01.07.2014 Author: Petr Lvov

The political dimensions of the current conflict in Iraq

5464563To the extent that the battle in Iraq continues between the coalition of ISIS and other Sunni militant groups, tribal and political, in addition to former Baathist party members against government forces of the Shiite Prime Minister, N. al- Maliki, it spins the interests of those countries who have interests in Iraq. Thus, it is clear that on one side there is the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, other Arabian monarchies and Turkey pressing for the removal of al-Maliki and the creation of a coalition government that would be loyal to the West and the Gulf Coast States; on the other side there is Russia, China, Iran, Syria (although the second is not particularly active) who understood the inherent dangers in the spread of Islamic radicalism and terrorism in the Middle East. After all, for the latter group, the rise to power of ISIS is a direct threat, including to national security and to economic interests. But for Syria and Iran, it is generally a matter of survival. If ISIS were to form a ruling government in Bagdad, then it would resume U.S.-Saudi-Qatari efforts to overthrow the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad and then the next step would be a NATO-Gulf State coalition to eliminate the current Tehran over its nuclear programme. For Russia, the islamization of the region is dangerous because terrorists may once again flood across the border into the North Caucasus and Muslim areas of the Volga regions. Not to mention there is a major economic component to all this, as Moscow has major commercial agreements with Baghdad, primarily within the oil industry (Lukoil, Gaprom neft) China may also lose major economic contracts with Iraq.

But for now, the greater importance is still the way things are playing out on the battlefield. On June 27, according to a news agency citing Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, the U.S. Air Force began flying combat aircraft over Baghdad, in addition to UAVs equipped with weapons and means of detection in order to protect American citizens. “The reason that some of these aircraft are equipped with weapons is, first and foremost, to ensure the safety of several military advisers who were sent to this country and who will work outside the embassy compound”, said Kirby. It is true however that, for the sake of Saudi Arabia, the U.S. promised not to use drones for offensive operations against the militants of the radical organization, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

During June 26-28, in fierce fighting, the Iraqi army conducted operations for the city of Tikrit which had been previously captured by the rebels. In addition, continued promotion of LIH units in the western part of the country to establish full control over the province of Anbar and Baghdad bypass from the south-west. Besides that, there was continuous advancement of ISIS units in the western part of the country for the establishment of full control over the province of Anbar and bypass Bagdad from the couth-west. In total, during the last week there appeared more than a dozen points of armed confrontation. Conditional front lines run north between the city of Mosul, captured by ISIS militants and Kurdish controlled Erbil. But no fighting occurred there. Further to the south, there is no continuous zone of ISIS control. To the south of Mosul, large numbers of villages are not occupied by anyone, even though local governments have fled under threat of violence by extremists. Those who remain there to run things are mainly Sunni tribal sheikhs. Under the control of different Islamist groups, not only ISIS militants, is a large part of the settlements along the Euphrates river valley to the city of Samarra. From here the Islamists control a zone going east in Diyala province. They occupy most of the villages in this area to the north-east of Baquba and besieged the largest air base of Al-Balad (Salah al-Din), 50 km north of the capital. It is noted that there is a large presence of ISIS groups within the general vicinity of Baghdad. And it is not quite a northern offensive from which the Sunni radicals will make their incursions. The continuing intensive fighting is much closer in proximity to the cities of Ramadi, Fallujah (60 km west of the capital) and in the vicinity of Abu Ghraib (20 km west of Baghdad).

In recent days, the offensive thrust of ISIS has lost momentum. The tactic of “Blitzkrieg” used by the Islamists with the possible fall of Baghdad didn’t succeed. But almost every day they manage to capture at least something, but at the same time, in some places they have been in retreat. In general, the militants halted their assault on Baghdad, focusing instead on oil and gas infrastructure. So, on June 25, 2014, ISIS bandits made ​​a dash to the east of Tikrit and Baiji, capturing the oil and natural gas fields of Adzil, Adzil-6, Adzil-24 and Adzil-North-1. The volume of crude oil produced from these wells is 28 thousand barrels per day. The transport of the oil seized by the Islamists can run through Syrian territory. On the Syrian-Iraqi border militants seized border crossings of Abu Kamal – Al Qaim. Through this point there is a flow of weaponry and military equipment (including tanks) from Iraq for Syrian rebels. There are continuous attacks on the Haditha Dam, which controls the flow of water in central and southern regions of Iraq.

