The Shia militias’ moment

The Shia militias’ moment

Sectarian chaos fomented by the Islamic State group is giving Iranian-backed Shia militias the chance to rise in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi met members of the Iraqi community in Berlin during a visit to Germany earlier this month, he stunned many in the audience who raised concerns about the growing role of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq and reports of widespread abuses committed by their members.

“They have always been there and they will stay there even after the end of the presence of Da’esh in Iraq,” Al-Abadi told the small crowd at the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

The remarks were in sharp contrast to the government’s claim that Shia paramilitary groups fighting IS militants are operating under the umbrella of the security forces. They also contradict earlier statements by Al-Abadi that his government has zero tolerance for armed groups operating outside its control.

Some eight months after the beginning of the IS onslaught and its declaration of a Sunni caliphate, Iraqi Shia militias are struggling not only to beat back the radical Sunni militant group but also to make their mark on Iraq’s politics, and maybe even define the country’s future.

The Shia militias surfaced during the sectarian flare-up that followed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. They were reinvigorated after IS took over swathes of northwestern, Sunni-dominated, Iraq and threatened Baghdad and Shia-populated provinces in the south.

The international media and human rights groups have criticised these militias for alleged abuses, including kidnappings, forcing residents to leave their homes, assassinations and even executions in Sunni areas.

But little attention has been paid to the wider political implications of the rise of the Shia militias and how, in cooperation with their Iranian backers, they are changing the political landscape in Iraq and probably beyond.

The new forces started to emerge a few days after a senior Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a call to arms. After the fall of the northern city of Mosul in June last year, Sistani urged all able-bodied Shia men to join the security forces and stop the IS advance.

Tens of thousands of Shias who showed up at recruiting centres to sign up for the Iraqi security forces ended up joining the militias, some of which were established after IS expanded its reach to control large chunks of the country.

What was thought at first to be a short-term backup for the Iraqi military has now evolved into a new model for the Shia paramilitaries. It is called the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) and operates outside the control of Iraqi security forces.

Though it remains largely decentralised, the PMF has been effective in driving back IS jihadists along an extensive battlefront, at a time when Iraqi security forces routed in the IS blitz in Mosul still need rebuilding.

This has allowed the Shia militias to take centre stage not only in the war against IS but also in shaping national politics, which since the fall of the Sunni-dominated Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 has been based on a shaky system that attempts to maintain a balance between feuding communities.

But the risk posed by the Shia militias is daunting. Rather than helping to restore peace and stability and re-unite Iraq, their abuses and rising role in politics could further deepen the nation’s ethno-sectarian divisions.

One of the main challenges for the badly needed national reconciliation is the need to reassure Iraq’s Sunnis that the government will be able to reverse the sectarian and divisive policies of the former government of ex-prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki and create a more inclusive political system.

Atrocities attributed to members of the Shia militias are threatening to alienate Sunnis, whose support is vital in the fight against IS. Unless the government reins in the Shia militias it will be impossible to convince the Sunni community to turn against the militants.

Most Sunni tribes distrust the Shia militias and have rejected the participation of the PMF in operations to drive back IS from Anbar and Mosul that could begin in a few months.

Last week Hadi Al-Amri, the commander of the Badr Organisation, appeared in a video widely circulated on YouTube. He warned Sunni tribes in the city of Tikrit against staying “neutral” in the fight against IS.

In some cases, the Sunnis’ worst fears have come true. On 7 February, two men from a prominent Sunni tribe were killed in Anbar province after being detained at a checkpoint controlled by a mixture of security forces and Sunni and Shia volunteer fighters.

A few days later, a prominent Sunni tribal sheikh, his son and several of his bodyguards were abducted and killed in Baghdad.

Such incidents led Sunni political leaders to suspend their participation in the government and parliament. They are demanding that the militias be disarmed and dissolved.

Iraq’s Kurds also stand firmly against allowing Shia militias into territories captured by IS, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani has insisted that the Shia militiamen will be “prohibited under any circumstances” from entering the city.

The Kurdish position has triggered a backlash. “You have no right to prevent any Iraqi from entering any province. When we come [to Kirkuk] you will run away,” Qais Al-Khazali, commander of the Iranian-sponsored Asaib Ahl Al-Haq group, said in response to Barzani’s statement.

The quarrel over the militias is further complicating other disputes between Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Last week, the KRG said it may withhold crude oil exports over a budget dispute, a move that could derail the fragile power-sharing agreement with the Baghdad government.

