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Iraq: back on the brink of the abyss?

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Robin Lustig | 10:28 UK time, Friday, 23 December 2011

Do you remember what President Obama said 10 days ago when he marked the formal departure of the last American troops from Iraq?

"We left behind us a sovereign Iraq, stable and self-sufficient, with a representative government elected by its people."

Hmm. Stable? Self-sufficient? Representative government? Maybe, yet again, a US President is allowing wishful thinking to get the better of him. ("Mission accomplished", anyone?)

Yesterday, multiple bomb attacks in Baghdad killed at least 67 people. Most of the attacks appear to have been aimed at Shia targets, just as they were in the worst days of the sectarian violence in 2006-7, when thousands of people died.

(By the way, I wouldn't want you to think that the US no longer has a significant presence in Iraq. Its embassy in Baghdad is reported to have about 15,000 people on its staff, and I imagine more than a handful receive their monthly pay cheques from the Pentagon.)

Why has the violence flared now, after several months of relative calm? As always, it seems the context is regional power-plays more than religious tensions. After all, if the US army are no longer a visible presence, doesn't someone have to fill the vacuum?

Look at it this way: which regional power most wants to be seen as the dominant influence in Iraq? Which regional power has a clear strategic interest in being able to portray itself as a victor in Iraq, while the US is perceived as a loser?

And - not coincidentally - which regional power has most to lose if its one Arab ally, Syria, becomes the latest country where popular protests and armed insurrection topple a brutal and autocratic regime?

The answer, obviously enough, is Iran, Iraq's giant Shia neighbour to the east which is closely tied to prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maybe that helps explain why within days of the final US troop withdrawal, he has moved to ratchet up the pressure on the country's leading Sunni politicians.

A warrant has been issued for the arrest of the Sunni vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, on terrorism charges, and the Sunni deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, who's now facing a no confidence vote in parliament, told me this week that he regards Mr Maliki as a worse dictator than Saddam Hussein.

So, if the Iranians are keen to bolster Shia power in Iraq, who is likely to be equally keen to stop them? Saudi Arabia, perhaps, which has long been Iran's main rival for regional hegemony and which regards itself as the protector of Sunni Arabs wherever they are threatened?

Could that be why Sunni bombers are suddenly back in action? (To be fair, we don't yet know who yesterday's bombers were, but there's a widespread assumption that they were tied to, or affiliated with, al Qaeda.)

It's worth recalling that the coalition government headed by Mr Maliki was painfully and reluctantly stitched together only as a result of enormous diplomatic pressure after the parliamentary elections of December 2005. It took six months of haggling to get it together, after Mr Maliki's Dawa party and its allies failed to win enough seats to form a majority without the support of other parliamentary blocs.

Take away the US glue that was holding the coalition together, and - judging by the events of the past week - it soon comes crumbling down. Mr Hashemi has fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, where the prime minister's writ doesn't run, and there's every reason to suppose that other Sunni leaders will soon decide to have no more to do with Mr Maliki.

In other words, Iraq is once again teetering on the brink of the abyss. It's not a reassuring sight as we end this year of tumult right across the Arab world.

Footnote: I realise we've brought you a lot more doom and gloom over the past 12 months than you would have liked - so let me suggest what you can hope for in the coming year: a clement winter with no gales, blizzards or floods; an unexpected economic upturn with lots of new jobs; a mysterious benefactor who pays off all the eurozone's debts; a successful London Olympics with a lovely clutch of gold medals for Team GB; and an end to strife in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq.

I didn't say it'll happen - I suggested you can hope for it. Meanwhile, as I say at this time every year: enjoy the company of your family and friends; admire the trees and the flowers in parks and gardens; count your blessings.

Happy Christmas.


  • Comment number 1.

    US army has withdrawn from Iraq after 9 years. Obama & Maliki use the word "victory".
    Mohammad Majid Al-Sheikh: Based on the security pact signed between Iraq and the United States, all American troops were required to leave Iraq by December 31, 2011. All the terms of the agreement have been fully implemented.
    Iraqi Govt (by ensuring the implementation of the agreement) proved its authority, its control in running its own affairs. Now, Iraq is a fully independent country, not one under US occupation or influence.
    The Americans have 505 military bases around the world. It's like WalMart or MacDonald's - always one near you.
    In recent months, there have been various indications, including terrorist attacks, that show Iraq’s security forces still have shortcomings. How to overcome them? Turn to EU, US, NATO?
    Iraqi security forces need better equipment but in terms of upholding security, we have had no problems in the past two years. Since 2009, police & security have demonstrated their capability in curtailing terrorist acts. The Iraqi Govt demonstrated its control during the month of Muharram in the city of Karbala where some 7 million pilgrims faced no security problems. Iraq’s seemed destined for independent control; Secretary General of the Arab League Nabil Al-Arabi reaffirmed this on a recent trip to Baghdad. So, what's happening?

