A leap to Kurdish independence

By beginning to sell its oil unilaterally Iraqi Kurdistan is taking a step towards breaking away from the rest of Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
The news that the self-ruled Kurdish region of northern Iraq started sending cargoes of its oil to the international crude market last week wasn’t surprising. The Iraqi Kurds have been smuggling oil discreetly to neighbouring Iran and Turkey for years, and recently credible reports suggested that the region had sold oil to Israel and the United States.
However, this new development may turn out to be the last straw in the status quo reached between Iraq’s Arab majority and the minority Kurds after the overthrow of the regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein by the US-led invasion of the country in 2003. 
On Friday, the Kurdistan Regional Government announced that more than one million barrels of crude, the first cargo of oil piped out of Iraqi Kurdistan, had been sold on European markets. The announcement came a day after Turkey disclosed that the shipment had started from the Ceyhan Port in southern Turkey where Iraqi oil is usually stored for export.
Reports last week suggested that at least four cargoes laden with Kurdish crude had gone to Israel since January, while the United States had imported its first crude cargo from the Kurdish region in May. Kurdish natural gas condensate has also been sold to Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Latin America.
The key collaborator in the galaxy of foreign countries that have facilitated Kurdish oil sales is Turkey, which has provided political and logistical support to the Kurdistan Government’s efforts to export its oil independently. The Turkish state-owned pipeline operator BOTAS was the key to Kurdistan’s efforts to export its oil and the shipments were arranged through Turkish brokers.
With Iraq gripped in seemingly endless sectarian bloodshed and entangled in a governmental crisis following another inconclusive election last month, it was perfect timing for the autonomous Kurdish enclave to begin selling its oil on the international markets in defiance of the central government.
The aim behind the well-calculated move seems to have been to send a clear message to the Iraqis, Iraq’s neighbours and the rest of the world that the path to the long-awaited Kurdish independence from Iraq is now shorter than it has ever been before.
Even before the announcement of the oil sales, Kurdish leaders were repeatedly threatening to call for a referendum on Kurdish self-determination if a host of disputes over territories and the distribution of power and wealth were not resolved.
The Kurds have long accused Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki of authoritarianism and the exclusion of their leaders from power-sharing in Iraq. Their leaders have vowed to thwart any attempt by the central government to undermine the powers they have gained since Saddam’s ouster in 2003.
The Kurdistan Region is now all but an independent entity, though it stops short of internationally recognised sovereignty. It has its own president, prime minister, parliament and national flag. It also runs its own army, security forces and intelligence services, and it operates its own airports and border points.
The Region issues visas for foreigners and entry and residency permits for Iraqis travelling from other provinces in the country.
Tensions over power and resource-sharing reached a new pitch after the 30 April elections, which showed Al-Maliki in the lead to form a new government. His re-election by a Shia alliance will guarantee more problems with the Kurds, and Kurdish president Massoud Barzani has warned that the Kurds will not join any government headed by Al-Maliki.
The oil sales have raised the stakes again, as Baghdad had warned international companies against buying Kurdish crude and has threatened legal action against any company involved in “smuggling” Iraqi oil. Baghdad has also filed a request with the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce for arbitration against Ankara to stop the exports of oil from Kurdistan.
Yet, Irbil has remained defiant and has dismissed the Iraqi move as a “hollow threat,” vowing that exports from the Turkish port of Ceyhan would continue despite opposition from the federal government in Baghdad.
