Cleric’s return signals uncertainty for Iraq

Cleric’s return signals uncertainty for Iraq (OpenDemocracy)

The anti-US Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, commander of the Mahdi Army militia responsible for the killing and wounding of thousands of US personnel, yesterday returned to Iraq having spent at least three-years of self-imposed exile in Iran, where he has pursued religious studies.

His return, not necessarily the first since he left in 2007 but certainly the first to be made public, is arguably telling of the changing dynamics of the Iraqi political arena and indeed of the Sadrist movement itself.

The Sadrists won nearly 40 seats in last year’s parliamentary elections. With seven ministries to his bloc’s name and the deputy-speaker of parliament post, as well as a collection of governorships in the south of the country, al-Sadr’s return may have also been part of this package of concessions offered to him by arch-enemy Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in return for his backing of Maliki as premier. This is since the cleric still has an outstanding arrest warrant against him for the murder of Sayyid Abdul-Majid Khoei in 2003, one of Iraq’s leading Shia clerics backed by both the US and UK.

That warrant may soon be revoked and al-Sadr’s return, if permanent, is likely to be part of a long-term strategy to embolden his bloc and its orbit of influence in the country.

His return will consolidate his movement’s political gains and will better galvanise his supporters, numbering millions of impoverished Shias and derived predominantly from Sadr City, the north Baghdad slum. This becomes particularly crucial for the movement as a result of internal divisions it has suffered in recent years. The most notable group to splinter from the movement is the so-called League of the Righteousness, led by Qais al-Khazali, the militiaman complicit in the 2007 kidnapping of Britain’s Peter Moore. The League of the Righteousness was recently involved in a gun battle with the Sadrists.

Al-Sadr’s return could also be part of a broader, longer-term plan to place himself as the successor to Grand Ayatollah Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of Shia Muslims around the world. Al-Sadr, who himself comes from a famous clerical family has for long competed with Sistani for power and influence.

However, that will depend on the state of al-Sadr’s religious credentials. It takes decades to reach the rank of Grand Ayatollah. More importantly will be relations between al-Sadr and other leading figures of the clergy in the holy city of Najaf. Al-Sadr faces competition from Ayatollah Mohammad Saeed al-Hakim to become Sistani’s successor. Al-Hakim is widely tipped to be the successor; but what could make the competition for clerical authority violently uncertain is the fact that al-Hakim is more hostile to al-Sadr than Sistani is and, significantly, has not hesitated to outspokenly and publicly criticise him.

For now, it will be a case of waiting and seeing. It is not yet certain al-Sadr will stay in Iraq. He may return to Iran and continue his religious studies, lest suggestions that he left Iraq because he feared for his life or because of the arrest warrant issued against him is given credence.

It also remains to be seen whether Iraq is big enough a place for both al-Sadr and al-Maliki, who went head-to-head in the 2008 Battle for Basra that ultimately led to defeat and a dramatic decline in power for the former. Al-Sadr’s return had to have been approved by Iran and it came on the same day Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Baghdad. Iran may have sanctioned al-Sadr’s return to put a check on Maliki, who has in the past moved against Iranian interests in Iraq.

There is further uncertainty about what implications al-Sadr’s arrival may have for the US, as it prepares to withdraw completely by the end of this year. The US will be ill at ease with the arrival of what it regards as an Iranian proxy so close to its departure. During his visit yesterday, the Iranian foreign minister repeated Iran’s demand that Maliki’s government not extend the US troop presence. Al-Sadr may have returned to ensure just that and possibly through any means necessary.

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New Iraq government will struggle

The Iraqi government’s patchwork alliance may struggle to survive

On Tuesday, Iraq just about managed to form a government – only days before a constitutional deadline, and nine months since the elections took place. With the cabinet now named and accepted by parliament, the hard work starts for a country that still has many challenges and disputes to overcome.

High on the agenda for the Iraqi government and the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, (who will run the ministries of interior and defence himself until accepted candidates are found) will be to consolidate the security gains of the past three years. In tandem with this will be the usual efforts to improve basic services and infrastructure. Yet, all this depends on the ability of this new government to actually function.

Whether it can function is by no means certain. The government is composed of unlikely political and ideological bedfellows and is the product of desperate power-seeking efforts among easily compromised domestic elements.

The difference this time is the all-inclusiveness of the government. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs are now better represented, with the Sunni-dominated Iraqi National movement (INM) of Ayad Allawi taking the parliamentary speaker’s post, the deputy premiership and the all-important finance ministry, among others.

