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Hopeless in Iraq

Four months of mass protests in the streets of Hong Kong, and thousands of injuries and arrests – but only two gunshot wounds, both very recent and neither life-threatening.

Five days of mass protests in the streets of Baghdad, and there are already a hundred dead, most by gunfire from the various ‘security’ forces that work for the government. It’s all the more deplorable because Iraq, unlike the vast majority of Arab states, is not actually ruled by military or royal tyrants.

There are free elections in Iraq, and a democratically elected civilian government. The lengthy military occupation after the US invasion in 2003 spawned brutal terrorist movements like Islamic State, but it did give Iraq a full suite of democratic institutions. The trouble is that it also empowered one of the most corrupt political systems in the world.

That’s what the young Iraqi protesters are out in the streets about: not democracy, but corruption. They are very young – most are under 20 – and there are simply no jobs for them. They are condemned to pass their lives in idleness and poverty because they lack the political contacts that might lead to employment.

There have been intermittent anti-corruption demonstrations in Baghdad and Iraq’s big southern cities since mid-2018, and Tahrir Square in the centre of the capital has been occupied by a few thousand protesters for the past three months. But it was only when they decided to march on the Green Zone on 1 October that the killing started.

The heavily fortified Green Zone was American headquarters during the occupation, and it is now home to most government offices. The protesters were unarmed and non-violent, so the safest thing for the authorities to do would have been to shut the gates until they went home for the evening.

Instead, the military and police fools in charge decided to blockade a bridge leading to the Green Zone. When the protesters tried to cross, they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets, and then with live bullets.

Only half a dozen young men were killed that day, but they were back in the streets in far larger numbers the next day and the slaughter began in earnest. This is not a revolution. It’s more like a cry of pain and despair by young Iraqis who see no future for themselves, and unfortunately they are right.

Almost every country that depends on a single natural resource (usually oil) for most of its income experiences massive corruption: politics becomes mainly a struggle for control of the money flowing from that resource. But the situation is much worse in Iraq because corruption has become embedded in the structure of all the main political parties.

Each party controls one or more government ministries, but instead of spending that ministry’s share of the national budget on education or infrastructure or whatever its particular responsibility may be, the party creates as many jobs as possible to reward its members and retain their support.

So almost half the adult males in Iraq who have jobs of any sort have government jobs – jobs that often require no work at all, but are much better paid than private-sector jobs.

Iraqi public services are in a desperate state, because the ministries’ money is being spent on salaries for those party members rather than on maintaining the school system or electricity generation or even the water supply.

And of course there are no jobs whatever left for young people now coming into the work-force.

Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi has no idea what to do about the situation, because corruption in Iraq is not a blight on the system. It IS the system, and he will never persuade the political parties to relinquish their control over the state’s revenues. And he can’t really negotiate with the protesters either, because they have no leaders.

It gets worse. The bitter fact is that there’s not enough oil money to give everybody a decent life even if the Iraqi government were to spend it on public services and jobs for all.

Iraq’s current oil production (4.6 million barrels/day) is not dramatically higher than its previous peak in 1979 (3.5 million b/d), before production collapsed during the era of wars with Iran and the United States.

Back then, there were only around 13 million Iraqis, so it was genuinely an oil-rich country. Before Saddam Hussein gained absolute power in 1979 and plunged the country into a generation of war, the Baath Party had even managed to build a pretty good welfare state in Iraq, with a decent education and free medical care for all.

But there are now three times as many Iraqis – 40 million – and the population will double again in the next 30 years. The country still depends on oil for its income, but it is no longer ‘oil-rich’. There is little prospect for a radical improvement in the lives of those angry young men in the streets of Baghdad (and their equally despairing sisters at home).
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 12. (“The heavily…bullets”; and “Iraqi…supply”)

Iraq: Endless War

“Suppose that…the Iraqis feel ambivalent about being invaded and real Iraqis, not (just) Saddam’s special guard, decide to offer resistance,” wrote British prime minister Tony Blair to US president George W. Bush in December 2001, two years before the US and the UK invaded Iraq. At least Blair had some doubts, but neither man could really imagine that the Iraqis would see them as conquerors, not liberators.