It has said the oil revenues will be deposited in a Turkish bank after taking the region’s 17 per cent share from the Iraqi national budget, which the parliament failed to endorse after Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers boycotted the outgoing assembly. It also promised to comply with UN obligations by setting aside five per cent of the revenue in a separate account for reparations for Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Beyond the rhetoric, Kurdistan, which has been slowly and carefully charting a path towards full independence, sees Iraq’s present chaos as bringing new opportunities to the table. By selling its crude unilaterally, Kurdistan is escalating its brinkmanship with Baghdad and is trying to gain more concessions on other disputes, mainly the future of the oil-rich-province of Kirkuk and other territories claimed by the Kurds.
With billons of dollars received from Iraq’s annual budget and a largely stable region in comparison with the violence-ravaged rest of Iraq, the Kurdish region has flourished in recent years. And with estimates of oil reserves of 43.7 billion barrels and up to six trillion cubic metres of gas, Kurdistan has a promising economic future ahead of it as an independent state. 
There is no guarantee this time round that the old way of giving the Kurds a dollop of state largesse as a way of keeping them on side can be successfully applied to keep them in a union that is increasingly becoming undesirable to them. The Kurd’s confidence has been mirrored in their defiance of the Baghdad government, and they are now looking more upbeat in their quest for national independence.
In their oil shipments and elsewhere in their relationship with Baghdad, the Kurds now feel they have the upper hand.
Over the last few weeks, Al-Maliki has made some overtures to the Kurds that have shown his willingness to negotiate a deal over the new government he wants to form following last month’s elections.
On 20 May, his government abolished measures taken by the Saddam regime to resettle thousands of Arabs from the south in Kirkuk after driving the Kurdish inhabitants out. Under the new decree some 400,000 hectares of land will be given back to the Kurds and Turkomans in Kirkuk.
Another decree last month spelled out the return of all the Arabs who had settled in Kirkuk during the Saddam regime to their areas of origin in central and southern Iraq. The government has also said that it will give billions of dollars in compensation and provide jobs for some of the 200,000 Arabs who will leave Kirkuk.
Though the two moves were pre-conditions set by the Kurds for a settlement of the Kirkuk dispute, the Kurdistan Government has not yet reacted to the two decisions which should be ratified by the parliament. Its ambivalence probably indicates that it intends to drive a hard bargain, knowing that Al-Maliki is desperate to win a third term in office.
It is for this reason that the Iraqi Kurds, who feel that they have achieved a remarkable transformation in their struggle for autonomy by benefiting from the political turmoil in Iraq and the Middle East more than they did in their decades-long guerrilla war, are now carefully crafting their strategy for full independence.
One key element in this strategy is to learn from the opportunities arising from the mistakes committed by successive Iraqi governments.    
Thanks to Saddam’s defeat in the 1991 war with the United States over Kuwait, the Kurds enjoyed autonomy in their northern enclave that was declared a safe haven protected by US and British warplanes.
The US and British governments established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq, forcing Saddam to pull out from the area. The move ushered in a new era of liberation for the Kurds and allowed them to have their own national government for the first time in their history.
By his arrogant and irrational ending of the dispute with the Kurdistan Government over the 2014 national budget, eventually leading to the freezing of salaries and other public spending in Kurdistan, Al-Maliki also sparked another serious crisis, forcing the Kurds to press ahead with their unilateral oil sales.
They will now be able to convince the world that by trying to thwart their exports of oil while cutting their allotments in the budget, Al-Maliki has effectively declared economic warfare against the Kurds.
The Kurds seem to have learned enormously from Al-Maliki’s outlandish policy mistakes, and they are now prepared to exploit the mayhem in order to embark on the last phase of their historic undertaking to make their dream of statehood a reality.
If the trajectory of Kurdistan’s independence has taken off of late, it is because the Kurds’ bitterness against Al-Maliki has accumulated and the chance of brokering a compromise with him has been lost.

