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Iraq: One Year After Withdrawal

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi 

One year after the completion of the pullout of American troops from Iraq, what are the main issues affecting the country today?

Russian Arms Scandal and Corruption: On October 9, Iraq announced the signing of a $4.2 billion arms contract with Russia. Commentators took this deal to be a sign of waning U.S. influence in Iraq since the deal — had it gone through — would have drastically reduced Iraqi dependence on American arms supplies.

Thus, when it was announced on November 10 that the deal was scrapped over concerns of corruption, these same commentators (e.g. Michael Weiss) surmised that the cancellation must have somehow been due to U.S. pressure.

This sentiment was fueled by the BBC’s quoting of a Russian analyst — Igor Korotchenko — at the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade. For he speculated: “As far as talk about corruption is concerned, I think it’s a smokescreen. I believe this is just a pretext and the true reason is Washington applying pressure on Baghdad.”

Moreover, the assumption made by commentators of U.S. influence at work here reflects the excessive tendency to view affairs in Iraq through the eyes of a “Great Game” between foreign powers (cf. the question of Iranian influence in Iraq).

However, as I said on Twitter from the beginning about this matter, such speculation from a Russian pundit is only to be expected in a country where anti-American discourse and conspiracy theories are rife, with a tendency to see a hidden American hand behind any development that negatively affects Russia. Indeed, a spokesperson for Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quickly made it clear to Russian news agency RIA Novosti that the cancellation of the deal was not due to U.S. pressure. While pundits argued that a shift away from dependence on U.S. arms supplies signified a decline in U.S. influence, it is notable that no one actually quoted an American official expressing concern about the arms deal with Russia back in October, contrasting with the U.S. government’s publicly urging Iraq not to allow arms shipments from Iran to Syria to pass through Iraqi territory. Iraq has in fact been buying weapons from Russia for years, and the Americans have never once voiced objections.

The reality is that the fallout over the arms deal does reflect concerns over corruption, and as ever, the nature of personal rivalries in Iraqi politics has come to light, indicating the flaws in a solely sectarian-based paradigm of analysis that views the main ethno-religious groups as only or primarily acting on collective group-based perceptions of interest.

In the case of this fallout over the Russian arms deal, the deep tension between the Iraqi premier and the Sadrists has once again come to the forefront, following on from the talk on multiple occasions in the spring and summer from the leader of the Sadrists — the anti-American Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr — of ousting Maliki in a no-confidence vote.

Now, at the center of the tension between Maliki and the Sadrists — who are supposed to be allies in a coalition government — are accusations from the latter that Maliki’s son Ahmad has personally profited from the arms scandal. Maliki’s spokesperson Ali al-Dabbagh was also accused of being partly responsible for the arms deal scandal, and while he denied any wrongdoing, he nonetheless resigned his position at the end of November.

Sadr had been against the Russian arms deal from the beginning, describing it as a “waste of Iraqi public funds,” and has most recently claimed that the arms deal was not about purchasing arms for Iraq at all but rather for unspecified foreign agents, prompting a sharp rebuke from Maliki and in turn triggering Sadrist protests in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala against the premier.

Corruption remains an endemic problem at all levels of society in Iraq, but the prevalence of the phenomenon does not mean that corruption allegations are never taken seriously.

Similar uproars have arisen over corruption scandals in the Ministry of Electricity, which is still proving inadequate to the task of meeting the large upsurge in demand since 2003 as a result of the increase in the availability of consumer goods. The situation as regards electricity — in which Baghdad is not even meeting 50% of demand — notably contrasts with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north of Iraq that is now able to meet the electricity demands of the vast majority of its population.

Expect the fallout over the Russian arms scandal to continue into next year, as the Sadrists are clearly attempting to exploit it to give themselves an image of vox populi and maximize electoral potential in the upcoming provincial elections in 2013. Ultimately, Sadr’s goal is to lead the Shi’ite community in Iraq, and not, as some have speculated, simply function as Iran’s mouthpiece and serve Iranian interests in the country.

Maliki and Authoritarianism: There have long been allegations of autocratic tendencies on the part of the Prime Minister, both as regards monopolization of power over institutions and cracking down on voices critical of the government.

The most recent case that can be interpreted as a unilateral power grab is the issuing of an arrest warrant against Sinan Shabibi, who was head of Iraq’s Central Bank: a move that was criticized by all of Iraq’s political factions, including Maliki’s Shi’ite allies in the coalition government (i.e. the Sadrists and the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq).

(Read the rest here)