Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

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Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

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The years following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein have been marked by severe political and social conflict and turmoil throughout Iraq as the country has struggled to establish and put in motion a new political system and at the same time rebuild the shattered infrastructure and economy. Its strategic location has been more a burden than a benefit as it has become a battlefield for global and regional geopolitical clashes, with international rivals and enemies seeking to capitalize on Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian differences for their own advantage.

For four decades the people of Iraq have been caught up in major international and internal armed conflicts, from the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War and the massive aerial bombardment by the US in 1991 after Iraq invaded Kuwait followed by a lost decade under crippling economic sanctions, to the 2003 US aerial bombardment, invasion and military occupation and another eight years of ‘low-level’ armed conflict as a diverse range of Iraqi resistance groups combined forces (if never really uniting as such) to force the US military out in 2011, before they were invited back in by the Iraqi Government in 2014 to confront the existential threat posed by ISIS.

Although the scale and intensity of fighting has subsided considerably since late 2017, ‘low intensity’ armed conflict continues in many parts of the country. More recently, Iraq faced and eventually thwarted what was in effect an attempt at secession by the Kurdistan Regional Government in late 2018 (which opportunistically attempted to appropriate for itself – and its benefactors – the adjacent, and very substantial, Kirkuk oilfields and facilities in the process), and Iraq has also been rocked by massive protests which peaked in October of 2019 demanding major reforms to address rampant corruption, unemployment, and the breakdown in essential services including electricity and water supply.

To this list of consecutive social and economic calamities must be added the constant menace since 2003 posed by the intensifying geopolitical standoff between the US (and less directly Israel) and Iran which has exacerbated Iraq’s internal disputes and conflicts, with each side seeking allies amongst Iraqi social sectors and shifting political factions to advance their own interests. Iraq became the unwitting focal point for a major flare-up in their confrontation this year following the US’ targeted airstrike that killed Iran’s renowned military commander Qassem Suleimani in Baghdad while he was on a diplomatic mission and Iran’s retaliatory missile strike against two US military bases in Iraq.

Nonetheless, despite the immense difficulties and challenges, the Iraqi people have succeeded in uniting during some of the nation’s darkest hours to overcome existential threats, and there are some positive developments emerging from among the ruins which suggest that the country may yet manage to extricate itself from the current difficulties if it isn’t overwhelmed or torn apart by regional and global events.

Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

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The Economic Situation

At the end of the 1980s Iraq was one of the most prosperous, industrialized and stable countries in the Middle East, despite the enormous economic and social costs of the eight-year war with Iran (1980-1988). Although some of Iraq’s oil export facilities were destroyed during the conflict, most of the country’s modern infrastructure built during a comprehensive and largely successful State-led industrialization program over the previous two decades remained intact and most Iraqi citizens could count on relatively high quality health, education and other essential services.

The massive aerial bombardment by the US in 1991 after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait put an end to that, followed up by a decade of sanctions and economic blockade that prevented Iraq from exporting oil to finance the reconstruction of its devastated infrastructure and economy.

“Little hard evidence is available on Iraq’s economy after 1990, but the best estimates available indicate that, in the year following the Persian Gulf War, GDP dropped to less than one-fourth of its previous level. Under the UN embargo the Iraqi economy languished for the next five years…” LINK

Around half of Iraq’s electricity generation plants were destroyed during the 1991 Gulf War, and the sector has never fully recovered from the losses incurred in that period. The GDP didn’t register positive growth until 1997. Although oil production recovered rapidly in the late 1990s, the subsequent round of massive aerial bombardments, invasion and military occupation by the US in 2003 (despite failing to get the endorsement of the UN Security Council) caused another massive drop in production. It was not until 2010-2011 that Iraq’s GDP returned to the level it had attained in 1990. LINK

Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

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The ‘Coalition Provisional Authority’ created by the US, in another flagrant breach of international law and obligations, promptly usurped control over economic policy along with all other government functions in 2003 and immediately began an extensive program of privatisations and other ‘liberal’ reforms, stripping State institutions of what little remained of their operational capacity. Although an Iraqi administration was established in 2004 its initial membership was vetted by the US and the Iraqi administration had very little capacity or effect until after the new Constitution was adopted in 2005.

Although net electricity generation has increased steadily since the large drop in electricity generation caused by the US bombardment and invasion in 2003, distribution losses have also increased. From 2006 to 2016, distribution losses averaged 42% of total electricity supply.

Widespread opposition to the US occupation as well as sectarian conflicts (in regions with substantial Kurdish and Sunni populations in particular) continued to affect the economy before gradually subsiding after 2007-2008 and the withdrawal (albeit temporary) of US military forces in 2011. There was a brief respite in the social conflict and violence before ISIS (the so-called ‘Islamic State’) managed to take over almost a third of Iraq’s territory in 2014-2015, emerging from the desert to launch a large-scale surprise attack before being beaten back over several years of fierce conflict which mostly affected Iraq’s northwest.

Nonetheless, Iraqi oil production managed to increase significantly after around 2007 (boosted also by rising oil prices) as most major production facilities are located in the south and weren’t substantially affected by the social conflict that continued to rage in other parts of Iraq, although sabotage, corruption and theft still seriously affect both oil and electricity production and distribution.

Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

IMAGE: macrotrends.net/countries/IRQ/iraq/gnp-gross-national-product

The GDP of Iraq was just over $224 billion in 2018. At the core of the economy are the oil and gas sectors. As of 2018, oil accounted for more than 65% of GDP, 90% of government revenue, and almost 100% of exports. However, the oil and gas sector provides little employment, and the unemployment rate in Iraq is very high, as of 2019 it was estimated to be around 8%. Those are official numbers, however, with other sources citing much higher rates; the Ministry of Economic Development of Iraq has estimated the real unemployment rate to be closer to 28%. It is estimated that about 70% of the employed population is involved in the service sector, and 15% each in industry and agriculture.

