shia leaders, many of them having made it clear that they will not support Al-Maliki for another four-year term.
Al-Maliki started his ascent to power by chance amid wrangling over who should be Iraq’s first full-term elected prime minister after the 2006 elections in which a Shia alliance won most of the seats.
Its candidate for the premiership, Ibrahim Al-Jaafari, was vetoed by the country’s Kurds and Sunnis. Al-Maliki, a senior member of Al-Jaafari’s Daawa Party, was a compromise choice, allegedly after a deal had been reached by Washington and Tehran.
After a brief honeymoon period, during which he tried to prove his security credentials by cracking down on the country’s militias, Al-Maliki began expanding his control over the government and security forces.
Opposition to Al-Maliki grew fast, with most Iraqis being disillusioned by his government’s failure to end the violence, combat massive corruption, and bring back basic services such as electricity, water and healthcare.
One part of Al-Maliki’s problem is his perceived lack of leadership. Last month, many Iraqi cities turned into swamps and thousands of people became homeless after torrential rain because the government had not taken precautionary measures to protect the population.
Instead of moving to solve the problem, Al-Maliki accused his opponents in the country’s local authorities of blocking waste-water pipes.
Among other accusations made against Al-Maliki is that there is rampant corruption in his government, particularly in the form of nepotism. In November, he drew criticism after he admitted that his son, who does not have a security portfolio, was fulfilling police duties under his instructions.
Another part of Al-Maliki’s problems is his perception of Iraq’s priorities and its need for healing policies. Al-Maliki’s policies have deepened societal mistrust and sectarian divisions in the country, and Iraqi Sunni Arabs have been protesting against what they say is the Al-Maliki government’s marginalisation and discrimination against them.
The Kurds also accuse Al-Maliki of monopolising power and acting as a dictator, complaining that their representatives have been barred from government decision-making.
Both communities fear that Al-Maliki, who controls the army, security forces and intelligence services, is trying to subdue them through his autocratic tendencies.
Dissatisfaction with his heavy-handed style of governance has also mounted among his Shia allies. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has reportedly declined Al-Maliki’s requests for an audience, and other Shia clerics have been lashing out at his government during Friday prayers.
As the frustration and anger against Al-Maliki build, he is becoming increasingly isolated.
The Al-Sadrist Movement, which holds 40 seats in the country’s parliament, and the other influential Iraqi Shia group, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council, which has a strong presence in the legislature, have said that they will not endorse Al-Maliki for a third term.
In recent weeks, several of Al-Maliki’s long-time allies have abandoned him and announced they will fight the next elections as independents or join other political lists.
Some of them have fired serious accusations at Al-Maliki, such as fuelling sectarianism through the random arrests of Sunnis and the closures of their neighbourhoods, which they have said are behind the recent escalation of violence.
Meanwhile, those who challenge Al-Maliki have been paying the price for doing so.
The authorities last week issued arrest warrants against two senior Al-Sadrist Movement parliamentarians on charges of corruption. On Monday, a member of Al-Maliki’s bloc unveiled a list of 20 opposition lawmakers under investigation on charges of racketeering and embezzlement.
Al-Maliki has adopted the tactic of blackmailing his political rivals by threatening to reveal damaging information about them if they dare to defy him.
Saleh Al-Hasnawi, one of the Al-Sadrist lawmakers, said the crackdown was politically motivated and accused Al-Maliki of deliberately trying to “destroy opponents and harm their reputations” ahead of next year’s elections.
However, there has been no sign that Al-Maliki will capitulate, although the Iraqi media reported on Monday that his State of Law Bloc had been registered by the country’s Independent Elections Commission with Haidar Al-Ibadi, a senior Daawa Party figure, as its head, instead of Al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki will head another list, it was reported, a move which could be aimed at rearranging the elections chess board.
After he returned from Iran this week, Al-Maliki resumed his vigorous election campaign by making promises to combat the militias and build low-price houses for poorer Iraqi families.
One of his campaign goals is to blame his political opponents for being behind his government’s shortcomings over the last eight years.