The dangers of the rise of the militias also extend to the Shia political groups that have been in power since 2003. Traditional Shia political movements that have monopolised Shia representation for decades, including the Islamic Dawa Party and Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, have been eclipsed by the dozens of militias now vying for power.

In the short term, the militias’ increasing strength threatens to undermine the government’s authority and its efforts to reassure Sunnis that their interests are being protected.

The threat from the Shia militias is growing to the point where in the long run its supporters could have the power to overthrow the Shia-led government. Analysts have begun drawing parallels between Iraq’s Shia militias and the Shia Houthis in Yemen, who have replaced the government in a slowly progressing coup.

In a report detailing the militias’ abuses, the international rights group Amnesty International noted that the militias are not subordinate to the government and in many cases appear to have more authority and effective power on the ground than the beleaguered government forces.

The government’s primacy is also being challenged in other realms, including military effectiveness. The Shia militias now outnumber the Iraqi military and show more devotion and fighting skills than the security forces.

Naturally, in this phase of the conflict in Iraq, the militias are bound to affect the security forces’ ability to act effectively.

What is also worrying is Iran’s growing role in building the Shia militias, especially through funding, training and supplying them with weapons. After IS captured Mosul and other cities last year, Iran mobilised its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to build a massive and effective Iraqi Shia paramilitary force.

Iranian top brass, including the powerful commander of the IRGC’s Al-Quds Force, Qassim Soleimani, have been travelling to the frontlines to coordinate war plans with militia commanders.

Arguably, in a Middle East already beset by deep sectarian schisms, there are fears that the PMF will evolve into an IRGC-style force whose role in regional conflicts will be to advance a Shia sectarian agenda and Iran’s interests.

But given the disastrous course of events in Iraq since IS’s brutal ascent and the ongoing regional polarisation, one can hardly expect violent non-state actors, including the Iraqi Shia militias, to fail to take advantage of a state weakened by incompetence, factionalism and chaos.

By seizing their chance amid the anarchy, the Shia militias may now have their moment in Iraq. But if they remain as a militarised force after IS is defeated, as stated by Al-Abadi at the Iraqi Embassy in Berlin, then they will be a strategic game-changer in Iraq.

Beyond Al-Jazeera

Beyond Al-Jazeera

The Cairo-Doha dispute goes much deeper than the anti-Egyptian media blitz being orchestrated by Qatar, writes Salah Nasrawi

The day a Cairo court ordered two Al-Jazeera journalists accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood to be released on bail, the Qatar-owned network aired secretly taped recordings of conversations between Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and his aides in which he purportedly expressed contempt for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf rulers.

The message could not have been missed: Doha does not seem to be interested in patching up differences with Cairo, and Al-Jazeera will continue its hostile coverage of Egypt, one of the main issues behind soured relations between the two countries.

Furthermore, the leaks, first aired by pro-Muslim Brotherhood television, seemed designed to drive a wedge between Egypt and the Gulf countries which are the main aid providers to Egypt.

Relations between Cairo and Doha deteriorated after the 2013 ouster of former Islamist president Mohamed Morsi whose Muslim Brotherhood group was backed by Qatar.

Al-Jazeera has since been broadcasting anti-Al-Sisi propaganda, labelling his takeover a “military coup.”

But what has appeared to be a row over negative television coverage may in fact hide a deeper conflict over a host of domestic and regional issues, in particular Qatar’s support for Islamists whom Egypt considers to be a threat to its security.

Efforts to reconcile Cairo and Doha have stalled as Qatar’s sponsorship of what has been termed the “Political Islam project” has been too much for Egypt to ignore and leave the ball in Qatar’s court.

In November, Al-Sisi tactically gave the nod to an overture by the late Saudi King Abdullah to reach out to Qatar after the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) rapprochement with its troublesome member state.

Egypt has shown pragmatism by not staying aloof from its allies in the Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates – which are also its main financial backers.

But Egypt, familiar with the region’s chessboard, has seemed to be holding back and playing a waiting game. It has shown no sign of starting to mend fences with Qatar until the Gulf emirate changes what Cairo interprets as its hostile policies.

Egypt’s dispute with Qatar goes beyond Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the platform for anti-Al-Sisi propaganda which Al-Jazeera and other Qatar-owned media outlets have been giving to the group.