Oil production

Iraq’s crude oil production increased rapidly after 2008 along with oil prices, and by 2017 averaged more than 4.4 million b/d, an increase of 16,000 b/d from 2016. Approximately 3.9 million b/d of that volume was produced in southern Iraq under the control of the central government in Baghdad, most of the remainder was produced in northern Iraq at fields operated by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

IMAGE: eia.gov/international/analysis/country/IRQ

Between July 2009 and February 2010 the Iraqi Oil Ministry awarded service contracts to foreign companies to assist in the development of Iraq’s oil fields together with Iraq’s national oil companies (which must maintain at least a 25% share in each project). The result was the allocation of service contracts amongst a large number of foreign companies from the US (including Occidental and Exxon), Asia (including China’s CNPC and Malaysia’s Petronas) and Europe (including BP, Shell, Total, ENI, Lukoil and Gazprom) with production shares typically ranging from around 15% up to 60% or more in some instances (with a ceiling of 75%).

Asia (led by India with 816,000 b/d or 22%, China 19%, and South Korea 9%) was the main regional destination for Iraq’s crude oil in 2017, importing 54% of total Iraqi crude oil exports. China surpassed India as the largest importer of crude oil from Iraq in 2018. Outside Asia the United States imported the most Iraqi crude oil in 2017, around 602,000 b/d (17% of Iraq’s total oil exports). The US’ imports of Iraqi oil (of the Basra heavy grade) increased during 2017 by more than 180,000 b/d, to partly offset declining US imports from Venezuela.

Iraq’s refining capacity remains limited. The country’s main oil refinery at Baiji was captured by ISIS militants for a while in 2015 and was heavily damaged in the fighting. Iraq currently has two operational oil refineries, the Doura refinery near Baghdad and the Shuaiba plant in the south. There are plans to establish four new refineries, including a 300,000-barrel per day refinery and petrochemical plant in the port of Fao on the Persian Gulf. Two others will have a capacity of 150,000-bpd and be located in the city of Nasiriya and Anbar province respectively, while a 100,000-bpd facility will be built near Mosul in the north. (Source, January 2018, Oilprice.com)

Early this year, Iraq’s Oil Ministry completed the pre-qualifying process for companies interested in participating in the Iraq-Jordan oil pipeline project. The U$5 billion pipeline will carry oil from the Rumaila oilfield in Iraq’s Basra Governorate to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. The first phase of the project involves the installation of a 700-kilometre pipeline with a capacity of 2.25 million bpd within the Iraqi territories (Rumaila-Haditha). The second phase includes installing a 900-kilometre pipeline in Jordan between Haditha and Aqaba with a capacity of 1 million bpd. LINK

China’s rapidly expanding role in economic development

In January Iraq’s Finance Ministry announced that the country had started exporting 100,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil to China in October of 2019 as part of the 20-year oil-for-infrastructure deal agreed between the two countries. The broad details of the agreement were finalized last September during a visit by Iraq’s then-Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to Beijing, with the purpose of expanding China’s US$20 billion of investment in Iraq and the US$30 billion in annual trade between the two countries.

In a related development, Iraq has been drafting new laws to regulate the operation of a national reconstruction agency, the primary function of which will be to oversee and coordinate the nation’s reconstruction effort – in which the deal with China will play a substantial role. China’s assistance will also be provided to upgrade and expand the electricity network and railway infrastructure, as well as other construction and industrial development projects. A detailed review of related developments comments:

“Chinese business in Iraq was substantially disrupted during the period 2003-2007. Chinese companies were essentially excluded from Iraq’s postwar reconstruction due to the near monopolization of projects by US and other Western companies, the high level of insurgent violence, and delays in the enactment of a new hydrocarbon law. Seeking to re-establish a presence in Iraq, China joined the International Compact with Iraq (ICI), pledging a grant of RMB 50 million (roughly $6.5 million) for assistance in public health and education; and forgave 80% of the roughly $8.5 billion in sovereign debt owed China.

The campaign against Da’esh did not disrupt existing Chinese energy cooperation with Iraq but did put on hold efforts to expand it. Since early 2018, however, the pace of progress has quickened…

In 2015 the two countries elevated their relationship to a strategic partnership. Bilateral trade topped $30 billion in 2018, with China displacing India as Iraq’s leading trade partner. And Iraq has become China’s third-largest source of imported oil (behind Saudi Arabia and Iran). Energy cooperation is the foundation of the bilateral relationship. Chinese companies today are involved in upstream, midstream, and downstream operations in Iraq.

However, it is important to note that Chinese investments in Iraq are concentrated not just in oil exploration but also in infrastructure such as power plants, cement factories and water treatment facilities. Numerous Chinese firms are currently engaged in major construction projects in Iraq, including Shanghai Electric, China Building Materials Construction, and China Hydroelectric Power. CITIC Construction Co. is serving as credit provider and engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) contractor in the building of a combined cycle power plant in Missan Governorate.” LINK

In the north of the country, major Chinese companies (e.g., Huawei, Sinoma-Suzhou, and CMEC) followed Sinopec into the Kurdistan region, making large investments in non-oil sectors. By the end of 2013, China had surpassed the United States as the largest foreign investor in Iraq and had also overtaken the US as Iraq’s top trading partner.

China’s rapidly expanding infrastructure projects and economic investments in the region have many Western countries and analysts deeply concerned. Beijing is involved in negotiations with or has already signed major deals with Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey. Chinese infrastructure and development projects now dot the landscape contiguously from East Asia through Central Asia and the Middle East to the Mediterranean. Middle Eastern countries received $28 billion in investments related to China’s BRI initiative in 2018.

Most Western experts in the more prominent media and publications – whether their field be economics, politics, military matters, international relations, or something else – are expressing alarm that Iraq may be moving out of the West’s orbit of benevolent tutelage and un-self-interested economic and military assistance and being lured into financial, political and military dependence on China, Iran and/ or Russia. These analysts invariably describe the latters’ motives as being distinctly self-interested, nefarious and inherently contrary to Iraq’s national interest and well-being, entirely unlike those of the West generally and the US in particular. The following excerpts from one analysis are representative of such perceptions of the geopolitical situation and the most common ‘talking points’ invoked:

“At his nomination for U.S. ambassador to Iraq this March, Matthew Tueller mentioned Iran 17 times in his written statement. This concern with Iranian influence was echoed at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing a few months later (by) officials from the State and Defense Departments…

Analysts are right to worry about foreign influence in Iraq — a weak state racked by sectarian tension and extremism and currently embroiled in mass social unrest. Yet while the United States fixates on Iranian ambitions, a far more formidable power has stepped in. Last month, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi revealed that his country was signing on to China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). His announcement coincided with his state visit to Beijing…”

All this is not to deny the United States’ enduring influence in Iraq. Stationed there are several thousand American troops. The American embassy in Baghdad is the largest in the world. Defense ties between the two countries are robust — the United States has furnished over $23 billion in military sales since 2003. Some have warned that as U.S. partners grow more reliant on Chinese money, Beijing could pressure them to limit security cooperation with Washington.

In Iraq, Iranian meddling is certainly a threat to the country’s stability and the national security interests of the United States and its allies that plays well politically. But let’s not turn a blind eye to a more menacing threat in China.” (30 October 2019) LINK

Another Western analyst reviewing the scale and scope of Chinese investments in the region associated with the ‘Belt and Road initiative’, presumably not familiar with the literature of national liberation, warns of a ‘new wave of colonisation’ and declares that Iraq is fast becoming China’s ‘client state’. According to this interpretation of developments – which simultaneously manages to remain oblivious to the large number of actions by the US throughout the region, and in Iraq in particular, which could properly be described as colonisation or imperialism – surely the most appropriate term would be neo-colonialism (as described in detail by the classic text on the topic, Kwame Nkrumah’s “Neo-Colonialism – The Final Stage of Imperialism”).

Another analysis of China’s rapidly growing role in Iraq’s economic development concludes that:

“China’s success in Iraq can be attributed to a combination of risk-taking and resilience, good fortune, and deft diplomacy… Chinese NOCs (national oil companies) have profited also from their willingness to accept tougher fiscal terms than have competitors, from their efforts to build relationships with local stakeholders, and from their project performance…” LINK

While it is beyond dispute that Iraq must exercise great care not to become trapped in a condition of predatory exploitation, dependency or vulnerability on external actors while it is striving to extricate itself from its current situation, this maxim must be applied equally to all external relations and transactions. Up until now it appears that Iraq’s leadership is aware of the risks involved in becoming over-reliant on others – whoever they may be – and has sought to both maintain diversification in international cooperation (as demonstrated by the oil `production service contracts) and avoid agreements in which foreign partners take undue advantage of Iraq’s current weakened condition. A key aspect of the ‘oil-for-infrastructure’ deal with China in this respect lies in the details of each project, and in particular whether Iraq will maintain a substantial degree of ownership and ultimate control over key infrastructure and industrial development projects in the long term.

Agriculture

Although agriculture only contributes just over 3% of GDP, measured differently it remains of great importance as it accounts for about 20% of employment. Major agricultural crops include wheat, barley, corn, rice, vegetables, dates, and cotton, and the main livestock are cattle and sheep. Apart from poor strategic planning and management of the agricultural sector, producers have faced two great obstacles since 1990, the great damage caused to infrastructure by the intermittent wars which has also limited accessibility due to ongoing ‘low intensity’ armed conflict in many areas, compounded by the adoption of economic policies that have favoured imports over encouraging domestic production.

The international Oil-for-Food program (1997–2003) had the effect of significantly reducing agricultural output of some products and replacing them with artificially priced foreign foodstuffs. During this period Iraqi production of wheat declined by approximately 29%, barley by 31%, and maize by 52%. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), between 2002 and 2013, production of wheat increased 11% and milled rice 8%, but barley production decreased by 13% and maize production by 40%.

“Prior to 2003, Iraq had imported about 30% of its food needs annually. The decline in agricultural production after this period, created the need for importing 90% of the food at a cost estimated at more than $12 billion annually. Due to the sudden shift in the agricultural policy from subsidized assistance to an immediate shift to a free market policy, the outcomes led to a decline in production. The observed outcome resulted in many farmers abandoning the land and agriculture. The impact on natural resources results in an exploited and degraded environment leaving the land destitute and the people impoverished, unemployed [and] experiencing a sense of losing their human dignity.” LINK

One agricultural development scheme in the south of the country drained marshes and wetlands in the region and sought to introduce irrigated farming, destroying a natural food producing area, while the concentration of salts and minerals in the soil meant the land was unsuitable for agriculture.

In terms of strategic planning for the agricultural sector, which is sorely lacking and has been for many years (arguably since the early 1980s) it will be important for officials and experts to avoid the tendency inherent in many development schemes to favour large-scale capital intensive development schemes and mega-projects over small and medium scale farmers.

The prestige associated with grand projects and their high budgets – and resulting high debts and operating costs – means they tend to be prioritized, however they often end up being detrimental to, if not displacing entirely, existing small and medium scale producers and can also cause severe environmental degradation (particularly to precious and irreplaceable water sources).

