One year after the completion of the pullout of American troops from Iraq, what are the main issues affecting the country today?
Russian Arms Scandal and Corruption: On October 9, Iraq announced the signing of a $4.2 billion arms contract with Russia. Commentators took this deal to be a sign of waning U.S. influence in Iraq since the deal — had it gone through — would have drastically reduced Iraqi dependence on American arms supplies.
Thus, when it was announced on November 10 that the deal was scrapped over concerns of corruption, these same commentators (e.g. Michael Weiss) surmised that the cancellation must have somehow been due to U.S. pressure.
This sentiment was fueled by the BBC's quoting of a Russian analyst — Igor Korotchenko — at the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade. For he speculated: "As far as talk about corruption is concerned, I think it's a smokescreen. I believe this is just a pretext and the true reason is Washington applying pressure on Baghdad."
Moreover, the assumption made by commentators of U.S. influence at work here reflects the excessive tendency to view affairs in Iraq through the eyes of a "Great Game" between foreign powers (cf. the question of Iranian influence in Iraq).
However, as I said on Twitter from the beginning about this matter, such speculation from a Russian pundit is only to be expected in a country where anti-American discourse and conspiracy theories are rife, with a tendency to see a hidden American hand behind any development that negatively affects Russia. Indeed, a spokesperson for Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quickly made it clear to Russian news agency RIA Novosti that the cancellation of the deal was not due to U.S. pressure. While pundits argued that a shift away from dependence on U.S. arms supplies signified a decline in U.S. influence, it is notable that no one actually quoted an American official expressing concern about the arms deal with Russia back in October, contrasting with the U.S. government's publicly urging Iraq not to allow arms shipments from Iran to Syria to pass through Iraqi territory. Iraq has in fact been buying weapons from Russia for years, and the Americans have never once voiced objections.
The reality is that the fallout over the arms deal does reflect concerns over corruption, and as ever, the nature of personal rivalries in Iraqi politics has come to light, indicating the flaws in a solely sectarian-based paradigm of analysis that views the main ethno-religious groups as only or primarily acting on collective group-based perceptions of interest.
In the case of this fallout over the Russian arms deal, the deep tension between the Iraqi premier and the Sadrists has once again come to the forefront, following on from the talk on multiple occasions in the spring and summer from the leader of the Sadrists — the anti-American Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — of ousting Maliki in a no-confidence vote.
Now, at the center of the tension between Maliki and the Sadrists — who are supposed to be allies in a coalition government — are accusations from the latter that Maliki's son Ahmad has personally profited from the arms scandal. Maliki's spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh was also accused of being partly responsible for the arms deal scandal, and while he denied any wrongdoing, he nonetheless resigned his position at the end of November.
Sadr had been against the Russian arms deal from the beginning, describing it as a "waste of Iraqi public funds," and has most recently claimed that the arms deal was not about purchasing arms for Iraq at all but rather for unspecified foreign agents, prompting a sharp rebuke from Maliki and in turn triggering Sadrist protests in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala against the premier.
Corruption remains an endemic problem at all levels of society in Iraq, but the prevalence of the phenomenon does not mean that corruption allegations are never taken seriously.
Similar uproars have arisen over corruption scandals in the Ministry of Electricity, which is still proving inadequate to the task of meeting the large upsurge in demand since 2003 as a result of the increase in the availability of consumer goods. The situation as regards electricity — in which Baghdad is not even meeting 50% of demand — notably contrasts with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north of Iraq that is now able to meet the electricity demands of the vast majority of its population.
Expect the fallout over the Russian arms scandal to continue into next year, as the Sadrists are clearly attempting to exploit it to give themselves an image of vox populi and maximize electoral potential in the upcoming provincial elections in 2013. Ultimately, Sadr's goal is to lead the Shi'ite community in Iraq, and not, as some have speculated, simply function as Iran's mouthpiece and serve Iranian interests in the country.
Maliki and Authoritarianism: There have long been allegations of autocratic tendencies on the part of the Prime Minister, both as regards monopolization of power over institutions and cracking down on voices critical of the government.
The most recent case that can be interpreted as a unilateral power grab is the issuing of an arrest warrant against Sinan Shabibi, who was head of Iraq's Central Bank: a move that was criticized by all of Iraq's political factions, including Maliki's Shi'ite allies in the coalition government (i.e. the Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq).
Here, one should compare with the behavior of Egypt's Islamist and autocratic president Mohamed Morsi and his attempts to consolidate control over the Central Bank in his country, although Maliki's approach is not quite as forward and confrontational as that of Morsi, who unlike Maliki does not have nearly as many sympathizers in the judiciary on whom he can rely to issue verdicts in his favor as regards executive-branch government control of various institutions.
Similar concerns exist for the question of press and academic freedom in Iraq. For instance, individual journalists out on assignment may be subject to arbitrary arrest and other forms of harassment by the security forces. However, it is important to emphasize that — as when looking into allegations of monopolizing control over government institutions — each case must be judged on its own terms, and not reduced to a dogmatic paradigm of analysis.
In this context, take the case of the TV station al-Baghdadia, which is owned by Iraqi exiles residing in Egypt. On November 24, the Iraqi security forces barred it from covering the festival of Ashura in Baghdad, and have most recently compelled the outlet to go off-air, with the Ministry of Interior citing a refusal to sign a list of regulations (unclear as to precisely what) and lack of payment of proper broadcasting fees. The latter allegation also exists against the women's radio station al-Mahaba, which has been compelled to shut down as well.