Were Iraq’s polls rigged?

With the initial euphoria over, many Iraqis are asking if their country’s parliamentary elections were free or fair, writes Salah Nasrawi
An alliance headed by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki has been declared as having received the largest number of seats in Iraq’s elections last month, but many of his political opponents doubt the vote’s fairness and claim massive fraud.
If proved, the allegations of irregularities and vote-rigging will cast shadows over the legitimacy of the new parliament elected on 30 April and may further worsen the decade-long political ructions and sectarian violence that have been largely blamed on the nation’s political class.
Iraq’s Independent Higher Election Commission (IHEC) announced on Monday that Al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance had won 92 out of 328 parliamentary seats. His main rivals finished with between nine and 34 seats overall. Smaller blocs received between one and six seats.
A potential new prime minister would need the support of a total of 165 members. Negotiations to build a coalition to form a new government will likely drag on for weeks, if not months, observers say.
Prior to the IHEC’s announcement, several political leaders and blocs made complaints about alleged electoral fraud and warned of dire consequences to come.
Former prime minister Iyad Allawi talked about “irregularities” comitted during the polling process and slammed the IHEC as biased. He also claimed to have won the majority of votes in Baghdad.
“The commission is not qualified to run the elections,” Allawi said at a press conference, accusing Al-Maliki of having prevented him from securing top place in the polls.
The leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Ammar Al-Hakim, warned of “rigging or irregularities” in the polls, calling on the commission to work in a more professional way.
Al-Hakim, whose Al-Muwatin, or Citizen, bloc came third in the elections with 29 seats, had threatened a “decisive response” if the results of the elections were “illogical”. Early unofficial results showed that the bloc had won more than 40 seats.
The Al-Ahrar Bloc which is affiliated to the popular Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr came second with 34 seats and pointed the finger at Al-Maliki’s bloc for alleged fraud and warned it would go to court to challenge the results.
Sunni groups also complained of election mishaps, claiming forgery had been used in favour of candidates supported by Al-Maliki. Another complaint was that systematic efforts had been made to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in flashpoints around Baghdad.
The Arabia Alliance of Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutleq appealed for the United Nations and the Arab League to carry out investigations.
The Kurdish parties also exchanged accusations of fraud. While the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its allies accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of rigging the elections in Sulaimaniya, the latter said it had registered irregularities in Erbil, the stronghold of the KDP.
In response, the IHEC rubbished allegations of fraud at the polls, insisting that the balloting had been handled in a professional and transparent way. However, it said it had received some 2,030 complaints.
The main bone of contention has been the Al-Maliki government’s direct or procedural interference in the elections. Reported irregularities include the unfair use of state resources and bribery to induce voters.
A video widely circulated on social networks showed a member Al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance inducing voters in a southern province to vote for his bloc in exchange for plots of land, saying that he was speaking on behalf of Al-Maliki.
During the election campaign Al-Maliki himself was filmed distributing title deeds for plots of land owned by the government.
Al-Maliki’s coalition had largely based its electoral campaign on promising government jobs, especially in the police and the army which are under Al-Maliki’s direct control.
“They used political money and did not refrain from using the state apparatus and [government] posts and state resources in their campaigns,” Jassim Al-Halfi, an unsuccessful candidate for the Civil and Democratic Alliance, wrote on his Facebook page.
The blocs also deplored what they called the polarisation and bias of the state-owned media during the elections. State-run television was widely seen as being supportive of Al-Maliki through broadcasts including live coverage of his campaign.
Some of the irregularities that are believed to have occurred involved assisting illiterate voters to cast their ballots. There are more than six million illiterate people in Iraq, and the media noted a worryingly high number of assisted voters in many polling stations, where ballots were marked in favour of Al-Maliki’s candidates.
In some cases it was reported that literate people were told to claim they were illiterate so that they could be assisted by Al-Maliki’s staff. 
The complaints also included ballot stuffing, intimidation, stealing or destroying ballot boxes and threatening election officials.
There have been numerous reports of Al-Maliki’s using the soaring violence that has hit Iraq to ensure his success. Voting was halted in a third of Anbar, where Sunni insurgents control the city of Fallujah and parts of the western desert province.
“By prolonging the crisis [in Fallujah] he has benefited his allies,” said Liqaa Wardi, a Sunni member of the outgoing parliament.
Ameer Al-Kinani of the Sadrist Movement accused the commission of fabricating results in Abu Ghraib, a Sunni-dominated district. He doubted the reported 90 per cent turn out and 80 per cent support for Al-Maliki in this hotbed of anti-government resistance west of Baghdad.
In Maysan, a stronghold of the Sadrist Movement which had won the two previous national and provincial elections, Al-Maliki surprisingly won four seats over the Sadrists who received only three. 
Among other allegations of fraud by the ruling Al-Maliki bloc has been forcing military and security personnel to vote for the prime minister. The uniformed services, whose leaders are under the command of Al-Maliki, voted a week earlier in a special vote as they were to be on duty during the elections.
More police are alleged to have registered to vote than are on the state payroll.
Some of the charges of irregularities have been leveled against the IHEC itself. Following the announcement of the results, Al-Hakim’s bloc accused the commission of tampering with some of the ballot boxes. It also pointed to pressure put on the commission to disqualify some of the candidates
There is no information about how many of the ballot papers were printed or if they were in line with international standards, raising concerns of the accountability of the unused ballots.
In some cases the commission was reported to have paid non-state broadcasters large amounts of money to put a positive spin on the elections and praise the commission.
Most blocs also complained about delays in releasing the results, which they said had probably been used to change them.
The commission has denied the charges, with chief commissioner Sarbast Mustafa saying it had annulled the results of 300 polling stations for reported violations and that more than 1,000 electoral workers had been referred to the judicial authorities for investigation.
It said it had made it obligatory for all Iraqis to receive electronic voting cards in order to cast their ballots. Voters were also asked to dip their fingers in indelible ink to prevent double voting.
Doubts have also been raised about the monitoring of the elections. The commission said some 350 foreign observers had participated in monitoring the elections, in addition to thousands of election monitors representative of Iraq’s competing political parties themselves.
However, the IHEC banned one of the prominent observation groups from monitoring the elections after it had criticised its pre-balloting arrangements. On Monday, the Shams Network for Election Monitoring reported massive irregularities, including ballot stuffing in Baghdad in favour of Al-Maliki’s bloc.
Both the United Nations and the United States welcomed the results. The US embassy in Baghdad described the elections as “another milestone in the democratic development of Iraq,” but neither the UN nor the US talked about the credibility of the elections.
Electoral fraud has not been uncommon in post-Saddam Iraq. In the previous two polls, held when Iraq was still under US occupation, talk of fraud was common even if it was not reported in the mainstream western press, which was too busy trumpeting Iraq’s so-called nascent democracy.
Iraq’s elections have proved once again that they are likely to continue to produce a sectarian wasteland instead of a genuine democracy or a stable and crisis-free Iraq.
If the results of last month’s polls mean anything, they prove that power-hungry politicians will continue to use sectarianism as their driving force, even through a parliament whose legitimacy is increasingly in doubt.

