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The Iraq Report: Election drama continues as Christians seek return of stolen property Open in fullscreen

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The Iraq Report: Election drama continues as Christians seek return of stolen property

Date of publication: 29 June, 2018

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Our weekly round-up of the latest from Iraq
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the winner of last month's heavily boycotted elections, has declared formal agreements with electoral blocs represented by outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and hardline Shia Islamist militants led by Hadi al-Amiri, a pro-Iran candidate.

The deals being cut by the three largest blocs come against a backdrop of the continuing allegations of voter fraud, causing consternation and concern among those Iraqis who did turn out to vote.

Iraq's deteriorating and unstable political situation is also reflected in its spiralling security problems, as the Islamic State extremist group has begun daring raids against territories it held just a short while ago, kidnapping and executing hostages as they go.

Not helping matters is an increase in violence from Iranian proxy militias, who have not only been clashing with local police, but are also being accused of forcing their control over properties owned by Iraq's Christian population, who have suffered extensive loss of life and property since Shia and Sunni extremists began targeting them following the downfall of the Baathist regime in 2003.

Voter fraud concerns continue as parties press ahead with negotiations

Iraq's highest court last week ruled in favour of an entire recount of May's election results, after it emerged that a number of electronic voting systems were compromised, and other discrepancies led to significant doubts about the real outcome of the vote. 

The ruling follows the outgoing parliament's decision earlier this month for a full manual recount, which was challenged in court by some lawmakers and political parties as an unconstitutional decision intended to protect current parliamentarians from losing their jobs by casting doubt on the results.

The court ruled that parliament's decision was not unconstitutional.

However, the court later had its ruling moderated by the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), which decided on Sunday to manually recount only "suspect" ballots.

The IHEC itself was sacked by parliament following the May 12 election, and replaced with a judicial panel. In effect, the judiciary will be deciding the outcome of the elections, and to what extent ballots will be recounted.

This poses certain problems, as the judiciary is being asked to make rulings that determine how another judiciary-run body, the IHEC, can proceed.

If the IHEC decides to proceed slightly differently, the courts are unlikely to intervene against their own, particularly in a heavily politicised judicial branch as exists in Iraq.

This is precisely what is happening, as the supreme court has ruled one way, and has been contradicted without objection by the IHEC only days later.

Iraq's politicians seem unperturbed by these developments and have continued to press ahead with the political horse trading that customarily follows every Iraqi election since the US-led invasion toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.

Muqtada al-Sadr, last month's winner, has announced that he will form an alliance with outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, after also last week declaring that he had come to a power-sharing agreement with the pro-Iran Conquest Alliance, or Fateh as it is known in Arabic, led by Shia Islamist militant leader Hadi al-Amiri. 

Sadr's entire campaign was built on the premise that he was not only anti-corruption, but that he was against Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs.

Sadr's entire campaign was built on the premise that he was not only anti-corruption, but that he was against Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs

Tehran's influence can be seen at every level of Iraq's state system, affecting political, security, economic and religious spheres of life. Iranian proxies often control entire ministries, for example the crucially important interior ministry which is dominated by Amiri's Badr Organisation, which has been one of Tehran's most overt supporters. 

There is simply no way that Sadr does not know that Amiri and his Fateh bloc do not represent Iranian interests, and his decision to ally himself with them will undoubtedly scathe his Iraqi nationalist image that he tried so hard to create in order to attract as much of the vote from the 44 percent who turned out as possible.

Those who trusted Sadr to take action to pull Iraq out of Iran's gravitational pull will no doubt feel betrayed.

Militia violence intensifies as security deteriorates

Religious militias have also been in the headlines this week, after several violent clashes and threats made against major regional and international powers. 

Pro-Iran militias have not only been clashing with local police, but also threatening to retaliate against the United States and Israel after some of their men were killed during operations in Syria that were not officially sanctioned by Baghdad but that were in operational theatres controlled by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The Hizballah Brigades, an IRGC-linked group and a member of the Baghdad-sanctioned paramilitary Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), clashed with Iraqi police units in Baghdad last Wednesday after trying to muscle their way past a police security check.

The militiamen were operating a convoy that was halted by police, and refused to be searched, prompting the pro-Iran group to summon reinforcements that led to a shootout with law enforcement officers. Two police officers were injured, with a Hizballah Brigades militiaman suffering gunshot wounds. 

