Iraq: Mud-slinging in the rain

Flooding caused by several days of heavy rain brought much of Baghdad to a standstill last week. "Disruption to the electricity grid and the failure of emergency generators as a result of damage to cables underground left many businesses and individuals without power," The National reported.

With many people unable to get to work, the government's response was to declare a national holiday. It was, AFP noted, the 
fourth unscheduled holiday this year caused by bad weather – the three previous ones resulting from summer heat.

The head of Iraq's stock exchange (which was forced to close)complained: "Having the whole country stop for one day because of the floods is a grim reality of how bad the infrastructure is today."

Almost 10 years after the US-led invasion to "liberate" Iraq, infrastructure is a major problem. A $40 billion plan to update the country's infrastructure, which might have lessened the impact of last week's flooding, has been bogged down in parliament since 2009. That in turn is symptomatic of a wider political problem: Iraq's politicians seem more interested in factional wrangling than in setting the country to rights.

But even if the infrastructure plan had been approved, how much of the money would actually have gone into infrastructure is a moot point. Earlier this year, in a long and damning portrayal of Iraq's dysfunctional system, Ned Parker wrote:

"No political party or faction is immune to the lure of easy money, fed by the state's lucrative oil revenues and the lax controls on how cash is spent. The loyalty of a lawmaker, cleric, commander, or tribal leader can be bought with houses, cars, and cash. 

"A longtime Iraqi civil servant close to [prime minister] Maliki's Dawa Party explained to me how it works: political figures set up shell companies, helmed by a trusted businessperson or relative, that then bid to deliver goods or services to the government. The contracts, whether for building a sewage line or beautifying the Baghdad highway, are consistently overpriced, allowing the companies to divert revenues and assets to the foreign bank accounts of government officials."

The political situation was further complicated in mid-December when President Jalal Talabani – a Kurd who is often viewed as a calming influence – became seriously ill, reportedly after suffering a stroke. This came in the midst of a dispute over oil between the Baghdad government and the Kurdish autonomous region which is said to be costing Iraq $20 million a day.

Talabani's illness seems to have provided the cue for prime minister Nuri al-Maliki to strike against finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, a Sunni Arab in the Shia-led coalition government. Nine or more of Essawi's guards were arrested on terrorism charges.

This was reminiscent of the campaign last year against Tariq al-Hashimi, the Sunni vice-president who was accused of running death squads. Hashimi fled the country and was later tried in his absence and sentenced to death.

Though violence in Iraq is well below its peak of 29,000 civilian deaths in 2006, more than 4,000 civilians have been killed during each of the last four years, according to the Iraq Body Countwebsite. Even the head of the stock exchange (quoted above) is said to carry two revolvers wherever he goes.

In an Iraqi context, whether there is any substance in the accusations against Essawi's guards, or the earlier ones against Hashimi, is not really the point. The point is that Maliki appears to be using such charges selectively, to settle political scores.

Large-scale demonstrations followed the guards' arrest, especially in Anbar province (where Essawi hails from). 

Maliki's behaviour has become increasingly authoritarian as he seeks to amass power for himself – though how far he will succeed in that remains to be seen. "Maliki is trying to develop a personality cult," one Twitter user commented ... "Problem is, he has no personality."

Not that any of Maliki's opponents would necessarily behave differently. To quote Parker's article again:

"All of Iraq's political leaders seem to live by the maxim that no enemy can become a partner, just a temporary ally; betrayal lurks around every corner. Each politician grabs as much power as he can, and unchecked ambition, ego, and historical grudges lead them all to ignore the consequences of their behaviour for Iraq's new institutions and its society. 

"Maliki's tactics closely echo the pattern laid down by his predecessors, from Iraq's post-Ottoman monarchs to its first prime minister, Abdul Karim Kassem, to Saddam himself: put yourself first, and guard power with a ruthless security apparatus. Maliki's opponents, including his secular rival Ayad Allawi, the head of the Iraqiya Party, have given no indication they would act any differently. 

"In the last year, Maliki has chipped away at safeguards for democracy, stocking the country's Human Rights Ministry with loyalists and using the state's anticorruption offices to target political enemies. Maliki's harassment and persecution of anyone deemed a threat to himself or his party has dramatically reduced freedom throughout Iraq. Most ominously for his country, and himself, Maliki, through his bullying and nepotistic rule, threatens to cause his own undoing and push Iraq back into civil war."

As always in Iraq, there is also a sectarian dimension and Maliki has been accused of stoking religious tensions by targeting Sunni politicians. Some also see the conflict in neigbouring Syria as 
a contributory factor. A recent debate on al-Jazeera highlighted the opposing arguments but trying to pin the blame on one element or another is scarcely productive. The country is in a mess and its leaders have nothing to offer in terms of solutions.

To quote Hiwa Osman, an Iraqi Kurdish journalist who appeared in al-Jazeera's programme:

"Iraq is the fourth or the fifth most corrupt country in the world, according to Transparency International. Baghdad is still the worst city to live in in the world, according to the Mercer Index in London. These indices have nothing do with sectarianism, nothing to do with politics, it has everything to do with the performance of the government."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 December 2012.