  • Comment number 2.

    There arel serious challenges in Iraq - including disputes over power-sharing among central government & provinces. For example, Salahaddin province is pressing for self-autonomy. As for self-autonomy, PM has declared that it should be considered on the basis of the constitution. However, he has reminded that the time is not appropriate for dealing with self-autonomy in some regions (e.g. oil-rich).
    It's reported that the Kurdistan Autonomous Region has signed major deals with Western oil companies such as the American Exxon Mobil. This alone has got to create a disagreement between the Kurds & Iraq’s central government on sharing oil resources? Only the central government is authorized to make major decisions about energy resources. One should differentiate between economic investments & sale of oil or distribution of oil revenues. The central government supports foreign investment in all regions of the country including Kurdistan but major decisions in oil & economic fields are made by the central government.

  • Comment number 3.

    Apart from the northern provinces (Kurdistan) which were not under Saddam’s control, rebuilding the country began, but security challenges gave precedence to security.
    Let’s turn to other important issues in Iraq’s relations with its neighbors. What has the issue of MKO & Ashraf Camp led to?
    As you know, this group and its members were stationed in Iraq during the rule of Saddam Hussein. The former regime forcibly confiscated farm lands from their owners & gave them to the group to set up the camp. Thus, after the fall of the regime, people demanded their land back & Iraq made a resolute decision that the group must leave Iraq by December 31, 2011. Hence, negotiations were held in the past two years with the US, EU, Red Cross & UN to inform them of Iraq’s decision. It should be noted that Iraq’s decision to expel MKO members is FIRM & IRREVERSIBLE.
    Latest developments between Tehran & Baghdad.
    Iran-Iraq relations are at the highest level based on the intention of leaders of the 2 countries.
    The value of economic transactions between the two countries reached $6B in 2011. This year they reached an important agreement to redefine land & sea borders. During a visit by Iraq’s justice minister to Tehran, a criminal extradition agreement was also signed between the two countries.
    On PJAK, good talks were held during President of the Iraqi Autonomous Kurdistan Region. Mr. Barzani’s visit to Tehran made it clear that Iraq would not allow groups like PJAK or PKK to use its territory as a base against other countries.

  • Comment number 4.

    US officials have confirmed Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus had paid a visit to Baghdad in recent days.
    But they said it was a previously scheduled trip to Iraq & Afghanistan & Petraeus was not engaged in any political talks in Baghdad. (I find this hard to believe.)Hashemi; meanwhile, Hashemi held defiant news conference in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil, denying the charges laid against him & vowing to face them off in court. Quote: “I swear to God that I never committed a sin when it comes to Iraqi blood. I suggest transferring the case to Kurdistan. On this basis, I will be ready to face trial.”
    He added that apparent confessions aired on state television linking him to attacks were 'false’ & ‘politicized’. His office has complained of “intentional harassment”.
    Security officials say they have detained at least 13 of the vice president’s bodyguards in recent weeks, but Hashemi’s office says only three have been arrested. Maliki and other leaders have called for talks to resolve the political crisis.
    Maliki has also called for Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlak, to be sacked after Mutlak said the premier was worse than Saddam Hussein.

  • Comment number 5.

    Okay, back to my question: What is going on?
    I believe this is going on: effort by the US to secure its hegemony over the oil-rich Middle East & Caspian Basin.
    Eliminating the regime of Saddam Hussein had the effect of strengthening Iran as a regional power. The US has long been determined to end Iran’s challenge to US strategic interests, a policy it has pursued in a far more reckless fashion after the working class uprisings of the “Arab Spring” & downfall of long-time US allies Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia & Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
    Working with the official “opposition” movements to maintain close relations with Tunis & Cairo allowed NATO to launch war against Libya as well as destabilise Syria. In every case a similar collection of political forces is backed by regional powers that are deemed to be amenable to US dictates - Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Egypt & Turkey.
    What is being attempted is nothing less than redrawing the political map of the entire Middle East. It threatens not only region-wide conflict, but to involve those major powers Washington is trying to exclude from this area of vital geostrategic concern: Russia & China. It is geopolitical suicide, but the US will not give it up.
    We need mass
    - anti-war movements (like 2003);
    - moral appeals;
    -pressure on the imperialist powers.
    It's not a Sunni/Shiite dispute, but you can bet certain powers will try everything is their powers to make it look like sectarian strife. Everything possible must be done to stop the insanity, the bloodshed, and the domination of the world by predatory imperialist powers and their local puppets.