Iraq’s election tangle

As Iraq continues a downward descent into violence, its election results may leave the country on the edge of the abyss, writes Salah Nasrawi
The much-awaited results of Iraq’s parliamentary elections remain uncertain amid turmoil and deep divisions among the country’s feuding communities.
The final results are not expected before the end of the month, but the country’s Kurds, Shia and Sunnis have to come to terms on a potential ruling coalition as the chill of soaring violence casts a shadow over coalition-building efforts.
Moreover, the main political blocs remain deadlocked on whether embattled Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is to be allowed to stay in office as he faces mounting criticisms over the way he has handled his two previous governments.
The preliminary results show Al-Maliki in the lead, but with no clear majority to form a government. A failure to secure a decisive victory may lead Iraq into a period of uncertainty, or outright chaos, some fear.
Prior to the 30 April elections, many of Al-Maliki’s opponents had signaled that they did not trust him and were unwilling to offer him a third term in office.
Whether Al-Maliki’s opponents will now keep fighting or whether they will seek a compromise to avoid an overall confrontation remains to be seen.
At the moment, the leaders of Iraq’s three main communities whose candidates run on ethnic and sectarian lines are trying to put their own houses in order after the election campaign bickering.
They also need to cut across the politically differentiated electorate in order to boost their power at the bargaining table.
Since the fall of the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has been ruled by a coalition government led by majority Shia Muslims and including minority Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds.
While the Shia will be able to maintain their hold on power in a coalition government, Iraq’s political landscape after the 2014 elections may come under increasing pressure for new trends and alignments. 
The ballot boxes have showed deep divisions among the Shia, whose votes were split among anti-Al-Maliki groups and others who supported the prime minister because they believed that the Shia needed a strongmen to stand up to Sunni and Kurdish ambitions.
The leaders of the Iraqi National Alliance, the Shia electoral bloc, waged a fierce campaign to unseat Al-Maliki, warning of problems if he remained at the helm.
Many key Shia religious and political leaders have voiced dissatisfaction with Al-Maliki. At least one senior cleric also forbade Al-Maliki’s reelection.
Several Shia politicians have showed interest in the job, which gives the prime minister sweeping powers including supervising the army, police, state-owned media, oil resources and millions of government bureaucrats.  
While several Shia hopefuls, including former ministers and party leaders, are keeping their cards close to their chests in anticipation of the coalition-building talks, a bloc affiliated to the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr has said it is considering proposing a popular governor of a southern province for the post.
In return, Al-Maliki has rejected calls to step down, saying that his State of Law Alliance would seek to form a “political majority government” with those Sunni and Kurdish groups willing to join such a government.
All this means that the inter-Shia feuds will further complicate the path that the country will take after the polls.
The Sunni camp is also in disarray. Unlike in 2010 when they formed one bloc to maximise their political power at the polls, Iraq’s Sunnis this time round fought the elections in a divided condition.
They failed to outline a common electoral strategy to turn their anger over their alleged marginalisation by the Shia-led government into concerted efforts to gain more power. Top Sunni cleric Sheikh Abdel-Malik Al-Saadi and militant leaders urged their fellow Sunnis across the country to boycott the vote.
The Kurds have also showed deep divisions. A strategic alliance that included the two key political parties of the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani has shattered.
Eight months after the Kurds went to the polls to elect a new regional parliament, this has failed to convene to choose a new government amid bitter disagreements among Kurdish political parties over a host of disputes including constitutional reforms and power and wealth sharing. 
Kurdish parties have also expressed different views over who should take the post of outgoing Iraqi President Talabani.
His Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party has unofficially proposed another of its own members as a potential choice for the Iraqi presidency, but Barzani has rejected the nomination of Najmuldeen Kareem, the Kurdish governor of the disputed oil-rich Kirkuk province and warned of any unilateral move with other parties in Baghdad.
In a statement, the Kurdistan Regional Government said that the Kurdistan parliament should endorse the Kurdish candidate for the president’s portfolio.