Cairo’s grievances against Doha include its role in building a broader Egyptian opposition movement to Al-Sisi and targeting its ailing economy by withdrawing loans and deposits provided to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

The two countries have also been locked in a political standoff over a series of regional disputes in Gaza, Libya, Syria and Sudan, conflicts that Egypt considers as having a direct impact on its stability.

Egypt believes that the Palestinian Hamas movement, backed and funded by Qatar, shares a large part of the blame for militant attacks in Sinai. Cairo says that militants from Hamas-run Gaza have been helping jihadist groups in Sinai, such as Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, which is linked to the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.

The terror group is responsible for attacks against Egyptian security forces in the Peninsula and it may be seeking targets in Egypt’s mainland.

Another major point of contention with Qatar is Libya. Egypt feels there is a danger to its security from its western neighbour where Islamist extremists and Muslim Brotherhood-backed militias supported by Qatar are fighting a government that is recognised by Egypt and the international community.

On Sunday, a Libyan terror group affiliated to IS said it had beheaded 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians who were working in Libya. Many Egyptians were angered by Al-Jazeera for hosting Al-Sisi’s opponents who have exploited the tragedy to blame the government for the massacre and not its perpetrators.

There is also Sudan, Egypt’s southern backyard, which is ruled by Islamists who have close ties with Qatar. Though Cairo and Khartoum continue to maintain working relations, Egypt remains wary of Sudan’s close ties with the Gulf state.

In November the Khartoum government signed a military cooperation pact with Doha that Egypt fears will be used to advance the Qatari agenda.

Egypt also has stakes in Syria where Qatar has influence over some of the Islamist extremist groups which are fighting to topple the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. Egypt fears both the rise of Islamists in Iraq and Syria and the influx of jihadists to join the insurgency in Sinai.

Another case in point is Turkey whose ties with Egypt have been strained since the ouster of Morsi. Cairo accuses Ankara of forming an alliance with Doha in a bid to destabilise Egypt through support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas.

All this indicates that a breakthrough in ties with Qatar will have to come on Egyptian terms. In the words of Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shukri, “what is required is for Qatar’s policies to be supportive of Egypt and its national security and to avoid anything that leads to destabilising Egypt.”

The problem is that no one can be certain that Qatar is prepared to make the required changes in its foreign policy that Egypt takes to be a source of instability.

Touted as backing the Islamists, Qatar’s current strategy poses a serious threat to Al-Sisi’s drive to stifle the Muslim Brotherhood.

In broader terms, in its high-stakes regional game Qatar is challenging Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous nation and one of the region’s powerhouses.

There is an increasing understanding in Egypt that Qatar is trying to use its huge hydrocarbon-generated wealth and international connections to undermine Egypt’s efforts to restore its role as a major regional player, weakened by the turmoil after the 25 January Revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

But even if the mood in Cairo looks to be calm and diplomatic relations with Doha remain normal, Egypt seems to have options on the table.

Last month, Egypt returned a US$2 billion Qatari deposit to Doha after negotiations to convert the money into bonds failed. It plans to return a further $500 million, the rest of the billions extended to Egypt after Mubarak’s fall, as a sign of refusing to be intimidated by Qatari money.

Al-Sisi had refused to use his authority to pardon the Al-Jazeera journalists and gave the law due process to decide their fate, something which denied Qatar the opportunity to claim that it had exercised pressure on Egypt to secure their release.

An Egyptian court, meanwhile, is continuing the trial of the deposed former president and another 10 men on charges of espionage and leaking secret documents, including military and security files, to Qatar while in office.

Though no details about the documents have been made public by prosecutors, questions have been raised as to whether they included the recordings used by Al-Jazeera.

War against terrorism”: The Jordanian option

War against terrorism”: The Jordanian option
With months of airstrikes failing to dislodge Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria, the focus is shifting to Jordan in the war against terrorism by  Salah Nasrawi 
Since the seizure of key Sunni-populated cities by jihadist insurgents and their declaration of an Islamic caliphate in the region last year, much of Iraq has been in flames with dire consequences for the conflict-riven nation, its neighbours and the world.

The Iraqi military, Shia militias, Sunni tribes and Kurdish forces have been trying to drive back the Islamic State (IS) forces but with modest success as most of the territories the group has captured remain under militant control.

Though the insurgency could break the country apart, neither Iraqi nor the US-led international coalition helping in the war against IS seems eager to say when the long-awaited all-out war to eject IS will be set in motion.

Since mid-June, when IS captured Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, and made startling advances into other Sunni cities, the areas have been the scene of intense back-and-forth fighting with the Islamic State.