  • Comment number 6.

    Sectarian chaos in Iraq?
    Duleimi sheikhs claim marginalised Sunnis. Two leading members of Iraq's largest and most powerful Sunni tribe have warned of imminent sectarian chaos in the wake of the US withdrawal, claiming that the government of prime minister Nouri al-Maliki is promoting an anti-Sunni agenda...
    Their warnings come after Iraq's VP, Tariq al-Hashimi, defended himself over claims that he had used his guards to act as hit squads to target political rivals and had ordered a recent car bombing near the Iraqi parliament. The allegations against one of the highest ranking Sunni figures in govt have sharply unsettled Iraq. The crisis risks unravelling a fragile power-sharing deal among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish blocs that have struggled to overcome tensions since sectarian slaughter drove Iraq to the edge of civil war in the years after Saddam Hussein fell (2003).
    President, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, & Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Regional Government, called for dialogue.
    This so-called unravelling of the domestic scene contrasts with portrait painted by US commanders who came close to saying all was "peachy". The claims about Hashimi, made on state television, which aired the alleged confessions of three of his guards, have inflamed already high tensions between Sunni politicians and the Shia-led government of Maliki. Last week, Maliki ordered a second prominent Sunni, Deputy PM Saleh al-Mutlaq, to stay away from parliament.
    Three Sunni Provinces have made unilateral declarations of autonomy.
    Sheikh Ali Hatem Sleiman al-Duleimi, whose Baghdad compound was recently confiscated after he publicly insulted Iran's most senior cleric, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Maliki of moving swiftly to consolidate sectarian rule in US vacuum.
    Anbar, a western Iraqi province bordering eastern Syria, is one of the most strategic locations. Almost exclusively Sunni, it has been at odds with Baghdad ever since the ousting of Hussein. Anbar's power base was rooted in Saddam's regime. Now the province seems to again be on a war footing, with jihad websites making a call to arms in recent weeks, which has alarmed Baghdad - & neighbouring Damascus, where a Sunni-led insurgency against the Allawite regime of the Assad family is taking shape.
    A second sheikh, the elder and leader of the Duleimi tribe, Sheikh Majid Sleiman, said the deteriorating situation in Syria and the increasingly sect-based feuds in Iraq were combining to imperil the region, especially because: Iraqi Sunni are energised to help Syrian Sunni.

  • Comment number 7.

    Here is my best guess re Iraqi chaos:
    WH is covertly creating chaos in Iraq to justify its previous & possibly future presence. It Iran Americans fear most.
    A chaotic Iraq seems to play into Iran's desire for increased influence in that region. IF US Govt manages to convince the international community into believing that American presence in Iraq was in best interest of all concerned, it might justify that huge embassy with its thousands of American contractors & staff.
    To US, loss of leverage in Iraq is tantamount to the loss of future leadership in the Middle East region. Therefore, look for US to play every covert imaginable to get another SHOT at Iraq.
    Is not, Washington making fresh attempts to portray Nouri Maliki as a new Saddam Hussein, convince the international community that without the presence of US troops, there will be forever a security vacuum in the country.
    Iraq so needs a powerful leader to draw together the Kurds, the Sunni, the Shiites...or the US will do it for them...with pleasure. Therefore, look for more chaos and death and bleeding and finger-pointing...
    The US will never quit The Middle East.

  • Comment number 8.


    It is an immense tragedy that the USA imported a puppet regime. Hang on didn't they do exactly the same in Vietnam? Haven't they made the same error time and time again? Give it a short time and the remaining 15,000 us citizens at the embassy will be being evacuated by helicopter, if the past is anything to go by. I vividly remember the newsreel footage. The USA have not shown that they have learned anything about power and its limitations, and now they have run out of men, materiel and money so have left. They are NOT a superpower any more.


    However I sincerely hope I am wrong in the expectation that we will very soon see some mindless ranting and evidence fabrication against Iran as a pretext to launch a nuclear strike.


    US policy failures will destroy the very country that all of their policy is designed to help, unless they start to learn and understand something about other people and value their differences.

