Drama On Iraq’s Councils After Provincial Elections Are Cancelled Again

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In the weeks before the end of the year, Iraq’s provincial councillors saw plenty of drama. There were attempted dismissals of various governors, actual dismissals and political coups and in-fighting among state-level politicians.

In mid-December, a new governor was chosen for Baghdad by councillors representing parties at federal level. But then other councillors, representing opposition parties at federal level, chose a completely different new governor. Members of two groups – the Sairoun alliance led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the National Wisdom party, led by another cleric, Ammar al-Hakim – chose the first new governor. Then, provincial councillors from the parties that oppose those two groups stepped in and selected another candidate from their own ranks instead.

Sairoun alliance: We refuse to allow the current provincial councils to carry on working.

At this stage, the Iraqi president, Barham Saleh, intervened, refusing to ratify either candidate and referring the matter to the courts.

A similar situation arose in Basra where provincial council members who tried to elect a new governor were prevented from doing so by protestors outside the council buildings, who supported the sitting governor. The involvement of security staff meant that a vote could not be held. And in Najaf, the sitting governor there was also dismissed. More firings are expected in other Iraqi provinces too.

Why the drama? Because the country has not held provincial elections since 2013 and in many areas, the current provincial council does not reflect the contemporary political realities brought about by federal elections last year.

By rights, provincial elections to select local councillors should have been held in 2017. However the ongoing security crisis and the fight against the extremist group known as the Islamic State meant this was impossible. The federal government then decided to combine provincial elections with federal ones, to be held in May 2018, but again failed to do this.

 

Fiddling with the councils: The alliance, of which Ammar al-Hakim (third from right) is part of.

 

The next date for the provincial elections was supposed to be December 22, 2018, but yet again the federal government – this time the new one headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi – decided not to hold them. A new date was not set and election authorities say it will be too difficult to hold provincial elections in 2019.

The Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, has not been working properly for the past few months because, ever since the May 2018 federal elections, there have been all sorts of other concerns, explains Hazem al-Rudaini, a member of IHEC. “The debate about the integrity of the federal elections, the various appeals and the recounts overseen by a judicial authority,” al-Rudaini listed the reasons. “All of this has impacted on the Commission’s work and makes it impossible to hold the provincial elections anytime in the coming six months at least.”

Amendments to the laws and rules around provincial elections are being discussed by IHEC and relevant federal authorities and politicians, al-Rudaini said, but “all that will take time”.

In fact, senior members of IHEC have been summoned to parliament to discuss this issue because some of the provincial appointments are now unconstitutional – for example, a governor cannot be a sitting MP at the same time yet some are. Additionally, the provincial councils hardly reflect the outcome of the federal elections, which saw the al-Sadr-backed Sairoun alliance win the most votes. In fact, that is part of what has caused the recent problems: The winning political parties are forcing through new alliances at provincial level, that allow them to remove the sitting governors who belong to other now-less-popular parties.

“We refuse to allow the current provincial councils to carry on working,” Rami al-Sukaini, an MP for the Sairoun alliance, told NIQASH. “There are proposals now that allow them to keep working for the next six months, and others to remove them and give parliament the power of supervise provincial councils, until provincial elections can be held.”


source: Niqash

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Iraqi Kurdistan Heading For First Secular Government In A Decade

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, every iteration of the local government here has always included one of the local Islamist parties. But that could be about to change, as the new government slowly forms in the semi-autonomous northern region.

The political party that won the most seats here in last year’s election, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, appears to have decided that it does not want to repeat the experience of a so-called broad-based government. That is one where all of the parties are represented in the government in order to prevent tensions between them; it is also sometimes called a national unity government.

Currently the KDP are holding talks with two other major parties in the Iraqi Kurdish region – the Change movement and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK – to form a government. They seem to be ignoring the Islamic parties, which tend to be the fourth and smallest force in local politics here.

One or other of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamic parties have been a part of every Iraqi Kurdish government since 2005.

There are a  number of conditions that the KDP wants the Islamic parties to fulfil before it allows them into government. The most important one is that the Islamic parties support the KDP decisively and that they not behave as though they have one foot in the government and the other foot in the opposition. In return, the Islamic parties want a number of positions for its members and changes to administrative methods.

“We will not repeat the experience of the eighth cabinet here,” confirmed Fadhil Basharati, a senior member of the KDP. In that last broad-based government, various parties ended up being expelled at different times: First the Change movement and then later the Islamic parties. The KDP accused both of these groups of still acting like they were in opposition even though they were allegedly in power.

“Political parties will participate in this government according to their size and popularity,” Basharati explained. “The Islamic parties got fewer votes and the number of seats they have has decreased so it’s natural that they’re not part of the government.”

The KDP has not yet officially informed the Islamic parties that they won’t be part of the next Iraqi Kurdish government. A senior member of the group of Islamic parties confirmed this to NIQASH. “We see what their intentions are but they have yet to tell us,” the source noted.

One or other of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamic parties – often referred to as the Islamic group and consisting of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan – have been a part of every Iraqi Kurdish government since 2005. Although the motivation for excluding the Islamic parties from the next Iraqi Kurdish government is clearly political – the KDP does not like the oppositional positions that the Islamic parties, who often spoke out about the KDP’s tactics, take – it would also mean that the next government will be completely secular.

