A new round of escalating tension amid political stand-off marked the new year in Iraq. The situation has rapidly deteriorated by the end of December last year. Iraqi special services arrested all personal guards of Rafea al-Issavi, the Iraqi Finance Minister. Nine of them were accused of being involved in terrorist activities. It sparked extreme agitation in society, especially among the Sunnis (the Finance Minister is a Sunni Muslim). Former Vice-President Tariq Al-Hashimi held the highest position among Sunnis in December 2011. He disappeared from political scene and it all started with the guards arrest too. Some time passed and the Vice-President himself was accused of taking part terrorist activities. He said the accusation was absurd still Mr. Al_Hashimi had to hide abroad: an involvement in terrorist activities is punished by death sentence in Iraq; the prosecutors would not miss the chance (the court has handed down a death sentence in abstentia). The attempt to repeat the December 2011 scenario was simply the last drop to spark the protests because the official Bagdad was in a pretty fix by the end of 2012: it became evident the situation in the country was not fully under the government’s control. Half-hearted attempts to tackle the economic problems are doomed because of total corruption and embezzlement of state property, the security situation is getting worse, separatist trends are on the rise, the people are tired of empty promises and attempts to blame some outside forces and Al Qaeda militants for failures. It’s not an exaggeration to say Iraq is facing the most serious crisis since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.
The Minister of Finance has become the next target for Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s attacks (In Iraq such decisions are taken only upon his say-so, when he gives a direct order). It’s not because he is a Sunni, the matter is he got control of the documents that prove giant scale of corruption and open embezzlement of state funds by power structures, including the very top. Some of these papers were submitted to the parliamentary integrity commission. The cancelled arms deal with Russia played its part. The row sparked when Baghdad said the deal was to be reconsidered because of corruption involved (they mentioned the sum of $900 million dollars or a quarter of the deal). As a result of the special commission’s investigation State Minister Ali Mehdi Jawad Aldabbagh, who was close to Prime-Minister, had to retire (some sources say he had to quietly leave the country along with some other people who belonged to the “inner circle”). It damaged the Nouri Al-Maliki’s reputation, the man who is not accustomed to make excuses, even more admit guilt. The Prime Minister has got a lot to lose, so he took the initiative into his hands and launched the attack. True, the moment was outright disadvantageous: the conflict between Baghdad and Kurdistan’s local authorities exacerbated to the utmost by December 2012. It almost split over into full-scale combat. The matter is that the Al Maliki’s government took a decision to create the army operational Tigris command (named after the river) in Taamim Governorate (the Kurds call it Kirkuk and consider it to be their territory). The command was formed (on the basis of former Diyala command) and the military stated to patrol the disputed areas. The Kurds reaction was fast and tough – they put forward an ultimatum demanding troops withdrawal. And they refused to talk. The central government started to increase the force bringing in the reinforcements from the provinces of Diyala and Salah ad Din governorates and even from the capital (totally 10 brigades). In response the Kurds deployed a 15000 strong peshmerga formation with armor, field artillery and other heavy weapons. It went as far as hitting an Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicle and shooting at an Iraqi army helicopter. They said the chopper was involved in intelligence gathering. A number of times there was shooting on the ground (there were killed and wounded). The Tigris commander was assailed (a powerful explosion took place as his car was passing by, two body guards were killed, three more servicemen were wounded). The Kurds made it clear they would not tolerate pressure and were ready to fight. They refused the Baghdad’s offer to create coordination centers saying the “peshmerga” will not ever be under federal direct or indirect control of the federal powers. The sides hardly managed to agree on the troops pull out.
