Before the Arab Revolutions, the Iraq War, followed closely by the Afghan War, made regular headlines across the world and the Middle East. With the onset of war and revolution in Syria, Yemen and Libya in 2011, ferocious crackdowns on activists and protestors in Bahrain, two revolts in Egypt and the 2014 Gaza War, the end of the occupation of Iraq passed quietly and its horrendous violence up to the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria received limited coverage from international media outlets. After seizing an area the size of Great Britain in Syria and Iraq, cities and towns across north and western Iraq including Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit and Mosul, the Iraqi army, supported by the Kurdish peshmerga and paramilitary groups, fought a hard guerrilla war in urban terrain with ISIS insurgents and jihadists. War crimes, devastating suicide bombings and ethnic cleansing became trademarks of a conflict which tore the country apart - one already deeply divided by the Iraq War, the disastrous mismanagement of the occupation and the Iran-Iraq War.
Since the defeat of the ISIS and its dramatic final stand in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq has slipped off the news agenda once more. Two million civilians, mainly Sunni, have been uprooted by fighting in northwestern and central Iraq between 2013 and 2017 and protests against corruption and water pollution in Basra rocked Iraq in September. However, is Iraq on the road to the recovery? Despite being awash with internally displaced persons, violence is at its lowest for decades and as the civil war has reached its conclusion, soft power and issues of corruption, electricity, water, women’s rights and environmentalism are returning to the forefront of Iraq’s political landscape. With the isolation of ISIS into small rural pockets and forcing the terrorist group underground, issues of security and terrorism have become secondary challenges.
Author, journalist and media consultant, Haider Al-Safi has lived through some of Iraq’s most turbulent times in its modern history. He is an experienced war journalist who worked in Iraq between 2003 - 2005 during the American invasion and the subsequent occupation it established . In 2014, he was nominated and won “The Grierson Award” for the best historical documentary. “Iraq War - Regime Change” which was broadcasted on BBC 2 and followed the political factors that led to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Haider is an author of Iraqi Media: From Saddam’s Propaganda to American State-Building which followed the transformation of the Iraqi media under the totalitarian regime of Saddam and its transition to the United States Army and the Coalition Provisional Authority. He has also worked with a range of media organisations in the UK such as ITV, Channel 4, APTN and the BBC. In October, I sat down with him to discuss post-Saddam Iraq and the new challenges the country faces in the wake of the one of the Middle East’s worst civil wars.
1. Post-Saddam Iraq has been in state of conflict for nearly eighteen years, do you believe the post-ISIS Iraq will herald the end of decades of turmoil in Iraq?
Regarding post-ISIS Iraq, I do not think there will be decades of turmoil and conflict anymore. I think the country will recover very quickly. The government recently declared a $60 billion reserve in cash in the Iraqi bank which is the first time Iraq has declared such a huge amount. I don’t believe there will be major violence after ISIS either as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) are integrated within the government and army. The only thing which could become a problem is that Ali Al Sistani is getting old. The spiritual leader of Iraqi Shia Muslims has stabilised the situation and Sistani is the only one who has been able to keep the PMF in check. No one can confront his influence and he is the one who silences the paramilitary PMF.
Another factor creating stability is that the Iraqi army gained both respect and power during the war with ISIS. For example, many officers - despite their relationship to the previous regime - are not corrupt. In the fight against ISIS, they underwent restructuring while winning the war against the militants after losing equipment, dignity and respect in the wake of the defeat at Mosul in 2014. In terms of power, the most powerful faction in Iraq now is the army in comparison to the militias and the PMF. The PMF know they can’t officially move against the army. They can play dirty tricks through assassinations (militias are good at this) and when they have support from regional powers, but they cannot capture a city and aren’t to say “You cannot enter this city.” It is very different now then in 2014. There is lots of reorganisation being done within the military. The Iraqi army of Prime Minster Nouri Al-Malaki is not the Iraqi army of Haider Al-Abadi.
If you go back to 2014, there was speculation that ISIS would remain in Iraq for five to ten years. ISIS were finished within three and a half years. This is a great achievement for an army which was humiliated at Mosul and lost one third of the country to the terrorist organisation. I think there will be many security issues but it won’t go back to bad days of ISIS or the civil war period. The people will not want to return to those years. Four years of Haider Al-Abadi, a non-sectarian prime minister from Baghdad who lived in a mixed district (Kurd, Shia, Sunni) who does not judge people by their backgrounds. The great difference between Al-Abadi and Malaki (they only lived 100 km apart) was that Malaki came from a city of Abu Gharaq and lived in exile in a predominantly Shia city and Iran. He was not able to relate as well to someone from Ramadi or Mosul for example.
