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The Iraq Report: Hopes of unity dashed as reconstruction efforts smothered

Date of publication: 4 January, 2018

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This week in Iraq: Baghdad’s heavy-handed approach towards its own citizens has tempered people’s expectations regarding a new Iraq that was representative of each of its component communities.
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.
Since the United States led the invasion of Iraq in 2003, many Iraq watchers have been extremely concerned about the potential for ethno-sectarian conflicts to lead to the division of Iraq. These fears were driven by a number of factors over the years, but recently – and under the leadership of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – many have been hopeful that a new Iraqi national identity was being forged in the aftermath of the fight against the Islamic State militant group.

However, Baghdad’s heavy-handed approach towards its own citizens – particularly the Sunni Arabs, but also increasingly the Kurds – has tempered people’s expectations regarding a new Iraq that was representative of each of its component communities.

Shia Islamist political parties who dominate parliament are manoeuvring to impose conditions on the reconstruction of largely Sunni Arab cities that lie in ruin, and have extended a crippling flight ban on Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. This zero-sum approach to politics will likely maintain Iraq’s status quo, and may lead to further conflict.

‘Rebirth of terrorism’ if Sunni Arab cities are not rebuilt

During Prime Minister Abadi’s declaration of victory speech over IS last month, the Iraqi leader lauded the “unity” of his people as one of the main reasons behind the defeat of the extremist group that had terrorised Iraq for years. According to Abadi, Iraqis of all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds banded together to defeat a common existential threat embodied by IS.

While some pundits commented that IS’ defeat and the crushing of Kurdish independence ambitions showed a new form of Iraqi nationalism forming to replace almost a decade-and-a-half of divisive ethno-sectarian politics, reality turned out to be very different far from the television screens and printing presses of the media.

While the rest of the country prepares for elections in 2018, 3.5 million Iraqis are still internally displaced and seemingly stuck in limbo.

Iraqis are still displaced due to the sheer destruction wrought upon their homes in the fight against IS. The US-led coalition confirmed on Friday that it had pounded Iraq with some 14,100 airstrikes since mid-2014, costing billions of dollars of damage and thousands of civilian fatalities.

Conservative estimates place the reconstruction bill of these largely Sunni Arab cities at $100 billion, and that figure is largely believed to only be sufficient to restore basic infrastructure and habitation.

While the rest of the country prepares for elections in 2018, 3.5 million Iraqis are still internally displaced and seemingly stuck in limbo

Two years after Ramadi – the capital of Iraq’s western Anbar governorate – was recaptured from IS militants, the city is still in ruins. More than 70 percent of Ramadi is damaged or destroyed, showing how very little in the way of reconstruction and redevelopment has gone on in Iraq.

Abdulsattar al-Habu, an official in the Mosul municipal authorities, warned last week that if Mosul was not rebuilt, “it will result in the rebirth of terrorism.”

Desperation and feelings of marginalisation and neglect by the central authorities would potentially open the door to deep resentment and possibly even radicalisation, revitalising violence in a country already torn apart by bloodshed and mayhem. 

Shia Islamists impose ‘conditions’ on reconstruction of Sunni cities

Despite such warnings, The New Arab’s Arabic language sister publication reported on Monday that parliamentarians from the ruling Shia Islamist coalition have attempted to impose conditions on any budget aimed at rebuilding Sunni Arab cities in 2018.

According to the report, prominent Shia Islamists have tabled motions that would restrict any funds reaching Sunni cities if similar funds did not go to Shia cities in the south that they claim were “indirectly affected” by IS militants.

Aside from blaming IS for Shia men from the south dying to recapture territory in Sunni territories in northern and western Iraq, Khalaf Abdulsamad – parliamentary leader for the staunchly pro-Iran Dawa Party – said that “Basra governorate… continues to suffer much from [the effects of] war, sanctions and the scorched earth policy of the Baathist regime.”