One thing should be noted, the formation of the Tigris command evoked a very negative reaction on the part of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and he even tried to revoke the decision but to no avail. On December 1 President Talabani told Al Arabia TV channel that Prime Minister had no right to get armed forces involved into the issues under the police jurisdiction. On December 2 the President of Iraq told the very same TV station that the President of Kurdistan Masoud Barzani knew about the meeting of senior armed forces officers when they talked about the F-16 US fighters to join the Air Force inventory soon, so that they could be used to make the Kurds hide in the mountains. In less than a week the President’s official website reported he was hospitalized being tired out and ill. The abrupt deterioration of his health happened as a result of his relentless efforts to improve the situation in the country. Since then the Jalal Talabani, who is 79 years old, lives in Germany while Iraqi media listlessly discusses the issue of who may become the President’s successor…
Now back to the Minister of Finance. The Sunnis support was no surprise, but the authorities didn’t see it as serious threat. As soon as mass protests hit Ramallah and Fallujah (Anbar province) the supporters and sympathizers started to gather there. They were not only Sunni Muslims coming from neighboring provinces but also the Shiites from the country’s south. Acting Defence Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi (a Sunni Muslim) was sent from Baghdad to Ramallah. He didn’t meet the protesters but held a meeting of the Anbar operational command staff giving orders to stop movement of those who were coming to take part in the demonstrations. The Minister allowed to use force if need be. The news strengthened the will power of those who hit the streets. Saleh Muhamed al-Mutlaq. Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, came the next day. He faced such strong disapproval that the guards had to use arms to get him safely to Baghdad (one man was killed, 22 wounded).
The demonstrators said the protests would continue till their demand were met, including:
1. Unconditional adherence to the Constitution, the powers that be, especially Prime Minister are openly accused of desire to establish dictatorship in the country;
2. The termination of repressions against the dissidents and attempts to physically eliminate political competitors, the annulation Article 4 of the war on terror law (the article allows to keep people behind bars for a long time without trial under the pretext of investigation), which presupposes death sentence as an extreme penalty;
3. Immediate release of women from jails, where they are kept without being sentenced and are subject to sexual abuse;
4. General amnesty law.
Prime Minister Al-Maliki ceded ground a bit, he ordered to reconsider the cases of women kept in jails and to change the guards there. A few dozen of 700 women were released. Still he was tough on other issues: the protesters were accused of getting funds from abroad. He threatened to use force to restore law and order and prevent the Baath supporters from coming to power. Army and police reinforcements came to Anbar and practically encircled Fallujah and Rammadi; they intensified street patrols and started searches and manhunt. On January 13 there was an assassination attempt against Finance Minister Rafi Hiyad al-Issavi. Aifan al-Issawi, An Anbar parliament deputy, a member of the Iraqi List opposition block was killed the next day in Fallujah (a terrorist had an explosive belt around his waist, he managed to come over to the politician, - four men died and twelve were wounded). There was a rapid response – attacks against military and police multiplied, including mortar shooting.
The protesters were getting more support: it spread to Nenawa province (Mosul, the capital, is the second largest Iraqi city), its governor (a Sunni Muslim, a relative of the parliament’s speaker – Osama Nujeifi) came out in open support of protesters and offered them to use the city’s central square (the protests take place there on and off since December, no matter tough countermeasures by police and military). Solidarity mass actions took place in Baghdad, Hilla, Basra and many other cities. The authorities tried to arrange counter protests in Maliki’s support (like it took place in Baghdad, Nejef, Basra and a number of other cities), but the numbers of participants didn’t speak of the government’s wide support no matter administrative measures were taken to boost it).
The Iraqi supreme mufti, Kurdistan leaders, Shiite clerical leader Muktada al Sadr, the Sunni and Shiite tribal sheikhs – all of them came out in support of the protesters lawful and justified demands. The parliament’s speaker Osama Nujeifi convened an emergency parliament session on January 6. But it was ignored by Al Maliki supporters from State of Law coalition, there were no votes enough to take decisions. The Prime Minister demonstratively went to the Ministry of Defense that day to deliver a big speech on the Army Day calling on the military to keep away from politics and diligently carry out the orders of superiors (According to the Constitution, it’s not President, but Prime Minister who is the Supreme commander of the armed forces).
