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.

 

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder