Quo Vadis Iraq?

By Harem Karem:

Last year’s wave of protests against corruption and foreign interference, across central and southern Iraq, marked a critical juncture in the country’s post-war trajectory; unprecedented in scale and strength, the protesters were resolute in pursuit of lasting change. Undeterred by the violent crackdown from state and non-state forces that resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries, they ousted Adil Abdulmahdi’s government and shook the social and political landscape to a point where the balance of power is likely to change beyond the sectarian divide.

The mainly Shia, anti-status quo protesters rejected foreign interference in Iraq’s affairs, making it abundantly clear that Iran’s meddling can no longer be tolerated, and providing the already drifting Shia groups such as Al-Hikma probable cause to explore alternative options including aligning themselves with the Sunnis and the progressives, among which is Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi’s much-anticipated new party that is likely to target those who consider themselves politically homeless, to form a major alliance, backed by the United States, in the upcoming elections, posing a serious challenge to the Iran-backed Shia groups that until recently wielded the tyranny of the majority.

A shift in Iraq’s political landscape towards a two-alliance system that will swallow smaller parties will no doubt result in two antagonistic power blocs at the centre of US-Iran’s theatre of operation; one of which has nearly a hundred thousand Hashd armed forces at its disposal, including rogue elements that have been dictating the terms in Iraq for some time: they have the means to hamper meaningful changes which the progressives might promise but are deemed as a threat to Iran’s interests in the wider region. Along with a glimmer of hope for reform, epic challenges await the progressives and hence they cannot afford to carry dead weight in their endeavours.

Redundant politicians and businessmen with tarnished reputations and a history of opportunistic tendencies are likely to hitchhike with the progressive camp as they have done repeatedly in the past. Among them are the likes of Barham Salih, Khamis Al-Khanjar, Rafi Al-Issawi and Tariq Al-Hashimi. Salih’s manner of ascension to the Iraqi presidency, after completely abandoning his Coalition for Democracy and Justice party and reform agenda in 2018, destroying the hopes for institutional reform and alienating the electorate, as evidenced by the low turnout in the subsequent Kurdistan Region elections, will do more harm than good to the progressives’ cause. Salih’s selfish manoeuvres helped the Barzani clan gain dominance over his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party and tighten their grip on power for another generation. Having held several senior governmental positions since 2003, including Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister and Kurdistan Regional Government’s Prime Minister, Salih is seen by many as part of the caste of politicians mainly responsible for the rampant corruption, instability, mass migration, social polarisation and compromising of Iraq’s sovereignty, not to mention the fact that he backed the Kurdistan Region’s irrational independence referendum in 2017.

One of Mr and Mrs Salih’s close associates at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymani, Azzam Alwash, is currently being investigated by the Iraqi government for money laundering and financing terrorists. Salih also has close ties with the Iranians and this is something the progressives and their backers cannot afford to associate themselves with.

When Salih was KRG Prime Minister in 2011, the KRG-backed forces’ violent crackdown of anti-corruption protests resulted in seventeen protesters being shot dead and nearly four hundred wounded, and the perpetrators still haven’t been brought to justice; a shameful stain on Salih’s record unlikely to be forgiven by the Iraqi protestors who will comprise a significant portion of the progressives’ votes. Allegedly tens of thousands of ‘ghost’ government employees were registered during Salih’s premiership as a way of buying their loyalty, over 900 of them on ministerial salaries without their ever having served in the government, a huge burden on the public purse, while six billion dollars received by the KRG as advance payments from the oil companies are still unaccounted for. Salih has also been accused of squandering tens of millions of foreign aid dollars injected into the country after the 2003 US invasion.

Khanjar, designated as corrupt by the US treasury, is a former associate of Saddam Hussein’s sons, accused of funding anti-US insurgencies before changing tactics, backing the Iraqiya party led by Ayad Allawi which secured the biggest number of seats during the 2010 elections with a clear mandate to form a government, although Obama administration’s interference deprived them of that chance, backing Maliki’s Dawa party instead. Both Issawi and Hashimi have been living in exile since being accused of supporting terrorism with warrants issued for their arrests.

Whether the Kurds will join the progressives’ alliance or the Shia alliance is too early to tell, but the option of being the kingmakers again is another possibility. Given the fragmented political landscape in the Kurdistan region and the ongoing disputes between Erbil and Baghdad over budget, borders, disputed territories, security, and oil, including the secret fifty-year hydrocarbon and security deal that Barzani’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party has unilaterally signed with Turkey and is unwilling to reveal the details of to Baghdad or even to other Kurdish parties, the Kurds will likely divide between both camps unless the United States intervenes.

The immediate challenges facing the progressives, aside from the financial and the health crises caused by the oil price drop and the global pandemic, are mainly security-related: the ISIS resurgence, the rogue armed groups and Turkey’s incursions. The government’s clampdown on the ISIS resurgence has so far been relatively successful. However, in trying to bring the rogue elements under control, there have been two failed attempts so far: the first operation in May against the Iran-backed Tharallah group in Basra, accused of shooting protesters, and the second in June against the Kata’b Hezbollah in Baghdad, accused of targeting the US Embassy and military bases with rockets. Both operations were monumental failures: everyone arrested has been released without charge, with one exception,  and to a certain degree the second operation backfired, since tensions have risen following the retaliatory assassination of renowned counter-terrorism analyst Husham Al-Hashimi. Kadhimi’s reckless moves to make arrests without having solid evidence to prosecute has left many discombobulated; this is more the hallmark of a disgruntled policeman than an ex-spy chief entrusted to lead the ship to safety

The security challenges are also economic. Almost half of the current 42 border crossings are controlled by rogue armed groups using the revenues to fund their various operations. Some of these groups are involved in Internet smuggling, tapping into the optical cables crossing the border and making tens of millions of dollars each year.

Lastly, the federal government’s collaboration with Turkey’s continued military adventurism and violation of Iraq’s sovereignty began in 2007 under the pretext of pursuing the  Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Dozens of civilians have been killed or injured, with hundreds of villages evacuated and thousands of people displaced due to Turkey’s recent incursions, and neither PM Kadhimi nor President Salih have said a word in defence of their country’s sovereignty. This year there have been at least 135 Turkish incursions (85 via the airspace, 50 on the ground), including penetrating the Iraqi airspace by some 120km in June for the Kunemasi operation, in a touristic area in Suly, when a PJAK guerrilla passing through in a pickup truck was killed by a drone strike, and several civilians, including two children, were injured. This is seen as violating articles 109 and 110 of the Iraqi constitution, while Barham Salih’s deafening silence is seen as a blatant failure to fulfil his constitutional obligations as defined in article 67 of the constitution.

Until the government rises to these challenges, the chances of the progressives allying, winning the next elections and successfully implementing their reform agenda are very slim.

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