2. Do you think sectarianism and ethnic violence have been overstated causes of conflict in Iraq?
It has been overstated over the last decade that everything is sectarian. That is how it works for proxies and backers. It was overstated for a reason, not because they wanted to exaggerate the situation. The Sunnis thought that if they overstated Shia attacks against them they would gain more support from the Gulf States - Saudi Arabia, Qatar and United Arab Emirates. That was the responsibility of their politicians representing them, and many of these political officials got richer because they diverted these funds and financial support (meant for refugee camps, IDP camps, people being targeted by attacks and violence) into their pockets. The more they overplayed the sectarian card, the more support they received (very similar to Syria).
Even the government overstated these problems. Parades are regularly orchestrated by militias and paramilitary officials to demonstrate to their sponsors that they are doing something with the money they are receiving from donors. Violence is financed by a small group and countries which want to gain political capital in the country - for example Saudi Arabia and Iran. For example, Saudi Arabia did not want a Shia government in Iraq, because that would mean they would lose Iraq to Iran and Syria (which are predominantly controlled by Shia and Alawi politicians) and be geographically surrounded. The Saudis did not realise that the Iraqi Shias are quite different from Iranian Shias and in fact don’t get along. The Saudis over-financed the Sunni politicians, they complained about the excesses of Shia power, but did nothing. They were balancing their bank accounts.
3. In the wake of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kirkuk crisis in October what will happen to the Iraqi Kurds?
The Iraqi Kurds, their leaders, lost the plot. The Kurdish referendum was a very bad decision. Against the advice of regional governments, they insisted on doing a referendum. It was the wrong time and, as is well known, there are Kurds in Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq which meant that the leaders of these countries would not the same referendums to happen in their countries. The Iranian used their connections with the Kurds to support them financially (in Kirkuk). The Kurds, particularly their leaders, lost much in doing the referendum. The leaders were corrupt and did not invest in their people and they believed that by raising ethnic tensions would mean they could emerge as the most influential leader in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Whenever there is a problem in Iraqi Kurdistan, for example salaries not being paid in government. They always point towards the government in Baghdad as the root cause of the problem, they are the ones not distributing the salaries. The Kurdish politicians are never responsible for the problems of corrupt practices. The Kurdish problems have lost their credibility and are now recognised as deeply corrupt and lost influence in Baghdad. There are many kingmakers in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi Kurds are part of Iraq. In 2013, you would get a visa as soon as you arrived at the airport. My colleague Charlie Smith did not want to Baghdad, so he did not go to the Iraqi embassy. He got it elsewhere. This is not the case anymore, they lost their ‘sovereignty’, and they lost their disputed territories between the Kurdish Regional Government and the federal government. The Iraqi government stamped their authority on Iraqi Kurdistan and the politicians - not the people (who didn’t benefit from the independence) - lost politically and financially. The KRG used to get 17% of reserves/budgets, now they only receive 13%. They are the biggest losers of the war with ISIS and the referendum was one of the biggest political blunders in the regions history.
4. Basra has been rocked by protests and violent crackdowns on activists, how can Iraq solve its chronic electricity and water shortages?
It is extremely difficult to solve because of corruption, security and the tribal society. The company which would come in to fix electricity would require protection from the Iraqi army before it could sort anything out. For example, if it went to a very rural area, which involves transmissions, towers and power grids, the tribes there will say “You are working in our area, you are making money and we are getting nothing. Either you make our sons work for you or you give us something.” For foreigners and contractor, it is difficult. For it to work, like the fight against ISIS, efforts have to be centralised. For water shortages, corruption in Basra is huge. Unfortunately, the water has become incredibly polluted. They could have resolved this, I think the government needs to resolve this, if it doesn’t Basra will rebel. If the government does not sort out the problem of water, Barham Salih and Adel Abdul-Mahdi will be out of power very quickly.
5. Kurdish politician Barham Salih has become president of the Iraqi parliament. What do you make of his appointment and his selection of Adel Abdul-Mahdi as Prime Minister?