“A government without the Islamists will lead to an imbalance,” argues Bilal Suleiman, a leading member of the Islamic Group of Kurdistan. Even though, he adds, the previous governments were actually also secular in all but name because the Islamic parties inside the broad-based governments didn’t really have a lot of power.

In fact, the Islamic parties may well have more of a voice if they remain in opposition – because for the first time, none of the three parties will be involved in the government. They would all be in opposition so they could ostensibly lean on an older societal division: The religious society versus the secular. This kind of thing makes the larger and outwardly more secular parties nervous because, despite some appearances, Iraqi Kurdish culture remains heavily influenced by religious mores.  

Still, it is hard to know whether the Islamic parties would be able to unite enough to make a difference. The three parties have held a number of meetings over the past few years in an attempt to form a more united Islamic front in the region but mostly these attempts have come to nothing.

“If the Islamic parties go into opposition, that will be a good opportunity to revive those plans,” Qassim Kalali, a senior member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, told NIQASH.

That seems unlikely though, says Mohammad Baziani, the director of the Al Huda Centre for Strategic Studies, because there is an “intellectual conflict between the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan, over who is supposed to be in charge.”

“The problem is not whether these parties are in power or not in power,”  Baziani continued. “The problem is that they cannot come together and they see everything in a partisan way. They need rapprochement and without it, they won’t succeed, whether inside or outside the government.”


source: Niqash

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How To Get A Loan In Baghdad – At 30% Interest, Repaid In 3 Months

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To get a loan from a bank in Iraq is difficult for many, not least because in order to be approved for one, often the borrower must bring along somebody who is employed by the government to guarantee them. In Iraq, a government-paid position is seen as the most stable kind of job you can get. It means you will get paid regularly and that eventually you’re in line for a pension.

The guarantee given by a state employee is needed for a personal loan, no matter how big the sum. And most banks want the state employee’s salary to be twice the monthly repayments for the loan. Additionally a state employee can only guarantee one bank loan at a time.

All of this makes getting a loan from a local bank difficult for anyone who is not a state employee, particularly for low-income Iraqi families. This is why they will often turn to money lenders who work unofficially.

Haji requires that those senior community members agree to repay him if the borrower defaults on the loan.

One of these kinds of lending offices advertises on the wall of a kindergarten in the Al Dawoodi neighbourhood in the Mansour area, in Baghdad. The advertising targets shop owners and says the office can provide loans of US$1,000 to US$5,000. The terms are strict: The loans need to be paid back within around three and a half months, the borrower needs to make daily repayments and the arrangement would end with the lender getting a 33 percent return on the initial sum.   

That is a high return for a relatively modest sum, like US$1,000, under especially tough conditions. Although the interest rates are high and conditions tough, many low-income Iraqis don’t have any other option. “It’s an important service because then you can get a loan without having to bring a government employee to a bank,” says Ali al-Rubaie, a Baghdad local who has loaned money before in this manner. “If I had a guarantor, I would have borrowed far more money though – to buy a car or an apartment,” he adds.

Upon calling the lending office to enquire as to how their procedures were managed, the staff refused to give NIQASH any further information, or deny or confirm if the office was licensed in any way.

However a former borrower divulged conditions they had been able to get a loan under. The applicant must submit a letter asking for a loan and the office then tries to ascertain whether the applicant would be capable of repaying the cash, including looking into guarantors or assessing any property they owned and their business. In the case of the store owners this lender targets, the office looked at the business which, one imagines, gives them some sort of guarantee to begin with. If the application for a loan was accepted, the borrower had to sign a promissory note to receive the funds.  

In another nearby neighbourhood, locals talk about a resident called Haji, who lends money on similar terms. They say Haji has been known to loan as much as US$20,000. And Haji – nobody we spoke with knew his full name – apparently decides whether a loan can be guaranteed by making enquiries with the community leaders, or tribal elders, in the applicant’s neighbourhood. He also requires that those senior community members agree to repay him if the borrower defaults on the loan.

From a legal point of view, there is nothing stopping anybody loaning money to any other Iraqi, says legal expert, Ali al-Tamimi. There are no legal restrictions on individual lenders, as opposed to institutions, unless there is fraud committed or contractual violations. Only at this point, would the courts get involved, al-Tamimi explains. So it’s all perfectly legal, despite the injustice of the high interest and short repayment times.  

Iraqi banks know that it is hard for Iraqis to borrow money. In fact a lot of Iraqis still don’t have bank accounts and in general, the banking sector remains undeveloped. This is starting to change though, as local banks begin giving personal loans rather than just working on trade deals and with larger institutions and the government.  

Banks are beginning to think about how they could extend credit more easily to ordinary citizens, agrees Faisal al-Haimus, the chairman of the Trade Bank of Iraq, first set up by the US authorities after 2003 to facilitate trade. “The bank is currently considering extending loans to people other than government employees,” he told NIQASH.

Lack of credit makes it difficult to bankroll property development and vehicle sales and also deprives banks of potential interest earned.