Iraqi authorities have struggled to contain the influence and power of these militants, who use their IRGC connections and extensive armaments to place themselves above the law.

Iraqi authorities have struggled to contain the influence and power of these militants, who use their IRGC connections and extensive armaments to place themselves above the law

Although the Hizballah Brigades and other IRGC proxies are nominally under the control of the PMF which in turn is supposed to be under the authority of the prime minister as commander-in-chief, in reality they answer to no one but themselves or senior IRGC-linked commanders. 

Also, as the police force come under the authority of the interior ministry which is itself controlled by the Badr Organisation, another component Shia Islamist militant group of the PMF, police units who do attempt to deal with rogue militias are often hampered in their work if not outright ordered to back off.

Such free rein has allowed units associated with the PMF to conduct military operations wherever the IRGC deems a need for them, but particularly in neighbouring Syria, which has itself led to PMF-affiliated groups to issue threats against Iraqi allies, including the United States.

Earlier this month, 22 PMF militants from the Hizballah Brigades operating under IRGC control in eastern Syria were killed in an airstrike that was first blamed on the US. Washington denied the attack, instead suggesting that it was an Israeli warplane that executing the bombing mission.

The Hizballah Brigades vowed on Thursday to exact revenge for the airstrike that wiped out almost a platoon of their men, with spokesman Jaafar al-Husseini stating that the strike was definitely American or Israeli, and "when it becomes known who was responsible then there will be an appropriate response and the hand of the resistance will strike anywhere."

The Hizballah Brigades were heavily involved in the war against IS where the PMF as an official Iraqi military force benefited extensively from US-led coalition airpower.

Even so, Husseini's reference to the "resistance" is borrowed terminology from the IRGC, that frequently refers to itself and its proxies, including the Lebanese Hizballah, as "the resistance", showing how atomised alliances take precedence over Iraq's relationships at the state level.

The Hizballah Brigades vowed on Thursday to exact revenge for the airstrike that wiped out almost a platoon of their men, with spokesman Jaafar al-Husseini stating that the strike was definitely American or Israeli

Iraqi Christians ask parliament to restore stolen property

Iran's militias in Iraq are now also under the spotlight after Christians have petitioned parliament to issue a law that will force militants and unwitting real estate to handover properties owned by Iraq's endangered Christian population that had been forcibly taken from them.

The New Arab's Arabic-language sister site reported on Tuesday that Iraqi Christians had begun to demand the restoration of their property rights over more than 57,000 plots of land and real estate that they allege were taken from them illegally by armed militias and political parties associated with them.

Yonadim Kenna, a Christian lawmaker, accused militant groups of extorting land sales under duress and said: "The Christian demographic seeks for parliament to legislate for the creation of a commission that will re-examine all [illicit] land sales in order to re-appraise the land valuations and restore them to their rightful [Christian] owners."

Kenna also alleged that 23,000 residential properties belonging to Christians were sold by armed gangs to legitimate buyers using falsified documents between 2006 and 2010, with officials in the state-run real estate directorate stating they suspected Christians had been illegally dispossessed of a total of 57,000 properties in total.

A senior official in the directorate told The New Arab on condition of anonymity that "dangerous mafias" control the directorate, and that most of the buyers had no idea that they were purchasing stolen property.

The official said that, as a result, it would be extremely difficult to return the stolen land back to their original and rightful owners, particularly as organised criminal militias would not want to give up a profitable enterprise.

Illegal dispossession of property has been common in Iraq since 2003, with weaker demographics such as Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Yazidis being disproportionately affected as the government is too powerless or unwilling to protect their rights and their lives from being threatened by militants.

Illegal dispossession of property has been common in Iraq since 2003, with weaker demographics such as Sunni Arabs, Christians, and Yazidis being disproportionately affected as the government is too powerless or unwilling to protect their rights and their lives from being threatened by militants

With Iraq only recently emerging from a war with IS that cost billions of dollars that it seeks to recoup with investments, Baghdad needs to ensure that investors can have confidence that the rule of law will prevail, and any property owned by someone is indeed theirs and cannot simply be taken from them by men with guns.

Failure to do so will mean that the economy will continue to flounder, as it becomes ever clearer that it is not safe to do business in Iraq.
 

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

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