While it is tempting to see the move against al-Baghdadia as simple intolerance of a media outlet critical of the government (recall that Mundathar al-Zaidi — the journalist who gained international renown for throwing his shoe at George Bush in a meeting with Maliki — worked for this station), a closer analysis should show that there is at least one other factor at play here. The fact is that the station was forced to shut down briefly before for giving a voice on air to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) terrorists who massacred 52 people in the Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad in October 2010.
In a speech at the opening ceremony marking the restoration of the church this month, Maliki urged the EU not to encourage Iraqi Christians to emigrate. Yet around the same time, on December 13, al-Baghdadia TV broadcast a fatwa by Ayatollah al-Baghdadi (who currently resides in Syria), declaring Iraq's Christians to be "polytheists" and "friends of Zionists" who should either convert to Islam or die. Catholics from Baghdad speaking to AsiaNews said that the fatwa could trigger alarm in some quarters.
From the above evidence, it is reasonable to conclude that at least part of the reason behind the recent shutdown of al-Baghdadia TV is a need on the part of the government to demonstrate some form of commitment to protecting Christians against extremist incitement, even if such a justification for moving against the station has not been declared specifically as an official reason.
For comparison, one should note the uproar triggered when al-Jazeera's Baghdad office was ordered shut for a month in August 2004 by the interim Iraqi government on charges of inciting extremist sentiment.
Kurds, Border Disputes and Violence: Much media attention has focused on the recent build-up of Kurdish Peshmerga militiamen and Iraqi army forces in the disputed areas in the north of Iraq. The build-up began with an incident in the town of Tuz Kharmuto in which there were alleged clashes between Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga.
Before assuming an impending all-out Arab-Kurd conflict, however, it is important to realize that much of the current tension between Baghdad and the KRG is centered on the personal rivalry between Maliki and KRG premier Massoud Barzani, who not only gave refuge to Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi (handed multiple death sentences on terrorism charges, which — issued as they were in the context of political rivalry between Maliki and Hashemi — nonetheless probably have basis in reality) but also aimed to have Maliki unseated in the efforts to bring about a no-confidence vote against the Prime Minister.
In contrast, Jalal Talabani, who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in coalition with Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party in the KRG, has remained an ally of Maliki: indeed, it was Talabani's indication that he would not support a no-confidence vote that proved most decisive in preserving Maliki's position. When these personal rivalries and alliances are noted, it comes as no surprise that Talabani appears to have played a role in mediating between Baghdad and the KRG and defusing the latest round of brinkmanship.
In fact, as I predicted, the entire affair was brinkmanship all along. It is of course true that much heated rhetoric is thrown around by both sides. For example, Barzani accused Maliki of planning to bomb KRG sites with fighter jets, and has said that all disputed areas should be renamed "Kurdish" areas, while Sami al-Askari — a member of Maliki's State of Law bloc — has threatened war if Exxon Mobil goes ahead with its plans to explore for oil and gas resources in disputed areas following its signing of such contracts with the KRG (considered illegal by Baghdad).
Further, the remnants of the Sunni Arab insurgency — principally al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Baathist Naqshibandi — are attempting to whip up further sectarian tensions in the disputed areas with opportunistic bomb attacks.
Nonetheless, the fact is that both the KRG and Baghdad recognize that an all-out open conflict is not in anyone's interests, and so the heated rhetoric remains no more than just talk. Given a similar incident of brinkmanship on the Syrian border back in the summer, the outcome here was somewhat predictable. All that said, issues like the status of the disputed town of Kirkuk and the establishment of the Tigris Operations Command by the central government in the area seem likely to continue to evade full resolution.
On a concluding note, something should be said about recent speculation on a pending energy deal between the Turkish government and the KRG. According to journalist Ben Van Heuvelen, this deal is essentially as follows: "A new Turkish company, backed by the government, is proposing to drill for oil and gas in Kurdistan and build pipelines to transport those resources to international markets."
Since Baghdad is responsible for supplying most of the KRG's budget, a deal could over the next several years greatly reduce the KRG's financial dependence on the central Iraqi government and prove a significant step towards independence if so desired. One of Turkey's main considerations as regards importing energy resources from Iraqi Kurdistan is the fact that energy demand is rapidly growing in Turkey, and unsurprisingly Ankara feels a need to diversify its range of suppliers.
Yet according to Heuvelen's report, the man responsible for reviewing the alleged pending deal between the KRG and the Turkish government is the Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, who — as journalist Wladimir van Wilgenburg notes — has indicated to Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News that no energy deal will be signed without the approval of the Iraqi central government, which would be fiercely opposed to any deal between the KRG and Ankara without prior consultation of Baghdad.
In addition, Turkey has yet to indicate support for any kind of independent Kurdish entity — given the problem of its own restive Kurdish population in the southeast — and despite the generally poor relations with Baghdad, is still committed to the idea of a unified Iraq. In truth, much of the current speculation could be a repeat of the exaggerated media hype in the summer as regards energy negotiations between Turkey and the KRG.
In short, therefore, as leader of the opposition "Gorran" movement in the KRG put it to the Turkish newspaper az-Zaman in a recent interview: "It is the dream of all Kurds to have an independent state. However, one has to take into account the realities of the situation and realize that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done before we can start thinking about independence. So, as it currently stands, I believe it will be some time before we can start considering this realistically."
To conclude, it can be seen that internal politics are generally not given their due when it comes to assessing events inside Iraq. Foreign influence is greatly overplayed, and it is clear how personal rivalries have become deeply intertwined with major issues like corruption.
In general, there is also a tendency to view things too much through the ethno-sectarian paradigm — something that also gives rise to excessive sensationalism. This has been most apparent in the coverage of trends in violence as well as tensions between the KRG and the Iraqi central government. While instability is a great concern, Iraq is hardly "unraveling."
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.