Another 13 years have now passed, and at last we have the Chilcot Report, an impartial official investigation into why Britain joined the United States in that invasion. (There is no equivalent American document.) It’s a 12-volume study that illustrates just how ill-informed and reckless the planners of that illegal war were, but it doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.

There are some juicy documents about the pre-war connivance between Bush and Blair, like Blair’s promise in 2001 that “We are with you, whatever.” But there is comparatively little on the scale of the disaster that the invasion inflicted on innocent Iraqis: thirteen years of war, up to 600,000 Iraqis killed and a country effectively destroyed. So this is a good time to recall the fate of the city of Fallujah.

Fallujah was a city of a third of a million people, less than an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, that was occupied by US troops in April 2003. It was the first place where American troops fired on Iraqi civilians (they were protesting against the takeover of a local high school by the US 82nd Airborne Division). It had fallen under the control of Iraqi resistance forces by the end of the year. That was the “First Battle of Fallujah”.

Fallujah was recaptured in November 2004 by US forces, at a cost of 95 American dead and 560 wounded. An estimated 1,350 insurgents were killed in this “Second Battle of Fallujah”. A large but uncounted number of civilians also died, as the American offensive involved massive artillery bombardments including white phosphorus shells. 9,000 of the city’s 39,000 homes were destroyed in that battle, and more than half were damaged.

The city was never properly rebuilt, but by 2006 about two-thirds of its residents had returned. Despite constant attacks on the occupation forces by the group that later turned into Islamic State, the United States returned Fallujah to Iraqi government control in 2008 – or perhaps we should say Iraqi government occupation, for by now the American-backed government in Baghdad was almost entirely Shia, and Fallujah is a Sunni city.

Sunni insurgents took back control of Fallujah in January 2014, six months before rest of western Iraq fell to the forces of Islamic State virtually without a fight. The pattern was the same: the new Iraqi army built up by the United States at a cost of $26 billion simply collapsed and ran away.

The “Third Battle of Fallujah” began in May of this year. Iraqi government forces (mosty Shia, of course), supported by Iranian troops and American air strikes, took almost six weeks to recapture the city, which by the end of the fighting contained only a few tens of thousands of civilians. More will return in due course, mainly because they have nowhere else to go, but most of the city is just ruins.

Other cities in Iraq are less comprehensively wrecked, but none of them are safe places to live in. The most recent bomb attack in Baghdad, on Saturday evening, killed at least 250 people. When the current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited the scene of the bombing on Sunday, he was chased away by a crowd hurling stones, shoes and insults. And there is no end in sight.

Thirteen years, half a million excess deaths or more, millions of refugees, general impoverishment and insecurity, and an astoundingly corrupt government that is strongly and successfully resisting Abadi’s attempt to reform it. It is no wonder that even most of those in Iraq who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule now wish he had never been overthrown.

“Saddam has gone, and we have one thousand Saddams now,” said Kadhim al-Jabbouri in a recent interview with the BBC. Jabbouri, who became famous for taking a sledgehammer to a statue of the dictator as American forces entered Baghdad in 2003, added: “It wasn’t like this under Saddam…We didn’t like him, but he was better than those people…There was no corruption or looting. You could be safe.”

The cautious ruminations of the Chilcot Report underplay the most important fact about the invasion of Iraq, which is that all these appalling consequences were entirely predictable. People who had any real knowledge of the political, ethnic and sectarian politics in the region and especially in Iraq DID predict them, including the relevant experts in the US State Department and the British Foreign Ministry.

Never mind whether or not the decision to invade Iraq was a war crime (though it was, under international law). Never mind whether the invaders’ motives were good or bad (they were the usual mixture of both, actually). What shines through is the sheer arrogance and ignorance of those who brought this calamity down on the Iraqis, who must now live out their lives in misery and terror. Thanks, guys.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The city…city”; and “Saddam…safe”)

Iraq: Time for a Tranquiliser

It’s time for everybody in Iraq to take a tranquiliser. The media will go on fizzing with apocalyptic speculations for a week or so, because that kind of talk always sells, but the war of movement is over.

