10.06.2020 Author: Viktor Mikhin

Iraq: New Realities but Old Problems


Since the US invasion in 2003, Iraq has experienced a number of political upheavals. And to date, the nation has been unable to recover – despite Iraq’s vast crude oil reserves, the citizens’ living standards have not returned to even their basic levels. The illegitimate presence of US occupation troops continues to contribute to a noticeable destabilization of not only political but also socio-economic aspects of day-to-day life of the Iraqi community.

There are several reasons for the political crisis in Iraq. The main one is the growing discontent felt by Iraqis towards their government officials who came to power as a result of the US occupation, and who have brought nothing but extreme poverty and never ending wars to the people of Iraq. In addition, the United States and Iran have been fiercely vying for influence in this rich and important Middle Eastern country, where the situation has by no means improved thus far.

It is, therefore, not surprising that, during a 29 May videoconference meeting, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to extend the mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) until May 31, 2021.  The Council also decided “that the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UNAMI, at the request of the Government of Iraq, shall prioritize the provision of advice, support and assistance to the Government and people of Iraq on advancing inclusive, political dialogue and national and community-level reconciliation”.   It further decided to ensure advice, support and assistance are provided to “the Government with regard to several initiatives, including constitutional reviews, security sector reform and planning and executing free and fair Iraqi-led, Iraqi-owned elections”, and to also “promote, support, and facilitate, in coordination with authorities, the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and implementation of programs to improve the country’s capacity to provide effective essential civil and social services, among other things”. If one were to carefully read through the resolution, it would become quite clear that, since 2003, Iraq has not had a strong stable government despite desperate efforts made by Iraqis to change the situation.

The negative role played by the United States in all of this seems obvious. On May 20, Donald Trump once again extended the national emergency declared in Executive Order 13303 (issued by then President George W. Bush in May 2003) that protects “Iraqi oil products and interests and ownership by US persons (defined to include US corporations) from” legal attachments or liens. A statement by the White House directly states that “the obstacles to the orderly reconstruction of Iraq, the restoration and maintenance of peace and security in the country, and the development of political, administrative, and economic institutions in Iraq continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”. No additional comments about this document are necessary at this stage, as everything is crystal clear as it is…

The United States, a democratic power, established such legal and government systems in Iraq that the country has been thus far unable recover. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi’s appointment as Prime Minister-designate of Iraq appears to have won the backing of the United States, a country he has had long-term and well-developed ties with. After the invasion of Iraq by a United States-led coalition in 2003, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi “returned to Iraq to participate in the founding of the Iraqi Media Network, coinciding with his role as executive director of the Iraqi Memory Foundation”, an organization established to document the crimes of Saddam Hussain’s regime.  Starting in 2010, he was the editor-in-chief of the Iraq Newsweek magazine for 3 years. Mustafa Al-Kadhimi also worked as a columnist and editor of the Iraq section of US-based media site Al-Monitor, where he had an opportunity to shape opinions, advantageous for the United States, on Iraq. He was appointed as the head of Iraqi National Intelligence Service in June 2016 when the battle against Daesh (editor’s note – a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation) intensified.

Considering his background, it is not surprising that after Mustafa Al-Kadhimi became the new Prime Minister-designate, he met and had a long discussion with the US Ambassador to the Republic of Iraq. It is possible that he was instructed to pursue policies beneficial to Washington during the meeting. In addition, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and President Donald Trump had a telephone conversation, during which they discussed bilateral ties between Baghdad and Washington and exchanged opinions about regional issues. According to media reports, a Strategic Dialogue between high-level US and Iraqi officials is to be held in June. The talks are expected to focus on “the nature of relations between the two countries and the future of American forces” in Iraq. The US side may ask for or demand that US military instructors train Iraqi servicemen and some American forces remain in Iraq. Apparently, US officials believe that there will be fewer US troops there than at present (there are currently 5,000 American military personnel in Iraq).

Having intensified its attacks in Iraq after the Coronavirus pandemic had started, Daesh or ISIL (a terrorist organization banned in the Russian Federation) tried to use Mustafa Al-Kadhimi and even his first actions in its own interests by accusing the Prime Minister-designate of having pro-American views. An audio message, allegedly read by the current caliph of ISIL, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, called Iraq’s Prime Minister an “American agent”.

However, the terrorist group no longer poses the threat that it once did. Recently, after the formation of the new Iraqi government, the performance of the Iraqi Armed Forces in their anti-terrorism efforts has become more consistent. The Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF or Al-Ḥashd ash-Shaʿbī) have played a special role in such operations, especially once they were reorganized and new units joined their ranks. According to various estimates, there are more than 130,000 people in the PMF, which possesses a range of military equipment, including rocket artillery and tanks. Unlike armed or police forces, the popular mobilization units are ideologically motivated and anxious to fight and defend Shiite religious authorities and Shia values (not only in Iraq but in Syria). Their enemies include not only terrorists with their black banners but also Sunnis. Hence, these fighters have been quite often accused of using excessive violence against locals in Sunni-majority areas in Iraq. In the meantime, a number of Iraqi media outlets have lamented the fact that, despite verbally advocating the battle against terrorism, the United States appears to have adopted a strategy aimed at opposing the Popular Mobilization Forces.

Officially, the PMF was placed under the direct command of the Prime Minister’s office. In reality, however, the capabilities and influence of the previously established Popular Mobilization Committee exceed those of any ministry of the federal government of Iraq. Thus, the militia often relies on its own chain of command. PMF units have already been incorporated into the official army of Iraq. Hence, its fighters are eligible for all the relevant benefits, i.e. families of those who have died on battlefields receive compensation and land while injured unit members are sent for treatment abroad. Branches of the Popular Mobilization Forces are present throughout southern regions of Iraq, where its units are responsible for various zones and territories; training camps and education centers have been established, and shops for repairing military equipment have been opened.

It is worth noting that Russia has been actively providing arms to Iraq and aiding the nation with its political initiatives aimed at fighting Daesh. In view of such assistance and the friendly ties that Moscow has enjoyed with Baghdad for many decades, on May 14, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi stated that Iraq took “pride in close relations with Russia” and sought “to strengthen them in political, economic, cultural fields and in the field of security”. He also relayed an invitation for the Russian President to visit Baghdad.

It is quite clear that both Iraq and its new Prime Minister-designate face fairly tough challenges ahead, which Mustafa Al-Kadhimi will have to deal with in the nearest future. According to Hisham al-Hashimi, a famous Iraqi historian and researcher, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi faces “no easy task in getting the country back on its feet again”. “I don’t doubt his ability on the technical issues such as forming equitable laws and a fair commission,” he told broadcaster Al Jazeera.   “He will succeed in preparing for early elections, but the timing is not on his side due to the dire economic conditions and the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic,” Hisham al-Hashimi added.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook” .

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