Such tensions suggest that there is a sharp split within the Kurdish groups, which have yet to agree on several other posts in Baghdad’s central government as well as on a Kurdish agenda. 
Meanwhile, violence continued to wreak havoc in Iraq after the polls, with a wave of suicide bombings and attacks hitting Baghdad and several other cities killing and wounding scores of civilians and security personnel.
Since the US-led invasion that initiated the ethno-sectarian power struggle, violence seems to have become part of Iraq’s DNA. A prolonged election tangle will most certainly worsen the instability.
On Tuesday, a series of attacks rocked Baghdad’s Shia neighbourhoods, killing and wounding dozens of civilians.
Militants on Saturday kidnapped and killed at least 20 army soldiers in an attack on a military base in the northern city of Mosul. The execution-style killings carried the hallmark of the terrorist group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi army battled Sunni insurgents in the city of Fallujah in an attempt to take it back more than six months after it was seized by militants. Sunni lawmakers said scores of residents had been killed in shelling in Fallujah, some by petrol bombs.
The crisis in the Al-Anbar province, triggered by last year’s government crackdown on Sunnis protesting against alleged maltreatment, has increased the polarisation and given violent Sunni extremists the leverage to instigate the anti-government rebellion.
Any failure to defeat the insurgency will likely undermine efforts to form a tangible power-sharing deal with the country’s Sunnis, leaving the door open to foreign intervention.
In previous elections the United States, whose army was still occupying Iraq, and neighbouring Iran had quietly stepped in to bring a coalition government to life.   
A high-level US delegation led by US central command chief Lloyd Austin and US envoy deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq Brett McGurk rushed to Baghdad this week for talks on the elections.
Several Iraqi officials have visited Iran in recent weeks for talks amid reports that Tehran favours Al-Maliki for a third term.
Iran’s most influential intelligence official who oversees Tehran’s policy in Iraq, Qasim Suleimani, visited Baghdad last month reportedly to push Iraqi Shia leaders to lend their support to Al-Maliki.
On Friday, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, gave a positive assessment of the track record of Al-Maliki. He said Iran favoured Iraqi leaders who would fight terrorist groups, and the Iranian News Agency, which carried the statement, said Al-Maliki was likely to win a new term in office.
It is unlikely that Iraq’s other powerful Sunni neighbours, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey which are frustrated by the Shia rise to power in Iraq, will let Iran and the United States have the last word in Iraq.
 US-Iranian intervention in forming a new Iraqi government will invite Iraq’s Sunni neighbours to assemble their political and other resources to help the Iraqi Sunnis if efforts to end their marginalisation fail.
Such foreign meddling will increase the current destabilisation and will sow the seeds of a civil war that could eventually tear the country apart.
However, with some give and take the leaders of the political blocs may eventually come to an agreement to form a new government. Yet the question remains whether the Iraqis themselves can ever hope that their leaders will have enough good will and political maturity to change the dysfunctional ethno-sectarian system created by the Americans for the post-Saddam era.
Simply put, Iraq’s problems are those of mutual distrust.
The Sunnis believe that the Shia are bent on subduing them, while the Shia think that the Sunnis are not willing to compromise and that their strategy is to outmaneuver them in order to return to power.
On the other hand, the Kurds refuse to lay the ghosts of the past and they tend to swing between euphoria at controlling an autonomous Kurdish region and pessimism at not being able to break away from Iraq. 
No one has tried hard to alleviate the other’s fear of the past, and it is highly unlikely that Iraq’s leaders will now attempt to find closure.

Iraq’s vanishing Christians

One church leader is pointing the finger at the West to explain the disappearance of Iraq’s Christians, writes Salah Nasrawi
As the mass exodus of Iraq’s Christians continues, so does the call for ending the plight of those who have remained. Like Iraq’s ancient Jewish community before them, one of the world’s oldest Christian communities may soon cease to exist.

The disappearance of Iraq’s religious minorities has been a troubling trend since the US-led invasion in 2003, and it has threatened to end the cultural diversity of Iraq.  As the violence in the country spikes and religious intolerance grows, many Christians, Yazidis, Mandaeans and other minority community members are leaving the country.