Given Iraq’s political turmoil and sharp communal divisions, it is hard to gauge Al-Maliki’s electoral popularity. However, he has not only polarised Iraq’s politics at a time when communal reconciliation has been badly needed to ease political sectarianism, but he has also divided Shia politics ahead of the crucial elections.
As a result of the Shia split, Iran is expected to increase its influence in Iraq’s internal politics.
Only days before Al-Maliki flew to Tehran, Muqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the Al-Sadrist Movement and an arch-rival of Al-Maliki, said he had received assurances from Iran that it would not support Al-Maliki’s bid for a third term.
This may have prompted Al-Maliki’s visit to Tehran to seek assurances of Iranian backing.
Despite Iran’s niceties to Al-Maliki, whom it had helped install in power, and Khamenei’s hailing the performance of the Al-Maliki government, the Iranian supreme leader nevertheless emphasised that more “needs to be done” to advance bilateral relations.
“There is great potential for further cooperation in various areas,” Khamenei was quoted by the Iranian media as saying.
Reading the minds of Iranian politicians, a process needed since they are not always explicit in stating their agendas, Khamenei’s remarks could be seen as a wait-and-see response in order to avoid putting all Iran’s eggs in one Iraqi Shia basket.

A step towards independence

Oil exports through Turkey may mark a turning point in the campaign for Kurdish independence from Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

Judging from the way it was announced and the secrecy that had surrounded the talks, neither Turkish officials nor Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government apparently wanted to draw too much public attention to the landmark deal they signed last week.

Instead of trumpeting their agreement, the two sides chose to discretely leak the news about the deal which will allow the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq to ship oil and gas to international markets via a state-owned pipeline through Turkey.
Yet, the historic significance of the deal, which was signed by Kurdish Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan without Baghdad’s consent, can hardly be hidden under the shroud of the diplomatic secrecy.
The pipeline, which could begin pumping oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan this month, will make Kurdistan a major world exporter of oil and may even help bring the Kurds’ dream of independence from Iraq closer.
Under the agreement, Turkey will allow crude oil from Kurdistan to flow through an uplink to the 40-inch line of the existing Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline to be exported to world markets. The deal also includes the building of a new gas pipeline. The gas flow is likely to start by early 2017.
The oil pipeline project to Turkey is projected to carry up to 300,000 barrels per day (bpd) at the start and could be expanded to one million bpd. Revenues from the exports will not go to the Iraqi state’s coffers and will be collected instead in an escrow account at a Turkish state bank.
As part of its standard policy to reject oil deals that are not sanctioned by the government, Baghdad has voiced strong opposition to any energy deal between Ankara and the Kurdistan Government and has warned Turkey that the opening of a new oil export pipeline would seriously harm relations.
It has argued that under Article 109 of the Iraqi constitution “the management” of oil and gas should be undertaken by the federal government which “formulates” policies to develop hydrocarbon resources in conjunction with local governments.
However, Baghdad’s opposition remains toothless because of the government’s paralysis and infighting.
On Sunday, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Al-Shahristani, who is the government’s chief negotiator on energy, said Baghdad and Ankara had agreed that “oil exports from anywhere in Iraq need the central government’s approval.”
The United States, which is believed to have stakes in Kurdistan that form a crucial part of its geopolitical strategy in the Middle East and its oil, has also reiterated that it “doesn’t support oil exports from any part of Iraq without the approval of the Iraqi federal government”.
The Kurds, however, have their own interpretation of the constitution and insist that the document declares Iraq a federal state, giving them the right to run their own resources. They insist they will press ahead with exporting oil whether or not Baghdad agrees to the payment plan.
On Monday, Barzani announced at a conference in Erbil, the Kurdish provincial capital, that the deal was “irreversible”. He lashed out at Baghdad for what he described as its “exercising centralism and control”.
The Kurdistan-Iraq Oil and Gas Conference, which was attended by the Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yildiz along with representatives from 300 international firms, was meant to be a showcase for the region’s growing energy industry.
To increase the pressure on the Baghdad government Kurdistan has threatened that it will use revenues from the exports to compensate Kurds who had suffered under the policies of former Iraqi governments.
Kurdistan estimates that a total of $387 billion should be paid to the families of more than 200,000 Kurds whom it alleges were killed, with thousands of homes also being destroyed and Kurdish infrastructure devastated, during decades of fighting. 
