First Published: 2014-01-04

2013 in Review: Iraq’s Never Ending Story of Political Crisis
Mustafa Habib takes a look at Iraq’s political, social and economic milestones for 2013. The trend has been for political divisions to deepen and for levels of violence to rise. But despite events unfolding in Anbar presently, where extremists are taking control of parts of the province, 2013’s political developments were not all bad news.
Middle East Online

The past year has seen conflict return to Iraq. A comparatively low amount of violence and a lower body count at the beginning of 2013 have been replaced by a rapidly rising number of deaths and increasing violence, as well as the reappearance of armed militias on Iraqi cities’ streets. As the year closed and 2014 began, a series of events in Anbar – which has seen extremist groups take over parts of the province and the Iraqi military move on them – indicate that these numbers may just continue to rise.

Politics are at the root of some of the above – historical divisions in the Iraqi government have deepened during 2013. And not just between Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim politicians, but also within each group’s ranks. It is no longer possible to predict who will support who in any decision making power struggle. Whether Shiite or Sunni, each individual group seems primarily focussed on its own special interests. Only Iraq’s Kurds, nationalistic in their outlook rather than sectarian, seem to have been able to close ranks.

While the deepening of over arching divisions in Iraq’s political scene can be viewed as negative – these are historical, sectarian enmities that hardly serve the average Iraqi, or bode well for their future, in any way - the internal divisions within the larger sectarian blocs could count as a positive in some cases. A cautious optimist might decide that when Shiite Muslim politicians won’t support a Shiite Muslim politician simply because they come from the same sect and instead base their decisions on politics and policies rather than religious affiliations, that they’re moving forward to better serve their society. An optimist might even decide that this is a kind of democratic evolution. Of course, this depends on who ends up in charge after Iraq’s next federal elections and how much of a sectarian bias they decide they want to work with.

Complicating things further in Iraq in 2013 were the usual international political power plays, with Iran and Turkey – two of Iraq’s biggest trading partners – jockeying for position. The US tended to practice behind-the-scenes diplomacy in Iraq this past year. And then there was the worsening crisis next door in Syria. Heading into its third year, the Syrian conflict is now having serious regional repercussions.

Many have blamed the resurgence of Al Qaeda in Iraq on more than Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s divisive tactics and power mongering. It can also be blamed on the fact that the Sunni Muslim group is stronger, operating with military precision and Mafia-esque cunning, just over the border from Iraqi provinces like Anbar. The past year has seen months-long anti-government protests by Sunni Muslim locals in Anbar – combine these with conservative tribal politics, thoughtless military intervention by the Shiite Muslim-led Iraqi government and Sunni Muslim extremists’ ability to easily come back and forth over the porous Iraqi-Syrian border, then the result is what is happening in Anbar this week.

But of course, it was not all bad news for Iraq in 2013. Most of the good news came from out of the economic sector with the lifting of the United Nations’ sanctions on Iraq and the oil industry continuing to increase production, despite a surge in violence.

The Never Ending Story: Political Crisis in Iraq

This year began with protests as, once again, the Iraqi government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the arrest of security guards working for a prominent Sunni Muslim politician, Rafi al-Issawi, the-then Minister of Finance. Al-Maliki’s ruling coalition is mostly comprised of Shiite Muslim politicians.

Al-Issawi was one of the most senior Sunni Muslim politicians in the government at the time and the arrests sparked a wave of protests by Sunni Muslim supporters in the Iraqi provinces where the population is dominated by that sect.

Since then, these provinces – including Anbar, Mosul, Diyala and Baghdad - have seen ongoing protests that have lasted almost the year. Al-Issawi is from Anbar. The arrest of senior politicians around the end of the year appears to be becoming something of a tradition for the al-Maliki government. This year, it happened again as Iraqi security forces raided the home of Anbar politician, Ahmad al-Alwani, arrested him and killed several of his guards as well as his brother.

In late April, Iraqi security forces stormed one of the Sunni Muslim protest camps in Hawija, in Kirkuk, and their actions there resulted in civilian deaths and led to further protests, as well as a number of armed groups organizing against them. Afterwards Prime Minister al-Maliki did appear to be taking some steps toward reconciliation, apologizing for the incident and granting victims of the raid compensatory payouts.

But now with the most recent closure of another Sunni Muslim protest camp in late December, which also resulted in civilian deaths, the situation in the mostly Sunni Muslim province in Anbar seems precarious and dangerously close to out of control.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, the opposition Iraqiya list – which is supposedly secular but in fact, is comprised mostly of Sunni Muslim politicians – withdrew from parliamentary proceedings in protest at what was happening in Anbar. The Iraqiya bloc say they will not return to Parliament unless it is to discuss a vote of no confidence in al-Maliki.