At this point, the fight seems largely aimed to contain the resilient insurgency inside the Sunni-populated areas with little evidence that the liberation of Mosul as well as Tikrit and Fallujah is on the list of urgent priorities of Iraq’s Shia-led government or the Kurdish authorities and the international coalition.

Seen from this perspective, all the parties involved in the fight against IS seem either ill-prepared or unwilling to finish the job of defeating the terror group and are instead resorting to unexplained delaying tactics.

Iraq’s Shia-led government has secured Baghdad and Shia-populated areas by relying heavily on Iranian-backed Shia militias. Shia prime minister Haider al-Abadi has made it clear that he does not want “to go into a war in Mosul in which the aftermath will be unknown.”

On the other hand, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have pushed back IS fighters and are now holding their ground and digging in along a new border line drawn up after seizing large swathes of land following the chaos triggered by the rise of IS.

Kurdistan Region president Massoud Barzani, who has repeatedly pledged to seek a referendum on Kurdish independence from the rest of Iraq, has described the new frontier as being “demarcated in blood.”

As for helping in liberating Mosul, Barzani told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper that this “will depend on the degree of preparedness of the Iraqi army. Any advances by our troops from their current positions will require [our] consideration in advance,” he said.

Iraq’s Sunnis, supposed to be the main component in any strategy to defeat IS, are also divided between those loyal to the militant group and those supporting the government. Thousands of Sunni tribesmen are willing to hit back against the militants, but many are not fully on board.

The US-led coalition meanwhile continues to pound IS positions with airstrikes, but with no plans to send in combat troops to fight the group on the ground. US president Barack Obama has described his slow response in Iraq as part of his newly declared “strategic patience” strategy in the region.

In Syria, where the terror group has also occupied large chunks of territory, efforts to push IS back are foundering, and the group is reportedly making important gains despite its bitter defeat in the town of Kobani.

If any conclusion can be drawn from this messy situation, it is that there is no comprehensive strategy to wipe out IS and that even if the militants are defeated or simply degraded there are no concrete ideas on how to reintegrate Sunnis back into the old states of Iraq and Syria.

This is more evident in Iraq as attempts to take back the territories captured by IS and the Kurdish Peshmergas will test the willingness of all the parties concerned to save Iraq as a unitary state.

With the crisis in Iraq and Syria now becoming more serious and threatening the countries’ neighbours and the world at large, the debate is being redirected towards the possibility of sending in combat troops to fight IS.

One argument that is widely being used is that the Iraqi security forces are not prepared to push back IS and therefore that foreign troops may be needed to respond to the threat.

But as the United States continues to dither about how to respond, ideas about the possibility of a regional ground force have started to arise after the brutal murder of a Jordanian pilot by jihadists earlier this month.

The gruesome killing of a Jordanian pilot at the hands of Islamic State militants has unleashed a wave of speculation about an increasing military role for Jordan in the war against IS.

Following the execution of Muath al-Kassasbeh, Jordanian officials have said the kingdom will go after IS militants wherever they are and plans to “wipe them out completely.”

“The blood of martyr Ma’ath al-Kassasbeh will not be in vain and the response of Jordan and its army after what happened to our dear son will be severe,” Jordanian king Abdullah said in a statement. “We will hit them in their strongholds and centres.”

Since the immolation of the pilot, Jordan has stepped up its air force assaults on militant positions, including strikes on militant strongholds inside Iraq.

Jordan’s combative response has prompted some international law experts to speculate that the kingdom’s military actions following the murder of the pilot are probably being conducted beyond the needs of individual self-defence and with a view to a calculation of broader proportionality that in practice means moving towards playing a more robust role in the war.

Though Jordan has not confirmed it is ready to send in ground forces to fight IS, the cry for revenge and such interpretations of the kingdom’s intensified airstrikes have shifted the focus to Jordan.

Some Jordanian officials have already given signals of a possible ground engagement with IS. “We are upping the ante. We’re going after them wherever they are with everything that we have. But it’s not the beginning, and it’s certainly not the end,” Jordan’s foreign minister Nasser Judeh told CNN.

The possibility of an increasing Jordanian role in the war was also raised by US envoy John Allen, who told the official Jordanian news agency on Sunday that “there will be a major counter-offensive on the ground in Iraq in the weeks ahead.”

He said “the coalition will provide major firepower associated with that.”

However, the speculation about a greater Jordanian role comes amid talk that the crisis in Iraq and Syria may continue for some time. Some such signs are coming from western leaders, suggesting that the fight against IS could take years.

