Anton VESELOV | 26.02.2014
Recently news from Iraq has all but disappeared from the reports of world news agencies. As if on command, the largest Western media outlets have begun to strictly measure out coverage of events in this country. The multistage Iraqi scheme, which has required colossal expenses and huge casualties, is failing, and the situation is threatening to go completely out of control and progress in an entirely different direction than that which was scripted.
The occupation of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath party marked the beginning of massive repressions of those who had held more or less significant posts in the previous regime. However, soon minor functionaries began to be subject to persecution, and then ordinary citizens, mostly from among Sunnites. The ruling Shiite bloc of Nouri al-Maliki has conducted an openly discriminatory policy toward Sunnites throughout the years of its governance. More than once the state bureaucracy, the armed forces, the police and intelligence agencies have been purged of people who confess Sunni Islam. All attempts by various political forces, including on the parliamentary level, to start a dialog for the purpose of national harmony have been left unanswered by the authorities, and peaceful demonstrations all end the same way: with crackdowns and numerous casualties. Purges, raids and «preventative arrests» took on such proportions that a backlash was inevitable.
Over 9,000 people were killed in Iraq in 2013, and over 1000 in January 2014 alone. Propagandistic attempts to blame everything on the machinations of outside forces and hosts of foreign al-Qaeda insurgents are no longer working: it is becoming obvious that the country is in the grip of a civil war. It is becoming increasingly more violent and is sweeping over more and more regions of the country, increasing casualties and limiting possibilities to choose a future.
Iraq is experiencing a very dramatic period in its history, when the disintegration of the country could become a reality at any moment. Iraqi Kurdistan is already essentially no longer under Baghdad’s control and is self-sufficient, with almost all of the agencies, symbols and attributes of an independent state. The situation with regard to security in the provinces of Baghdad, Salah ad-Din, Ninawa, Diyala and several others is extremely tense; the armed conflicts and terrorist attacks which take place each month number in the triple digits. The situation has become most acute in the country’s largest province by area, al-Anbar. Since December of last year fierce battles have been being fought there between the government forces, which in Iraq are called the «Shiite Militia of al-Maliki» and local Sunnite tribes who have despaired of gaining equal rights through peaceful means.
On December 28, commando and army forces conducted yet another operation to wipe out the tent camps of protesters by force. Casualties were numerous. The next day a member of parliament from the al-Anbar province who tried to act as a mediator in negotiations with Baghdad was arrested, despite his parliamentary immunity; the legislator received gunshot wounds when his house was stormed, and his brother and four bodyguards were killed. Local sheikhs issued a call to arms. Support arrived from other provinces to aid their brothers in faith. A day later the army and police had been driven from many districts and the armed opposition had taken control of almost all of the al-Anbar province, including the provincial capital Ramadi and the large city of Fallujah, which in Iraq is glorified as «the stronghold of the spirit and the symbol of resistance» – American troops were only able to enter the city a year and a half after their «declaration of victory», having lost over 400 men in battle.
Despite the arrival of reinforcements (according to some reports, another 90,000 troops and policemen were deployed to the province), the many attempts by government forces, commando troops and the police to enter the cities did not meet with success, and in mid-January a siege began: the suburbs are completely blocked off, and residential neighborhoods are coming under intensive fire from artillery, tanks and helicopters. There have been numerous civilian casualties, but those who attempt to leave the battle zone cannot do so, as the bridges on the main highways which connect the cities with neighboring provinces have been blown up, and the back roads have been blocked by the army under the pretext of «preventing the spread of terrorism». The province is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster; On February 6 the head of the UN Mission in Iraq, Nikolai Mladenov, stated that international funds have started sending urgent deliveries of essential commodities to al-Anbar (the first delivery is to be enough for 45,000 people). On February 9 Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq appealed to the European Union to immediately send humanitarian aid to al-Anbar…
On April 30 there are to be parliamentary elections in Iraq, after which there will probably be some changes. The country has come to a dead end. The parliament is dysfunctional; many members do not participate in sessions as a sign of protest against the government’s policies, and the lack of a quorum makes it impossible to make decisions. The draft of the country’s 2014 budget has not yet been discussed, and many other important bills are in limbo as well. A huge number of vitally important projects which have not been confirmed and have not received funding remain on paper, while the giant revenues from oil and gas go into accounts opened in the U.S.
Many in Iraq have a good idea of where this money goes after that; that is why the Ministry of Finance’s refusal to observe a law passed in 2013 which was to increase the amount allocated to provincial budgets for oil extracted there from $1 to $5 per barrel for 2014 caused a storm of protest among local authorities. Governors and provincial councils started actively developing coordinated measures for influencing the government. Judging by official statements, provincial leaders are determined and intend to get the draft budget for 2014 revised by any means available.
On January 11 in al-Diwaniyah, al-Qadisiyyah province, the «Middle Euphrates Convention» was convened with the participation of the governors of five provinces; the convention demanded «the fair distribution of revenues in proportion to the population». On January 25 in Basra, the capital of Iraq’s oil extraction, a conference was held with the participation of official representatives of eight oil and gas producing provinces, as well as the parliament’s petroleum committee. The next day the governor of Basra, Majid al-Nasrawi, announced that he had filed suit against the Ministry of Finance for its violation of the 2013 law. It is worth noting that the Basra provincial council gave official permission to hold meetings and demonstrations condemning the actions of the country’s government and urged everyone to work toward securing «the lawful rights of the residents of the province, which has the richest resources in the country but is at the bottom of the list with regard to prosperity».