This week, Al Jazeera reports increasingly heavy fighting in Anbar between Iraqi government forces, locals and members of extremist groups. They say parts of the province are now controlled by different non-governmental groups, including the Al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and local tribal groups.

Other political milestones in Iraq included the March 7 passage of Iraq’s federal budget. The budget was ratified by a Parliament that had been boycotted by some fairly important groups, including Iraqi Kurdish MPs and Sunni Muslim politicians.

The budget passed by what one analyst called “a fleeting alignment of the main Shiite [Muslim] political blocs and defectors from the predominantly Sunni [Muslim] and secular Iraqiya list”. In other words, it was passed by a political majority rather than by political consensus, which is what Iraqi politicians have been using to get their laws onto the books since the 2003 US-led invasion of the country that ended Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Such decision making – by majority, rather than consensus – opened the door to heated discussions on the possibility of this kind of decision making becoming more permanent.

The provincial elections were a similar case. In a decision supported by no one other than the stalwarts in his own party, al-Maliki’s government postponed elections in the provinces of Anbar and Mosul due to the ongoing, aforementioned Sunni Muslim protests there. Even his own coalition partners did not support the idea. After the decision was made al-Maliki’s coalition allies, the Sadrist movement, a political bloc made up of mostly Shiite Muslim politicians led by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, announced they would boycott cabinet meetings because of the decision.

Nonetheless the provincial elections were delayed in Anbar and Mosul.

Still results of the provincial elections indicated further dissatisfaction with the way al-Maliki was running the country – this time, from the voters. Around half of those eligible to vote turned out to cast their ballots and they made it clear that they were unimpressed- representatives of al-Maliki’s party (rather than his ruling coalition) lost a lot of power on Iraq’s local authorities. What they lost was a gain for other Shiite Muslim dominated parties and the results saw the Sadrist movement and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq led by Ammar al-Hakim gain a lot of ground.

There’s no doubt that’s had an effect on their increasing confidence in the run-up to the national elections, due to be held early in 2014; although they’re part of al-Maliki’s ruling coalition, the two increasingly popular political groupings recently announced that they wouldn’t be entering into any kind of campaign alliance with al-Maliki’s party.

On the Sunni Muslim side of the political divide, the outspoken Sunni Muslim politician Osama al-Nujaifi gained ground, winning more support than former Prime Minister Ayed Allawi, who heads the Iraqiya bloc.

Allawi is actually a Shiite Muslim, a secular politician and an advocate of non-sectarian politics. For many Sunni Muslims, who feel that they’ve been sidelined over the past few years and who have doubtless been watching Anbar go up in flames this week, this kind of politician does not seem like the right figure to lead a mainly Sunni Muslim bloc of almost a hundred MPs.

But it wasn’t all bad news on the political front – even though what victories there were seemed small compared to the problems. Voters got their way after late August protests about the size of parliamentarians’ pensions. There were some clashes with security forces during the protests but in the end, the protestors' demands were met when Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court ruled that the pensions were illegal.

There have also been several instances of non-sectarian cooperation between politicians. In September, in the middle of escalating crises, senior politicians signed a charter – a kind of gentleman’s agreement – that they would cooperate to find solutions to Iraq’s many problems. However looking back, most of them now feel that the agreement was worthless.

And late in 2013, parliament also agreed that, despite various legislative issues, Iraq should hold federal elections in April 2014. On Nov. 4, MPs voted unanimously on a law on the elections although whether that law, which has been criticised as not particularly water tight, will stand the test of current events remains to be seen.

It’s also worth remembering that the election law was passed straight after al-Maliki visited Washington where he was advised to reconcile with his Sunni Muslim colleagues in Parliament and also finalised a weapons deal.

Increasing Violence, Higher Body Counts

In 2013, Iraq became a more violent and deadly place once again. In fact, some months the levels of violence were even higher than those seen in the period between 2006 and 2008, when the country was experiencing what many have described as sectarian civil war.

Towards the end of 2013, Sunni Muslim extremist groups associated with Al Qaeda began to make their presence felt in the country, with an ever-growing number of car bombings, suicide attacks and, perhaps most concerning, carefully coordinated attacks on government institutions and security outposts. In response Shiite Muslim armed militias also seem to have returned to Iraqi streets, appearing as openly as victims’ corpses.

The number of fatalities and injuries as a result of these armed groups’ actions has been rising steadily throughout the year. Statistics provided by both the United Nations and the Iraqi government indicate that things have become worse since February, during which around 456 Iraqis were killed and 1,050 injured. Those figures have risen steadily since then – in October, the UN Mission estimates that 979 Iraqis died and 1,902 were injured.