“Our company has proposed to the Iraqi central bank and other Iraqi banks that they cancel this condition – where the borrower has to bring a state employee – because it is impacting negatively on Iraqis’ ability to buy our cars,” says  Sabah al-Janabi, the public relations manager for Land Rover and Jaguar cars in Iraq. “They were actually quite open to our suggestions and we expect things to change in the future.”


source: Niqash

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Echoes of Extremist ‘Morality Police’ In Northern Iraq University

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“I don’t want a scandal,” Samir’s female companion told him as the university security staff arrived. The two students at the University of Mosul, in northern Iraq, were sitting side by side talking in one of the gardens on the university grounds. The security men wanted to know why they – male and female – were sitting next to one another in such a ”provocative” manner.

Samir ended up arguing loudly with the men and wanted to fight them. Eventually the men took the pair’s student IDs and marched them to the campus security office, where they were questioned further.

Afterwards Samir posted messages about the incident on Iraqi social media and was surprised to be joined by dozens of other students, who all had similar tales to tell. Many of them likened the incidents to being harassed by the Hisbah, the ”morality police” belonging to the Islamic State, the extremist group that had controlled the city between 2014 and 2017.

An appeal to parents. Visit your daughters in their colleges and universities! You will be shocked.

The hisbah used to punish women who left their homes without veiling their faces and a male guardian, as well as men who shaved their beards or smoked. They also prevented the genders from mixing.

When the Islamic State, or IS, group was eventually expelled from the city, a lot of the local youth, aghast at the way religion had been used to curtail freedoms, began to demand more personal liberty. But there are still plenty of staunchly religious people in the city and they warned about the trend toward atheism, seeing it as an attack on Islam as well as the local culture and social traditions.

Life has returned to the University of Mosul and already over 30,000 students from all over Iraq and from various different ethnic and religious groups attend lectures here again. It is one of Iraq’s most important educational institutions and religious and political leaders have always tried to influence what happens here.

In less than 24 hours, it was possible for NIQASH to collect nine stories similar to Samir’s.

”I was sitting with my girlfriend in the faculty of education when a security man asked to see my ID,” a graduate student told NIQASH. ”He took me aside to tell me that somebody told him I’d been sitting here for two hours, with a woman, laughing loudly. He asked me to go to the administration offices with him. I refused and told him that he was meant to maintain security not track down vice and uphold virtue. I asked him to prove that I was doing anything wrong and he told me he could not because he had only been told about it, but had not seen it with his own eyes.”

”I was sitting with my husband and holding his hand when the security staff descended upon us,” says Hanan. ”They asked to see our IDs and we told them we were married. But this was not enough for them. They demanded to see a copy of the marriage certificate. My husband thought this was ridiculous and got into a quarrel with them, that almost ended in a  fight. When he eventually left the campus, he was in a really bad mood. As I said goodbye to him, I told him we would keep the romance inside our home from now on.”

There has also been some concern about the clothing that students wear. One university employee related plans for a committee at the university called the Make-Up Committee, whose job it would be to rebuke female students whose clothing was too tight or too short, or who wore too much make-up.

The head of the university did not grant an interview but another senior staffer on the campus, who was not authorised to make official statements, confirmed that there are no university rules about genders socialising, as long as the practice did not violate public standards of morality (which are fairly strict compared to European tertiary institutes). If the security staffers were patrolling for this, it was because they were driven by personal concerns, the employee said.

”Their work is to stop any fights or quarrels on campus and to prevent non-students or unauthorised people from entering,” the employee explained.

 The episode would be construed as an illicit affair by conservative parents.

Most of the students who had knowledge of the morality policing said they believed that it began around two months ago, at the beginning of the term. Rumour has it that security staff stopped a male and female student sitting together outside the College of Pharmacy on campus and asked the girl for her ID, then summoned her for further questioning.

Not all of the students or staff NIQASH spoke with had personal experience of the morality policing. Many said they had only heard about it on Facebook. One professor at the Faculty of Arts said he had seen some male students harassing some female students but that he had never heard any complaints about the security staff.

However the head of another university department recently wrote a message on his personal Facebook page that perhaps indicates the depth of divisions on campus.

”An appeal to parents,” he wrote. “Visit your daughters in their colleges and universities! You will be shocked. There are shameful relations, male and female students touch one another, there is laughter and disrespect. Female students wear cosmetics while they’re in class and then take it off when they leave for home. Graduation ceremonies and field trips are a disgrace.”

He finished his post with religious verses and a final observation: ”There is a decline in public morals and if you saw what was happening you would not believe it.”

As for Samir and his companion on that day, they ended up arguing with the security staff inside their offices. ”I told them that we were just friends, we were just talking and that we were sitting together in a public space: What was so wrong with that?”

The staff began shouting at the pair and refused to give back their student IDs. They then threatened to bring the young woman’s family to the university and tell them “what was going on”.

“I turned and saw my friend start crying out of fear,” Samir continued. The episode would be construed as an illicit affair by conservative parents, the way the security men were telling it, and Samir’s friend was worried that her parents might prevent her from going to university. Despite growing freedoms in places like universities, there is no doubt that many Iraqi parents are still religious and conservative, especially when it comes to genders mixing in public.

Luckily at that stage, Samir and his companion’s ordeal came to an end. One of the other staff members saw the situation was getting out of hand and returned the ID cards to the students. “Still, ever since that day, we have not met on campus again – now we’re too worried about the security guys,” Samir notes.

