13.08.2014 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iraq at the crossroads: what’s next?

5435345At first glance, it seems there’s a political lull in Iraq; however, this situation is ready to explode at any moment and lead to unpredictable consequences. On the internal situation several quite different centrifugal factors all play a role, seeking to fragment Iraqi society and create new state formations.

One of the factors that is extremely destabilizing to existing is the failure to unite by Iraqi politicians themselves, who have failed to agree to conduct a united policy. A new president was finally, with great difficulty, elected to replace Iraq’s long ailing Jalal Talabani. Since this post has been reserved for Kurds, their candidate Mohammed Fouad Massoum was elected. Sunni politician Salim Ad-Jabouri was also elected as the new speaker of the National Assembly (the parliament). If both political figures are considered to be very moderate and in a position to carry out a common policy in the interests of the entire Iraqi society, the same cannot be said of current Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who, according to the Constitution, concentrated all the levers of power into his own hands.

In spite of strong pressure from inside and outside the country, N. al-Maliki rigidly stated that he would never renounce his intentions to once again run for prime minister. According to him, to flee the battlefield in the midst of battle is to show weakness. “I vowed before God that I will continue to fight side by side with our armed forces and volunteers, until we have conquered the enemies of Iraq and its people”, – he said on central Baghdad television. Nonetheless, many blame the current prime minister for exacerbating the crisis with anti-Sunni minority policies. As is well known, in April an alliance of Shiite parties, headed by N. al-Maliki, won the parliamentary elections, and he has been prime minister since 2006.

But the most dangerous factor by far which could bring Iraq as an independent state to an end would be the unexpected successes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Capture by ISIS factions of vast territory in Iraq along the road linking the country with Turkey could threaten the country with a food crisis, the channel Al-Jаzeerа reported. Warriors now control territory along the borders of Iraq with Turkey. Analysts estimate that more than $9 billion in goods are transported by this road each year. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 80% of Iraq’s food products are imported and a large part of them are purchased in Turkey, where a 30 % drop in exports was recorded. “Food prices have increased by at least 30 %, and gasoline prices – 50 times over”, – a representative of the organization, Hilial Mohammed, told the television channel. The Mission had to suspend food distribution in four provinces captured by ISIS for security reasons, as well as lack of fuel.

At the same time, Islamic factions seek to add oilfields to the region they control. To that aim, an active militia in the north-west of Iraq is in conflict with the Kurdish militias “Peshmerga”. Recently it captured three cities (Zumar, Sinjar, Wana) and the oilfield Ayn Zalah. Seven cities are likewise under its control. Fighters have flown their black flags over government buildings – a ritual which precedes mass shootings of their captured opponents. They have a choice: join ISIS or die.

As English newspaper the Guardian notes, the warriors took control of the largest dam on the Tigris River in Mosul, previously known as Saddam Hussein. Complex hydrotechnical works on the Tigris River have fallen into the hands of extremists, along with a small town near it. Local experts estimate that if the dam breaks, half a million people’s lives are at steak. Water could even reach Baghdad, located 400 km to the south. Baghdad has blamed this on the Kurds. “Terrorist groups of the “Islamic State” seized the dam after Kurdish regiments abandoned it without a fight,” Iraqi state television reported.

ISIS’s strengths, according to many politicians, are its reliance on local resources and the fact that many oil fields and refineries are in their hands, as well as looted weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army. ISIS’s success is also largely due to many officers of Saddam Hussein’s former army and intelligence services transitioning to their side. It’s hard to say exactly who backs ISIS. Apparently, this is partly an objective phenomenon, as Iraq’s Sunnis actually remain a subdued and non-represented group. The ambitions of some Iraqi Jihadists and foreigners that are linked to them have come into play. They accuse “Al-Qaeda” of not having made visible progress for several decades, whereas they can create a state here and now without having to wait for anyone.
Another trend that could divide Iraq is the constant statements by Iraqi Kurdistan leadership of its desire to create their own state. As we know, on July 3rd 2014, President of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani made a proposal to hold a referendum on the question of separating this federal subject from Iraq. Experts have no doubt that the vast majority of representatives will support this initiative, since it coincides with national sentiment and a long-standing dream held by all Kurds of establishing their own national state. Many countries already have in one form or another commented on the Kurdish politician’s proposal. When US Secretary of State J. Kerry in Erbil, the capital Iraqi Kurdistan, held talks with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, he called for Kurds to put aside differences with Baghdad and unite against a common enemy. In response M. Barzani noted that, “we are facing a new Iraq”. In the words of the President of the Kurdish Democratic Party, Iraq is falling apart, and Kurds are not to blame.

In these circumstances, the United States, whose president ten years ago solemnly announced American victory in bringing its so-called democracy to the ancient land of Mesopotamia, have hastened to simply wash their hands and walk out of the processes taking place in Iraq. Press secretary of the Department of State Jen Psaki stated that the members of ISIS constitute “a grave threat to all Iraqis, the region and the international community”. She noted that the United States will continue to seek ways to support Kurdish forces, but the American government does not plan to deliver Kurds weapons or to send troops to Iraq. As the New York Times notes, the US is counting on the advent of the new prime minister of Iraq, who will be able to reconcile warring parties.

In the context of such a paralysis of power, an international effort is required to establish a stable situation in Iraq, which Moscow is actively supporting. Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Gennady Gatilov took the initiative to form an international forum on Iraq. As reported on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Russian Federation’s website, the deputy minister stressed that the terrorist activity of the extremist organization “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” is sweeping through Syria and Iraq, and creates real destabilization risks on a regional scale. “It is no accident that the leaders of that structure have talked about the establishment of the Islamic caliphate in the vast area of the Muslim world, affecting the territory of two countries right away. This, in turn, exposes the poignancy of the problem, as even “Al-Qaeda” has not taken on ambitious projects of this kind”, – the diplomat said.

Moscow has also actively and quickly responded to Baghdad’s official request for modern weapons to fight against Islamists. Iraq has signed contracts with the Russian Federation for the supply of arms and military equipment in the total amount of one billion dollars, the newspaper “Vedomosti” reports with reference to the sources in the military-industrial complex. The agreements were signed on July 27th 2014, during Iraqi Minister of Defense Saadoun al-Duleimi’s visit to Russia. The Agreement provided for artillery and mortar weapons, ammunition, and four heavy flame thrower TOC-1A “Solntsepek” systems. Sources from the newspaper also reported that Russia would provide two or three artillery battalions of multiple rocket launcher “Grad” systems and 152-millimeter caliber “Msta-B” howitzers. All the above mentioned arms will be partially produced by Russian enterprises, and partially delivered from the armed forces of Russia. The Iraqi authorities have stated they intend to significantly increase military-technical cooperation with Russia.

It should be noted that Russia, in response to a request from Baghdad, has significantly accelerated its realization of signed contracts with Iraq. In particular, on July 28th 2014, photos of TOC-1A installations unloading from an An-124-100 transport aircraft into Baghdad’s airport appeared on the Internet. At the end of June of this year, ten Su-30 flanker-Cs were reported to have arrived in Iraq.

It is understandable that, given the current very difficult circumstances, only the Iraqis themselves can decide their destiny and prevent the fragmentation of Iraq. In this, as the facts show, Russia, which has had very good relations with Iraq for a long time, will do all it can to help Iraqis put out the fire in their ancient land.

Viktor Mikhin, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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