Protests have swept the southern Iraqi province of Basra in recent months, where residents are demanding better access to services and an end to government mismanagement. Photo: AFP
Less than a year ago Iraq was said to be emerging from four-decades of perpetual conflict following its recapture of Mosul from ISIS and its seizing of Kirkuk from the Kurdistan Region. Now, as a result of its own complacency and mismanagement, the country may be on the brink of yet another war.
Veteran journalist Patrick Cockburn reported last October that he had not seen such self-confidence in Baghdad since 1977 when the Iraqi capital was an economic powerhouse and the country was rapidly developing and modernizing. Cockburn did, to his credit, caution that this respite could prove short-lived if the government overplayed its hand and did not implement substantial reforms.
This is essentially what happened.
As was the case with a number of journalists in the fall of 2017, Cockburn placed almost all the blame on the Kurdistan Region for the October events and even described it as having collapsed in the wake of the September 2017 referendum. Despite these doomsayer conclusions, the Region endured that traumatizing winter and now not only retains the vast majority of its autonomy but is now a major player in forming the next federal government in Baghdad.
Cockburn also casually compared the Mosul liberation with the takeover of Kirkuk as “twin victories” for Baghdad when the former was, in reality, a legitimate confrontation with an internationally-designated terrorist organization and the latter an unprovoked and unwarranted act of aggression.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was widely praised by Iraqis for his swift takeover of Kirkuk. This coupled with the decline in the number of terrorist attacks on the capital following Mosul’s recapture certainly contributed to the mood of “jauntiness” Cockburn observed firsthand in Baghdad, where Iraqis were “beginning to sound more like victors rather than victims”.
The fall of 2017 certainly saw a short-lived peace for Iraq comparable to the late 1970s period Cockburn mentioned. That period was essentially brought to an end by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in September 1980, which sparked a brutal eight-year war.
A brief respite followed that war for Iraqis, between August 1988 and August 1990, until Saddam invaded and annexed Kuwait and was subsequently forced out by an enormous US-led multinational coalition. Iraq then became an impoverished and isolated pariah state until it was invaded in 2003, when Saddam was finally deposed. Sectarian strife gripped the country throughout the ensuing decade and ultimately helped create ISIS, which went on to conquer a third of the country in June 2014.
With such a troubled history it is understandable that war-weary Iraqis would embrace victory over ISIS after it had symbolically dismembered their country, leading TIME Magazine to publish a cover story entitled ‘The End of Iraq’. However, Baghdad fatally overstepped by attacking Kirkuk rather than consolidating its battlefield victory over ISIS and resolving its differences with Erbil diplomatically.
That flagrant aggression single-handedly destroyed the goodwill and hitherto unprecedented military coordination established between the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Peshmerga on the eve of the Mosul offensive and created a power vacuum that ISIS has since exploited. ISIS can still launch attacks on that pivotally important region, especially where there are gaps between the ISF and Peshmerga lines caused by the October events. Every time it does so it makes an abject mockery of Abadi’s declaration of victory over the group last December.
The swift seizure of Kirkuk and humiliation of the Kurds – which, according to The Washington Post, made Abadi more popular among Iraqis than even the victory over ISIS – did nothing to help bring an end to the series of conflicts that have afflicted Iraq and its people for generations now. If anything that move will likely negate what otherwise should have been a much more conclusive victory over ISIS in the long run.
Baghdad has also failed to provide the same level of basic services to Kirkuk that existed before the war with ISIS when the Kurds administered the city. Lack of the most basic services and necessities, including clean drinking water, have also resulted in Iraq’s other major oil-rich region, Basra, becoming embroiled in enormous protests against crippling corruption and mismanagement which show no sign of let up and threaten to seriously destabilize Iraq and once again plunge it into another period of instability and violence.
“Iraq has all the makings of a country that is susceptible to conflict relapse, and rather than turn a new chapter it could find itself in another civil war,” warned an article in Foreign Affairs magazine this month.
The article logically anticipates that a new civil war will not be a repeat of the Sunni-Shiite conflicts of the late 2000s. Rather, this will become an intra-Shiite conflict over which direction the national ship is sailing and could potentially prove even more destructive than the Iraq War and the ISIS campaign, since the different Shiite factions are so strong and therefore unlikely to compromise or give ground to avert conflict. This may well become Abadi’s legacy even though he was a leader many hoped could save Iraq from another generation of conflict through shrewd and conciliatory governance.
“Abadi ended up winning the war against the Islamic State, but stumbled with almost everything else,” wrote Iraq analyst Joel Wing in a recent blog. On two occasions, Wing went on to note, Abadi launched anti-corruption campaigns to try and quell the widespread grievances among Iraq’s poor. “The first time he was actually making budget cuts. The second time he did nothing substantive.”
“His final legacy will be of a prime minister that had every chance to carry out real changes in Iraq, yet failed to take advantage of his situation.”