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Iraq — the ‘bad years’ are back

Feb 04,2014 - Last updated at Feb 04,2014

As US Secretary of State John Kerry hurried to his helicopter ready to take off at the end of a visit to Iraq last year, it was becoming clearer that the Americans had lost control of a country they wished to mould to their liking.

His departure on March 24, 2013, was the conclusion of a “surprise” visit meant to mark the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq. Ten years before, the US had stormed Baghdad, unleashing one of the 20th century’s most brutal and longest conflicts. Since then, Iraq has not ceased to bleed.

Kerry offered nothing of value on that visit, save the same predictable clichés about Iraq’s supposedly successful democracy, a testament to some imagined triumph of American values.

But it was telling that a decade of war was not even enough to assure an ordinary trip for the American diplomat. It was a “surprise” visit because no amount of coordination between the US embassy, then consisting of 16,000 staff, and the Iraqi government could guarantee Kerry’s safety.

Something sinister was brewing in Iraq. Mostly Muslim Sunni tribesmen were fed up with the political paradigm imposed by the Americans almost immediately upon their arrival, which divided the country along sectarian lines.

The Sunni areas, in the centre and west of the country, paid a terrible price for the US invasion that empowered political elites to speak on behalf of the Shiites who were mostly predisposed to uphold Iranian interests and began to slowly divert their allegiance.

Initially, they played the game according to the US rules, and acted with an iron fist against those who dared resist the occupation. But as years passed, the likes of the current Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki found in Iran a more stable ally, where sect, politics and economic interests seamlessly align.

Thus, Iraq was ruled over by a strange, albeit undeclared troika in which the US and Iran had great political leverage, where the Shiite-dominated government cleverly attempted to find balance and survive.

Of course, a country with the size and history of Iraq does not easily descend into sectarian madness on its own. But Shiite and Sunni politicians and intellectuals who refused to adhere to the prevailing intolerant political archetype were long sidelined — killed, imprisoned, deported and simply had no space in today’s Iraq — as national identity was banished by sect, tribe, religion and race.

Currently, the staff of the US embassy stands at 5,100, and American companies are abandoning their investments in the south of Iraq where the vast majority of the country’s oil exists.

It is in the south that Maliki has the upper hand. He, of course, does not speak on behalf of all Shiites, and is extremely intolerant of dissidents. In 2008, he fought a brutal war to seize control of Basra from Shiite militias who challenged his rule. Later, he struck the Mehdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr in a Baghdad suburb. He won in both instances, but at a terrible price. His Shiite rivals would be glad to see him go.

Maliki’s most brutal battles, however, have been reserved for dissenting Sunnis.

His government, as has become the habit of most Arab dictators, is claiming to have been fighting terrorism since day one, and is yet to abandon the slogans it propagates.

While militant Sunni groups, some affiliated with Al Qaeda, have indeed taken advantage of the ensuing chaos to promote their own ideology and solicit greater support for their cause, Iraq’s Sunnis have suffered humiliation of many folds throughout the years long before Al Qaeda was introduced to Iraq – courtesy of the US invasion.

Iraq’s Sunni tribes, despite every attempt at negotiating a dignified formula to help millions of people escape the inferno of war, were dismissed and humiliated.

The likes of former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld was notorious for his targeting of Sunni tribes and mercilessness for any community that in any way supported or tolerated the resistance.

Due to strong support by Shiite militias, which serve as the core of today’s Iraqi army, and Kurdish militias in the north, the resistance was isolated and brutalised. That history is not only relevant, but it is not history to begin with. It is the agonising reality.

When the last US military column snaked out of Iraq into Kuwait, in December 2011, the US was leaving Iraq with the worst possible scenario: a sectarian central government that was beyond corrupt, plus many ruthless parties vying for power or revenge and sectarian polarisation at its most extreme manifestation.

Nonetheless, Iraq is still very important to the Americans. It is perhaps a failed military experiment, but it is still rich of oil and natural gas. Moreover, Iraq is getting richer. The draft of the Iraqi budget for 2014 “anticipates average exports of 3.4m barrels/day (b/d), up 1m b/d from the previous year”, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit.

“Radical shifts are certainly on the horizon,” reported Forbes on the future of the oil market.

Something is driving speculation and that “something is Iraq”. (January 31)

Iraq’s prospected oil production potential “dwarfs everything else”, reported Canada’s Globe & Mail, citing Henry Groppe, a respected oil and gas analyst.

“It’s the thing that everybody ought to be watching and following as closely as possible,” he said.

Drawing its conclusions for the 2012 Iraq Energy Outlook, the International Energy Agency reported that Iraq could be “reaching output in excess of 9 mb/d by 2020”, which “would equal the highest sustained growth in the history of the global oil industry”.

And many are indeed watching.

Kerry and the US administration are hardly fond of Maliki, for the latter is too close to Tehran to be trusted. But he is Iraq’s strongest man, commanding about 930,000 security personnel “spread across the army, police force and intelligence services”, according to the BBC, and that, to the Americans, must count for something.

However, Iraq’s riches cannot be easily obtained.

Sure, the country’s strong parties are comforted with the fact that the army crackdown on Sunni tribes, Al Qaeda affiliated militias and other groups in Al Anbar and elsewhere is happening outside the country’s main oil field. But they should not discount just how quickly civil wars spiral out of control.

The death toll in 2013 was alarmingly high: over 8,000, mostly civilians, according to the UN. It is the highest since 2008.

Iraq’s “bad years” seem to be making a comeback. This time, the US has little leverage over Iraq to control the events from afar.

“This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis,” Kerry said in recent comments during a visit to Jerusalem. Indeed, with little military and diplomatic presence, the US can do very little. But it has already done enough.

The writer is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story” (Pluto Press, London). He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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