The government decided to exert economic pressure along with the military presence in Anbar province: On January 9 the Jordanian border was closed, on January 13 they closed the border with Syria. In response the sheikh of the leading Sunni tribe (al-Dulaimi) said if the central government kept the Jordanian border closed, then the people living in the province would open it themselves, using force if need be, because they got all the necessary goods from Jordan (the strategically important Baghdad-Amman-Aqaba highway crosses Anbar province). In a week the border was opened again under international pressure as well as upon the request of the Jordanian government. The Iraqi Kurdistan local authorities opened the Syrian border on December 29 for “humanitarian reasons”.
The Kurdistan’s political parties and officials, including President Massoud Barzani didn’t miss the chance to display their independence from Baghdad. At the same time the Kurdistan’s government restarted direct crude oil exports to Turkey and intensified consultations with multiple foreign delegations that have started to frequently visit Erbil recently. On January 24 M. Barzani met Stephen Breyer, the executive director of Chevron, the US oil giant, to hail the decision to launch the full scale operations in Kurdistan (as is known it’s an irritating issue for Baghdad). Basra is the richest oil producing province. Its local authorities abruptly reduced oil production letting know other parts of the country should not be ignored, especially in case they make up about two thirds of the state budget …
The Iraqi situation is serious enough to make Baghdad-based foreign diplomats intensify their activities – especially from some states of the West, China and the head of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) Martin Kolber. He became so intruding that on January 23 MP Ibrahim al-Mutlaq from Iraqi List initiated a formal request to the United Nations asking to immediately replace Kolber accused of being partial and exercising “negative influence”. The member of parliament actually said that his activities were guided by the USA and other states intruding into Iraqi internal affairs. He wondered what role Kolber played concerning the protests and thousands of people kept behind bars without trial or according to politicized verdicts handed down under administrative pressure or thanks to graft.
The very same day on January 23, a representative of influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr said two ministers from Ahrar block leave the so called seven member committee led by Hussein Shahristani created especially for consideration of the protesters demands. According to him the decision was taken as a protest against the lack of professionalism and incompetence of the committee. Another reason was not taking into account the opinion of the religious leader, something greatly complicating the situation. It is serious enough, at least for the reason that the Iraqi Constitution says (item 1, article 2) that Islam is an official religion of the state and the main basis for law making. Indeed, no effective working group has been formed to start a dialogue. The government and the opposition are warning each other not to use force.
It couldn’t have lasted long, so The situation exploded on January 25, when millions of Muslims gathered for Friday prayer. It’s hard to say what exactly the mullahs in the Fallujah mosques were saying but the people clashed with army servicemen. It went on for a few hours, after lunchtime the city saw mobile groups of armed men who opened fire against the military. The daily death toll was three servicemen and five civilians, over 80 people were wounded. The events unfolded to the burning point. Prime Minister Maliki went on TV to address people calling upon military to show restraint and the people of Fallujah to be wise enough not to blow the fire further. According to him, some outside forces, the remnants of the fallen regime, as well as local groups pursuing their narrow interests, were responsible. Upon his decision the curfew effective since 1800 was declared in the city. Simultaneously army units started to leave to be replaced by police.
The authorities thought better of it and the next one-two weeks will show how deeply the country is plunged into chaos. At the beginning of January Iraqi List, the largest opposition block, threatened to ignore the local elections slated for February 4. Back then the reason was to counter attempts to make the issue be swept under the bureaucratic rug. After the escalation of the situation in Fallujah the opposition toughened its stand: The very same Iraqi List warned that if the protesters demands were not satisfied, the party alliance would leave the government and the parliament. The Iraqi Front for National Dialogue warned it may ignore the elections too. Some influential political forces said openly they supported the idea of parliament’s dissolution and forming an interim coalition government to last till next general election.
The Iraqi parliament is actually paralyzed, the government is plunged in scandals, armed violence is one of the highest in the world, the desire for changes is rapidly spreading around in the Iraqi society… No doubt, the time for changes is ripe, but it’s hard to predict what kind of changes are in store. Anyway there is it’s no rapid radical improvement in sight.