Iraq: Those on Top Can’t, Those on Bottom don’t Want to

Baghdad, Iraq (SCF– Exactly one year ago Iraq got a new government. Many pinned their hopes on the advent of this new administration, because the country had been lost inside a maze of dead ends. But today we can say that the hopes of finding a way out have been dashed.

The security situation remains extremely tense – the number of refugees has now topped three million. In Iraq itself, the use of the word “refugee” is carefully avoided – they prefer the terms “migrants” or “displaced persons” when referring to people who have been forced to abandon their homes and flee an area of conflict, because to remain there would mean certain death. In 2014, a total of 17,174 civilians were killed in that country (which was the highest number since 2007), but another 10,091 have already died since the beginning of 2015…

In late April, after a month and a half of fighting, government forces were finally able, with great effort, to rout the Islamic State (IS) militants from Tikrit, the capital of the Saladin Province, and from the city of Baiji to the north, where the largest oil refinery in Iraq was located. This was presented as a historic victory, which would be followed by the liberation of Mosul and the complete expulsion of terrorists from Iraq. But reality turned out differently – just three days after the capture of Tikrit, Haider al-Abadi, the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi armed forces, was forced to give the order to pull all units of the Shiite “people’s militia” out of the city, because they were looting anything left that had miraculously survived. And in just a few hours on May 17, IS units took over Ramadi – the largest city in the Anbar province.

The nearby town of Fallujah has been under IS control since January 2014 and is less than 80 km. from Baghdad. In early August Islamists also recaptured Baiji, although the oil refinery located there had long lain in ruins – different groups had traded possession of it so many times that the facility has been almost completed obliterated.

This summer has turned out to be an unusually hot one in Iraq, both literally and figuratively. July temperatures often exceeded 53 degrees Celsius, which is why the government has announced public holidays four different times – it is not possible to work in such heat, especially when power outages sometimes last eight hours or more, and some areas simply have no electricity at all because the transformers were overloaded and burned out. Even the Iraqis – long accustomed to hardship and privation – have had enough. The public took to the streets in mass demonstrations, demanding their right to the most basic social services. The government made a conciliatory move – distributing statements of solidarity with the people and proclaiming the public’s constitutional right to protest and march. Security forces were given strict orders to in no way prevent the “citizens from exercising their legal rights”, but to instead fully safeguard them from “the provocations and half-hearted efforts of external forces”.

Realizing that the authorities had no satisfactory response to offer, the protesters then began blocking roads with burning tires and, in some locations, rioting. A policeman who fired a warning shot into the air in the city of Nasiriyah was immediately arrested on the personal orders of the governor for committing “actions against the people.” And the demonstrators’ demands began to multiply rapidly – they wanted jobs for the unemployed, payment of workers’ back wages and benefits, answers about the fate of thousands of MIA soldiers, and an end to rampant corruption. In other words, there was now a financial and economic component to their grievances, and the government does not have an impressive track record here.

Baha al-Araji, the deputy prime minister for energy affairs, blamed the calamitous economic situation on the three previous governments. He claimed that one trillion dollars ($800 billion from state coffers and another $200 billion from foreign investment) was spent between 2004 and 2014, but without any tangible results from these efforts to improve the economy.

In other words, the government acknowledged that the country is in a profound financial crisis, but insists that completely different people were at fault. But it was the current administration that convinced the IMF to provide Iraq with $1.24 billion in financial assistance to “support the authorities’ current economic program, which includes fiscal adjustment measures and structural reforms.”

Clearly this $1.24 billion will not save the country. Plus oil prices are falling, and income from petroleum sales makes up 91% of the Iraqi budget. Given this situation, fiscal pressure is being increased under the pretext of “protecting local manufacturers”, and new taxes and fees are being introduced, such as on the providers of Internet and mobile phone services (20% per transaction). Those reached their apex of creativity with the introduction of additional customs duties on imports – from 5 to 30%, and a heavy-handed campaign is underway to impose a 200% duty on imported air conditioners – during the hottest season of the year. But none of these innovations have affected Iraqi Kurdistan, since Baghdad quite rightly assumed that they would all simply be ignored there.

As a result, on Aug. 6 merchants stopped bringing imports through the checkpoints on the border with Iran and Kuwait in the southern province of Basra – and 3/4 of all the goods and commodities imported into the country come in through these border posts and the port of Umm Qasr. Thousands of massive tractor trailers, fully loaded, were backed up at the border. Local authorities quickly assessed the situation and rebelled – they refused to carry out their orders to introduce higher tax rates, instead issuing an ultimatum demanding that customs officials follow their lead when inspecting imported goods and commodities.

