25 June 2022

Saturday, 12:15


Situation much more complex than before, with no way out soon



Iraq is in the world's spotlight once again. Once again, it is the result of another political crisis after a failed attempt to elect a new president and government. A series of anti-terrorist activities have also heightened the level of public tension in the country. In April 2022, Turkey launched yet another military operation, Pençe Kilit (Strong Claw) against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorist militias hiding in the Kurdish Autonomous Region in northern Iraq.

In parallel with Turkey, the Iraqi army is conducting Operation Iron Hammer against ISIS in the northern provinces of Kirkuk, Salah ad-Din and Diyala. The military action, involving federal police, the Popular Mobilisation Force (Hashd al-Shaabi), as well as the Kirkuk Operational Command, is aimed at preventing the activation of ISIS observed in recent months.

Interestingly, all these events take place in parallel with the increasingly developed project on the export of liquefied natural gas from Iraqi Kurdistan to the European market. But it is clear that the overall situation in Iraq is much more complex than it was before. And there is no way out in the near future.


Political crisis in Iraq

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq put an end to more than three decades of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship and triggered a process of political restructuring in the country. Iraq has soon become a federal state and Washington decided to introduce an Oriental version of democracy, dividing the branches of power along religious and ethnic lines. Thus, according to the new rules, a Kurdish national would be elected president, a Shiite majority representative would be elected prime minister and a Sunni candidate from the Iraqi Sunni community would be elected speaker of parliament. The system tested earlier during the French occupation of Lebanon in 1943, in fact only superficially reflects the ‘spirit of the East’, with its mechanism of operation being very convoluted and complex. Therefore, as in Lebanon, every election in Iraq results in a political crisis: the forming of a government and election of a president by the parliament take several years, while creating coalition blocs may take months.

This has been true since the introduction of the present electoral system adopted back in 2005. In 2010, for example, it took more than ten months to form a government in Iraq. To this day, political parties and blocs struggle to form coalitions and cannot agree on power sharing. As a result, discussions on the composition of the new government take months, while external influences only add to the negative consequences of the current situation. Thus, Iraq is subject to political influence from Iran (Shiites), Saudi Arabia, Turkey (Sunnis) and the US (certain groups among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds). Undoubtedly, this factor prevents political forces from joining the coalition government.

A similar situation is observed today, with the Iraqi parliament facing the daunting task of forming a new government and electing a president. But this is virtually impossible, as none of the existing political forces has gained a parliamentary majority.

Lack of seats for any political party or bloc can be explained by the outcome of parliamentary elections held in last October. The Sadrists from the Alliance for Reforms (As-Sayirun) led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr won the most seats (73) in the 329-seat Iraqi parliament. They were followed by the Movement for Reforms and Development (Taqaddum) led by the current speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Muhammad al-Halbousi (38), and the State of Law coalition of the former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki (37).

Currently, there are three main political groups in the Iraqi parliament: the Homeland Salvation coalition (a tandem of As-Sayyirun and the Kurdistan Democratic Party) led by Massoud Barzani, the Sovereignty coalition of Sunni politicians Muhammad al-Halbousi and Khamis al-Khanjar, and the opposition Shia bloc.

In early April, after three failed attempts by a single presidential candidate, ethnic Kurdish Ribera Ahmed from the Homeland Salvation and Sovereignty coalitions, Al-Sadr handed over the initiative to form the government to the opposition Shiite blocs, giving them forty days to do so - until May 11, 2022.

Under Iraqi law, presidential elections are considered valid if two-thirds of deputies are present during a parliamentary vote. But so far al-Sadr and his political allies have been unable to secure such a majority.

The main bloc against al-Sadr and his allies is the Coordination Group known for its proximity to Iran, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. The opposition Shiite bloc includes the Fath coalition led by Hadi al-Amiri, commander of Hashd al-Shaabi, and the State of Law. However, it is highly unlikely that the Coordination Group will be able to elect a new president. If al-Sadr and his allies, who have a large number of votes and a broad parliamentary coalition, were unable to do so before April 6, 2022, it is unexpected to expect this from a relatively small Shiite-Kurdish bloc of Talabani anyway. Al-Sadr and his allies now have just over 200 mandates, but by no means more than 220 (two-thirds of the 329) needed to elect a president and form a government.

Parliament is unlikely to be able to elect a new president and form a government in early May. It will have to choose between two options. Firstly, the opposing political forces will, as before, agree among themselves and come to a compromise. As a result, and thanks to the intervention of religious leaders, it is likely that a coalition government headed by yet another technocrat or an outsider prime minister be formed.