The 970km-long pipeline transports oil produced in fields under the control of the Baghdad government to Ceyhan in Turkey on the Mediterranean. The pipeline project was commissioned in 1976, with a second parallel pipeline built in 1987 to bring daily transport capacity to 1.6 million barrels.
While Turkey hopes that the new pipeline will make it an oil-and-gas transit regional hub and contribute to Europe’s energy security, one of Turkey’s objectives is to diversify its energy supply routes and source countries.
With a rapidly growing economy, Turkey has become one of the fastest-growing energy markets in the world. Ankara has been experiencing rapid demand growth in all segments of it energy sector for decades.
In the light of its limited domestic energy sources, this growing energy demand has resulted in dependency on energy imports, primarily of oil and gas. Turkey hopes that its imports from Iraqi Kurdistan’s oil and gas resources will help reduce its $60 billion energy bill.
Seen through the complex Iraqi ethno-sectarian conflicts and the regional power struggle, the Kurdish-Turkish energy deal looks to be an important source for Kurdistan’s economic prosperity and political progress.
The Kurdish region has flourished in recent years due to the better management of Kurdistan’s allocation of 17 per cent of Iraq’s annual budget. But with estimates of oil reserves of 43.7 billion barrels and up to six trillion cubic metres of gas, Kurdistan plans to make energy the fulcrum of its flourishing economy.
If Kurdistan can increase output to one million barrels a day, as planned by the end of 2015, and two million barrels by 2020, and if it has independent oil infrastructure and an oil pipeline, it can certainly afford to do without its allotments from Iraq’s resources.
Hydrocarbons could also be Kurdistan’s catalyst to call it quits with the rest of Iraq.
Kurdistan has long been looking forward to realising the dream of independence, and there have been numerous signs that Iraqi Kurds are already turning their autonomous region into a semi-independent entity.
Kurdistan has its own president, prime minister and parliament. It also has its own army, security forces, intelligence services, and it operates its airports and the region’s border points.
The Kurds also have their own foreign affairs department, a military ministry, interior ministry and investment authority. They raise their own flag and speak their own language. Iraqi Arabs visiting the region have to go through special security checks and receive entry and residency permits.
Regardless of the statements about the non-constitutionality of the Kurdish oil deals and its sovereignty over resources, the Baghdad Shia-led government is powerless to stop the pipeline deal.
Only hours after he left Baghdad following his talks with Al-Sharistani on Sunday, the Turkish energy minister said Ankara stood by the bilateral oil deal with the Kurdistan Region that bypassed the central government.
In fact, the Shia-led government seems to be discretely acquiescing to the Kurdish move because it does not seem really to care much about the Kurds opting out of Iraq.
The Shia-led government knows Kurdish independence is already taking shape, but no one in it wants to acknowledge this in order to avoid the blame of being held responsible for letting the great Arab country that they inherited after the fall of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein effectively shrink to a “little Iraq”.
The more one looks into the Shia leaders’ behaviour towards the Kurdish wish to escape what is increasingly becoming a loveless marriage, the more one realises that their only remaining goal, however shocking it might be, is to confine themselves to a “little Shiastan.”
As for Turkey, the shift in its policy from opposing a Kurdish autonomous region on its southern borders to becoming a key factor in achieving the Kurdish dream is dramatic but not surprising.
In addition to the economic benefits it will reap from the oil deals with the Kurdish Region, Ankara, with its Justice and Development Party government’s new priorities and concerns, no longer considers federal, or even independent Kurdistan as a threat, thinking that deeper bilateral relations are more likely to make Turkey feel safe and its strategic interests on its southern border be protected.
The Kurdish-Turkish oil deal could be a major step to Kurdistan’s independence, but in order for Iraqi Kurds to step out on their own onto the world stage they might need more than exports of oil and gas.
Both Ankara and Erbil realise that there are geopolitical impediments, and this is why they are seeking to appease the Baghdad government and draw it into the arrangement.
“There is no single Kurd who doesn’t dream of independence and a state, but this is not so easy,” the secretary-general of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party Fadhil Mirani told the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday.