Iraq is still prey to the militias

Submitted by AWL on 7 March, 2008 - 8:06 Author: Colin Foster

The brief Turkish invasion of the autonomous Kurdish north on Iraq at the end of February is evidence, above all, of how far Iraq is from a liveable political settlement five years after the US/UK invasion of the country.

Turkey has some 15 million Kurds, mostly living in the south and east of the country, near the borders with Iraq and Iran. Although repression of the Kurds in Turkey has slackened recently, Turkey has a longstanding hostility to Kurdish self-assertion, and especially to Turkish-Kurdish guerrillas who base themselves in remote mountain areas of Iraqi Kurdistan.

In late 1990, on the eve of the Kuwait war, the president of Turkey ordered the military to draw up plans to invade and occupy the northern part of Iraq, inhabited chiefly by some five million Kurds, and containing rich oilfields.

Since 2003 Turkey has had an interest in coming to terms with de-facto-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. A full-scale Turkish conquest of the area would meet fierce and well-armed resistance, probably be unsustainable, and wreck Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU.

The main oil pipeline from the Kirkuk oilfields in northern Iraq runs through Turkey. Because of sabotage, it has been used only episodically since 2003. But Turkey has an interest in having the pipeline in full and peaceful operation.

After 2003, Turkish companies won many large reconstruction contracts in Iraqi Kurdistan. By early 2007 there were 1200 Turkish companies operating in Iraqi Kurdistan, employing 14,000 Turkish citizens there. Turkey supplied 10% of the region’s electricity.

But relations have deteriorated since the second half of 2007. The invasion, which alarmed and angered Iraqi Kurds, will make things worse.

That is part of a picture where the decline in bloodshed in Iraq, from the catastrophic to the merely horrific, has so far not led to more stable government. The simmering civil war slackened off, it seems, mostly because conflicts between rival sectarian militias had reached a point of balance, with most of the militias fairly solid in its own areas, but not ready to try to attack others in their bastions, nor to risk confrontation with the increased US forces.

Iraqi civilian deaths; militia attacks on US forces; US casualties; Iraqi military and police casualties; the flow of refugees fleeing from one part of Iraq to another, or out of Iraq; and attacks on oil pipelines, have all decreased sharply since about September 2007, albeit only to levels similar to those before the Samarra mosque bombing in February 2006.

The number of Iraqi civilians killed by US forces has declined, on a best guess, from about one a day in 2005 to about one a week today.

Yet not one of the “political benchmarks” set for the Iraqi government by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in January 2007 has been met. In some cases — in the government’s failure to push through an oil privatisation law, for example — that is a good thing. The basic picture is of a government lacking political credibility and the ability to rise above the militias — of inability to construct stable, coherent, accepted civil administration.

15 out of 37 Cabinet posts are still vacant or semi-vacant, the ministers having resigned, or decided to boycott Cabinet meetings, and not having been replaced.

The Kurdish parties and ISCI (formerly SCIRI) are pressing for the removal of oil minister Shahristani. There is sharp conflict over legislation on provincial rights, and on provincial elections, which are due on 1 October but may well be postponed.

As far as I know, there have been no opinion polls in Iraq since September 2007. But it’s unlikely that popular resentment against the US occupation and the Baghdad government has declined much.

Although oil production and exports have increased since September, the availability of fuel in Iraq has not. Nor has electricity supply, still only seven hours a day in Baghdad. There is no evidence that unemployment has decreased.

The Iraqi labour movement is the strongest anti-sectarian force in the country, and the one that could unite the majority of Iraqis against privatisation, pauperisation, occupation, and the militias. But there has been no rise of workers’ struggles over the period of relative “stabilisation” since September.

If the “stabilisation” represents local warlords and sectarian gangs getting a stronger grip on their respective areas, it may even have made things worse for the labour movement. And a strengthening of the central government, if that should happen, may also be adverse: that government has on its books, as yet only part-implemented, Decree 8750 of August 2005 confiscating all union funds, the unrepealed 1987 Saddam Hussein law banning unions in the public sector, and oil minister Shahristani’s assertion last summer that oil industry management should refuse to deal with the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions.

The main duty of socialists internationally is still to mobilise solidarity for the Iraqi labour movement, so that it can become a force capable of leading a struggle to end the US occupation and establish Iraqi self-determination, without throwing the country into the hands of the rival sectarian militias.

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