According to many analysts, the personal authority, influence and political weight of Nouri al-Maliki and the State of Law Coalition he leads have dropped noticeably. Accusations of authoritarianism, wholesale corruption, inability to maintain security even in the center of the capital (the average number of terrorist attacks with human casualties in Baghdad has grown over the past three years from 70 to 110 per week), and a lack of desire to seek compromise, along with unceasing attempts to physically eliminate his opponents, all seriously reduce Nouri al-Maliki’s chances to occupy the post of prime minister and supreme commander in chief for a third time.
Iraqi leaders over the past 10 years have behaved like favored minions. Many former functionaries of the «new democratic government» have already found refuge in prestigious areas of London, starting with the first Minister of Defense, Hazim al-Shaalan (who was once accused of stealing one and a half billion dollars in just the first year in his post). Many current officials have also foresightedly acquired real estate there. According to data from the parliamentary anti-corruption committee, the amount of money embezzled from the treasury and sent abroad is approaching 200 billion dollars.
Foreseeing developments which could be dangerous for them, the current authorities are seriously concerned about preserving the status quo (this is called «continuity of reforms») in order to prevent power from shifting into the hands of their opponents. Recently feverish attempts have been being made to get out of the crisis, including by generating rather unexpected initiatives.
For example, in Baghdad they have officially began talking about redrawing the administrative map of the country, increasing the number of provinces from 18 to 30. Their willingness to do this is supported by a number of official statements, one of which (dated January 21, on the formation of 4 new provinces) was unexpected even for the residents of the municipal district of Fallujah itself, to say nothing of the leadership of the al-Anbar province. The cunning of the idea of fragmentation is that it simultaneously accomplishes several aims, namely:
– dismembering «rebellious» provinces with mostly Sunnite populations while at the same time attempting to bring representatives of the tribes which have joined the Sahwa («Awakening») movement to power; in particular, it has already been decided to turn a number of municipal districts in the provinces of al-Anbar, Salah ad-Din and Ninawa into provinces;
– knocking some of the trumps out of the hands of the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan by turning 4-5 municipal districts into separate provinces, which would lead to a reduction in the territory and population of the current autonomous region and a diminishing of its weight and influence on the country’s political arena. And this regards not only the disputed territories in the provinces of Wasit, Diyala, Ninawa and Kirkuk, but also the «traditionally Kurdish» Dohuk and as-Sulaymaniyyah;
– changing the overall alignment of forces in the country by putting loyal people into the leadership of the newly formed provinces. At the municipal elections in 2013 the ruling coalition lost gubernatorial posts even in such strategically important provinces as Baghdad and Basra, retaining fewer than half of the gubernatorial seats, and that with restrictions.
However, considering the weakness of the state machinery and the growing centrifugal tendencies of the local authorities, the process could get out of control, and the repartitioning of territories could bring about the opposite effect, causing entire regions to split off and create autonomous regions (following the example of Kurdistan). For example, the governor of the Ninawa province has already stated that if practical steps are taken to split municipal districts off from the province as has been announced, all efforts will be made to turn the province into an autonomous territory. This statement received widespread support, including from the oil-rich South. In the provinces of Basra and Maysan there have already been demonstrations in support of giving the status of provinces to several municipal districts, including those located in oil-producing regions, with the subsequent formation of a «Southern Confederacy» on the model of Kurdistan.
Today practically all the conditions have been created for the transformation of Iraq into a federative state with dozens of provinces grouped into 3-4 autonomous territories (tentatively Shiite, Kurdish and Sunnite ones) on the basis of tribal connections, religious affinity and economic interests, with severe restriction of the powers of the Center.
Outwardly such a program seems difficult to implement; in order to legislatively formalize such decisions there will need to be parliamentary conciliatory commissions, committees, secondary legislation, etc., to say nothing of amendments to the country’s constitution. However, if one looks at the matter more attentively, the thought arises that perhaps that is the common interest of the key players who are influencing developments.
The West, headed by the United States, as well as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and obviously Israel, have an interest in keeping Iraq from ever again rising to the position of a powerful regional state; they need it to remain a manageable supplier of high-quality petroleum with minimal costs for extraction and export, and also to serve as a bargaining chip in resolving problems of another order.
Most likely the future state structure of Iraq and the country’s fate are being decided now not in Baghdad, but in back room negotiations between «very interested parties»… There have been many examples in the history of the Middle East where states appeared or disappeared from the political map during a game of bridge, and the borders between them were drawn with an ordinary ruler. In spite of all the technological achievements of the past decades, in geopolitics and geo-economics little has changed since then.
* The Sahwa movement was created by the U.S. in the beginning of the occupation by paying off tribal sheikhs in exchange for their non-resistance. Many Iraqis to this day see the members of Sahwa as traitors and collaborators, and they are one of the main targets of armed attack