The New Iraq: A Black Marketeer's Paradise

The operations to root out forces loyal to ISIS have battered and destroyed many cities and towns across Iraq including Tikrit, Fallujah, Sinjar, Ramadi and Mosul while Baghdad, its surrounding suburbs, and neighbourhoods in Karbala and Basra have been rocked by ISIS's suicide bombing campaign and covert actions. 

At this juncture, the campaign to recapture Mosul will be a race to capture territory and claim the scalp of ISIS. The political divisions within the Iraqi militias and Kurdish peshmerga assembled against the city by the United States is no secret and will be significant in determining the outcome of the Iraqi Civil War. It is unlikely that these deep political divisions will not end in bloodshed between the diverse and well-armed groups.

The consequences of rule under Saddam, decades of conflict, economic and social upheaval and American policies during the occupation including de-Baathification, economic warfare to combat the Iraqi insurgency, counterinsurgency and the Surge have deeply wounded the country, its economy and its people. The sectarian narratives driven by politicians, policymakers and media in the West which stipulate that Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite communities as the source of violence will not provide all the answers for resolving the conflict. True, ISIS (previously Al-Qa'ida in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) fights with an explicitly sectarian narrative and remains a ferocious neo-Salafi/Wahhabi jihādist movement, however ISIS is a loose but powerful collection of different insurgents and factions, unified under command of Baghdadi and ISIS's elite powered by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Its strength is that it is not a single collective.

This is suited to Iraq and the landscape of the Syrian civil war where state 'authority fragments, control of territory and people is divided between competing armed groups, and mutually exclusive claims of the rights to rule create conditions of 'multiple sovereignty' and the formation of states-within-states'. These are common features of civil wars, not features unique to Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Like other militias, warlords and tribes across Iraqi history, Baghdadi has coopted and carved out his own area of economic interest in Iraqi borderlands where drug trafficking, oil smuggling, human organ trafficking, female sex trafficking and child slaves has been rife for decades. 

The issue of female sex trafficking did not start with the enslavement of Yazidi women and girls during ISIS's seizure of Mosul in 2014. Heartland Alliance, a U.S organisation tracked 100 cases of human trafficking in Iraq between 2012-2014 while a report the group published in 2010 stated "...since the overthrow of the Iraqi regime in 2003, large numbers of refugees and internally displaced Iraqis have had to flee their homes, resulting in a rise in kidnapping and trafficking."

In 2010, the U.S State Department released its 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report (TiP Report) revealing that innocent men, women and children "...some as young as 11 years old, are subjected to conditions of human trafficking within the country and in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Iran, and possibly Yemen for forced prostitution and sexual exploitation within households. In some cases, women are lured into forced sexual exploitation through false promises of work. The more prevalent means of human trafficking is through sale or forced marriage." ISIS's conduct against the Yezidis where younger women and girls were sold into sexual or domestic slavery or given as gifts to fighters, as detailed by Amnesty International, is not not a new phenomenon in Iraq as the TiP report gives further evidence that:

"The trafficking of many women and girls within Iraq for the purpose of sexual exploitation has been done through the traditional institution of temporary marriages (muta’a)Under this arrangement, the family receives a dowry from the husband and the marriage is terminated after a specified period. Iraqi males have also taken advantage of muta’a to traffic multiple women into other Iraqi provinces or neighboring countries."

For the women involved in the sex trade, prostitution and trafficking lies 'a tangled hierarchy of armed men: corrupt police, militias that profit from the sex trade, and militias that brutally oppose it.' This has led to honour killings, suicides and tit-for-tat massacres by secular and religious gangs and militia for control and/or repression of the industry. 


Drug trafficking has also become a major issue since the collapse of control over its borders. Where there is demand, an inexhaustible demand as addiction rates in Iraq steadily rise, narco-traffic will eventually become a powerful form of political-economy. Since 1988, there have been escalating issues with prescription drugs like Benzhexol and Diazepam. In 2005, the Washington Post reported that "the flow of hashish and heroin from Iran and Afghanistan" had surged since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since 2010, there have been reports that new drugs, including Tramadol (painkiller), methamphetamine (crystal meth), and Captagon are flooding Iraq to be used by civilians coping with years of war, unemployment and the difficulty of living in a society in a seemingly permanent state of instability. In 2010, The New York Times wrote a piece on the escalation of drug and alcohol abuse in the Iraqi military and security forces. Already weighed down by endemic corruption, military and police officials reported that 50 per cent of colleagues used drugs or drank on duty. A counterfeit drugs industry, estimated to be worth $1 billion a year, has also emerged as cheap, low-quality drugs from India and China have seeped into Iraq's underground economy, which has led to kidnap and murder as people fight for control of this lucrative enterprise. 