Last week, the head of the Iraqi Catholic Church sent a chilling warning that Iraq’s 2,000-year-old Christian community is on the brink of extinction as new waves of Christians take the journey of exodus.

The exodus is largely blamed on the worsening security since the US-led invasion that toppled former president Saddam Hussein’s regime. Christians have suffered abuses by Muslim extremists and militias, including brutal attacks, death threats and forcible seizure of property.

But Chaldean patriarch Louis Sako now believes that intervention by the West in the region has exacerbated the problem by producing more chaos and conflict in the war-ravaged country, and it is this that has been driving Christians to flee.

Iraq’s Christians of different denominations were estimated at two million, or some five per cent of the population, prior to the US-led invasion. Now that number is below 450,000.

Christianity in Iraq dates back to St. Thomas, who brought the faith to ancient Mesopotamia and the two main Iraqi denominations, Chaldean and Assyrian, still survive from that period.

Since he was ordained as patriarch of Babylon and the Chaldeans in February 2013, Sako has raised the alarm about the dramatic shrinking of the Christian population in one of its oldest homes.

Sako, whose election raised hopes of stemming the tide of Iraqi Christians fleeing the country, has described the exodus as a “disaster” and warned that the number of Christians in Iraq would dwindle to a few thousand in the coming 10 years.

But in his most scathing criticism of western governments to date last week, Sako said facilities provided by Western governments to allow Iraqi Christians to leave had aggravated the situation.

“1,400 years of Islam could not uproot us from our land and our churches, while the policies of the West [have] scattered us and distributed us all around the world,” declared Sako.

“Intervention by the West in the region did not solve the problems… but on the contrary it produced more chaos and conflict,” he reportedly told a congregation in the northern city of Kirkuk.

The massive migration was triggered by the security deterioration following the US-led invasion, the sectarian tension it unleashed, and the rise of Islamist-oriented groups to power.

Though other Iraqis have suffered from terrorism, Christians have been targeted largely for being an ethnic and religious minority whose cultural characteristics are different from those of the dominant Muslim groups in Iraq.

About 1,000 Christians may have been killed in the violence since the US-led invasion of Iraq, with dozens of churches being attacked.

Thousands of Christian families left Baghdad and other cities following the bombing of a church in Baghdad in 2010 that killed 57 people and wounded dozens of others.

In addition to the violence and intimidation, Christians have been prone to pressure from local militias to leave their homes or land. Church leaders and rights groups have been reporting increasing forcible seizures of homes belonging to Christians in Baghdad.

Land seizures and annexations of Christian villages by the Kurdish autonomous authorities have also been documented. Most of the annexations are in the northern province of Nineveh, which includes the largest remaining concentration of Christians in Iraq.

Neither the central government nor the courts have done anything to try to protect Christian property.

The Iraqi government’s response to threats to attack churches in Baghdad was to build high concrete walls around the main churches and to increase security. Yet, the government has failed to end the climate of fear surrounding the Christians.

Life for Iraq’s remaining Christian population remains extremely difficult. Those who stay in Iraq live in fear of violence, and they are subject to routine intimidation.

Other challenges include economic hardships ranging from high unemployment to closure of their businesses due to violence or intimidation or simply the lack of equal opportunities.

Worn out by the unabated chaos, Christians who have remained in Iraq have been contemplating solutions to their dilemma short of departing.  

Some Christians have been talking about an autonomous zone in the traditional Christian-dominated areas in northern Iraq. Such an entity would give the Christians the opportunity for self-rule, including policing their areas and securing their economic interests.

Detractors, however, say that the so-called Nineveh Plain Project would have enormous consequences for the Christian community in Iraq, moving the problem from one of human rights violations to a multi-ethnic geopolitical dispute.  

They say that the idea entails huge risks, including possible accusations of Christians trying to divide Iraq geographically. Moreover, the autonomous zone would be in the so-called disputed areas, which the Kurdistan Regional Government claims as part of the Kurdish enclave.

They also argue that the entity would divide Christians themselves between those who would be within the zone and the rest of the Christian community in Iraq.    

Others argue that the Iraqi Christians should work closely with other communities for national integration, peace, justice and coexistence and to contribute to restoring stability and start rebuilding the devastated nation.

Sako did not provide details about the West’s involvement in the Iraqi Christians’ wholesale migration, but the Church and political leaders have been talking about the increasing tendencies of some Western embassies in the region to facilitating the granting of asylum visas for Iraqi Christians.

In November last year, Pope Francis met with several Middle Eastern church leaders privately to discuss the current migration and later said that the Roman Catholic Church “would not accept” a Middle East without Christians.