If the mega-projects succeed the profits are invariably accumulated by a small number of individuals and employment generation is usually modest compared to small and medium scale agricultural enterprises, whereas if they fail the enormous economic, social and environmental costs are paid by the people that live in the region affected.

There are alternatives. One such scheme was initiated in 2010 with the support of 47 agricultural associations in Mada’in Qada, the Iraq Ministry of Agriculture, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and US a Department of Agriculture Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).

“An Iraqi farmer cooperative is helping to revive the war-torn nation’s agricultural economy by providing farmers with technical assistance, farm supplies and credit. In December (of 2010) the co-op celebrated the grand opening of its new office and warehouse facilities and held its first board of directors meeting…

The not-for-profit cooperative – the Green Mada’in Association for Agricultural Development (GMAAD) – provides free technical assistance and training to farmers in four townships in Mada’in Qada, east of Baghdad in Baghdad Province. The co-op also provides access to low-interest lines of credit to purchase or rent agricultural equipment and supplies — such as seed and fertilizer — and to secure needed farm services. The co-op does all this at lower costs than the farmers could otherwise find.

Membership in the cooperative is growing by 10 percent per month, with more than 800 members to date.” LINK

Improving planning and financial and technical support for the agricultural sector remain major challenges for Iraq’s economic recovery and food security. Related issues are the abundance and quality of surface and subterranean water sources, which have deteriorated dramatically since 1991 and urgently require intervention to catalogue existing sources of water and their suitability for domestic and agricultural purposes, identify major sources of contamination, and begin rehabilitation projects to protect remaining water sources and associated ecological systems.

To the difficulties of rebuilding while open conflict continues to rage in many parts of the country is added the terrible burden of vast tracts of the country being poisoned by depleted uranium and other deadly toxins dispersed during the war. While the ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ has taken a high toll on US military personnel deployed to Iraq, the exposure of many Iraqi populations to extremely toxic environments is incalculably more severe and it will take many years to identify, quantify and remediate contaminated areas. Unless there are major technological advances, it will probably be impossible to decontaminate many areas. LINK

Corruption

More generally, while notable progress has been made in some sectors, achieving significant qualitative improvements to the country’s infrastructure, essential services and key economic sectors still requires a major coordinated effort to improve financial management and auditing systems and minimize the opportunities for corruption and misappropriation of resources, not just in the planning and operation of specific State institutions, infrastructure, economic sectors and projects but in the realm of political factions and dealings where resources are allocated and deals are often initiated and promoted or suppressed.

The tendering process by the Iraqi Oil Ministry was well organized and executed in this respect, with a transparent procedure for the allocation of service contracts, a high level of expertise by those involved, and a substantial stake reserved for the national oil companies in each instance. Significantly, there is also a wide diversity of foreign partners to develop specific fields and operate specific projects, reducing the risk of excessive dependency on any given country or company and at the same time providing access to expertise, technology and markets from around the world (in addition to some of the major players from Europe, Russia, China and the US, service contracts were also granted to companies from Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Angola), with the additional benefit of giving those countries a direct interest in supporting the stability and security conditions in Iraq.

The elaborate ‘oil for infrastructure’ deal negotiated with China last year was also in part an attempt to overcome the ongoing problems of corruption and the limited strategic planning capabilities within State institutions at present. The agreement seeks to initiate the elaboration of an integrated infrastructure and development strategy notwithstanding the extremely limited financial and technical resources available to the State, and also sidestep the corruption that has become deeply entrenched in both public and private sectors. However, such an ad hoc and indirect approach to addressing the imperatives of long term strategic planning and greatly reducing corruption is at best a temporary and partial solution to a grave, and possibly fatal, set of institutional flaws.

The recently established Reconstruction Agency is another constructive development in this respect, providing an integrated institutional basis and mechanisms for strategic planning and building capacity and expertise. However, it appears that a major weakness is the centralization of all strategic planning and project approval and development mechanisms. This is intrinsically linked to the centralization of all other State powers and functions, which would arguably best be addressed by a broad public consultation process to evaluate the feasibility of consolidating and empowering provincial and local assemblies and councils to accelerate the generation of institutional capacity and memory at these levels of government so that they can provide a more effective mechanism both for the elaboration of province- and local-level initiatives as well as to enhance accountability of central (national) State institutions and their activities in each region – including the formulation and implementation of infrastructure and economic planning and projects.

Beyond this, it must be recognized that fraud and corruption is a huge problem not just throughout the region but in many fundamental aspects of the operations of international markets and financial sectors, and only so much can be done by any one country to address this.

Coordinated national and international actions is urgently required to bring transparency to corporate identities and international financial transactions, particularly those arriving from or destined for secrecy jurisdictions and tax havens (estimates range from around a third to up to half of international financial and trade transactions being routed through secrecy jurisdictions, making the identification and prevention of illicit transactions extremely difficult).

The political situation

While the Iraqi Constitution was drafted and adopted in the shadow of the US military occupation and could probably be better, it could also probably be worse and is not in itself a major contributing factor in the political disorder and stagnation that has prevailed for much of the last decade and a half. Rather, it has provided a centralized institutional, procedural and legal matrix within which the traditional social sectors and forces and the more recently formed political organizations and factions have elaborated their plans and carried out their manoeuvres, often (though not always) with the primary objective of obtaining some temporary political, administrative and economic partisan and individual advantage.

The unpredictability and lack of cohesion, well-defined policy platforms and strategic vision for the nation that is apparent in many political and administrative activities is inevitable given the recent demolition and re-founding of the entire system of government, which of course also inflicted great social trauma and loss as well as greatly reducing the stock of available ‘human capital’, expertise and experience in all related fields.