The second scenario involves the dissolution of the Iraqi parliament by the Supreme Federal Court and the announcement of new elections. However, it is unlikely to change the current state of affairs. Since 2005, no political force has been lucky to win enough parliamentary seats to form a government on its own. That is why the process is a heavy burden for Iraq's social and political life, dragging on for months each time.


Shortage or terrorism?

But presidential elections and the lack of a government are not Iraq's only problems. Local politicians and economists are warning about electricity and water shortages expected in 2022. They are mainly observed in the summer season and have threatened Iraq in previous years. Iraqi authorities have already warned the population of a twofold reduction in the country's water resources compared to last year. One reason is the low rainfall this year. Another is the drastic reduction of river water flowing into Iraq from neighbouring countries. The Tigris and Euphrates are known to be the two major rivers of Mesopotamia and the main sources of drinking water in Iraq. Both pass through Turkey and Syria, which are also in need of fresh water, hence resulting in an annual drop in Iraq’s water supply.

Given the risk of rising food prices and shortages, the coming season is likely to be a major challenge for Iraq. However, the developing situation is complicated by another long-standing and still unresolved problem - terrorist organisations operating in the country.

Perhaps terrorism is an even more urgent threat than the other ones. The issue of security and peace in Iraq has been particularly relevant since Saddam Hussein's ouster. The terrorist threat peaked in 2004-2006 and 2014-2017, periods of ISIS activation. Despite the Iraqi government's official declaration of total victory over ISIS in 2017, the terrorism factor has remained relevant in Iraq. ISIS has been particularly active in recent months, following the kidnapping of several people in Anbar, Salah ad-Din and Kirkuk provinces in April. Terrorism in Iraq is something of a barometer of the country's political life. Thus, the increasing number of acts of terror is directly proportional to the weakening of central authority, growing socio-economic problems and deepening political intrigue. Uncertainty and misunderstanding between political forces after the October 2021 elections have also been accompanied by the rise of ISIS and PKK, the latter being mainly based in the Kurdish autonomy of Iraq.


Fighting against terror

On April 18, the Turkish Ministry of Defence announced Operation Strong Claw against PKK camps in Iraq. The operation began in the districts of Metin, Zap and Avasin-Basyan located in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ankara said it has received intel of PKK activation in Turkey this spring. Turkish troops have already entered the Iraqi territory and set up checkpoints and camps there, allowing them to control the movement of Kurdish separatists into Turkey. Incidentally, the Turks established more than 30 military bases or checkpoints in Iraq in 2014-2015 to support local tribal armed groups fighting against ISIS. Western media have reported that the Turkish army will rebuild these bases in Iraq. Ankara has yet to deny this information.

Interestingly, the deployment of Turkish and Iraqi troops in northern Iraq is running hand in hand, although the goals and objectives of the two sides are different. Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish autonomy, came under a surprise Iranian missile attack in March. Iranians stated the missile was aimed at the Israeli Mossad control room in Erbil. Reuters later reported that the building actually belonged to a certain Kurdish energy trader who provided it to US and Israeli experts for discussions on transporting liquefied gas from Iraqi Kurdistan to Europe. Kurdish officials have not denied this information. But the autonomy's prime minister, Masrour Barzani, said at a recent energy conference in Dubai that Kurdish gas could play a role in Europe's energy supply. According to the news agency, it is the supply of Kurdish gas to the European market that makes Iranians concerned.

Immediately after the start of the anti-terrorist operation in northern Iraq, Prime Minister Barzani visited London and met with the British defence and interior ministers. Key topics of bilateral discussions were regional security, support for Kurdish Peshmerga, etc.

It seems that Iraqi (Kurdish) oil and gas exports to the European market will accelerate in the near future. And the ongoing events in and around Iraq is a kind of preparation for the new reality.

Turkey remains a major stabilising force in the region. A successful project would provide Europe with a Middle Eastern alternative to Russian gas. It is not just about volumes of oil and gas from northern Iraq (40% of Iraqi oil), but also about creating a major energy corridor starting in the Middle East. In fact, there were plans to create such a corridor to Europe back in 2020 - through the Kurdish regions and Syria. But the Arab Spring and the ensuing wars put this plan on hold. It seems that another mega-project is becoming relevant again. This time Iraq should become the starting point of the expected energy route.