The Kurds and the major Shia-dominated groups, including Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the Sadrists, took a collection of sovereign and service ministries. While this means Iraq has a truly national government, what it will achieve in terms of policy and direction is not so great, given that it has been formed on the basis of promises and compromises that may be reneged on or delayed at the very least.

Lasting peace and stability depends on resolving outstanding disputes with the Kurds on oil, revenue-sharing, security and the disputed territories (Kirkuk in particular). The Kurds, rather than exploiting their kingmaker position to take a stronger proportion of ministries in Baghdad (they are taking just one major portfolio – the foreign ministry), are instead banking on guarantees from Maliki to implement their list of 19 demands that includes resolving the above disputes in their favour.

They may have been naive, though. With their historical and federalist partners, the Islamic supreme council of Iraq in decline, the Kurds may be isolated in the new government – a government dominated by the nationalistic and centrist characteristics of the INM, the Sadrists and indeed State of Law.

Maliki may, therefore, turn out to be unable to grant concessions even if he wanted to and could use Osama Nujayfi, the new ultra-nationalist speaker of parliament and Kurdish foe, to absorb the Kurdish criticism and insulate himself from any attacks.

Then comes the role of Iraq’s empowered Sunni representatives, the INM. Their complaints have centred on under-representation and what they called the dominance of the Iranian-backed Shia. Whether they intend to play a positive or obstructive role in government will depend on the extent to which their own agenda has changed.

It is a question of whether they still harbour suspicions towards Maliki and contest his legitimacy (in which case they will seek to utilise their newfound power to undermine him and the country) or, alternatively, whether they are now seriously committed to bridging the sectarian divide and steering Iraq away from instability.

Similarly, Iraq’s ruling Shia groups must also prove that they are committed to the process of reconciliation and peaceful politics.

Eyes will be particularly fixed on the Sadrist bloc, which won nearly 40 seats in the elections, to see if they have given up on violent politics. The Sadrists walked out on Maliki’s first government in 2007 and only joined his current one at the behest of Iran. For now, their control of the service ministries (housing, public works, labour and planning) will be utilised to strengthen their grassroots base.

As it stands, the new government has been determined on the basis of appeasement rather than accountability, efficiency and effectiveness, bearing in mind that this was the country’s first chance to have a serious opposition, in the form of the INM, that could hold the government to account.

At worst, the power-sharing arrangement will lead to fragmentation or, at best, stagnation. The internal strife has already started, with the Kurds rejecting official and media reports that suggest Hussain al-Shahristani, the former oil minister who has been at loggerheads with the Kurds over energy contracts, will retain his influence over the energy sector in his capacity as deputy premier.

What will also be a point of contention are the powers of the new National Council of Strategic Policies, headed by Allawi subject to it being granted its powers by parliament. Granting the council powers that restrict those of the prime minister will satisfy and placate Allawi. Restricting it to a mere advisory role may provoke a rebellion, albeit a weak one given that the INM is divided and Allawi’s powerful colleagues like Salah al-Mutlaq (deputy prime minister) and Nujayfi are now unlikely to follow suit.

Another compromise candidate for Iraq?

As Iraq’s blocs continue to push for, make and break alliances it is becoming increasingly likely that the country may have yet another compromise candidate. Current PM Nouri al-Maliki was himself a compromise candidate, coming into the job from obscurity but going on to make a name for himself and become the most important figure in his party, the Islamic Dawa Party.

Having provoked the ire of his rivals outside of Dawa over the years, there are, however, some who will be vehemently against another Maliki term. One alternative candidate, within Dawa itself, is  Sherwan (a Kurdish name) al-Wa’ili, the present minister of state for national security affairs. According to reports, he is also preferred by Dawa’s “Iranian wing” (or a specific part of Dawa comprised of individuals closer to Tehran than other members of the party).

Sherwan alWa’ili is part of Dawa’s other faction (the Islamic Dawa Party – Iraq organisation), which splintered from IDP during Saddam’s rule. The splinter group is part of the same State of Law coalition that contested the elections.

Bombs rock Baghdad

At least 39 people were killed and over 100 injured when a series of bombs rocked Baghdad on Tuesday in attacks that follow Sunday’s near-simultaneous suicide car bombs that killed 40 people and wounded hundreds.

The immediate assumption will be that these attacks either send a political message or seek to exploit the post-election, some would stay uncertain, political climate as blocs make and break alliances for the purposes of forming a government.