In their end of year analysis the Iraqi Body Count, a website committed to adding up the numbers of dead in Iraq, wrote that: “While 1,900 civilians were killed between October 2012 and March 2013, 6,300 were killed between April and October 2013. Overall, nearly 9,500 civilians died in violence in Iraq this year, which is almost equal to the 2008 figure, when 10,000 were killed. Back in 2008, however, that figure represented a decline in violent deaths (down from 25,800), whereas now it represents an increase; it has more than doubled since last year, when the recorded civilians deaths were 4,500”.

Iraq On the World Stage

While Iraq made some fairly significant advances on the world stage, on the whole the nation’s foreign policy seemed about as confused and divided as the domestic political scene. Iraq seems to be being thrown around between various allies. Milestones included al-Maliki’s October visit to the US capital, Washington, where he received rather a different reception from his American allies. His politics were criticised not just at home but also abroad. Senior politicians in the US – including Secretary of State John Kerry advised al-Maliki to find a way to reconcile with his Sunni Muslim constituents.

In November, a visit from Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saw tensions between Iraq and Turkey, one of Iraq’s most important trading partners, ease. Several high ranking politicians have paid reciprocal visits in what is being hailed as a new era for the Iraq-Turkey relationship.

Iraq has also been busy establishing better relations with neighbouring Kuwait – this has included an agreement on maritime terrain, the Khor Abdullah waterway.

And in late June, Iraq scored a popular foreign policy goal when the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to lift sanctions from Iraq.

As Iraqi Kurdish publication, Rudaw, reported: “The lifting of Chapter 7 sanctions … can be considered one of Iraq’s biggest achievements since the ouster of Saddam Hussein a decade ago, allowing Baghdad to regain control over its own currency, oil and economy. Chapter 7, imposed on Iraq by the UN Security Council after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, froze all Iraqi assets in international banks, ordering they be used to compensate victims of the aggression. Besides placing limits on use of its wealth, the sanctions also placed limits on the Iraqi military”.

The lifting of sanctions should have wide ranging, positive effects for the Iraqi economy.

Mostly though, foreign policy in 2013 was dominated by the Syrian issue. Iraq has ostensibly not picked a side in the conflict but practically, the Shiite Muslim-led government seems to have quietly stood by the Syrian regime, led by Bashar al-Assad, who is also a Shiite Muslim. In the past there has been much criticism of the amount of influence that the neighbouring Iranian government – also Shiite Muslim – has had on al-Maliki’s ruling coalition. And the Iranians support al-Assad.

In fact, this was one of the most recent of al-Maliki’s international forays – on Dec. 4, the Iraqi prime Minster travelled to Iran again. Many say it was to shore up support for his next term, after the federal elections this April.

Oil, Power And Banking

Much of the good news in Iraq this year came from out of the oil industry. Several oil fields started producing, the barrels-per-day count kept going up and the government also announced a national strategy for energy – even though that ignores the fact that, as a whole, the country doesn’t have an oil and gas law that everyone can live with yet, and that’s after literally years of debate on the subject.

In other fields of energy production Iraq still lagged behind. The government announced the opening of several new power plants this year but no really sustainable solutions have been found for problems plaguing electricity producers – many Iraqis still only have power for a few hours a day.

Another economic positive for Iraq was the entry of international banks into the country. One of the most notable entrants was the British bank, Standard Chartered, which opened a branch in Baghdad in November. This made Standard Chartered to first British bank to open a branch in the country.

“The move is a bid to meet increasing demands from global clients in the country from areas including oil, telecoms and infrastructure and is being billed as a milestone in the development of Iraq following years of conflict,” the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper wrote.

The slight improvements in banking come despite the fact that international agency Transparency International still ranks Iraq as one of the most corrupt countries in the region.

In another of Iraq’s biggest areas of economic activity – agriculture – the news was not quite as good. The sector was plagued by ongoing water shortages, lower-than-usual rain falls during winter, lack of agricultural goods like fertiliser and the migration of farmers. Iraq has always been dependent on imports to fulfil its food needs and the state of agriculture in the country doesn’t look likely to change that anytime soon.

In 2014 Iraq’s economy may benefit from the biggest budget the country has ever had – it should come in at around US$150 billion. That is, if the Iraqi government can agree on the budget and pass it.

Iraqi Culture: A Non-Event?

2013 was also the year that Baghdad was chosen as the Capital of Arab Culture. The designation is one given out by the Arab League to encourage and celebrate Arab culture. Despite the alleged importance of Baghdad’s recognition as a cultural capital after years of unrest, opinions remained divided on whether the title was really worth anything and, looking back, whether anything significant was achieved.

A lot of money was spent on cultural events that began in March 2013 but there were also plenty of rumours about corruption linked to the events as well as criticisms about the standard of the events.

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