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General News    H3'ed 3/14/13

Is Iraq entering a new dark period?

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Bab al-Sharji stalls, Baghdad
Bab al-Sharji stalls, Baghdad
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Bab al-Sharji stalls, Baghdad by salam pax

After the US-led invasion of 2003, Iraq emerged as a weak and vulnerable country with dysfunctional institutions. The first elected government established in 2005 was fragile, and could not check the worsening security situation. With rampant revenge killings, the law and order situation remained chaotic for several years. A sort of "ethnic cleansing' was being carried out by all major Iraqi sects and ethnicities, but particularly by the Shias and Sunnis in central Iraq. Nevertheless, after the brutal sectarian violence in 2006/2007, Iraq finally entered a period of relative calm, and by 2009, the security situation had been substantially improved.

However, despite a couple of years of a fragile peace between major factions in Iraq, the threat of bloodshed remained hovering. Killings had never stopped completely, although the reduction of crime and violence was noticeable, and, after the withdrawal of American troops towards the end of 2011, as Iraq faced multiple challenges on many fronts, the fear of bloodshed again raised its ugly head.         

The political fragmentation deepened between the Shia-dominated government, the Arab Sunnis and the Kurds. T he arrest of ten bodyguards of Iraq's Minister for Finance, on charges of terrorism, sparked off anti-government sentiments against anti-terrorist laws, and soon turned into a protest against discrimination and the marginalization of the Arab Sunnis. The frustration of the Arab Sunni minority in Iraq had been building up since 2003, when the US-led forces empowered the Shia majority to rule Iraq. The protests, directed against the Maliki government, continued for more than three months in western Iraq (Anbar province).

Amid this destabilized situation in Iraq , Al Qaida saw its chance and called upon the protesters to fight against the government. The Iraqi Al Qaida, known as Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, soon intensified its activities by carrying out bomb-explosions across the country, and attacks against the Shia-dominated government, as well as the Sunni anti-terrorist militia, Al Sahwa, meaning "the awakening'. The latest development that rocked the central government -- an attack on a Syrian convoy escaping after a battle against the rebels in Syria -- was also the handiwork of Al Qaida. The convoy was trapped in an ambush which resulted in the deaths of 51 Syrian soldiers.

On the positive side, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has successfully managed to turn its region into an economically flourishing and safe part of Iraq, in sharp contrast to the rest of the country. However, KRG institutions function almost independently from the Iraqi state. After the US pull-out, the tensions soared between the central government in Baghdad and the KRG, on account of several reasons. The latest development that brought the forces under both the governments almost to the brink of a clash was the formation of Dijla military forces by Maliki's central government. These forces were sent to the provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahddin -- areas over which the KRG has disputes with the central government. Maliki's justification for this action was to eliminate terrorist groups in these provinces, but the Kurds, who administer these territories, interpreted this action as a threat to Kurdish national security. Eventually, both sides compromised and pulled back their forces. But the contention over the territories in question has not been resolved, and may flare up again at any time.

The other cause of dispute between the two governments is control of the oil and gas resources in the Kurdistan region. The semi-autonomous region has signed contracts with oil and gas multinational corporations, including Exxon Mobile, Total Petroleum, BP, Gazprom and Chevron, without permission of the central government in Baghdad. Baghdad has rejected these contracts; it insists that it has the sole right to export oil and gas from the region, and projects the KRG's behaviour as a violation of the Iraqi constitution. However, the KRG asserts its rights over resources in the region, and sees no violation of the constitution in its action. Furthermore, Turkey has invested heavily in Kurdistan and the KRG is already exporting oil to Turkey by road transport. Since the American withdrawal, the KRG has developed closer relations with Turkey, and even concluded an agreement to lay down pipelines that will provide Turkey with one million barrels of oil a day. Naturally, the agreement has angered the central government, which calls it illegal. Easing the tension, however, the Turkish officials have lately announced that the approval of Baghdad is essential for laying down oil pipelines.    

While these disputes were raging, the Iraqi Parliament passed the budget for 2013. Because of a boycott by the Kurdish alliance, there were only 168 members out of 325 present, providing just the quorum necessary to pass the budget. The reason for the protest of Kurdish MPs was the amount allotted to pay oil companies operating in the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. Besides, a large part of the Sunni bloc boycotted the budget session as well. Thus, passing the budget without an accord with major Iraqi factions has further deepened the disputes among the key powers. Budget problems, disputed areas, and oil and gas are the main challenges facing the KRG and Baghdad, which have intensified due to the prevailing political environment.

Finally, a recent international development that has contributed to complicating the situation in Iraq is the Syrian crisis, which has spilled over the whole Middle East region. The catastrophic situation in Syria, with one of its causes being the Shia connections of Bashar Al Assad as he confronts the Sunni rebels, has worsened relations among Iraqi factions. Each sect in Iraq sees the war in Syria as a war at home.

Thus, ten years after the US-led invasion in Iraq, the contentions dividing the major factions -- the Shias, Sunnis and Kurds -- continue to simmer. The gulf between the Shia and Sunni blocs has widened further with the consecutive resignations of two Sunni officials in the Shia-dominated government, first the Minister for Finance and then the Minister for Agriculture. However, although the dysfunctional central government in Baghdad is in the midst of an unenviable political crisis, this does not mean that sectarian violence of the scale of 2006/2007 is going to return. The crisis is essentially political and has no bearing on the security situation. This is borne out by a survey conducted by Gallup in October 2012: the results indicate that the security situation in Iraq has improved since the withdrawal of the American troops, but the political stability and unemployment have worsened. It seems worthwhile to suggest, therefore, that the central government of Baghdad should concentrate on economic revival and employment generation in order to create a climate in which political tensions might gradually fade.





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I am a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Sheffield in the UK.

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