 


source: Niqash

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In Northern Iraq, Raising The Kurdish Flag Brings Military Response

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Every year, locals in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan celebrate Flag Day. It’s a day during which members of the Kurdish ethnic group celebrate their aspirations to nationhood and their feelings of unity toward other Kurds living in Syria, Iran and Turkey; the Kurdish remain one of the largest ethnic groups in the world without their own country and are spread throughout those nations and Iraq.

The commemoration was established by the Iraqi Kurdish parliament around nine years ago and every year since then, schools, universities, government buildings and many others celebrate with assorted ceremonies on Flag Day, December 17, while individuals show their pride by posting the flag all over social media.

This year there was one city where celebrating the Kurdish flag wasn’t particularly easy or pleasant though. The northern city of Kirkuk has been considered an Iraqi flashpoint for years because of the wide mix of ethnic and sectarian groups living there. The Kurdish have claimed the city for years and in many ways, were de-facto in charge. But 2017’s ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence saw the city return to the control of the Iraqi federal government.

We will continue to consider that Kirkuk is under military rule … until the flag of Kurdistan flies in Kirkuk again.

Usually in Kirkuk, various Kurdish groups and parties come together to decide how Flag Day will be celebrated in mid-December. That meeting didn’t take place this year. What did happen was that the Kurdistan Communist Party raised the Kurdish flag over its own headquarters.

“After we raised the flag we were warned more than once by the Iraqi counter-terrorism forces that we should remove it,” says  Bakhtiar Mohammed, a senior member of the Communist Party. “But we decided not to do so. So they came here and removed it for us.”

Other Kurdish politicians in the area appeared to be both annoyed by the Communists’ move and slightly envious.

“If the party was aiming to try and normalize the relations [between the Kurds and the Arabs] in Kirkuk, they should be aware we have far bigger problems than a flag,” one official from the largest political party in this area, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, told NIQASH.

“There are other things happening in Kirkuk that are far more important than the flag raising,” added Rawand Mulla Mahmoud, deputy head of the PUK in Kirkuk. “There is the ongoing Arab-ization of Kirkuk as well as not choosing a Kurdish person as governor. We need to come together to find solutions to these things in Kirkuk,” he argued. 

For example, Rakan Saeed al-Jibouri, the acting governor of Kirkuk and an Arab politician, recently agreed to give agricultural land to over 50 Arab families. The decision is controversial because some see the land as belonging to Kurdish locals. After an intervention by the country’s new president, Iraqi Kurdish politician Barham Salih, Iraq’s highest court ruled that the Kirkuk governor had not acted appropriately and that any issues over the property needed to be resolved in other ways.

 

Kurdish flags produly displayed in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

 

The idea of Arab-ization – that is, changing the demographic makeup of the area so that one ethnicity dominates it was something that former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein was well known for. He tried to push Kurds out of areas where they had previously been dominant and this is one of the issues at the heart of the battle for supremacy in Kirkuk: The Kurds say they were here first, while the Arabs say Kirkuk belongs to Iraq. The issue is supposed to be resolved constitutionally with a census and an eventual referendum. In reality, all this has done so far is to have the opposing sides try to get more voters living in the disputed area, so that when it eventually does come to a vote or a headcount, superior numbers will win.

The PUK says it intends to organize protests about the new governor’s behaviour.

Kurdish flag-raising has been a problem in Kirkuk before. In March 2017, the former Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, Najmuddin Karim, caused controversy when, with the support of most council members, he decided to raise the flag over all state institutions here. Whether he had a right to do so was eventually also debated in Iraq’s highest court. Even after the court decided that he did not, local politicians refused to obey the court order because, they complained, it was politically motivated. Even after the independence referendum upset the situation in Kirkuk, a Kurdish flag was raised over PUK headquarters in February 2018. It was removed after just a few hours.

“Raising the Kurdish flag is illegal and Kurdish parties should abide by the decision of the courts in Baghdad,” says Mohammed Khader, an Arab politician in the provincial government.

For many Kurdish locals, the whole issue of the flag and Kurdish control of Kirkuk is also linked to the absence of Iraqi Kurdistan’s other large political party. Of around 33 senior officials belonging to the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, only one has returned to their job in Kirkuk since the conflict and clashes here in 2017. That is the head of a Kurdish section at the provincial department of education. All of the other senior jobs formerly held by members of the KDP are being done by Arab or Turkman locals.

The KDP has been staunch about its insistence that Kirkuk is “occupied”. 

“The KDP will return to Kirkuk when the Kurdish flag does,” says Fatih Bek, a ranking KDP party member for Kirkuk. “That is why no [KDP] official has returned to Kirkuk as yet. We will continue to consider that Kirkuk is under military rule and that there is a process of Arab-ization going on, until the flag of Kurdistan flies in Kirkuk again, the way it used to fly there before October 2017.”

    


source: Niqash

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As Security Forces Multiply In Anbar, So Does Danger

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Not that long ago, the central Iraqi province of Anbar was known as one of the most dangerous parts of the country, mostly because of the presence of Sunni Muslim extremist groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, and then later the Islamic State group. Bombings and assassinations were an almost daily occurrence.

After the extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS, was finally pushed out of the province in late 2017, things have been far more stable and secure.

The situation may suggest stability but in fact Anbar’s security is teetering on the edge of the abyss.

“Anbar has been transformed into a military barracks, as a result of the complex security measures,” Tariq Yusef al-Asal, one of the leaders of Anbar’s tribal militias that had been fighting the Islamic State, told NIQASH. “This has confiscated citizens’ freedoms and restricted movement, in return for a secure life in a giant prison.”

