Iraq slides further towards civil war

Submitted by Anon on 29 January, 2006 - 11:00

by Martin Thomas

According to one American journalist in Baghdad, writing to US academic Juan Cole, “The current security situation here has gotten much worse since the elections... Shiite death squads roam the city at night (in police and army uniform no less) dragging all the male members of a Sunni family out into the street and executing them in front of their women folk. Sunni insurgents (not in uniform) do the same to Shiite families in areas claimed as theirs”.

Official results from the 15 December election were announced on 20 January. As in the 30 January 2005 elections, the great majority voted on communal lines — Shias for the Shia-Islamist United Iraqi Alliance, Kurds for the Kurdish alliance, etc.

Although, by all accounts, most people are dissatisfied with the Shia-Islamist/ Kurdish coalition government in office since May, they stuck with their communal parties. The USA had heavily backed the “Iraqi National List” of former Ba’thist, CIA ally, and 2004-5 interim prime minister Iyad Allawi. It did very badly, winning 25 seats compared with its 40 in the January 2005 elections. Another one-time US favourite, Ahmed Chalabi, who ran on the Shia-Islamist list in January, had his own independent list this time and failed to win a single seat.

In December, Iraq’s Sunni Arabs voted in large numbers, whereas in January the Sunni-supremacist “resistance” groups threatened to kill anyone who voted, and few did. That voting was, as far it went, a hopeful sign for the emergence of a workable political system in Iraq. But events since 15 December point the opposite way.

Immediately after the 15 December polls the Sunni parties staged street protests to claim that the voting had been rigged. Violence from the “resistance” has increased, not decreased.

An official report on 2 January from the US Agency for International Development says that “Baghdad is divided into zones controlled by organised criminal groups/ clans”.

If southern cities are quieter, that is because, as US AID reports, “social liberties have been curtailed dramatically by roving bands of self-appointed religious-moral police... Women’s dress codes are enforced, barbers who remove facial hair have been killed, and liquor stores and clubs have been bombed”.

The economic situation is worsening, too. In a cold winter, Baghdad is down to six hours of electricity a day. Oil exports in December 2005 were the lowest since April 2003, and since then a big refinery in northern Iraq has been put out of action by “resistance” activity.

On 15 January, Amec, the biggest British firm to win contracts in the US-organised “reconstruction” of Iraq, stated soberly that much of their recent work had been just repairing damage from “resistance” attacks, and they thought that further “resistance” activity over coming months could well wipe out what little actual “reconstruction” has so far been achieved.

The USA has now, paradoxically, become the foremost political advocate for conciliating the “resistance”, or at least sections of it or parties with some links to it. The USA managed to get the new Iraqi constitution approved in the referendum last November by pressuring the Shia-Islamists and Kurds to promise that the new assembly, just elected, would consider amendments.

Now the USA wants the Shia-Islamists and Kurds to bring lots of Sunni Arab representatives into a new coalition government (including in key posts), to try to conciliate the softer sections of the “resistance”, and to come good on the promise of amendments to the constitution.

Sunni Islamists grouped around the Iraq Islamic Party (Iraqi offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) won 44 seats in the 15 December elections, and more secular Sunnis (basically, ex-Ba’thists) another 11.

This political drive is part of a three-pronged new US strategy. The USA is also pulling its troops off the streets — it has already formally and officially withdrawn from Najaf and some other cities — and relying more on bombing from the air. Despite the general increase in violence, the USA has managed to cut deaths of US soldiers to an average of 1.92 a day since 15 December compared to 2.42 a day over the time from June 2004 to December 2005.

The USA has also approached the Egyptian government to put troops into Iraq. The idea, presumably, is that Egypt could provide a force which would be both Sunni Arab — and therefore less inflammatory to Arab-nationalist sentiment in Iraq — and as ruthless against the “resistance” as Egypt’s government is against Islamist opposition in its own country.

Whether it is workable is another matter. Both the Egyptian government, worried by discontent at home, and the Shia-Islamist-dominated government of Iraq, would have to agree. That the idea is even being floated reads like a sign that the USA is getting desperate.

The Shia Islamists, after their victory in the 15 December elections, have been openly defying the USA’s call for conciliation of the Sunni minority. They have offered Sunnis only as many places in the new government as they had in the old one, and not key jobs. Leaders of SCIRI, one of the main factions in the Shia alliance, have stated that they see no grounds for amending the constitution, and want to press ahead quickly with creating an autonomous region in the south, as the constitution permits. Such moves alarm Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, because they point towards an Iraq where most of the oil revenue is held by autonomous regions in the Kurdish north and the Shia south, and the Sunni Arabs are left with an impoverished and landlocked region in the middle.

The Shia alliance won 128 seats, and four members of parliament from smaller parties have said they will vote with it, giving it 132 votes, just short of a majority in the 275-seat assembly. Together with the Kurdish Alliance (53 seats), and Kurdish Islamists likely to vote with them (five seats), the Shia alliance can command 190 seats, more than a two-thirds majority.

However, negotiations over forming a new government could well last as long (three months) as they did after the 30 January poll. Both SCIRI and its main rival in the alliance, the Dawa party, want the prime minister’s job, currently held by Ibrahim Jaafari of Dawa.

The third main element in the Shia alliance, Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army movement, backs Dawa and Jaafari, while the Kurds back Adel Abdel-Mehdi of SCIRI. This may seem paradoxical, since Dawa is more moderately Islamist than SCIRI, Sadr is ultra-Islamist, and the Kurds are secularist.

But the big dividing issue is the SCIRI-backed project of forming an autonomous region in the south. The Kurds tend to favour it, because their main concern is Kurdish autonomy, and so a weak central government is better for them. Sadr’s movement, mainly based among the Shia population in Baghdad, is against it.

Iraq’s trade unions — the Communist Party influenced Iraqi Workers’ Federation, the Worker-Communist-led Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions of Iraq, the mainly-Shia Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions, and the Kurdish unions — have recently put out a joint statement protesting at the transitional government’s deal with the IMF, under which the government has already started to raise petrol prices and may try to abolish food rations. But at present the unions remain very much on the defensive. They need all the support we can give them.

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