It never was much of a war: a third of Iraq was captured by ISIS and various Sunni militias in one week at a cost that probably didn’t exceed a thousand lives (plus however many were murdered by ISIS afterwards). The Islamist radicals have now reached approximately the limits of the territory in Iraq that has a Sunni Arab majority, and they’d be mad to throw away all their gains by trying to conquer Baghdad.

There are lots of young men fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant) who would love to be martyred in such an attack, but ISIS is run by grown-ups. They know that they can’t go any farther without running out of the popular support that let a few thousand fighters sweep through the Sunni lands so easily.

Baghdad is defended by Shia militias that already number in the tens of thousands and will probably soon pass the hundred thousand mark. Most of them know far less about fighting than the ISIS veterans, but they are just as keen on martyrdom and they would outnumber the ISIS fighters twenty-to-one, maybe fifty-to-one. Two or three days of street fighting in the huge, now mostly Shia city of Baghdad and ISIS would have no more troops.

So ISIS has advanced about as far as it is going to go. And, by the way, so has the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG’s Peshmerga troops now control not only the disputed oil city of Kirkuk but almost 100 percent of traditionally Kurdish territory in Iraq, compared to only about 70 percent two weeks ago.

During most of that time the Peshmerga and ISIS observed a de facto ceasefire while they concentrated on the territory that really mattered to them. There have been some exchanges of fire between ISIS and Peshmerga in the past few days along the ill-defined border between their new holdings, but nothing very serious.

There might have been a major clash around Tel Afar, where KRG President Masoud Barzani offered to commit Peshmerga to the city’s defence just before ISIS attacked, but President Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad rejected his offer. The Kurdish troops withdrew, and the city fell to ISIS.

Almost certainly, the reason Maliki declined Barzani’s offer was that it came with major strings attached. Having grabbed the territory he wanted, Barzani was asking the government in Baghdad to recognise Kurdistan’s new borders. Maliki’s reason for  refusing, even though it meant losing Tel Afar, would have been that he still hopes for a third term and could not afford to be seen giving away “Arab” territory to the Kurds.

In ideological terms, ISIS would like to incorporate Kurdistan into its ever-expanding Islamic caliphate, which would erase all borders within the (Sunni) Muslim world, but in practical terms it knows that it cannot do that, at least for the moment. In ideological terms, ISIS would also like to convert or exterminate all the Shias in the world, starting with the 20 million in Iraq, but in practical terms it cannot do that either.

So the borders of the three successors to the current state of Iraq, Kurdish, Shia Arab and Sunni Arab, have already been drawn, with the important addition that the Sunni Arab successor extends across the old international frontier to include eastern Syria as well. These changes will not be reversed: the Shia-majority rump of the former Iraqi state that extends from Baghdad to Basra does not have the strength to restore the old centralised Iraq.

Is this really such a disaster? Not for the Kurds, obviously, and not really for the Shia Arabs either: they still have all of their own territory (i.e. Shia-majority territory) and most of the oil. Nor will the Baghdad government which still rules that territory need US air power to save it. (US President Obama has probably just been stalling until that became clear).

The problematic bit is the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. They are clearly delighted to have shaken off the corrupt and oppressive sectarian rule of President Nuri al-Maliki, but for the near future at least they will have to contend with the unappetising prospect of being ruled instead by the incorruptible but brutally intolerant leaders of ISIS.

It should be borne in mind, however, that even now the great majority of the armed men who have created this new Sunni proto-state are not ISIS fanatics. Most of them are either tribal militiamen or former members of the Baathist-era army that was dissolved by the invaders after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They belong to organisations that have real political power, and they vastly outnumber the ISIS fanatics.