British prime minister David Cameron told MailOnline, a news Website, last week that the threat posed by the “disease” of Islamist extremism would last for a generation. Former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir John Jenkins, who retired earlier this year, told the UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph that the instability caused by IS could last from 10 to 15 years.

Whispering about an expanded Jordanian role in the Iraqi and Syrian crises has been in circulation for a while. What is significant about the idea is that it comes amid the turmoil that is wracking the region and threatens many of its countries with remapping.

On 30 November, the Lebanese National News Agency quoted Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Shia Hezbollah Party, as saying that Jordan may become part of a plan to create “a Sunni region” by taking over parts of Iraq and Syria that are now populated by Sunnis.

Nasrallah warned that Jordan could later annex the territories before the new country was turned into “an alternative Palestinian state,” an old notion promoted by some radical Israeli politicians who want to transfer Palestinians in the West Bank to Jordan in a plan known as the Jordanian Option.

US senator Lindsey Graham has been quoted as saying that “Jordan is now ready to send ground forces into Iraq and Syria” to try to destroy IS. Graham made his remarks before a meeting with king Abdullah before IS announced the murder of al-Kassasbeh.

He said Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations were also on board.

On the surface, the new Jordanian angle looks like another Middle East cloak-and-dagger game, but the question remains of how far the volatile kingdom is ready to go with such a precarious policy at a time when its neighbours are threatened with Balkanisation.

It is not news that Jordan has been under pressure from the United States and other partners in the international coalition to open its borders for military activities against IS in Iraq and Syria. King Abdullah has resisted the pressure for fear that such interference could be destabilising to his kingdom.

Given Jordan’s geopolitical and demographical realities, such a gross manifestation of interference in two of Jordan’s strategic neighbours would present a complicated challenge to the regional order.

Jordan’s army is too small for such an undertaking alone.

Despite the cries for revenge that followed the pilot’s murder, a large proportion of Jordan’s population is believed to be opposed to Amman’s participation in the US-led air campaign in Iraq and Syria.

A bigger military role against the militants could ignite more voices of dissent, especially among the Islamist bloc.

Worst of all, both Iraq’s Shia-led government and the regime of president Bashar al-Assad in Syria have categorically rejected outside help in battling IS militants.

On Monday, Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem said Damascus would not accept Jordanian or other foreign ground troops crossing into Syria to fight Islamic State. Any such incursion would be considered a violation of Syrian sovereignty, he said.

*Salah Nasrawi is an Iraqi journalist based in Cairo.

*This story was first published at Al-Ahram Weekly on  Thursday 12 Feb 2015


Iraq tightens its belt

Iraq tightens its belt

The people of Iraq will face severe hardships under the country’s new austerity budget, writes Salah Nasrawi

With oil prices plummeting and the economy squeezed by inefficiency and corruption, Iraq’s parliament has approved a belt-tightening budget. The step is widely seen as having significant ramifications for the country’s volatile domestic politics and the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Iraq’s 328-member House of Representatives endorsed the country’s 2015 budget last week. The budget approval followed weeks of squabbles over cuts, allocations and what oil price the government should base the budget’s projected revenues on.

The lawmakers approved a cut of nearly three per cent in spending, bringing the total expenditure in the budget to $99.6 billion, down from the $102.5 billion the cabinet had initially proposed in the draft.

Before sending the bill to parliament for ratification, ministers warned that this would be an austerity budget, slashing the country’s bloated public sector and freeing up funds for military spending as Iraqi forces battle IS.

Iraq’s government had originally forecast a $125 billion budget for 2105, but faced with still-falling prices for its oil exports it was forced to slash this by some 20 per cent.

The new budget is based on a price of $56 for a barrel of crude, lowered from $70 and then $60 a barrel in earlier drafts. The expected budget deficit will still be around $19.1 to $21.1 billion, however.

One of the main hurdles that delayed the budget’s endorsement were objections from some Shia members to an oil-export deal struck in December between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government.The Shia MPs said the deal would unfairly benefit the Kurdistan Region at the expense of the Shia-populated oil-producing provinces in the south.

Sunni lawmakers also threatened to boycott the vote because the budget did not include funding provisions for a national guard, a new security force to be set up to fight IS and police Sunni-populated provinces.

Many lawmakers also objected to the oil price assumption in the budget, saying it was unrealistic as market prices had slipped below $50 a barrel with no concrete indications that they would rebound in the foreseeable future.