The Constitution of the Republic of Iraq, drafted and adopted in 2005 in the aftermath of the US military occupation, declares that Iraq is a federal parliamentary republic and explicitly recognizes the religious and ethnic diversity in the country, in which most of the population is Shiite (approximately 70%), but a large minority is Sunni (22%); in terms of ethnicity, around 27% of the total population is Kurdish, mostly located in the north of the country.

All of these groups have been allocated specific forms of representation in the political institutions of the new system of government. The government is formed by the Prime Minister, who represents the largest parliamentary faction and must gain the support of a majority of MPs. At the insistence of the US, the Prime Minister is Shiite, the President is Kurdish, and the Speaker of Parliament is Sunni.

In each instance they must have at least one deputy representing the two other major ethno-confessional sectors of the Iraqi population. For example, the president must have a vice president who is Arabi Sunni, and another vice president who is Arab Shiite.

As the majority of the population is Shiite, it is to be expected that the majority of representation in parliament will belong to them. Therefore it is logical that the prime minister will be a member of a Shiite political party.

The posts of president and.the speaker of parliament, allocated to the Kurdish and Sunni political factions respectively, do not generally have a direct role in the government as such, serving more as systemic ‘checks and balances’ in an attempt to ensure that particular Kurdish and Sunni rights and interests are duly taken into account by the government of the day.

In terms of political party representation, three political groupings have emerged which up until now have dominated the political composition of the parliament: The Alliance Towards Reforms (‘Forward’ in English), Fatah (‘Conquest Alliance’) and Victory Alliance. All three represent Shiite political interests. Between them the three groupings won the majority of votes in the key provinces of Baghdad, Basra and Dhi Qar, among others, which have large Shiite majority populations.

The most influential political figures in Iraq over the last fifteen years include Haider Al-Abadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, Nouri al-Maliki, Hadi al-Amiri, Ammar al-Hakim, Ali al-Sistani, Adil Abdul-Mahdi, and Ayad Allawi. In the Kurdish region, the Barzani clan has consistently held a dominant political position.

Nonetheless, there are a large number of political parties that have secured representation in the parliament and there are frequent fluctuations in coalitions, so as yet no one grouping has managed to gain and hold a dominant position – including in terms of the degree and effectiveness of external influences on particular political factions, with the US and Iran both heavily involved in Iraqi politics directly and indirectly. Moreover, there are influential figures in Iraqi society that don’t openly participate in the political process but nonetheless strongly influence it, such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

All of the above notwithstanding, the significant political influence of Muqtada al-Sadr is one noteworthy case. In 2003, he had the support of about 10% of the Shiite population, and this increased to approximately 30% by 2014. Starting in 2003 (when the US invaded Iraq), al-Sadr was involved in the organization of resistance and insurgency operations against both the foreign military presence and the Iraqi military. His direct political influence soared after the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.

Since then he has generally pursued a nationalist policy: he has defiantly condemned Iran for interfering in the internal affairs of Iraq, has met with Sunni leaders from the region (meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2011, and with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in separate meetings in 2017).

According to media reports, it was Al-Sadr who ordered the riots to be organized in July-October 2018 in Basra. During the riots, the principal demands of protesters included tackling widespread corruption, Iranian interference in the internal affairs of Iraq, and the lack of basic essential services such as water, electricity and health care. During the protests the offices and facilities of some oil companies, the Iranian consulate in Basra, and the offices of several Iraqi ministries were attacked.

In terms of the post-2005 distribution of power in the country, several generalizations can be made:

  1. The three Shiite political groupings mentioned above (which are more alliances among several political factions, rather than political parties as such) – Alliance Towards Reforms (‘Forward’ in English), Fatah (‘Conquest Alliance’) and Victory Alliance – have generally had a substantial degree of political influence throughout Iraq and dominated the main engines of decision-making in the country;
  2. Three other coalitions have also been particularly influential in political processes: The State of Law Coalition, al-Wataniya, and National Wisdom Movement. The large number of political parties generally guarantees a high level of turbulence and unpredictability in all major political decisions and processes in Iraq. Alliances are frequently created and broken up, the policy positions of political factions are constantly changing, and their views on economic policy are also inconsistent. Over the past eight years the number of political parties and factions has grown, hindering the development of a central focal point for urgent political decisions. All of these tendencies mean that a lack of stability is to be expected in the country’s economic and political processes for the foreseeable future.
  3. Religion (and especially certain religious identities and affiliations) has also had a very strong influence on the political views and actions of politicians and political parties. However, the influence of religion is almost invariably outweighed by the partisan and financial interests of the political parties and alliances most involved in particular decisions in each instance.

In terms of policies and perspectives related to the economy, foreign policy and secularism, the Shiite parties and movements can be roughly divided into two separate categories:

  1. Parties that strongly support the creation of an Islamic state (with the ensuing implications for economic management and social policy). These parties generally have very close ties with Iran and associated political, economic, educational and cultural organizations; they have a negative attitude towards the US, and favour a conservative approach to the development of economic relations. These include the more radical parties such as those of Muqtada al-Sadr;
  2. Parties supporting the predominantly secular direction of the country’s development notwithstanding the recognition of specific religious and ethnic sectors in the allocation of key State posts. Some of these parties and factions maintain close relations with the United States, and do not maintain significant ties with Iran; others have distanced themselves from the US, and have developed increasing ties with Iran.

Iraq went through another period of severe social unrest and massive protests late last year. The Iraqi Interior Ministry said that the death toll from anti-government protests in the country in October of 2019 rose to well over 100, including at least eight security members, while at least 6,000 others suffered serious injured. While on many occasions the protest events concluded without violence, on many other occasions anti-government protests degenerated into targeted or indiscriminate violence and property destruction, prompting security forces to fire live rounds and tear gas into the demonstrating crowds.