Al-Asal believes there are an excessive amount of security forces in the province now, with peace imposed by force. “But it’s a false sort of security,” he adds. “We only have power inside the cities, The desert is still a safe haven for armed groups.”

The militia commander believes that part of the problem has to do with the many different kinds of security forces operating in the province. There are five and there is no central command, he explains. “Each of the groups thinks that it is the strongest and it is the one that should make all the decisions in the areas it controls.”

The five main forces include several Iraqi army-associated command groups – the Anbar, Jazeera, Badiya and East Anbar Commands. Then there’s the police and the border forces as well as various intelligence departments. There are also the various militias, which include the tribal groups, all formed more recently to fight the IS group here.

 

Iraqi army troops in Anbar.

 

The different groups have different roles – for example, the border patrol is supposed to ensure that extremists don’t get back into the country, via Anbar’s vast deserts, while most of the other forces are stationed in Anbar’s cities.

There are also US troops stationed in Anbar, an estimated 9,000 of them in four different bases. They play an important role here but it’s not often made very public due to antipathy towards the US that lingers in Anbar. For example, when the US announce their intentions to set up a new base near the Iraqi-Syrian border and the city of Qaim, local security leaders complained loudly.

Anbar politicians don’t have the authority to prevent US-led forces from setting up bases here as this is a federal matter. The provincial council has also complained about the establishment of such bases in the province without their approval.

As a result of all of the above though, there is no single military commander that has oversight. Even the local government has to work out who to speak to.

“Anbar provincial authorities don’t have the authority to make any security decisions, until after we have put it in writing to the general command of the Iraqi armed forces,” Ali Farhan, Anbar’s governor, told NIQASH. “When that’s been done, measures are implemented – but only according to those prior approvals.”

“All this security chaos has the potential for disaster, one that could take us backwards,” warns Amjad Hamid, an officer who works in the Anbar Operations Command – he used a false name because he was not allowed to speak on the record. “Especially if the different commands don’t somehow unite and share their plans, with one command taking the ultimate responsibility.”

“The situation may suggest stability but in fact Anbar’s security is teetering on the edge of the abyss,” argues Abdul Karim Khudair, a retired army officer who lives in Fallujah. “Lack of coordination and a central leadership have created a number of loopholes that could be used by armed groups to redeploy, particularly in areas where different  responsibilities intersect.”

Those holes at the intersections need to be filled, Khudair suggests, especially in the Jazeera and Badiya Commands’ territory, because those forces control an important and vital part of the province.

 

Members of Shiite Muslim militias in Anbar.


source: Niqash

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Basra’s Ongoing Protests Shift Loyalties, Confuse – And Have The Potential To Change Everything

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The process to install new governors in Basra and Baghdad is proving almost as chaotic as the formation of the federal government. In Basra last weekend, the process also become confusingly entangled with ongoing anti-government protests.

The current governor of the province of Basra, Asaad al-Eidani, was elected as an MP to the parliament in Baghdad. This means that it would be unconstitutional for him to retain his job as governor – however he has yet to officially give up the post. This is why, last week, around two-thirds of the province’s council members made their way to the council offices to elect a new governor.

As the council members arrived, they found dozens of protestors outside who wished to prevent the meeting. The councillors made it inside but were unable to come to any kind of conclusion as to who the new governor should be. When they eventually left the building again, they found many more demonstrators outside.

The protests were the result of an organic and unexpected alliance between three different parts of Basra society. 

The sitting governor, al-Eidani, claimed that the demonstrators were all there to support him. But, as one of the activists involved, Mohammed al-Hajaj, explains, this simply isn’t true. It was only the first batch of protestors who were there for the governor. The later demonstrators, which were much larger were there for the usual reasons.

“We are against the governor and the provincial council too,” al-Hajaj told NIQASH. “They are all responsible for the failures in this city and the bad conditions. But now because of the success of last summer’s protests and the politicians’ fear of these protests, they have started to use the protests for their own ends. But we will not let this happen.”

Just a few weeks earlier, the same politicians who now appeared to support the protests or want to be associated with them, were firmly opposed to them. Since the protests began, many of the organizing participants and activists have been arrested. Still, the local politicians don’t want to see a repeat of the chaos the city experienced earlier in the year and appear to believe that if they align themselves with the protestors, they may be able to hinder this.

The protests in Basra first began this summer, as locals in southern provinces had to simultaneously deal with a ack of state services, drought and contaminated water that poisoned hundreds as well as electricity shortages and blackouts. At one stage, it was almost as if the city of Basra had been taken over by the protestors. Demonstrators were so angry they set fire to various party headquarters, regardless of who they were affiliated with. The population in southern Iraq is mostly Shiite Muslim and some segments are close to the neighbouring Iranian government. But the demonstrators also vented their anger on the headquarters of parties considered close to Iran. No quarter was given, all officials were seen as culpable.

This came as a surprise to some observers because as a city, Basra had always been politically closer to Iran and a stronghold of the armed militias who pledge allegiance to Iran. Many of the fighters in those militias came from these parts of Iraq. The protests also spread to other parts of southern Iraq and that level of dissatisfaction has continued to this day. 