Control over the Iraqi borderlands and routes 1, 6, 8 and 10 to the Gulf, Jordan, Syria and Turkey have been fiercely contested by insurgents groups, regional powers, militias and America's coalition forces during the occupation and beyond. For example, Zarqawi and his predecessor Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who had successfully carved out a mini-state following an alliance of strategic convenience with Sunni tribes, paid the price when they attempted to exert control over portions of the road from Baghdad to Amman, Highway 10. The complaints by Sunni tribal leaders that such actions undercut the ability of the Albu Risha tribe to raise revenue by taxing or extorting traders and travellers was met by a wave of retaliatory killings by Al-Qa'ida in Iraq. The killings by Al-Qaida in Iraq gave tribal groups two incentives to bury the jihādists. The first was political as they slaughtered their tribal leaders and the second was economic as Zarqawi and Omar al-Baghdadi tried to claim too much influence on traditional trade routes with Jordan. Members of Al-Qa'ida were murdered,  Zarqawi was sold out to US forces by the Sunnis in 2005 and AQI was weakened by the "Sunni Awakening" assisted by General Petraeus' Surge. 

Iraq is no different from Mexico or Afghanistan, countries whose economies and sovereignty have both been carved up by a variety of different factions. ISIS's behaviour parallels that of a Mexican or Colombian cartel as Jeremy Kyrt argues:

"Both use nearly identical tactics against those who would oppose them, including publicized beheadings, slavery, and the deployment of child soldiers. And both have an uncanny ability to appeal to the poor and downtrodden in their respective homelands, which gives them a powerful constituent base for easy recruitment. The standard narrative in the U.S. is that ISIS is motivated primarily by fundamentalist religious fervor, whereas the cartels are more like us: secular, even capitalistic in nature. This perception is dangerously flawed. At least two major cartels—Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar) and La Familia Michoacana—were openly religious cults that practiced Satan worship and cannibalism. They also built shrines and idols, and distributed pamphlets preaching their death-obsessed ideology to the masses."

The difference between the criminal cartels and ISIS is that the former have actually killed more people than Baghdadi's organisation. Historical and contextual factors are, naturally, important as the origins of ISIS and the sectarian violence it preaches are complex, however understanding the evolution of the economic, religious, technological, criminal, political and social ideological forces across the world in recent decades may give equally important answers to understanding its brutality and where it gains its strength from, many of which are secular and Western related, not just Middle Eastern forms of political power.  

Flickr/U.S Soldier

Flickr/U.S Soldier

Iraq has become a transit zone. The country has become 'an example of the violence that underpins the wider project of neoliberalism, a project that actively seeks to transform the world in ways that make its assumptions appear as true.' Iraq is an extreme manifestation of the driving forces of global economy at their worst fused to the ruthlessness and delirium at the heart of the American dream brought to the country by Washington and London in 2003 melded together with tribal, religious, militia and criminal violence. The fall of Mosul will not be, according to BBC News, the "apocalyptic" final battle which rids the world of ISIS. This is not the Second World War, the violence consuming Iraq is post-modern. ISIS will remain influential, not because of ideological or religious conviction, but because state and non-actors behaviour, the globalisation of black market and criminal economy will enable them to do so. It does need to seize the Green Zone or control Baghdad to function or launch terrorist attacks against Middle Eastern and European targets. 

Those who speak of ISIS as "barbaric", those who frame the clash with ISIS as a "War of Civilisations", that ISIS "is a terrorist organisation, pure and simple," and that ISIS violence is purely rooted in a warped interpretation of Islam are missing the mark. Religion is an important factor, but is frequently overstated and bashed over the heads of readers. There are other factors driving violence in Iraq, Syria and the wider Middle East.  The militias, warlords, tribes and insurgent groups carving up Iraq are living 'the lie of any dividing line...between "legal" and "illegal" perfect synthesis with the everyday life and ethos of the global markets' (Robert Saviano, ZeroZeroZero) where criminal, kleptocratic, religious, corporative or oligarchic forces have tapped into the instability and corruption across Iraq. Mishan al-Jabouri, tasked with protecting public monies and investigating corruption stated bluntly to Martin Chulov in February, 2016 that: 

"There is no solution, everybody is corrupt, from the top of society to the bottom. Everyone. Including me...I was offered $5 million by someone to stop investigating him. I took it, and continued prosecuting him anyway...Believe me, most of the senior names in the country have been responsible for stealing nearly all its wealth. There are names at the top of the tree who would kill me if I went after them."