It is, however, too easy to assume that every attack comes with some sort of a political message. The objective for terrorists now seems to be to deploy high-casualty, high-profile mass-terror attacks focused around the quality of both the outcome and target rather than the quantity of bombs. Attacks in Iraq also now tend to be more of a case of striking at chance rather than at will.

The ultimate aim is of course to undermine Iraq’s political and democratic system. (In other words, irrespective of the elections and foreign interference in Iraqi affairs, these bombings may have still taken place). And doing so requires dictating public perception; that is, have the public loose faith in their government and its security forces. Terrorists, however, tried this before the elections but failed since the democratic process went ahead successfully and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went on to perform strongly, despite initial observations that suggested the pre-election bombings will hurt his electoral chances.

Iraq is entering a sensitive period, during which, in tandem with the settling of the political framework, US combat troops are expected to withdraw by the end of August. The US presence in Iraq is still very much a raison d’être for Iraq’s extremist/terrorist groups and they may do anything and everything to prolong it.

Outside of these groups, there will be those in Iraq’s political circles, wary of hostile domestic and external forces that have influence far superior than their own, who will also seek a strong US presence believing this to be a necessary and imperative counter-measure against these other powers.

Unsung heroes of #Iraq

Out there in Iraq, amidst the bombings and killings are Iraqis risking
their lives so western journalists do their job and relay information
back to us in the comfort of our homes and offices. Below is a moving
tribute to one of probably many unsung heroes.

—–

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/iraq/article7003347.ece

Farewell to Yasser, The Times’s driver: an unsung hero of the Iraq war
James Hider, The Times

Another day, another round of bombs in Baghdad. A blip that barely
registers in the news after so many years of bloodshed, and quickly
blurs into the endless images of familiar carnage.

Except this day was different for me and many of my colleagues who
have covered the Iraq war. This was the day that my friend Yasser
vanished in that inevitable cloud of grey smoke that you see on your
television screens or newspaper pages.

Yasser was The Times’s driver for the past seven years, since the fall
of the regime that he had hated so much. He joined the newspaper
pretty much the same week I did, and together we worked through the
bloodiest periods of the war. Yasser — whose surname I cannot put in
print, even now, because of the danger to his brother, who also works
as a Times driver — was one of the thousands of Iraqis who have made
the media coverage of the war possible: uncredited, unsung heroes of a
war most people would rather forget.

He had survived some terrifying episodes, from being “ethnically
cleansed” with his family by Sunni insurgents from their home in 2006,
when they moved into our hotel but did not stop working, to blocking
the road with his car as a vehicle full of armed kidnappers tried to
abduct a Times reporter one evening near the Tigris river. He saved my
life and the lives of colleagues at the risk of his own, only to step
out of The Times office at exactly the wrong moment on Monday, the
moment when a suicide car bomber fought his way into the compound and
blew himself up.

Over the years Yasser and his brother became close to all of us: they
would be waiting at the airport when we flew in to drive us along the
notorious Route Irish road when it was still a daily death trip; they
would hug us like brothers when we left, always with a promise to
return. But they did not just drive us into battle zones: they bought
us cakes on our birthdays, invited us, when it was safe, to their home
for meals cooked by their mother. Through the years we went to their
weddings, saw Yasser become a proud father of two girls and, recently,
hope for a better future for the country.

Yasser was a kind and funny man who had seen too much misery but
retained his ability to crack a wicked joke. When we met, he told that
me he had learnt English when training as a vet, but had never
practised because he did not like any animals except for sheep. He was
sweet and courteous, and called my girlfriend “Prince” until we
pointed out that it was a male name. He cackled at his own mistake.

On one of my first outings with him through the lawless streets, he
suddenly executed a U-turn through gridlocked traffic and sped off: he
had spotted a gang of looters pulling people from the cars ahead,
stabbing them and stealing their vehicles. Another time, when we were
grabbed by the notorious al-Mahdi Army militia, masked gunmen dragged
me and my translator off to an unknown destination in Sadr City. As a
Shia from the area, Yasser could have driven off and no one would have
blamed him: instead, I was hugely relieved to spot him through the
rear window belting after us. He stayed with me until we managed to
negotiate our release.

The last time I was in Baghdad, almost a year ago, Yasser made me
promise to return. I will, very soon, but too late to see his smiling
face. He was buried by his family yesterday in the Shia holy city of
Najaf.