 

 

How did this come about? The protests were the result of an organic and unexpected alliance between three different parts of Basra society. Firstly, they involved lower-income locals, who tend to identify themselves first and foremost as members of the larger tribes and clans in the area. A lot of these families live from agriculture and the water shortage had an extreme impact on them. For the first time, some Basra tribespeople decided to move to other areas where there was more water. This resulted in fighting between them and the tribes already in those areas. 

The second group is comprised of civil society activists and organizations – many of them established around 2015 as part of well-funded international efforts to inspire more democracy in Iraq. They have undertaken many pro-human rights campaigns and were particularly effective in their use of social media to organize and communicate with other demonstrators. These individuals tended to invent hashtags and share pictures of the protests online but they did not themselves get involved in the violence or arson.

The third segment of the Basra population involved in the protest were the city’s liberal-leaning businesspeople, who have become frustrated with the inefficacy of the local government. They perceive the continuous wheeling and dealing and sharing out of fees and contracts among the political class as a major problem, one that has caused much of the current breakdown in state services and is responsible for the lack of progress on important infrastructure projects. This group participated more quietly in the demonstrations and played a role in starting a dialogue with local politicians.

Despite unusually high poverty in the city, Basra remains one of Iraq’s most important cities. It is the third largest metropolis after Baghdad and Mosul and also home to Iraq’s only and all-important shipping ports. Additionally the province produces over three-quarters of Iraq’s oil, the proceeds of which keep the country running. It is also an area widely considered loyal to the Shiite Muslim-led government.

All of this is why the protests in this area are so important and why they have the potential to change Iraq’s political landscape in the long run. The protests have already had a significant impact on the federal parliament in Baghdad, forcing politicians to speed up the selection of the Speaker of parliament.

There is no doubt that Baghdad will continue to make the protests in southern Iraq a focus, no matter how confusing the situation becomes.


source: Niqash

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The Teenage Soldiers Who Fought Extremists, Now Deserted By Their Country

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He was not even 15 years old when he decided to join the volunteers who signed up to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Together with his father, Hasnawi Salah joined the informal militias fighting the extremists and was eventually badly injured. He feels the Iraqi government has since abandoned him to his fate, despite the fact that he gave up his childhood and his health to protect the country from the extremist group.

“We are not wanting jobs or cash,” Salah told NIQASH. “We are just disappointed about what the Iraqi government has done to fighters under 18.”

The teenager, who is originally from Amiriyat al-Fallujah, south of the city of Fallujah, and who has now replaced his motorcycle with a wheelchair, is talking about the fact that the Iraqi government restricts the ages of those who can be considered part of the militias, now a semi-formal part of the Iraqi security forces. Anybody younger than 18 is not supposed be part of the militias and therefore cannot receive wages as a member, or any compensation for injuries.

It is a mistake to neglect those who sacrificed their lives and to leave them without care or compensation.

“This excludes fighters who helped make an impact on the war against these terrorist groups,” Salah complains. He is not advocating that the government pay for child soldiers. In fact, Salah says he understands the logic behind the government decision. “But it is a mistake to neglect those who sacrificed their lives and to leave them without care or compensation.” 

In 2014, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi men all over the country mobilized to fight the advance of the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Caught up among them were many teenagers, who left schools or jobs in the knowledge that they might not come back from the fighting.

Now in Anbar, there are an estimated 550 fighters who were under 18 at the time they fought, who have been excluded from any government funded compensation or other payments. Critics say this is happening, not just to abide by international norms on child soldiers, but also to reduce the numbers eligible for state money. It can also depend on who you know and how close your militia was to the Iraqi government, as there is a big difference between the militias made up mostly of Shiite Muslim volunteers from southern Iraq and those formed from tribal groups in central provinces like Anbar. Some of the latter, who have good relations with the federal authorities and the other militia groups, are being paid wages and compensation and others, who do not, are not getting anything. Additionally locals in southern Iraq say that under-age fighters from the Shiite Muslim militias there have received money and wages. The funds go to their families, if they are not married yet, or directly to them if they have since married.

 

A still from a propaganda video by the extremist Islamic State group.

The IS group used child soldiers: A still from a propaganda video.

 

Qusay Kareem, a resident of Ramadi, is going to be 18 years old in 2019. For the past year, Kareem has been undergoing treatment for a spinal injury and he and his family have paid to send him to Jordan and to India for medical treatment. They have paid for everything themselves. Kareem says he feels that the Iraqi government has cheated him and other young fighters who went up against the Islamic State, or IS, group.

“When the IS group controlled our cities and schools were closed and our lives were disrupted, we were left with no other choice than to carry arms and to support our brothers on the front lines,” Kareem explains. “When the war ended and we had victory, I was really lonely because so many of my friends had been killed.”

Kareem spent five years in total, either fighting against the IS group or seeking medical treatment for his spinal injuries. It has cost a lot financially and psychologically, he said. “Lots of money was spent on my treatment but I still feel completely hopeless,” Kareem adds. “My father wanted me to become an officer in the army but with my disability this has become impossible. I can’t go back to school either because after all the years I spent away from the classroom, people will treat me as though I just failed.”