Those same organisations broke the hold of “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, the ancestor to ISIS, in western Iraq in 2007-09, and it’s entirely possible that in a few years’s time they will end up doing it again to ISIS. But the borders of the new Sunni Arab state, stretching from western and northern Iraq into eastern Syria, may survive. There’s no particular harm in that.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 8. (“There are…easily”; and “There might…Kurds”)

Kurdistan’s Big Chance

Every disaster creates opportunities for somebody. If the Kurds of Iraq play their cards right, they could finally end up with the borders they want, fully recognised by a government in Baghdad that has been saved by Kurdish troops.

The Kurds have this opportunity because the large but totally demoralised Iraqi army has fallen apart over the past week. The Sunni Islamist fanatics of ISIS are now less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, and Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is the only military force left in Iraq that could take the offensive against them.

It is very unlikely that the ISIS fighters can take Baghdad. There are probably no more than 5,000 of them in Iraq, and their stunning recent victories were achieved more by frightening the Iraqi army to death than by actual fighting. Most of those ISIS troops are needed to hold down their recent conquests, including the large cities of Mosul and Tikrit.

ISIS couldn’t spare more than a thousand or so of its fighters for a push into Baghdad, which has seven million people, most of them Shias. The Shia militias, which are taking in tens of thousands of volunteers a day, don’t have much in the way of military skills, but they would fight – and street fighting in a big city eats up soldiers’s lives.

Either ISIS will not attack Baghdad, or it will try and fail. However, what remains of the Iraqi army will certainly not be able to take the offensive and drive ISIS out of all the territory that has already been lost. Short of direct Iranian or American military intervention on the ground, the only force that might be able to do that is Peshmerga.

Peshmerga has advanced to take control of territories abandoned by the Iraqi army that were historically part of Kurdistan, most notably the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields, but so far it has not tried to stop the ISIS fighters moving south. “There is no need for Peshmerga forces to move into these areas,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Pesh Merga Affairs.

But Peshmerga forces are close enough to the roads leading south from Mosul to Baghdad to cut the ISIS line of communications and stop the advance on Baghdad if they were ordered to. The ISIS fighters have significant support from the Sunni population in the area they have overrun, so trying to drive them out of Mosul and Tikrit would cost Peshmerga many casualties, but it’s the only force in Iraq that is even in a position to try.

So the Kurdistan Regional Government must now be considering what price it could charge Baghdad for that service. As an adviser to the KRG told the Washington Post, “The Iraqi government has been holding the Kurds hostage, and it’s not reasonable for them to expect the Kurds to give them any help in this situation without compromising to Kurdish demands.”

What would the Kurds demand in return? What they want most is to recover the territories that were taken from them by the Baathist regime in Baghdad between the 1960s and the later 1980s. Under Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and hundred of thousands driven from their lands. He then changed the provincial boundaries, and the stolen lands were repopulated with Arab settlers whom he brought in from the south.

Peshmerga troops have taken back control of much of this land in the past week, but nothing will be settled unless Baghdad formally restores the old provincial boundaries. It would also have to accept that a lot of those Arab settlers will be removed to make way for returning Kurdish families.

Such a concession would be politically impossible in normal times, but if Baghdad wants Peshmerga to fight for it, that’s the price it will probably have to pay. And it should bear in mind that the Kurds also have another option. They could just hold those territories by force, and declare independence.

The Baghdad government could do little about it: the advance of the ISIS forces means that it no longer has a common frontier with Kurdistan. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds were deterred from declaring independence because Turkey threatened to invade them if they did – Ankara worried about the impact of Kurdistan’s independence on the large Kurdish minority in Turkey – but things have changed there too.

Turkey is now the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, and regards the KRG as a reliable partner. In any case, the Turkish government will have its hands full dealing with the sudden emergence of a hostile Islamic caliphate along its southern border. Kurdish independence would still be a gamble, but the odds are that it could succeed.

One way or the other, Kurdistan is probably going to be a big winner out of this. But it will probably take the lower-risk course of trying to make a deal with Baghdad first.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“ISIS…lives”; and “So…demands”)