Some religious and political leaders are also blaming world refugee and immigration organisations for encouraging the Iraqi Christians to emigrate, triggering old accusations that Western nations are plotting to displace the Christians from their Middle Eastern homelands.

Unfortunately, the dilemma of Iraq’s Christians is being manipulated in the echo-chamber of Middle East politics, where it has been reinforced to serve larger geopolitical agendas, in particular those influenced by prophesies of evangelical revival or the US political scientist Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”.

For many observers, the migration of Iraq’s Christians is reminiscent of the exodus of Iraqi Jews in the course of the creation of Israel in the 1940s. Thousands of Iraqi Jews, part of one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in the world that goes back to the Babylonian Captivity, were “persuaded” to leave the country.

Like Jews from other lands, Iraq’s Jews did not migrate willingly to Israel, but were “encouraged” to leave by the Zionist movement which directed them to head to Israel. The main reason was that the nascent state wanted to fill the land acquired from the expelled Palestinians with as many Jews as possible.

Indeed, the story of the massive emigration of Iraqi Jews to Israel in what was described as among the most dramatic events of Jewish exodus from the Arab world is also a cautionary tale.

Today, there is a sizable Iraqi-Jewish community around the world, numbering nearly three-quarters of a million. Most of them live in Israel, while others opted to live in the United States and other Western countries.

If history serves as a parallel, the demographic changes this time will have far-reaching consequences. The area, which prides itself as being the birthplace of humanity’s three major religions and has been characterised by its cultural diversity for millennium, will cease to exist in its present form.      

What Sako is proposing is that the West should not encourage Christians to leave the region. Instead, Western governments and Churches in the West should help with the financing of particular projects that will enable Christians to stay and improve their living conditions.

Community leaders have been urging Western countries to do as much as they can to ensure that Iraqi Christians are protected by the government. They also urge them to channel more funds to provide them with their needs, such as schools, healthcare and jobs.

Like his predecessor’s pleas which died a quiet death with barely any consideration, Sako’s warnings are expected to fall on deaf ears.

It is unlikely that Western countries will commit themselves to a policy that would discourage Iraqi Christians from emigrating from their country.

Already, the Western powers are keen to accept Iraqi Christian refugees because Iraqi and other Middle East Christians have become fair game on the larger Middle East chessboard. 