Senior members of the tribal militias in Anbar recognize the problem and say they are trying to do something about it. “We can’t stand by because we should have a clear position on these people’s rights,” Laith Khamis al-Issawi, one of the militia leaders in Anbar, told NIQASH. “Especially because we are not only talking about those who fought, but those who were heroes, who motivated us all when we saw them unafraid of death. They were not seeking any jobs or cash then. They were courageous fighters,” he reasons. 

It doesn’t make sense to ignore the needs of these young men simply because of their age, he argues. “Although they were young, they were courageous and brave – more so than many others, who have been able to get jobs and money after the fights against the IS group ended.”


source: Niqash

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Iraq’s Half-Formed Government Deals With Internal Conflicts + International Sanctions

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It was particularly bad timing. This week, the 45-day deadline that the US government gave Iraq to come up with a plan to stop trading with Iran and to institute the sanctions the US wants, expires. At the same time, the half-formed Iraqi government, trapped between two feuding international allies and riven by internal issues, is slipping further into crisis mode.

The new Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, was formed relatively hastily and it has quickly lapsed into quarrelling as major blocs in parliament began negotiating who would head the last eight ministries out of 22, including the powerful ministries of defence and the interior. An uneasy alliance between the two largest blocs, one loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the other loyal to a senior figure in the Shiite Muslim militias, Hadi al-Ameri, is foundering on this issue.

Around 30 percent of the electricity produced in Iraq comes from Iranian gas.

At the same time, the two groups have differing foreign allegiances. The latter is close to Iran while the former demands Iraqi independence. And their political breakup comes at the same time as the Iraqi government is supposed to be distancing itself from Iran, a major trading partner, with strong political and security ties to Iraq, not to mention geographical proximity. Trade volumes between Iran and Iraq sit at around US$12 billion per annum.

The main issue is electricity in Iraq. The Iraqi ministry of electricity estimates that around a third of power production in Iraq depends on Iranian gas imports. The US is pressuring Iraq to find alternatives and US company, General Electric, is offering to put in place several projects (for a price) to achieve better energy independence.

But it really isn’t that easy. Iraq can produce about 16,000 megawatts of electricity per day by itself, even though authorities readily admit that between a third and even up to half is often lost due to grid problems. The country realistically needs around 26,000 megawatts (for comparison’s sake, one megawatt is around enough to supply 2,000 average British homes for an hour).

“Around 30 percent of the electricity produced in Iraq comes from Iranian gas,” a senior government official, who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorised t talk to the press, told NIQASH. “The US wants us to abandon Iranian gas without realizing the size of the crisis we would have if we did so,” the official complained.

Iranian gas supplies result in around 400 megawatts and the direct import of electricity from Iran adds up to another 1,500 megawatts. That is a significant portion of all power produced in Iraq. As it is, most Iraqis only get an average of eight hours electricity a day from the state. The rest of the time, they pay extra for power from private generators.

 

Who do you love? Whether Iran or the US, depends on your political orientation.

Iraq: torn between two allies, breaking all the rules.

 

The so-called Reconstruction Alliance that al-Ameri heads is one of the biggest in the Iraqi parliament now and it is well known to have a close relationship with Iran: It includes the Fatah bloc, which is composed mostly of representatives of the Shiite Muslim militias, as well as the State of Law bloc, led by former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is also an Iran fan.

“There is a strong relationship between our two countries, with commercial exchanges in the food and agriculture sectors, not to mention gas, electricity and oil,” said Mansur al-Baiji, a member of the alliance, from the State of Law bloc. “It’s just not logical to end all of these relations with Iran simply to appease the US.”

The new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, appeared to agree last Tuesday when, during his weekly press conference, he said that he believed Iraq would not be taking part in the sanctions and that he had sent a delegation to the US to discuss an exemption.

Just a few hours later though, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry also talked about the sanctions during a visit to Baghdad with a trade delegation. “Sanctions were mentioned, they’re a reality, they’re there,” he said, after meeting with oil and electricity ministries. He didn’t give any further details as to whether the US would extend the 45-day waiver given to Iraq. But he did encourage the Iraqis to wean themselves off Iranian power once again. “The time has come for Iraq to break its dependence… on less reliable nations seeking domination and control,” he said, a clear reference to Iran.

Iran has insinuated it will cause chaos if Iraq does adhere closely to US sanctions.

Analysts suggest that the US will extend the waiver. But nobody really knows what will happen. Iran has insinuated it will cause chaos if Iraq does adhere closely to US sanctions, something that is virtually impossible for Iraq anyway. Meanwhile the US has threatened to sanction Iraq if it doesn’t do what the US wants.

Electricity is a huge issue in Iraq and has been one of the major grievances about which protestors in various parts of the country have been demonstrating. Recent anti-government protests in Basra, that turned violent, focused on the subject of insufficient power supplies as well as corruption and the lack of potable water. There is particularly high demand for electricity in Iraq in summer when temperatures can rise to over 50 degrees Centigrade and air conditioning and refrigeration is desperately needed. Although it is now winter, and cooler in the country, there’s no doubt that power shortages are still a crucial political issue.

That’s why sanctions that leave Iraq with even less power are such a problem, alongside the brewing political crisis in the new parliament.

This current crisis has much to do with who heads up the powerful Ministry of Interior, which controls several different branches of the security services. Last week, al-Ameri of the Reconstruction Alliance, presented his candidate for the job, Faleh al-Fayad, a former head of the militias. Al-Fayad became a somewhat controversial figure when he left the group headed by the former prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and crossed the aisle to al-Ameri’s rival party. It was seen as a double cross, but it is also one that al-Ameri would doubtless like to reward al-Fayad for, with this job.