The reduction in oil prices is expected to strangle Iraq’s economy at a time when the country needs a boost in resources to cement its fractured national unity and sustain the war against terrorism.

While the government said it would not cut salaries or pensions, other reductions in the lavish spending of oil money, such as generous allowances, travel and office expenses, were announced.

But the bulk of the funds to cover the deficit will come from taxation, borrowing and withdrawals from the country’s reserves, estimated at $75 billion. While the Central Bank is expected to provide funds from its reserves, the government said it would also issue bonds in foreign currencies.

Under the provisions of the budget the government will be able to meet part of the deficit by introducing new taxes, levies and duties. Obligatory saving accounts are also to be opened for senior government officials to deposit part of their salaries.

Since the fall of the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003 Iraq’s parliament has had difficulty passing annual budgets in regular order. Wrangling over budgetary allotments are routine, and last-minute deals usually come at the expense of a solid fiscal plan.

Worse still, Iraqi governments throughout this period have failed to present their final revenue and expenditure accounts for review and endorsement before passing the next annual budget.

Last year, parliament was unable to approve the state budget because of a dispute between the central government and the autonomous Kurdistan Region over independent oil exports from the region.

The crisis allowed former prime ministerNuri Al-Maliki to use budget advances and emergency provisions, circumventing the checks and balances enshrined in the constitution to ensure limits imposed by parliament are respected.

As a result, billions of dollars in unchecked spending are now unaccounted for. Lawmakers have said that Iraq’s state coffers were nearly empty when the government of Prime Minister HaidarAl-Abadi took office in August. Iraq’s economy has been hard hit by decades of war, international sanctions and inefficiency.

But the country’s current economic ills are largely due to the abysmal economic policies of post-Saddam governments. Instead of working to rebuild the economy and sustain growth in basic sectors, they relied heavily on oil revenues to bankroll the budget.

Though Iraq is the second-largest producer of crude oil in OPEC, the oilproducers’ organisation, the country’s economy is in a shambles due largely to mismanagement, poor public spending and rampant corruption.Some 70 per cent of the budget has been going to pay for food imports, energy subsidies and funding an inflated bureaucracy and ramshackle armed forces.

Government policies are mainly responsible for the decline in productive sectors.Agriculture has been neglected, and less than 15 per cent of the country’s total area is now being cultivated. The agricultural sector, which used to employ one third of the work force, now accounts for less than four per cent of the country’s GDP.

The manufacturing, construction and electricity industries are in tatters and account for only eight per cent of national wealth. Thousands of state-owned industries andsubsidised factories have shut down because of a lack of electricity and poor maintenance.

Iraq’s banking system is largely dysfunctional, and without an overhaul, analysts say, the economy has little hope of competing with its oil-rich neighbours. Iraq has failed to invest in sovereign wealth funds, unlike oil-exporting countries in the Gulf, whose investments are now being used to cover budget deficits and public spending.

Corruption comes at the top of the reasons behind the depletion of Iraq’s coffers. According to some lawmakers, some $750 billion has been lost in corruption, waste and inefficiencies over the last ten years.Though Al-Abadi promised to combat corruption in his policy statement to parliament when he took office, there have been no signs that his government has taken concrete steps to bring corrupt officials to account or recover stolen money.

One day before the parliament passed the 2015 budget, a report by the World Bank warned that Iraq faces “a crisis which will have important implications for the welfare of its people.”The report said that about 20 per cent of Iraq’s population lived below the poverty line in 2012 and a significant portion of the Iraqi people was vulnerable to falling into poverty.

It said “poverty declined only modestly” since 2012 and “deep deprivations in non-monetary dimensions persisted.”The report painted a grim picture of Iraq before the current crisis. It said close to half the population had less than primary level education and almost a third of children aged up to five years old were stunted.

The report said over 90 per cent of households in Baghdad and the central and southern provinces received less than eight hours of electricity a day, a third of men and 90 per cent of women aged 15 to 64 were neither employed nor looking for work, and more than 60 per cent of the calories consumed by the poor came from a nationwide food subsidy programme.

“Addressing this crisis will take time and concerted effort,” the report said.

Looking forward, there are real concerns that the new belt-tightening budget will have serious impacts on the lives of most Iraqis. Moreover, there are concerns that the combination of falling oil prices and the austerity measures will have adverse implications for the country’s stability and hurt efforts to fight IS extremists.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Feb.5, 2015