After Iraq’s elections

Iraq’s post-election period is expected to bring neither security nor order to the country, writesSalah Nasrawi
Many Iraqis viewed this week’s parliamentary elections as their last hope and went to cast their votes even though they were not particularly optimistic. Meanwhile, the violence in the country showed no signs of abating in the days leading up to the elections, with gunmen killing candidates and bombers assaulting election commission offices and campaign gatherings.
Millions of Iraqis voted to decide the 328 members of the country’s parliament, which will in turn choose a president and a prime minister. Some 9,000 candidates stood for election, and preliminary results are expected to emerge next week.
Pre-ballot initial estimates indicated that the elections would see a significant turnout.Voting for Iraqis living abroad kicked off on Sunday, but media outlets reported a low turn out from the 700,000 registered Iraqi expatriates.
No single bloc is expected to win a majority of the seats in the new parliament, the third since the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled the regime of former president Saddam Hussein.
Since Saddam’s ouster, Iraq’s politics have been dominated by ethnic and sectarian divisions. The election campaign focused on competition within the three main ethnic and religious communities: Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds.
The Shias were split between Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, Muqtada Al-Sadr’s Sadrist Trend and the Citizen Coalition of cleric Ammar Al-Hakim’s Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq.
The Sunnis were split between parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi’s Muttahidoon List and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq’s Al-Arabiya List.
Al-Maliki is eying a third term in office despite a veritable maelstrom of protests, security deterioration and massive accusations of corruption and incompetence. He has been criticised as after eight years under his rule Iraq is cracking even further as the ever-increasing strain of the post-US occupation transition undermines both the state and society.
Both Sunni Arab leaders and the Kurds have already signalled that they do not trust Al-Maliki and are unwilling to submit to his centralist and autocratic tendencies.
The Sunnis have been protesting against exclusion and marginalisation by his government and demanding it address their grievances.
The protests were part of a larger uprising that later grew into an armed rebellion across the Sunni-dominated provinces. In December last year, the army moved into Anbar province to quash the insurgency, but more than five months later many parts of the vast province are still under rebel control.
The Kurds have been engaged in a bitter dispute with Al-Maliki over the centralisation of power and distribution of national wealth. As relations between the country’s Kurds and Al-Maliki’s government have worsened, some Kurdish leaders have started calling for Kurdish independence.
Many Shia religious and political leaders are also frustrated with Al-Maliki’s ineffectiveness, and they are urging their supporters to search for a new leader. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, the Iraqi Shias’ most revered cleric, has been showing increasing signs of dissatisfaction with Al-Maliki and has quietly been calling for a replacement.
On Saturday, Ayatollah Basheer Al-Najafi, one of four prominent clerics in the Najaf Shia seminary, issued a fatwa, or religious decree, which forbade the re-election of Al-Maliki. 
Al-Maliki’s power base among the Shia may still be strong, but his credentials are looking weaker as his behaviour has become increasingly autocratic. Judged by his performance, Al-Maliki has failed in almost everything from restoring security and peace to the war-ravaged country to curbing corruption and providing services.
Tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed since he assumed office in 2006, and millions have gone into exile or are in internal displacement though he commands an army of about a million soldiers and police with a US$20 billion budget.
During his tenure, corruption has become endemic and bribes, graft, extortion, and blackmailing have become a way of life. Public services such as electricity, water, sewage, education and healthcare have seriously deteriorated because of corruption, mismanagement and the lack of investment and maintenance.  
Iraq’s economy has been wracked by chaos, with the country heavily relying on imports of almost all its needs of consumer and basic goods.
Though Al-Maliki’s government has received more than US$700 billion in oil revenues since it took office eight years ago, the country’s current account deficit reached 35 per cent this year.
Al-Maliki’s government has been functioning without a budget and with major projects threatened with closure and foreign companies threatening to leave. Al-Maliki has been banking on sales from petroleum to oil his government and security machines and to subdue his political rivals and buy loyalty.
The final word on who will be Iraq’s next prime minister may not be known for months, making many Iraqis fear that with so much power in his hands Al-Maliki may try to uproot the opposition in his attempt for a third term.
His election trajectory is clear, and he will try to gather 165 members in the new parliament to declare that he has a majority of votes in order to allow him to form a government.
Among the most serious concerns of his critics is that he might try to influence the balloting and change the outcome of the elections in his favour in order to get the largest share of the votes.
The Iraqi media have been reporting that Al-Maliki has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy votes and build alliances with small groups, offering government jobs, houses and offering other incentives.
He has also sought to manipulate the country’s electoral commission, rendering some of its officials submissive to his orders. There is concern that as the country’s commander-in-chief of the armed forces Al-Maliki may resort to forcing the military and the security forces to vote in his favour.
Although his re-election is questionable, analysts warn that disasters would befall Iraq if Al-Maliki were re-elected. They say the damage of a third Al-Maliki term could be irrevocable.
For instance, Al-Maliki will most certainly continue his marginalisation of the Sunni Arabs, which will in turn drive more Sunnis into the insurgency.
One result of the Sunni radicalisation is that Iraq will remain gripped in sectarian turmoil with immense regional consequences and tumultuous relations with its neighbours.
The already stalemated relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government over the export of oil and disputed territories will take a turn for the worse and the Kurds may opt to move further away from Baghdad.
Al-Maliki’s re-election will further strain relations with other Shia groups and could trigger internecine Shia fighting.
However, the results of the elections are not predictable, and though the Iraqis may have wanted accountability and change it’s too soon to tell which way that will manifest itself.
What is clear, however, is that like in the two previous elections since Saddam’s downfall most Iraqis have voted for their ethnic and sectarian interests and have not cast their ballots thinking about the national picture.
This could mean that the elections are a surreal exercise because they will only reproduce the same old faces and recycle the ill-fated political process that has already pushed Iraq into stagnation.
As a result, Iraq will become increasingly polarised: between Al-Maliki and his rivals; between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds; between the devout Shias and the secularists; and between Sunni politicians and insurgents.
Worse still, if Al-Maliki tries to outmanoeuver his rivals to stay in power he will create geographical and political divisions that will further tear the social fabric and erode the state structure. 
After 2010’s inconclusive elections, communal leaders spent ten months of bargaining before they reached an agreement on a coalition government. The winners in this year’s elections also have a lot of horse-trading to do in order to build a partnership of necessity.
This is how Iraq will be caught once again in a democratic vicious circle. But this time round Iraq’s post-elections deadlock will be more ominous than few will have foreseen.
Unless Iraq’s feuding communities remove their red lines and work closely together to rebuild the state and society on the bases of equality and justice, Iraq will continue rattling along with a high possibility of a catastrophic civil war.