However the Sairoun alliance, headed by Muqtada al-Sadr and previously allied with al-Abadi, doesn’t like that idea at all. During recent contentious sessions in parliament, al-Sadr’s MPs have not attended which has led to a lack of quorum, and an inability to fill the vacant ministerial posts.

The prime minister himself is unable to resolve this issue because he is most of all an independent, who was the most palatable option the various partisan blocks could agree on, and he can only wait for the larger more powerful political parties to resolve this problem.


source: Niqash

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Game Changer: Iraqi Kurdistan’s Most Powerful Political Cousins Set To Share Power At The Top

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Locals and politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan had been waiting for the prime minister of the semi-autonomous northern region, Nechirvan Barzani, to initiate the formation of the new regional government here. Elections were held in October and Barzani’s party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, won a majority of the votes and 45 seats, which means they have the right to begin this process.

For the past few years, it has been standard practice for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, to have their leadership council nominate Barzani, the nephew of the party’s long-time leader Massoud Barzani, to initiate the process of government formation. However this year, there was something of a surprise on December 3. A Barzani was nominated but it was not, as expected, Nechirvan. Instead it was Masrour Barzani, Nechirvan’s cousin and the son of Massoud.

Nechirvan has been far more visible in Iraqi Kurdish government – he’s been deputy prime minister or prime minister and held senior positions in the Iraqi Kurdish government since 1999. Most recently he’s been the prime minister and the party has now decided he will become the region’s president, replacing Massoud, who stepped back in October 2017 after the ill-fated regional referendum on independence.

This way, neither of the cousins can be considered a “loser”.

Masrour, on the other hand, has been far more behind the scenes and this is the first time he has taken power in a much more public way. He is better known as a senior figure in the KDP’s intelligence services and the head of the regional Security Council.

The announcement about the two new jobs for Masrour and Nechirvan was made at the same time, leading some observers to speculate that the party leadership did things this way in order to minimize any competition between the two cousins. There have been rumours about rivalry between them ever since patriarchal figure, Massoud Barzani, stepped back. This way, neither of the cousins can be considered a “loser”, they suggest.

Although some locals may have been surprised by the move, members of the KDP themselves told NIQASH it was no big deal. “The KDP wants to bring new people into the cabinet in order to bring about change and to fulfil promises it made during the elections,” explains Farsat Sofi, an MP for the KDP. “The KDP always makes changes in positions and this is within that framework.” The decision, Sofi added, is just a “natural” thing for the party to do.

The next step for Iraqi Kurdish politics is for government formation to begin, although obviously the KDP cannot do this alone. How do the other parties in the region – and perhaps most significantly, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, with 21 seats – feel about this?

 

 

Not everyone is a fan of Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.

The ‘strong man’ of Iraqi Kurdish politics, since retired.

The PUK appears to be satisfied with the job distribution between Nechirvan and Masrour. “The KDP has the freedom to choose Masrour Barzani to head the government, and we welcome him and the party’s decision,” says senior PUK politician and spokesperson, Saadi Ahmad Bira. It’s a good move toward the formation of the government, Bira noted, and the PUK hopes that further progress will continue.

That there is conflict between Masrour and Nechirvan can be seen in a number of ways, suggests local journalist and political commentator Kamal Rauf. It can be seen in the two separate (and large) media channels that the cousins own – Nechirvan owns the region’s biggest media organisation Rudaw and Masrour has Kurdistan24  – and from some of the other institutions the pair are close to, and fund, such as charitable foundations and educational institutes. It is also clear in the way in which Masrour has disagreed with things the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan has said or done over the past few years. Many locals believe that the two cousins will struggle for power inside Iraqi Kurdistan and that their new positions give them more opportunity to prove who is the successor to Massoud’s decades-long dominance of Kurdish politics.

Both politicians have great power, inside and outside the party, although Masrour may well have the upper hand when it comes to military power. Masrour has power through the intelligence services, the counter-terrorism forces and a number of the ordinary military in the region. Nechirvan has military power mostly through his brother, Rawan Idris Barzani, a senior military commander.

There is overlap in the executive powers of the Iraqi Kurdish president and the Iraqi Kurdish prime minister.

Rauf believes that it is the patriarch himself, Massoud Barzani, who has been able to prevent the cousins’ rivalry from becoming too public. “However the coming days, when the two are in charge, are going to make this conflict more obvious and it is hard to know what the solution will be,” Rauf cautions. 

There is still some overlap in the executive powers that an Iraqi Kurdish president and an Iraqi Kurdish prime minister have. 

Still, it seems unlikely that the family rivalry will go much further than coded messages. As a political party, the KDP still appears to be the more important framework, in which the cousins will work than any personal rivalry between them. Indeed this role change may well be the beginning of a more public power sharing between them, where the cousins put the interests of the party above their own, despite the lack of a single “strong man” figure.

This was the role that Massoud Barzani played. And as the KDP’s Sofi also suggests, “nobody can replace Massoud Barzani and his charismatic personality in this role, in the Kurdish region. In fact, he is doing all this so that Masrour and Nechirvan will play these new roles,” he argues.


source: Niqash

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