Instead, I will be greeted by his inconsolable brother, who was too
devastated to do anything more than cry when I phoned him yesterday. I
cried with him, because Yasser was not just another faceless
statistic. He was a friend and a heroic colleague who will be missed
forever.

Fake magic wands sold to Iraqis

See video below on the fake “wands” sold to Iraq for the purposes of detecting bombs. Iraq has spent more than $85 million on these wands. Iraqi government spokesman Ali Dabbagh yesterday said they’ll investigate and if the products are found ineffective – which they are – then they’ll sue. It will be interesting to see how victims of recent bomb attacks and their families will react, whether they’ll be compensated is a matter too.

More on banning of candidates

My article below appeared in the Guardian and provided an update on the developments but also critically assessed US Vice-President Joe Biden’s proposal to postpone the ban for until after the elections, so that only those so-called Baathists who won would be investigated.

Confusion surrounds the whole Shia-Sunni aspect of the banning of 511 parliamentary candidates. Faraj Al-Hayder, head of the IHEC, has said the number on the list is “roughly” equal, while Reuters reports here there are more Shias than Sunnis. The article says that it is predominantly Sunni.

In any case, I was one of the first to reject the sectarian colourings observers were giving the whole affair when it started and referred to the fact that Shias as well as Kurds are included on the list. Having said this, the most significant of those banned is Salah Mutlaq, a Sunni. It is this that prompted the initial, somewhat hyperbolic, reactions that turned, in essence, the molehill into a mountain and that threatened/threatens to derail the elections.

Iraq’s new election fiasco

The banning of more than 500 candidates will severely test the upcoming Iraqi elections’ legitimacy

A few months ago the stage was set in Iraq for what looked like a much-improved exercise in democracy where ethnic and sectarian boundaries would be crossed, to some degree, in the electoral process. Over the past few weeks, however, the banning of 511 predominantly Sunni candidates, and the intense bickering that followed, have cast a shadow over the forthcoming elections. Barred candidates have the opportunity to appeal, but the appeal process for so many candidates could take longer than the two months left between now and the elections.

Diplomatic efforts by western governments are accordingly in full gear, with concerns centring on instability and what this could mean for the withdrawal of troops later this year, as well as the increased Iranian influence that could result from eliminating any strongly nationalistic, anti-Iran elements from the Iraqi parliament.

In an effort to resolve the crisis, the UN called for the list to be discarded and, not surprisingly, was dismissed almost immediately. A more constructive proposal came from US vice-president Joseph Biden and his team of Middle East advisers. Biden suggested that the list be set aside until after the elections, so that only candidates who are elected would have to be examined for Baathist ties. His suggestion may have been the result of the lobbying efforts of Ayad Allawi, who this week visited Barham Salih, the prime minister of the Kurdistan region and a prominent ally of Washington in Iraq. Allawi heads the Iraqi National Movement, which had at least 70 members banned and which includesSalah al-Mutlaq, a key Sunni player whose banning is the most controversial of all.

Reports suggest Biden’s proposal could be taken on board. It has not yet been rejected by the Iraqis. However, if banning the candidates is a disastrous move (and the US clearly believes it is) then Biden’s proposal merely postpones the disaster. Allowing suspected Baathists or ex-Baathists to be voted into parliament, and then ejecting them against the wishes of the electorate could have far more adverse consequences than barring them from the elections from the start.

The official western policy in Iraq has been to let Iraqis take care of Iraqi affairs. As a result, the US, UN and EU have largely watched from the sidelines as disputes over Kirkuk, oil and power sharing continue.

From time to time, though, they do give an effective nudge. The election law mayhem a few months ago saw Iraq’s groups at a deadlock over controversial details of the 7 March elections, which threatened to derail US withdrawal plans. But then the US, along with the UK, stepped in andparliament finally passed the law. Although it was returned to parliament for modification straight afterwards, parliament was quick in passing it.

Whether western input will improve things or make them worse this time round is not clear. Significant and prominent Sunni entities are still contesting the elections and, despite the ban, Sunni resentment is not what it was in 2005 when most boycotted the elections. The question is whether the US is stoking the sectarianism that some Sunnis have associated with the debacle – to the extremists’ advantage, since it may end up taking the dispute away from the Iraqi political and legal arenas and into the street, where it then becomes contested in a violent and communal fashion. A largely Iraqi problem will then become not so much an Iraqi one, but a US one.