Mustafa Al-Kadhimi took office as prime minister in May of this year, becoming the third Iraqi head of government in a chaotic 10-week period following months of deadly protests in the country and stalemate and disorder in the Iraqi parliament and government. LINK

The demonstrations proliferated after online campaigns urged people to protest and ‘express anger’ about the deteriorating situation in the country, such as the lack of services, rampant corruption and high levels of unemployment. Muqtada al-Sadr was widely reported as being active in promoting the anti-government protests, however his actions were at best contradictory if not disingenuous and opportunistic in this instance as his political faction is now the largest in the national parliament and had a substantial role in the formation of the government whose failures the protestors were condemning.

Another development that has had major political ramifications is the creation and proliferation of Hashd Al-Shaabi (Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMF). A report posted by Middle East Monitor states:

“With a force some 150,000-strong, the PMF owes its existence to the 2014 fatwa of the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Al-Sistani, the highest and most followed Shia religious authority in Iraq and beyond. This fatwa, the first of its kind in a hundred years, mobilised many young Iraqis to volunteer to combat Daesh which had taken control of up to a third of the Iraqi state and parts of neighbouring Syria. The PMF, which is now very much part of the state and is in theory under the command of the Iraqi prime minister, is an umbrella of various blocs. These include influential Iranian-supported factions which are the best equipped and funded but also groups with ties to the pro-Sistani institutions, loyalists to Moqtada Al-Sadr and those affiliated with non-Shia minorities.

Originally from Iran himself but an Iraqi patriot and part of the Najaf establishment for decades, Al-Sistani has seldom interfered with the affairs of the state despite his enormous following, however on occasions, if it is deemed in the interest for Iraq’s sovereignty, he has been known to issue relevant fatwas such as encouraging participation in elections, challenging the US on how the country’s constitution was formed and preventing full-scale civil war by urging restraint in the wake of the Al-Askari shrine bombings between 2006-2007…” LINK

The security situation

While the sudden emergence and large-scale offensives of ISIS has dominated security concerns for the last five years, Iraq continues to face several possible existential threats. The imminent threat posed by ISIS prompted the Iraqi government to request the US to redeploy military forces in the country in 2014, however since the start of this year – if not considerably earlier – the US has clearly become one of the major threats to Iraq’s security following the targeted assassination of Irani Al-Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani. Moreover, apart from this reckless act of aggression against Iran and numerous other airstrikes that have killed Iraqi security force personnel and civilians, there are an increasing number of reports that the US has been supporting some of the terrorist formations in Syria and Iraq at the same time that it is fighting others. LINK

The Iraqi-Russian-Iranian-Syrian Security Coordination Centre was established in Baghdad in 2015 to enhance cooperation between the four countries to combat terrorism and other security threats. Russia commenced large-scale anti-terrorism operations in Syria the same year at the request of the Syrian Government, however has not participated directly in similar military operations in Iraq.

ISIS

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the ‘Islamic State’ (IS), as well as by its Arabic-language acronym Daesh, is a militant group that claims to follow an extremist, Salafi jihadist doctrine of Sunni Islam. Although it had previously participated in the resistance against the US military occupation of Iraq, it remained a relatively minor factor until early-mid 2014 when within a few months it drove Iraqi government forces out of several key cities in the northwest of Iraq, culminating in the capture of Mosul (the second largest city in Iraq) and the occupation of almost a third of Iraq’s territory.

Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

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The group also spread into neighbouring Syria, where it conducted large-scale attacks against both government forces and opposition factions, and by December 2015 it held an area extending from western Iraq to eastern Syria, containing an estimated 8 to 12 million people. By late 2017 the main centres held by the group had been recaptured – Mosul in Iraq and Raqqah in Syria – and since then the group has continued to lose territory. Since 2019 it has been restricted to conducting relatively small-scale, though still potentially very damaging, attacks from remote areas and isolated suicide attacks in more populated areas.

Despite Daesh losing most of its territory, over 10,000 of the group’s fighters remain active ‘in small cells’ between the countries of Syria and Iraq, according to a statement by a representative of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Office to the Security Council on 24 August.

The Kurdish Regional Government

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the official ruling body of the semiautonomous region in northern Iraq that is predominantly Kurdish, has been involved in disputes with national authorities related to the division of powers, functions and resources and ultimately challenging Iraq’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The KRG held a non–binding independence referendum on 25 September 2017, which according to official results was approved by more than 90% of voters.

Following the referendum, Iraqi central government forces launched a military operation to retake the large oil fields in the Kirkuk area, along with other vital infrastructure such as border crossings and airports. Fortunately, they managed to achieve their objectives with no major armed clashes occurring. Following the takeover of the Kirkuk area oil fields by the central Iraqi government forces, Iraq’s North Oil Company (NOC) took over the management of the Avana Dome, Baba Dome, and Bai Hassan fields. The NOC continues to operate the Baba, Jambur, and Khabbaz oil fields.

The current situation in northern Iraq is complicated by the fact that neither the Kurdish authorities, dominated by the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP), nor the central government have been able to effectively deal with the presence of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militia groups, which have been involved in an armed insurgency against Turkey since 1984, using Iraqi territory as a rear base.

Iraq exports relatively small volumes of crude oil to Turkey transported by truck as well as via an onshore pipeline from the Ceyhan terminal to Turkey’s Kirikkale refinery, near Ankara. The Ceyhan–Kirikkale pipeline has a capacity of 135,000 b/d. (US Energy Information Administration)

There are now two pipelines from Iraq to Turkey; one remains under the control of the central government of Iraq. The second was built by the government of the Kurdistan Region. After commissioning the second pipeline in May 2014, Erbil began a parallel supply of oil to Turkey, bypassing Baghdad. Since then, the Kurdish Regional Government steadily increased oil exports which in September 2015 reached 602,000 bpd.

Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

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The legitimate demands of the Kurdish people for a substantial degree of autonomy within their communities and territories is fraught with difficulties and obstacles, even without the hostile or opportunistic external actors seeking to take advantage of their claims and capabilities for their own strategic and economic gain. Neither Iraq, Syria, Turkey nor Iran will accept forms of autonomy that limit or could potentially undermine their sovereignty, national security and territorial control.

Also, few areas can be considered ‘pure’ Kurdish regions as there are also large numbers of non-Kurdish inhabitants throughout officially designated Kurdish zones. Any attempt to gouge out autonomous, much less sovereign, Kurdish zones without reaching a negotiated agreement with the central government(s) affected must end in disaster for all involved (with the possible exception of hostile external actors seeking to weaken any or all of the countries affected by using the Kurds as agents provocateur and cannon fodder). At the same time, if the central governments of these countries refuse to acknowledge the legitimate demands and needs of the Kurdish communities and territories within their national boundaries the associated problems and threats will never be eliminated completely.

Modern Iraq As Battleground Of Geopolitical Standoff In Middle East

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Hashd Al-Shaabi (Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces, PMF)

The Haasd Al-Shaabi or PMF have played a crucial role in the defence of Iraq’s national security. As noted above they consist of up to 150,000 members in total, although some of the militia formations separated from the PMF structure as such earlier this year:

“Much has been written about the growing rifts between the Shia seminary cities of Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran, centred on the role of politics and religion. While the Najaf school is known for its quietist stance, Qom advocates the theocratic ideology of Wilayat Al-Faqi. These tensions are particularly noticeable over the disagreements in the direction the Hashd Al-Shaabi or Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) should take. Last month four factions loyal to the Najaf religious authority pulled out of the PMF, which may complicate the efforts against the creeping re-emergence of Daesh attacks and may impact the resistance against the US military presence in the country…

The four factions which split from the PMF are the Imam Ali, Ali Al Akbar, Abbas and Ansar Al Marjaiya brigades, with notice served to the head of the PMF that their “operations and administration” were to be directed by the prime minister’s office and the Ministry of Defence. As mentioned earlier, the PMF is also under the command of Iraq’s prime minister but are overseen by the Popular Mobilisation Authority and carry out independent operations with the consent of the military. The Iranian-supported factions are the most powerful bloc, which is where the clash of interests come into play. That pro-Sistani affiliated units are not part of the upper-levels of the PMF command structure also could be a reason which led to them breaking away… Accusations also exist of an unequal distribution of PMF resources…

However, any doubts regarding the future of the PMF’s legitimacy in Iraq were soon put to rest with the new Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who was thought to have been appointed as a result of a compromise between the US and Iran. The former intelligence chief has reaffirmed his government’s support for the PMF, describing them as a “force of the homeland”. Al-Kadhimi visited the PMF’s headquarters on Saturday meeting with the PMF head Falih Al-Fayyadh and was gifted a PMF uniform, which he subsequently wore.” LINK

In addition to the many armed militias comprising or associated with the PMF, a multitude of new resistance organisations and militias have emerged throughout Iraq in recent times which have already demonstrated considerable competence and wide-ranging capabilities in military as well as information warfare, including the possession of drones and reading of aerial footage, suggesting that they are benefiting from the proven methods and professionalism of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other resistance groups in the region, whether directly or indirectly.

“New resistance factions are also springing up in Iraq, focussed on the illegal US military presence in the country. One recently established group, Usbat Al-Thaireen, uploaded drone footage early last month showing the US embassy was well within its sights as well as Ahab Al-Kahf group which attacked a US military convoy in Saladin. Now a new faction, Thawrat Al-Ishrin II has announced its formation by releasing footage of an attack against a US military convoy in Babil.” LINK

US Military Presence

Despite substantial pressure from Iraqis opposed to the US military occupation, it seemed that they were set to become a permanent feature in the post-war Iraqi landscape, as has occurred in Germany, Japan, and so many other countries. Outside Iraq, the main military bases used by the US air force in the region are located in the UAE and Qatar. There is also a large military base in Kuwait, and the headquarters of the 5th fleet of the Navy is located in Bahrain. The strategic military base complex at Diego Garcia Island in the Indian Ocean also serves as a crucial logistics and operational hub for the Middle East theatre, including for long-range strategic bombers.

However, that changed abruptly at the start of this year. The post-US Military Occupation history of Iraq will probably be taken by historians to have commenced on the 3rd of January 2020. On that day, Lieutenant General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of Popular Mobilization Forces, were assassinated along with their companions in a US airstrike personally authorized by President Donald Trump near Baghdad International Airport.

The humiliation to the Iraqi people of having a widely admired ally killed in cold blood in Iraq’s capital was compounded when it became known that Suleimani had been lured there by his enemies, who falsely claimed that they wanted to initiate negotiations to reduce tensions in the region.

Two days after the targeted killing of Soleimani and his companions, the Iraqi parliament unanimously approved a bill demanding the withdrawal of all foreign military forces led by the United States from the country. Then, on the 9th of January, then Iraqi prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi called on the US to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss how the withdrawal of military assets would be arranged. The 78-year-old politician said Iraq rejected any further violation of its sovereignty, and in particular the US military’s violation of Iraqi airspace in carrying out the airstrike.

Over the next few weeks it was widely reported that the Iraqi parliament was sending a delegation to Russia, Ukraine and China to discuss the acquisition of air defence equipment. This would be a step of utmost importance if Iraq is to regain its sovereignty and effective control over its territory and airspace. Ever since the extremist groups took over control of large parts of the country, the northwest in particular has been a no-man’s land frequented mainly by ISIS and occasional US military convoys and aircraft shuttling between Iraq and Syria (that also periodically strike Iraqi or Syrian security forces, particularly the PMU).