Claiming that the allocation of funds for reconstruction efforts favoured Sunni-dominated governorates, Abdulsamad added that the alleged “discrimination between the governorates does not help the best interests of the nation.” His assertions were supported by fellow Shia Islamist parliamentarians, including Abdulhadi al-Hakim of the National Alliance who backed the call to block funds as long as those resources were earmarked for cities formerly occupied by IS.

Such divisive motions and attempts to block reconstruction despite almost ten percent of the population hailing from destroyed cities living in refugee camps suggests that no new Iraqi national identity has been forged

Apart from a few exceptions, IS attacks rarely managed to reach the Shia-dominated southern governorates. Further, damage to cities such as Basra occurred mainly during the US-led invasion in 2003, and the Baathist regime under former dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled at the same time, leaving the government under the Dawa Party and its allies more than 14 years with which to allocate funds to southern governorates that have suffered much neglect, though little related to IS’ terrorism and nothing that compares to the mass destruction of cities now seeking to be rebuilt.

The sectarianisation and regionalisation of reconstruction efforts will create significant ire among the Sunni Arab population, with even local government officials in Mosul voicing concern that such statements from parliamentarians “that attempt to include the southern provinces in the [post-IS] reconstruction effort shows that they [Shia Islamist parties] refuse to develop our areas.”

Such divisive motions and attempts to block reconstruction despite almost ten percent of the population hailing from destroyed cities living in refugee camps suggests that no new Iraqi national identity has been forged, but instead the problems that led to the rise of IS have persisted and festered.

Iraqi volunteers cleaning up the debris and destruction in the Bab al-Saray area in the old city of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul [Getty]
Iraqi volunteers cleaning up the debris and destruction in the Bab al-Saray area in the old city of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul [Getty]

PKK moves in as Baghdad-Erbil tensions continue

Abadi was not only portrayed as the unifying leader who defeated IS, but was lauded for his move to quash any moves towards Kurdish independence. On 16 October, Abadi ordered the Iraqi military and allied Shia militias to wrest control of the oil-rich and disputed city of Kirkuk from forces controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government. This move – alongside heavy Iranian and Turkish backing – led to the downfall of KRG President Masoud Barzani, and the humiliation of the Kurds who felt ascendant in the three years since IS defeated the central authorities in Baghdad.

The Kurds have continued to suffer from the effects of that defeat, with the central government now controlling all major border crossings between nominally KRG-controlled territories and neighbouring powers, including Syria, Turkey and Iran. Baghdad also imposed a total flight ban last September that crippled Iraqi Kurdistan’s image as a stable region within an unstable country, and exposed the limitations of Kurdish separatist ambitions.

Kurdish aviation authorities claimed last week that Baghdad’s international flight ban had been extended until the end of February, with acting KRG Transportation Minister Mawlud Bawamurad telling Rudaw that the extension affected both Erbil and Sulaimaniyah airports.

However, spokespeople for the Baghdad-based transportation ministry rubbished the report a day later, affirming that the ban “had no expiration date” and would be in place until further notice. This was confirmed in a tweet by Erbil International Airport, while KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani issued a statement last Thursday saying that his government was ready to accept Baghdad’s control of Kurdish airports.

Taking advantage of the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK – has swallowed up pockets of territory near Iraq’s border with Syria, in moves that will likely concern neighbouring Turkey where the PKK has waged more than three decades of bloody insurgency.

After suffering extensive and intense Turkish airstrikes in their bases in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq, the PKK have been afforded an opportunity to set up new camps in Sinjar and Ninawa, where a lack of security and government inattention have granted the leftist militants new breathing space.

This may have the effect of angering neighbouring Turkey significantly, as Ankara stood with Baghdad in its efforts to crush Iraqi Kurdish independence. Any cooling of ties between the two neighbours will vindicate analysts’ views that the alliance between Turkey and Iraq was a temporary marriage of convenience purely to quell Kurdish separatism, while the root issues stoking bilateral tensions have remained unaddressed.

The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

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