Iraq's Arab Spring: the forgotten frontier

The country, largely ignored by the international media, is about to agree to long-term American "oc

"Iraq-fatigue" has meant that a series of critical events in the country have been largely ignored. There is, of course, the continued insecurity. June was the deadliest month for Iraqis this year, with 271 people killed and another 35 massacred in a car bombing in Taji at the start of July. Meanwhile, 14 US soldiers also died in June, making it the deadliest month for the US in three years.

However, after eight years and a significant decrease in violence from the peak of the civil conflict (attacks are down from an average of 49 a day in 2008 to 14 now), the media has grown deaf to the casual horror the country faces. Christian Science Monitor bemoaned how "all our Iraq stories -- whether features with strong, unique reporting; analysis pieces on the security situation; or simply straightforward accounts of a major bombing or political meeting -- can't get any traction at all".

The US, currently drawing down its 46,000 soldiers, is debating leaving between 10,000 and 13,000 troops in the country beyond the December SOFA deadline. This number is in addition to the largest US embassy on the planet, and consulates around the country including a newly opened building in Basra. In response, the fragmented Iraqi body-politic is busy attempting the difficult task of finding the rhetoric to accede to US demands, whilst still maintaining the veneer of sovereignty. The US presence in the country is evolving into "occupation-lite". The Iraqi leaders know it doesn't taste very nice, but have been persuaded that it's good for them. This is largely due to the US acting as a powerful praetorian guide to the nascent institutions of state, and concerns about the actions of the country's neighbours. Although the US has spent almost a decade building up Iraqi military and security institutions, there are significant gaps in terms of logistics and air power.

To prepare the war-weary US public for the blow that the US will not be leaving Iraq, the military have started reminding people of the Iranian and al-Qaeda threats. During a visit to Iraq this month, the new defence secretary, Leon Panetta, spoke of the 1,000 al-Qaeda operatives still in Iraq and of his concerns about weapons coming in from Iran; warning that "this is not something we're going to walk away from. It's something we're going to take on head on." The media has fallen in line to support Panetta's analysis. The Wall Street Journal reported that "Shi'a militias in Iraq supported and directed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force -- Kata'ib Hezbollah in particular, but also Asaib Ahl al Haq, and the Promised Day Brigades -- are increasing both the level and sophistication of attacks". Meanwhile, AFP has interviewed US weapons analysts in Baghdad who say they have no doubt of Iran's signature on dissected rockets fired at their troops. To add fuel to the fire, this week Iranian news agencies reported that the government in Tehran "reserve the right to attack and destroy terrorist bases in (Iraqi) border areas".

The key questions to be addressed are; is it in Iran's interests to ratchet up attacks and risk the US leaving 10,000 soldiers on its western border? Can the US afford to not leave an "insurance presence" of troops in Iraq, considering the dangerously unpredictable mood across the region? Is the US presence linked to continued domestic uncertainties in Iraq?

Indeed, in regards to the final question, the narrative of the Arab Spring has been largely ignored in Iraq. After all, aren't the uprisings about throwing off the shackles of authoritarian dictatorships, not free democracies?

Yet the shockwaves of the revolutions are being felt in Iraq. Last week, CNN reported Iraqi forces beating and detaining at least seven protestors as hundreds of angry demonstrators gathered on Friday in central Baghdad. Since early February, tens of thousands of protesters have participated in demonstrations every Friday across Iraq. Maliki, like his embattled western neighbour Assad, has approached the demonstrations with his own variety of carrots and sticks. He cut his $350,000 salary in half, plans to reduce the government to 25 ministerial positions by merging the ministries that perform overlapping functions, and has sought to make a constitutional change to ensure a two-term limit to the office of prime minister. What is more, following the initial protests, the Iraqi government announced that they would be cancelling the planned purchase of 18 US-made F-16 fighter planes, instead allocating the money to improving food rationing for the poor.

The sticks meanwhile include standard acts of violence, as well as drafting legislation that Human Rights Watch believes criminalises free speech and Iraqis' right to demonstrate. The authorities have tried to bar street protests and confine them (unsuccessfully) to football stadiums. Meanwhile, several incidents of the security forces attacking and killing protestors have been reported, including a bloody encounter on the 25th of February where 12 people were killed and over 100 injured.

The US appears largely unconcerned by the spread of protests to Iraq, with its focus on ensuring its strategic posture in the country. This cedes space in the battle for legitimacy being waged, mostly through proxy, by the Iranians. The actions of Muqtada al-Sadr in the face of an extension of the US presence will be particularly scrutinised. His group controls 39 seats in the gridlocked 325-member parliament. Last April, Sadr issued a statement promising that "if the Americans don't leave Iraq on time, we will increase the resistance and restart the activities of the Mahdi Army". However it is hard to evaluate the cohesiveness of the once-feared Mahdi Army. The Asaib al-Haq and Promised Day Brigade splinter groups are evidence of Sadr's difficulty in maintaining political control. Indeed, in recent weeks, he appears to have backtracked somewhat from bombastic threats against the US, although what exactly he will do remains an unknown.

Although the country and its daily toils barely make the news these days, Iraq is truly at a crossroads with a decision on its long-term relationship with the US likely to define, for better or worse, the direction for the country for years to come.

James Denselow is a writer on political and security issues affecting the Middle East, and is based at King's College London.

 

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.