Iraq in 2013: A Discussion With Joel Wing

Photography by Brehl Garza Photography

This time last year, I interviewed Iraq writer Joel Wing whose work has been cited in reports by leading think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as publications such as the New York Times, the Guardian, and countless specialist journals and blogs. His own blog, Musings on Iraq, is an exhaustive resource for anyone interested in modern Iraq, and his reporting over the years has made him one of the foremost chroniclers of the Iraq conflict and its aftermath. It was therefore a great pleasure to have the chance to conduct another interview looking at the outlook for Iraq in 2013.
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Nouri al-Maliki: A dictator who takes “unprecedented measures”?

RT: This time last year we saw the arrest of Maliki rival and Iraqiya politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi. Now there has been a raid against the security guards of Finance Minister al-Issawi. Some initial reports suggested over 150 may have been arrested. Again, the timing is very suspect. With Hashemi, Maliki had a long time to arrest him but waited until the US had departed to order the raid. Likewise with Issawi, charges of terrorism had been around for a long time, but the raid to arrest his security only came after President Talibani, widely considered a mediating force in Iraqi politics, was taken seriously ill.

The latest crackdown comes on top of a long list of Iraqi state institutions that Maliki has targeted such as the armed forces, the Central Bank of Iraq, the electoral commission, the judiciary, and the integrity commission, in what Michael Knights calls “a culture of direct control.” Let’s imagine that by pushing the disputed territories/Kurdish oil dispute to the limit, presiding over the corruption riddled $4 billion arms deal with Russia and arresting Issawi (testing his nationalist Sunni supporters in Anbar) a successful no confidence vote is held against Maliki next year. Maliki has promised “unprecedented measures” against anyone who backs such a vote. But if he continues down this path, political opposition is going to grow. Are we going to see Maliki take more “unprecedented measures” in 2013?

JW: There were varying numbers, but now it looks like just 10 members of Issawi’s security were actually detained. There appears to be a political deal at work today to resolve the issue, which to me seems like it was just an intimidation tactic taken by PM Maliki against Issawi to let him know that he could be arrested as well in the future.

Some members of Iraqiya have called for a new no confidence vote as a result, but they don’t have the votes. Iraqiya is a party in name only these days shown by the fact that it will run as 3-4 different lists in next year’s provincial elections. Parts of the list also want to preserve their positions in government, and will not threaten that by going after Maliki. Not only that, but they need the Sadr votes in parliament to get enough to remove Maliki, and Sadr only talks about the prime minister he doesn’t take any real action against him.

As for the premier, he’s been doing these things since 2008, so I see no reason why he’d stop in the future as no one has been able to stand up to him. He’s been a master at using carrots and sticks to divide up the other parties and maintain and expand his position. Until the other parties start to see beyond their own personal political power and profits they get out of being part of the government through corruption I doubt there will be any real change in Iraq’s political situation.

The Syrian feedback loop of terrorism across Iraq’s border

RT: Last year we talked about the possibility that fighting in Syria was going to overspill into Iraq. We agreed at the time that if anything, the fighting in Syria would actually weaken al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which was already depleted. Fighters would go to Syria where weakening state control presented the kind of conditions AQI thrive in. Also, with so many Sunnis in western Iraq still resentful of AQI’s time in control, a comeback, even with greater strength, was not necessarily on the cards.

This seems to fit with a regional trend where fighters from as many as 29 countries have gone to Syria, but generally not brought any revolutionary zeal back home yet. Next year that could change. The border area around Mosul in northern Iraq remains an untamed badland, and AQI has apparently doubled in strength. Whatever happens, there will probably be renewed fighting in Syria after Assad falls, and the possibility that the al-Nusrah front/AQI will then turn attention to Iraq. AQI are clearly back in control in some isolated areas. But I think - and hope, that the end of Assad is not going to bring about a security collapse in Iraq. For al-Qaeda, the new opportunity will be a battleground in a failed state: Syria. Shi’a militants may fight on in Syria, but again, this does not necessarily spell trouble for Iraq. Do you think Assad’s collapse will bring anything worse than worry to Iraq?

JW: Al Qaeda in Iraq made a mini-comeback mainly because of the withdrawal of US forces. First, thousands of their followers got released from prison, and many of them appear to have gone right back to AQI boosting their abilities to carry out attacks. Second, Iraq’s intelligence agencies lack the equipment, skills, and organization of the Americans, and haven’t been able to keep up with the militants. Syria offers AQI a new front to fight on, but I’m not sure it will have that much of an affect upon Iraq. It looks like Syria will be unstable for quite some time like Iraq was after the fall of Saddam, so the Islamists will have their hands full. That will offer bases for AQI to operate out of, and perhaps get even more fighters. At the same time, they will no longer get the backing and resources of the Assad regime, which aided them since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, so it looks to be a wash to me with no real long term affect upon Iraq.

Another bumper year for oil revenues. But real progress?