It is little wonder that months later that mass-protests occurred in Baghdad and the poor stormed the despised Green Zone (surrounded by high concrete walls and security checkpoints) and staged a peaceful occupation of the Iraqi Parliament under the guidance of Muqtada al-Sadr. These protests were catalysed by a desire to remove the ethno-sectarian communal quotas (Muhasasa Ta'ifiya), financial and administrative corruption, security failures, and the endemic crisis of food, water and electricity shortages as the government struggled to address the deficit produced by the collapse of oil prices in 2015. The International Monetary Fund's $5.6 billion bailout will not be enough to stabilise the Iraqi economy. 

What is "legal" in Iraq? The black market, which has existed since the obliteration of Iraq's economy during the Iran-Iraq War, the First Gulf War and the sanctions-era, has grafted itself onto Iraqi political, economic and social scenes. This has had political consequences for the wider region. 

"In other countries in the region, such as Yemen, the result of allowing tribes to contest state authority is clear: a dysfunctional country prone to bouts of serious internecine violence. Such violence can also cross borders, especially if neighboring states are willing to use the tribes as their own agents. Pakistan provides a particularly ominous example of this dysfunctionality: its failure to absorb its Pashtun population has threatened the viability of the Pakistani state. The continued nurturing of tribalism in Iraq, in a way that sustains tribes in opposition to the central government rather than folding them into it, will bring about an Iraqi state that suffers from the same instability and violence as Yemen and Pakistan."

The questions of warlordism, war economics, tribalism, militia-rule, arms-trade, economic downturn and kleptocracy do not dominate discussion as "terrorism", "counterterrorism", "ideology", and "sectarian violence" does. Syria and Iraq have destabilised each other, it is not just the Syrian War which has destabilised Iraq, a country which underwent revolutionary change in 2003 following the deposition of Saddam Hussein by the Bush administration.

Military and political policy centres around labelling, branding, defining, reacting, and checking violence. Bombing raids by coalition aircraft against "ISIS" could be easily interpreted as bombing Iraqi civilians and infrastructure. Behind the headlines of Iraqi Security Forces' recapturing territory and killing members of "ISIS" could be the reality of prisoners of war and/or Sunni civilians and "collaborators" being executed on the spot. This narrow security lens does not give ample space for discussions on other factors which will shape future conflict in Iraq. These alternatives debates are side-lined while crude categorisations explaining sectarianism and religious extremism in Iraq 'renders invisible the everyday concerns and struggles of people trying to survive in conditions of war.' These distorted narratives have been aggravated and manipulated by the meddling of opportunistic foreign powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran.   

Tapping into Iraq's vast energy reserves and oil wealth, pouring investments into reconstruction and infrastructure while curbing oil over-dependency, diversifying the Iraqi economy and replacing the ideological fantasies of the neo-liberal or neo-conservative with practical measures will be key to rebuilding Iraq and its society. 

There are various challenges. Paralysing/negotiating the control of trade routes with militias and tribes, ensuring the multiple ethnic and tribal groups across Iraq are not alienated and integrating them into a balanced political system which respects autonomy but gives them a voice in central government and isolating spoilers, terrorists, and separatists is only the beginning of the political solutions. Meanwhile pouring money into university and educational institutions, introducing sustainable agricultural, technological, and ecological projects to combat water and food insecurity, ensuring the effective supply of water and electricity, empowering youth and introducing measures, religious and social, to reduce and combat extremist violence in alignment with security and defence are socio-economic projects which will be enormous undertakings.

These development goals will have to walk hand-in-hand with economic, social and military aid, reintegrating millions of IDPs and refugees into Iraqi society, rebuilding infrastructure while simultaneously reducing the influence of the deeply-embedded black market economy and criminal underworld. All this will have to be done in a largely anti-Western and anti-American society crafted by decades of misery and violence heaped upon the people by sanctions, repression, war and occupation. 

The prospects for a revitalised and unified Iraq in the near-future are slim. The West historically have always desired a compliant regime to safeguard oil interests in the Persian Gulf while a proxy Shiite-dominated government which cannot threaten Iranian political, social, economic interests and lives as Saddam did during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) suits Tehran's political establishment.

The seizure of Mosul and a post-ISIS Iraq will not guarantee a peaceful transition. Iraq will remain unified on a map, but its sovereignty will be fragmented, fractured and decentralised among state and non-state actors. The question should not be partition and post-ISIS Iraq, it should be debating whether this transit zone and black market dominating Iraq has become unassailable and how this will pave way for future violence.  It is a disease which is spreading to other areas of the Middle East. 

Matthew Williams