An official involved suggested that such military hardware could be paid for as part of a trade for Iraqi oil, citing the ‘oil for reconstruction’ agreement with China as an example, and commented that:

“Many nations indicated readiness to ship modern weapons to Iraq in exchange for oil. This is the best way to ensure the shipment of good weapons to Iraq without corruption and bribery.”

He did not specify which systems Iraq would be interested in purchasing. Baghdad has been said to be interested in Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system or the older S-300. Ukraine has a range of ex-Soviet missile systems in service and has worked to bring systems back into operation from storage. China produces a number of different air-defence systems. Its S-300-equivalent, the HQ-9, has previously been said to be a system Iraq was interested in.

Although Iraq has acquired Russian weapons in large quantities in the past, it has relied heavily on US weapons since the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. LINK

Despite the urgent attention the matter received in the immediate aftermath of the drone strike that killed Suleimani, the acquisition of the necessary radar installations and anti-air defence systems to provide effective coverage of every inch of Iraq’s airspace and thereby deter, detect and intercept unauthorized flights has been delayed by the political stalemate and disorder that continues to paralyse the country. Although the number of ‘mystery’ airstrikes by unknown aircraft or missiles (particularly against PMU installations) has dropped, they continue to plague the country.

The US military left al-Qaim and two other key military bases (Qayara Airfield West and Kirkuk) in March of this year. The decision to leave three of its eight remaining bases in Iraq was part of a wider redeployment of forces to adjust to the new conditions in the aftermath of the drone strike that killed Suleimani.

In March, two attacks on the Taji base killed three Western ‘coalition’ troops, and severely wounded two members of the Iraqi security forces. The retaliatory attack by the US on locations that they asserted were Kataib Hezbollah ammunition storage facilities killed three Iraqi army personnel, two local police officers and one civilian. LINK

The US military abandoned Taji military base in August and although there are contradictory reports about where they intend to remain it appears that the military presence will be concentrated in three major bases. The US remains reluctant to commit to a complete withdrawal and continues to delay definitive negotiations, presumably hoping that the fury generated by the assassinations and unauthorized airstrikes will die down as more time passes and that they can gradually buy off political factions in the parliament and go back to ‘business as usual’.

A Never-Ending Occupation

Despite the public statements and the formal withdrawal of US forces from several bases in Iraq, the US military is in now way reducing its military presence in the country. Instead, it is consolidating the existing means and forces at the remaining military infrastructure concentrated in the key parts of Iraq. This, according to experts, will both allow the US to continue projecting military power in the region and avoid additional casualties, which are highly expected amid the increasing rocket and IED attacks on US forces by pro-Iranian armed groups.

Current developments suggest the US is seeking to consolidate its presence in Iraqi Kurdistan by expanding its ‘Harir’ military base, and there are also reports that it is establishing another large military base on the border with Iran. The US supports the Kurdish Peshmerga and arms them together with its allies, particularly the United Arab Emirates, who are providing the Kurdish armed militias with weaponry. LINK

Another detailed analysis notes (Global Research):

 “Notwithstanding its occupation of Iraq with tens of thousands of men, the US failed to subjugate Iraq, mainly due to the emergence of the Sunni and Shia resistance which drove America out of Iraq in 2011.

And when US forces returned in 2014 – at the request of the Iraqi government – to contribute to fighting ISIS, the US presence was regulated and limited to fighting the Takfiri organisation and to offering paid-for military training. It was to refrain from conducting any military activity in the country without the permission of the Iraqi Prime Minister. The US has not only violated this agreement, it has attacked the Iraqi army, federal police, and the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on the Iraq-Syria border, killing and wounding 56 elements. Furthermore, it allowed Israel to attack Iraqi security forces’ warehouses, this according to what the American ambassador in Iraq revealed to the Prime Minister during a private visit to his office in Baghdad. Also, the US crowned its illegal interference in Iraqi affairs with the assassination of two leaders, the Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani on a mission requested by Iraqi Premier, and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis the commander of the PMF…

It has pulled out of 6 military bases and centres but equipped the military bases of Ayn al-Assad, Balad, and Harir with Patriot missiles…” LINK

Iraq must also confront a significant Turkish military presence in its northwest, which as in northern Syria gives no indication of withdrawing any time soon. Earlier this month (August 2020) Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein contacted his Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, and Kuwaiti counterparts as well as the Arab League to seek their diplomatic support. Hussein requested a “major Arab efforts to avoid dangerous developments” and for “a united position to force Turkey to pull out its troops who have infiltrated into Iraq,” the ministry said.

The PKK has waged an insurgency since 1984 and has used the rugged terrain of northern Iraq as a rear base to launch attacks on Turkey. Over the past 25 years, Turkey has set up a dozen military positions inside Iraqi territory to fight the insurgent group. LINK

Many reports also indicate that Israel has had a significant presence in the Kurdish region (as well as nearby Azerbaijan) for some time. If the US continues to delay and resist the Iraqi demand to remove all military forces deployed in Iraq, as in the aftermath of 2003 the associated cost and risks will rise exponentially. The ongoing regrouping of US forces in Iraq is among measures employed by the Trump administration to avoid this scenario. At the same time, the US has been increasing pressure on the Iranian-led Resistance Axis in the region. This is set to increase the cost of Iranian operations across the region and the Iranian determination to continue providing its own independent foreign and internal policy.

In any case, the modern state of Iraq is a country with a limited sovereignty and has not resources to forces foreign actors to withdraw their forces or at least limit their military presence. The developing economic, political and social crises in Iraq, and the configuration of the local elites, which largely rely on their foreign sponsors, establish a wide bridgehead for foreign influence and meddling. Therefore, in the coming years, Iraq, alongside with Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, will remain a battleground for global and regional actors involved in the great geopolitical game.

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