In the evening of June 27, it became known that the Sunni insurgents left Baiji refinery and the company again came under the control of government forces. However, the status of the largest refinery in Iraq remains uncertain, as almost all entrances to it are controlled by ISIS. Along the perimeter of the refinery there are isolated and localized clashes. But Islamists do not intend on destroying transportation routes for oil and gas, as they are intending to sell oil and gas. They can destroy platforms only in the event of a forced retreat from their occupied positions. In the north, near Kurdistan, fighting is occurring in at least five settlements. The assault of militants are holding off the combined forces of what’s left of the Iraqi army and police, armed militia units of the Kurdish Peshmerga and volunteers from the local Christian and Muslims population. Still there is a large flow of refugees coming from Mosul and from Christian and Kurdish villages of the Ninawa Valley. Most of them are fleeing to Erbil. There is periodic fighting between the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga on the one side and Islamists on the other in the city of Kirkuk and its proximity. Here Iraqi Air Force helicopters are bombing positions held by the Islamists.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is confident that ultimately they can defeat the rebels. He stated that the formation of a “national salvation government”, which would be more wildly inclusive to the country’s Sunni population as unconstitutional, although John Kerry and the Saudis have urged him to accept this fact several times. “A call for the formation of a national emergency government is unconstitutional and violates the political process. This is an attempt to interfere with a young democracy and to steal votes”, Nuri al-Maliki said on June 26. He also confirmed that the first session of Parliament will be held on July 1 and within that framework of that meeting of the government will be formed in accordance with the “principles of the constitution”.

The danger now for Baghdad is that Iraqi Kurdistan is moving quickly to secede from Iraq. While on a visit to Rome, Massoud Barzani said, “The government in Baghdad must comply with the requirements of the people of Kurdistan. If our demands are not accepted, as the political power of Kurdistan, we will ask our people about what we should do next. The road to a referendum of the people of Kurdistan itself will decide about their own future and determine the future direction of development of relations between Kurdistan and Baghdad”.

Moreover, Turkey plays a negative role in this developing economic relationship, especially in the area of procurement of oil and gas, bypassing the central government. Kurds have traditionally claimed 17% of the revenues from oil exports; a share granted to them by the constitution. Despite this, a law that would fix a similar relationship in the oil industry was not adopted. The fact of the matter was that the question, how much volume would be produced, would oil be sold and for what price would gas be exported, al-Maliki wanted to decide that for himself. In other words, he, Kurdish leaders believe, decided to control the flow of investment and development of the Kurdish region. The goals of Nuri al-Maliki were clear. Produced gas in this region can only go to Turkey. After all, natural gas is to be sold where there is an established pipeline infrastructure. The route to sell Iraqi gas to Europe goes through Turkey. Al-Maliki realized that the Turks would want to buy this cheaper gas, whereas 1000 cubic meters of natural gas from Russia and Iran Turkey purchases for 450-500 USD, but the price for a gas supply from Kurdistan would be 250 USD.

Everyone understands that the main reasons for the events currently unfolding in the Middle East and neighboring regions are energy wars. Cheap natural gas can reduce Turkey’s dependence on Russia and Iran. Moreover, lower prices will lead to reducing the annual revenues of these states. So believe in Iraqi Kurdistan, under the influence of Iran’s al-Maliki opposes granting Kurds more freedom in the production and sale of oil and gas. For this reason, it is suggested in Iraqi Kurdistan, that al-Maliki, under the influence of Iran, opposes granting Kurds more freedom in the production and sale of oil and gas.

This explains the current situation in Kurdistan. Judging by what Barzani is saying, either the Kurds will be granted constitutional rights, or Kurds, with the support of Turkey, will become a separate independent state. If al-Maliki and the Iraqi Shiite government will act on the basis of this understanding, a single and strong Iraqi state can be created. Otherwise, an independent Kurdistan will be established, which will inevitably become an attractive new economic center in the region. But Saudi Arabia and the Golf States do not want this. They prefer a unified Iraq under the control of Baghdad, but a government that will not be aligned with Iran. So the struggle for the future of Iraq is reaching its heights.

Peter Lvov, Ph.of Politcal Science and a columnist for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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