    The USA must learn that talking is better than fighting and that all wars end by talking, until they do they will waste trillions and achieve nothing positive and will remain the most destructive force on the planet. It is amazing that their religion instructs them to love their neighbour and they have never understood or acted upon the injunction.

    One of the few forces in the USA that may be able to pull the USA away from its error is the Zionist lobby let us all hope that they can persuade the USA to see sense and to understand that in the end everyone has to live, and cooperate, with their neighbours. This must include dealing with their just grievances in a fair and equitable manner - indeed in the same manner that a country would expect the same grievances to be handled if they were theirs.


    Where are all the arms coming from? I do hope it is not from the USA or Israel! Just look how successful the US policy of arming the Taliban has been!

  • Comment number 9.


    "and an end to strife in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq."

    ---you forgot the occupied Palestinian West Bank ?

    -- ( I trust not on purpose)

  • Comment number 10.

    Who should pay? Country(s) that used radioactive weapons used by foreign troops in Iraq over the last two decades which will continue to take the lives of persons for years to come. Basra lies above Iraq's largest oil reserves. Accordingly, the population in the country's southernmost province has suffered war to a much larger degree than any other region: from the war with Iran in the 1980s to the Gulf War in 1991 & US-led invasion in 2003.
    Basra is being approached when you see black smoke columns from Rumaila's oil refinery, or the war debris littering both sides of the road. Much of this junk was destroyed during both Gulf wars by URANIUM-impregnated BOMBS.
    Years later, the radioactive particles still fill the air alongside the emissions from the oil refineries and break into the food chain through the rain, or the stubble that the cattle eat on the banks of the Tigris & Euphrates. Basra's air and water are poisoned. Even the few palm trees suffer from mysterious illnesses that make them lose their leaves.
    The possible link between radioactive metal and health problems has not been conclusively proven. Yet many babies in Basra are born with no brain, no eyes or the intestines out of their gut.

  • Comment number 11.

    One father said: "I was expecting twins but, instead, I had a girl with two heads."
    According to a 2005 study by the University of Baghdad, cases of birth defects increased tenfold in Basra between 1989 and 2001. The number of cancer cases among children under 15 grew by four.
    A more recent joint study published last year by the University of Washington and the University of Basra concluded that Basra's childhood leukemia rates more than doubled over a 15-year period. Cancer was significantly higher in Basra Province than in other parts of Iraq.
    In 2010, the Basra Children's Hospital, specializing in paediatric oncology, opened its doors. Built mostly by the US Army Corps of Engineers, the $166M (126 million euros).
    Some children with cancer get treatment too late There is no money to commute everyday from home. Children suffer from lymphoma, leukemia or brain cancer. These are also recurrent diagnoses among many of the thousands of sick American soldiers who took part in the two wars in Iraq. The Pentagon still WILL NOT ADMIT ANY CONNECTION between the use of depleted uranium and cancer.
    The Americans invaded Iraq using the excuse of weapons of mass destruction, but they had already used them against Iraq.
    Experts say that depleted uranium has a life of four billion years. Accordingly, towns and cities in Basra & other Provinces will remain poisoned until the end of times.
    And then there was Libya...

  • Comment number 12.

    I am confident that the American people are sick and tired of both the cost and duration of the intervention in Iraq and of the failure that is impending in the instability that is being displayed in Baghdad on the eve of evacuation by American troops. As we enter a presidential election year President Obama will hope to capitalize on fulfilling his promise to his demoralized supporters to end the Iraq occupation by the end of his first term. This will also make it unlikely that the West will seek a military intervention in Syria despite the opportunity that unrest in the country presents for regime change.

  • Comment number 13.

    Somehow I believe 15,000 American Embassy personnel (presumably with diplomatic immunity) being stationed in Iraq --is going to backfire.

    -- and will be answered by drones.

  • Comment number 14.

    13. quietoaktree wrote: "backfire... drones."

    There is almost no acceptable use of 'drone' except perhaps by P.G. Wodehouse and then only as fiction.

    Drone as a background wail by a bagpipe to drown out the general noise perfectly describes the modern usage. Employing drones distances the dploying agent from the reality or indeed the necessity of treating everyone friends and enemies alike as equally valued human beings with valid points of view.

    What we really really need is a 'negotiation' drone! Drone that 'pressurise' both sides to talk to, and importantly listen to, each other!

    War is never the answer, only talking works.

  • Comment number 15.