Because of this situation, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi instructed the director of the customs service to delay the introduction of the new tariffs until Aug. 15. On the same day the national government in Bagdad decided to transfer a number of powers from eight federal ministries into the hands of officials from 15 provinces (all the Iraqi provinces except for the autonomous Kurdish region), announcing that they were beginning the process of decentralizing the administration of the national government. Parliament hastily approved a new draft of the law “On the Powers of the Provinces”, but it was clear to everyone that this measure was necessitated by the wish to hold onto the main reins of power.

And herein lies the key question – whose hands will hold those reins? It is common knowledge that the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, was able to take office solely due to American support and he remained in power for eight years only with their blessing, although he tried to maneuver and to flirt with Tehran, Moscow, and even some of the Gulf states. Now it seems the trajectory is shifting. The hour has struck.

On Aug. 7, thousands demonstrated against the conditions under which they are forced to live, the tyranny and corruption of the authorities, and the general sense of despair and lack of prospects. It is important to note that Aug. 7 was a Friday. Friday prayers have a special significance for Muslims – there they recap the week’s current events and refocus themselves for the coming week. If we add to this the fact that the highest spiritual leaders had addressed the faithful during the Friday prayers in the sacred Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, then all else pales in a country where a departure from the secular order is becoming an objective reality. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called on the prime minister to take urgent steps to remedy the situation. This was truly an extraordinary event – there was no time to delay. The prime minister responded immediately to the instructions of the supreme religious leader, promising that an emergency response system would be developed and put into operation as soon as possible.

On the morning of Aug. 9, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi unveiled his seven-point program. One of the biggest points involved the elimination of the posts of vice presidents and vice premiers. Senior officials will lose many benefits and privileges and will see a significant reduction in their personal security details (some have «private armies» of up to 500 carefully armed and trained fighters). A Higher Qualification Commission will be created, which will determine candidates’ suitability for appointments to senior positions (from general directors on up), based on their professional merits rather than on recommendations or party quotas. Instructions were given to step up the investigation of corruption-related crimes, bringing in professional lawyers with clean hands.

Other government agencies also tried to jump on board. And thus the prosecutor general’s office announced the launch of an investigation into the charges against Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Aaraji. The details of the accusations themselves were not disclosed, however it was reported that an anti-corruption committee had also joined the investigation. Many members of parliament began jockeying to demonstrate their full support and approval of the long-awaited reform. There is no doubt that the legally required approval of such reforms by the cabinet of ministers and parliament will not be long in coming. There is a good reason the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr commented that millions will take to the streets if parliament does not approve the initiatives. Other radical movements have also expressed their solidarity with this approach. And although their followers are perhaps not numerous, they are very well organized and armed.

Let us return to the trajectory of the momentum. Do not forget that Iraq’s supreme Shiite clergy have demanded that the head of the government take decisive and immediate action. Those are not people one would suspect of harboring sincere sympathies for the US. At the same time, one must give the Americans their due – they are moving steadily, high-handedly, and resolutely to implement the plan they have developed to recast the world in general and the Middle East in particular, and they have thus far not met any serious obstacles that would cause them to change it.

Iraq Image Source: DVIDSHUB, Flickr, Creative Commons

Image Source: DVIDSHUB, Flickr, Creative Commons

The newest Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, US Gen. Joseph Dunford, testifying recently at a Congressional hearing, expressed his vision for Iraq’s future. He sanctioned the country’s division into two separate states, Kurdish and Shiite, but expressed doubts concerning the Sunni part. “Frankly, I think from a pure economic and resources and governance perspective, the Shiites and Kurds are much more equipped to set up separate states than the Sunni would be”, stated Dunford, in response the senators’ questions.

Meanwhile, there is much to indicate that the pendulum released by Washington has begun to swing back. It remains unclear how hard it will hit and whom it will strike first. Among the listed points of reform, not a word was mentioned about the Sunnis, the National Guard, or the equality of all ethnic and religious communities – i.e., any of the issues that swept the present administration into office in September 2014. On the other hand, judging by the hastening speed of the unfolding events, we will all know that answer very soon.

This article was prepared by Anton VESELOV  for Strategic Culture Foundation.