I have met Barham three times, and Adel four times. Barham is very bright-minded and is very pragmatic and sharp. However is not as powerful as somebody like Barzani. He is not well-backed by even the parliament and is lacking support. I’m not sure how long they will last. Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has multiple ideologies, he used to live in France, claimed to be doctor (he was not one) and his thesis was rejected by his university. He started as a communist, became a Maoist, became a Baathist and then eventually became an Islamist! Then, he eventually resigned and became independent, a political neutral. Very Swedish and not ideal in this kind of political environment in parliament. How is government is set up will determine if he is strong or weak. This issue, very Lebanese, in government (coalitions and constant disagreements) will last for a long time. He will be politically ousted or dismissed from the job. Abdul-Mahdi is a point on which the Americans and Iranians can meet, but he is not a key meeting point for many rivals on the country’s political scene.
6. Muqtada al-Sadr’s political coalition won the most seats in Iraq’s national parliamentary elections in 2018. What are the implications for the short- term and long-term future of Iraqi politics?
Al-Sadr’s followers are very loud, very confrontational and very brave. They follow Al-Sadr’s every word, word by word. They wouldn’t discuss or dispute whatever he would tell them to do. They became powerful, and grew in strength, because they were close to the people. They would help people, for example if there was a queue for gas, they would help you and give everyone a gas cylinder. If you wanted a dowry when you wanted to marry someone, they would give you money. They handed out water and food during the initial stage of the U.S occupation. They are close to the people’s heart, and are streetwise, something many within the Baghdad government are not. That is why they were successful in political elections. On the other hand, Muqtada Al-Sadr did not join calls by the elite to boycott the election. This is why Al-Abadi didn’t win Sadr City, because the elite made a poor decision to boycott the election (hoping it would fail).
7. Across Iraq and inside the Green Zone has Western influence now diminished in the aftermath of the occupation of Iraq and ISIS conflict?
I do not think so. The West still has a lot of influence in Iraq, particularly the Americans. American soldiers don’t need to be in Baghdad, they are behind the scenes (which they prefer) and are fostering anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq. Many people are blaming Iran for their problems. The U.S military have their teeth bared if their interests were to be jeopardised, they are still very strong in the region.
8. 4 million people are threatened by water shortages in Iraq and could face displacement. Do you think issues of climate change and environmental damage, rather than terrorism & violence, are the main threat to Iraq’s stability now?
The environmental changes are happening because of shortages in the oldest rivers in the world. Turkey is building many dams, and Syria (before the war) were also doing the same. You can cross some parts of the Euphrates by foot at the moment. When Iraq lost its position as a regional power in 2003, the Iraqis cannot negotiate water supplies. Most of the water in Iraq comes from neighbouring countries. It does not come from Iraq, and that is why there are big problems in Basra. Small rivers have disappeared completely (often mentioned in Iraqi history and culture) and don’t exist anymore. The Iraqis are getting less and less water each year. It is a political issue predominantly, not climatic.Turkey controls the tap. It helps them have more influence over Iraq and was a big problem in the 1980. Turkey was building a huge dam, but six times they delayed the release of water from the new dam and at the time the Iraqi Airforce, under orders of Saddam, were prepared to destroy the dam when the river started to go down. The Iraqis need to reimpose themselves politically on their rivers.
Similarly, a climatic disaster is occurring though. There is no proper recycling system or checks on car exhausts, sewage is dumped into the river and the oil industry has had a big impact. Yellow cake is also causing environmental damage. The whole system needs overhauling and the damage is not good. War, salt, and pests had wiped out more than 14 million of the palms, including around 9 million in Iraq. Water is becoming too salty because most of the water is being affected by the Shat Al-Arab. With less water, and more salt, fish are unable to survive and when they are fished many people are getting poisoned or becoming sick because of the contaminated fish. This wasn’t a problem which existed before and without a strong government they have been unable to tackle the problem. This has been aggravated by the weakness of the current government. For green areas and certain areas of land, National Parks for example, have been left. Under Saddam, you needed a permit to build on specific tracts of land. Agricultural land had certain restrictions within certain areas and certain limits (even as owner). Now, land can be cut into pieces and sold off at will. Privatisation has wreaked havoc on the land. People cannot eat food properly and Baghdad is hotter then ever before. The environment is a big disaster and must be solved - alongside the other problems of corruption, water and electricity.