    Recent bombings in Iraq have been claimed by Al Qaeda. Really? What Al Qaeda. Didn't US say Iraq was clear of Al Qaeda, that they were regrouping in Yemen?
    This is another dose of disinformation paid for by the FBI & DOD - blame for Taliban or Al Qaeda even when there were no facts to be found.
    There are problems with the Al Qaeda story.
    US counter-intelligence sources in Baghdad have indicated there are no Al Qaeda forces in Iraq & if there were, why would the attacks be so indiscriminate?
    On the other hand, Israel has recently moved troops & aircraft into Kurdistan (without government approval). Bombings such as those across Pakistan, Iran & Iraq & now Nigeria are signature Mossad “false flag” terror operations. The rationale is either to start civil war or sell security equipment to the victims. In every case, only Israel benefits, no one else. Al Qaeda statements are all assumed to be the same, mythology written in Tel Aviv to cover their operation in Kurdistan & with PKK in Turkey, taking advantage of the US withdrawal from Iraq.
    Israel already has drones in Kurdistan (put their without the permission of the Iraq government). It has moved troops into Kurdistan as part of an occupying force and is operating against Iran from positions in Iraq.
    Recent sightings of “non Arabic speaking” troops moving through Jordan recently are now believed to have been Israeli units moving off the Golan Heights in generic military attire. More bombings are expected in Iraq, &. Al Qaeda will be fingered.
    Israeli forces have been active in the Mosul region for years, supporting PKK terrorist cells in Turkey & orchestrating tensions between the Christian community & local Muslims.
    Israel considers Kurdistan part of “Greater Israel” and Likudist leaders have indicated a desire to annex Kurdistan. The more formalized occupation of portions of Kurdistan by uniformed IDF personnel is a significant increase in visibility.
    It is also a direct challenge to the government in Baghdad. What is Baghdad supposed to do?

  • Comment number 16.



  • Comment number 17.

    Aye. Right.

  • Comment number 18.

    #14 J_f_H

    "backfire... drones."

    Have you given any thought about the Japan-China agreement about their currencies and bonds ?

    America tried to leave China out of its ´Pacific Rim´ trade agreement -- and it has backfired -- and ´Drones´ are on the way to both the USA and Europe. The $ World trade payments will be reduced and this appears to be a way for China to help the Eurozone --if they get their house in order and Merkel gets her way.

    While it is only the first step, it could be the beginnings of a new ERM -- with the possibility of including Asia and Europe -- with the $ in the back seat. If commodity prices also become involved eg. Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia - the ´Drones´-- will not be for observation, but as you have suggested --

    "What we really really need is a 'negotiation' drone! Drone that 'pressurise' both sides to talk to, and importantly listen to, each other!"

    -- This should concentrate minds -- or do I falsely interpret ?

  • Comment number 19.

    "and an end to strife in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and Iraq."

    --- and Iran ?

    Anti-Iranian hysteria is being whipped up in America --the same as with Iraq.

    23 December 2011 / AP, NEW YORK
    A federal judge has signed a default judgment finding Iran, the Taliban and al-Qaeda liable in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
    Daniels signed findings of fact saying the plaintiffs had established that the 2001 attacks were caused by the support the defendants provided to al-Qaida.
    The findings also said Iran continues to provide material support and resources to al-Qaeda by providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda leadership and rank-and-file al-Qaeda members.

    -- The arguments for war are becoming more resembling those used by Nazi Germany--and pursued with similar intensity -- by the usual suspects.

  • Comment number 20.

    Many thanks to Bush House and its past and present staff.

    --- A Happy New Year to all !

    ( Mods included --of course --wherever they are resident)

  • Comment number 21.

    --And to all the ´Free Thinking´ contributors !

  • Comment number 22.

    What happened to 2012 ?

  • Comment number 23.

    22. At 00:03 1st Jan 2011, You wrote:
    What happened to 2012 ?

    -- A minor detail for the computer generation -- my short-wave radio is still functioning for emergencies.

  • Comment number 24.

    HAPPY  *hic*  NEW YEAR!

  • Comment number 25.

    The West has ventured into cultures that are in transition. This all takes time. Any change in the political situation will be temporary and will change again. The young adults in these nations want a future and that will force a change in these governments over time. Patience is necessary in this world of real-time reporting. Events are not as important as presented. The West should deal with the banks as they are a greater threat to national security. It is difficult to criticize government corruption in the Arab world after the Western governments facilitated the theft of national treasuries and tax their citizens to protect the interest of the wealthy.


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