RT: This year there have been more reports of normalcy such as car dealerships and restaurants opening up in Iraq. Oil executive Hayder Aziz, who I recently interviewed, calls this “consumption,” not a sign of genuine economic growth - just more oil cash in circulation.

Again, we hear that Iraq will be possibly the fastest growing economy in the world next year. While some foreign companies are still queuing up to invest, others are getting cold feet, underlined by what the World Bank has called a very difficult business environment. Zaab Sethna, who you interviewed recently, was more positive. Last year I was optimistic. This year, looking at another delay in the CSSF project (crucial oil infrastructure project), the seemingly intractable export dispute with the KRG (which is in part fueled by IOC dissatisfaction with deals in the south) I am beginning to think things look a lot more fragile. Iraq looks like a rentier state, not the economic tiger of the Middle East. What do you think?

JW: I agree. Iraq suffers from the oil curse more than any other country in the Middle East and North Africa. It gains more revenue and its GDP is more dependent upon petroleum than any other in the region. That doesn’t mean there isn’t huge growth on the horizon. That’s because it needs so much after years of sanctions and war. Almost everything in the country needs to be rebuilt or new things added. There is huge growth in investment in Iraq as a result, and it’s in a variety of industries such as housing, electricity, etc. The problem remains that this is all paid for by oil money, and like you said, the growth in consumption is also by government workers rather than private sector employees. There is growth in the business sector but it appears to be in relatively small businesses for now. That does show signs of hope for the future, but I think it might be a decade or more before Iraq moves out of its state-run economy and reduces its oil dependency. This is a huge transition the country is going through, so it’s going to take quite some time for everything to work out.

The Kurdish question looms large

RT: With President Jalal Talibani out of the picture, and deals over oil and territory being made and broken between Baghdad and Erbil seemingly on a monthly basis, do you think 2013 is going to see Maliki go to war in Kurdistan?

On one level my feeling is no: many Kurds do not want war, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is greatly opposed and many living in disputed areas are terrified of it. Maliki has been typically vague, talking about “needing weapons to fight the terrorists in Iraq’s mountains” whilst also talking about a “tough legal response” and the much trampled “Iraqi constitution” in response to the crisis - a convenient distraction from the Russian arms scandal.

But at the same time there has also been very aggressive rhetoric from the Peshmerga commander, and people in Maliki’s camp have compared Barzani to Saddam as troops prepare for war. This has been detailed extensively in Kirk Sowell’s Inside Iraq (No.51) report. Meanwhile a Kurdish General in the ISF recently disobeyed an order from Maliki, further undermining trust between Shi’a and Kurds in the ISF. Perhaps next year it would not take much more than the recent Tuz Kharmutu firefight to spark a major crisis in the heavily militarized disputed territories...

JW: The current standoff between the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga in the disputed areas is pure political theatre created by Maliki to rally Arab support for his State of Law list before the 2013 provincial elections. He did almost the exact same thing in 2008 in the Khanaqin district of Diyala before the 2009 voting. Maliki sent forces into the disputed territories, told the Peshmerga they had to leave, tried to evict Kurdish parties from government owned buildings, there was a shooting incident, the Kurds started calling Maliki the new Saddam. Then it all blew over with the help of mediation by the US. I don’t think the premier wants war at all and neither do the Kurds. Both have been able to gain from the confrontation. Maliki wants to show that he’s not a sectarian Shiite leader and that he will stand up for Sunnis who are afraid of Kurdish expansionism in the north. President Barzani was able to portray himself as the protector of the Kurds and rally the other parties behind him when before he was facing increasing criticism from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Change list for his autocratic ways. The problem with these incidents is that they can get out of control, not by the political leadership but by some commander on the ground making a stupid decision and shooting at someone. Still, the intent is purely political.

Red lines

RT: The US, EU and more recently the World Bank are all keen to engage constructively with Maliki’s government. It seems he is considered the best of a bad bunch of potential Iraqi leaders. While friendly towards Iran, he is not pro-Iranian, and while conservative, he is far from being an extremist. But Western policy toward him is beginning to look a lot like relationships with previous autocrats: we want to engage constructively, perhaps spurred on by Thomas Friedman’s notion that continuation of free market trade will eventually lead to the end of autocracy, while sanctions and isolation will not. And yet every time Maliki acts like an autocrat, we express concern, but nothing more than that. Congress make their threats to freeze relations such as security cooperation but memorandums of understanding still get signed. If Maliki continues down the path he is on do you think 2013 could be the year where Western governments start to get tough with him? I struggle to think how many more red lines he has to cross before that happens.

JW: For the US and British governments I don’t think so. I think both have such a bad taste in their mouths after the invasion that they want to put Iraq behind them and move on to other issues around the world. The less they talk about Maliki and Baghdad the better. Whenever a new crisis emerges they’ll have to respond, but it will be completely reactive. They’re not trying to really mediate between the different parties on a daily basis like they used to. Other countries like Turkey and Iran will be playing a much larger role in the country than anyone in the West as a result.

Joel Wing's Musings on Iraq blog can be found at http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.co.uk

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Posted on December 29, 2012

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