Iraq risks breakup as tribes take on Iran’s mili­tias in ‘blood feud’

Un­rest spreads af­ter se­cu­rity forces fire on pro­test­ers and Tehran’s in­flu­ence faces a new threat from the south.

The Observer - - World - Martin Chulov re­ports

Iraq’s par­lia­ment will to­day be­gin the process of elect­ing a new leader af­ter the prime min­is­ter, Adel Ab­dul-Mahdi, re­signed last week. His suc­ces­sor will have to cope with the se­vere un­rest that is spread­ing across the coun­try and which has pitched se­cu­rity forces against demon­stra­tors for nearly two months. Fears are mount­ing that the coun­try could un­ravel al­to­gether.

Se­cu­rity forces killed at least 45 civil­ians who were protest­ing around the south­ern city of Nasiriyah on Thurs­day in one of the worst in­ci­dents in the re­cent out­break of anti-gov­ern­ment protests. The gov­ern­ment’s ac­tions were in­tended to be a show of brute force fol­low­ing the fire­bomb­ing of the Ira­nian con­sulate in Na­jaf on Wed­nes­day, an at­tack that was the strong­est ex­pres­sion yet of the anti-Ira­nian sen­ti­ment by the Iraqi demon­stra­tors.

But the crack­down has only fu­elled grow­ing re­sent­ment across cen­tral and south­ern Iraq and the stand­off be­tween de­fi­ant street pro­test­ers and an em­bat­tled po­lit­i­cal class has be­come more en­trenched.

At stake now is whether the post-Sad­dam Iraq con­structed by the US re­mains vi­able 16 years af­ter the in­va­sion that over­turned the coun­try’s regime and re­set the bal­ance of power in the re­gion.

“When the Amer­i­cans left in 2011, we thought that at least some struc­tures had been left be­hind,” said Bassma Qad­himi, a doc­tor in Baghdad. “Then they started steal­ing more than ever be­fore and ev­ery­one looked away. There were a few elec­tions where it wasn’t im­por­tant if you were a Shia, a Sunni or a Chris­tian. It looked good. Then it un­rav­elled, be­cause ev­ery sect stole. But if there’s any­thing to come from the protests so far, it’s that not sect, but nationalit­y, is leading it.”

Ever since 2003, Iraq’s gover­nance had been ap­por­tioned along sec­tar­ian lines and its in­sti­tu­tions used as fief­doms by min­is­ters whose al­le­giance to po­lit­i­cal group­ings has of­ten tran­scended fealty to the state.

One re­sult has been en­demic cor­rup­tion and nepo­tism through­out the coun­try’s pub­lic sec­tor, which has plun­dered the coun­try’s oil wealth and left many Iraqis with­out op­por­tu­ni­ties. Loot­ing of state rev­enues has been the main driver of the protest move­ment that has been led by a dis­en­fran­chised youth but joined by other sec­tors of so­ci­ety, and has on some days seen up to 200,000 people demon­strat­ing peace­fully in Baghdad and other ci­ties.

Toby Dodge, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics and a long­time re­searcher on Iraq, said the post-2003 sys­tem was start­ing to break down – and vi­o­lence was spi­ralling as a re­sult.

“A rough-and-ready or­der was im­posed on this po­lit­i­cal field through an elite pact,” he wrote on Lan­caster Univer­sity’s Sepad web­site. “The for­merly ex­iled politi­cians who had done so much to cam­paign for Sad­dam Hus­sein’s re­moval were placed in power by the US.”

Speak­ing separately to the Ob­server, he added: “The ide­o­log­i­cal un­der­pin­nings of the sys­tem – the di­vi­sion of Iraqi so­ci­ety into sec­tar­ian com­mu­ni­ties – de­clined. At the same time the di­vi­sion of spoils be­tween the rul­ing elites car­ried on and be­came in­creas­ingly pub­lic and ap­par­ent, which fur­ther dele­git­imised the sys­tem.

“They stopped see­ing them as their cham­pi­ons and be­gan to see them as car­pet­bag­gers. Then the rul­ing elites had to in­creas­ingly de­pend on mili­tia vi­o­lence to stay in power. We have seen that to­day reach its pin­na­cle.”

Tribal lead­ers in south­ern Iraq, where the lat­est blood­shed was cen­tred, have turned on se­cu­rity forces in the wake of the killings, which they say were di­rected by Ira­nian officials who have played a cen­tral role in the crack­down.

Iran – which also has a ma­jor­ity Shia pop­u­la­tion – has played a promi­nent role in the af­fairs of Iraq through­out the post-in­va­sion years,

and es­pe­cially since the US with­drew its forces in 2011. The Ira­nian gen­eral Qassem Suleimani has been a cen­tral fig­ure in the crack­down, di­rect­ing a lethal re­sponse that started roughly a month ago.

At the same time Iran is fac­ing pressure on the home front and an up­ris­ing in Le­banon, where the most im­por­tant arm of its for­eign pro­jec­tion, Hezbol­lah, plays a vi­tal role in the frag­ile coun­try’s af­fairs.

“In Le­banon and in Iraq, they are on a war foot­ing,” said a re­gional of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with Ira­nian think­ing. “They might be able to calm things in Le­banon, but in Iraq they have the tribes to deal with, and that’s where they’re com­ing un­stuck.

“What has been un­leashed in the south in par­tic­u­lar is a blood feud, and they are blam­ing Iran and its prox­ies for this. It’s very dan­ger­ous, and un­char­tered ter­ri­tory for Tehran.”

Tribal lead­ers in Dhi Qar prov­ince have de­manded that se­cu­rity forces and mili­tia lead­ers re­spon­si­ble for the killings in Nasiriyah be held ac­count­able. The stance adds a new layer of com­plex­ity to a stand­off, which now looms as the most se­ri­ous Iran has faced in the post-Sad­dam Mid­dle East. “They are con­vinced the Amer­i­cans are be­hind this,” said the of­fi­cial. “I have never seen them as rat­tled as they are now.”

Can­di­dates to re­place Ab­dul Mahdi in­clude Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the Pop­u­lar Mo­bil­i­sa­tion Units, which were formed af­ter Is­lamic State over­ran north­ern Iraq, and have since be­come one of Iraq’s most pow­er­ful in­sti­tu­tions. How­ever, al-Ameri’s role as the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s leader will draw pow­er­ful de­trac­tors, Iran po­ten­tially among them.

The Iraqi par­lia­ment has 15 days to nom­i­nate a new prime min­is­ter, but in the past new lead­ers have only been named af­ter months of horse trad­ing. Fail­ure to reach a cross-fac­tional con­sen­sus could plunge Iraq into an abyss.

“If they do that, they are fin­ished,” said Mah­moud al-Qaisy, a steel worker from east Baghdad. “And so are we. I swear that th­ese thieves have had their day. We can­not go home, and they can­not go on. This is a rev­o­lu­tion.”

Khalid al-Mousily/ Reuters

Anti-gov­ern­ment protests con­tin­ued in Baghdad yes­ter­day.

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