Stretching My Gambes

Posts Tagged ‘Iraq

Kurds fractured before Iraq elections

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Published on the newstatesman.com (12/02/2010)

Since 2003 the Kurdish region has been a bastion of stability amid the turmoil of Iraq. Foreign companies have put down roots there, the Lebanese pop star Elissa will sing there, and Turkey got over its fear of Kurdish nationalism to trade there — to the tune of $10bn.

However, stability and security are being undone as the dominance of the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s PUK and the Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani’s KDP is threatened by the emergence of the Goran (or “change”) party.

The strength of the alliance between the KDP and the PUK had previously given the Kurds the confidence to negotiate oil contracts without Baghdad’s agreement, and to push for increased regional autonomy. However, in July last year, Goran campaigned in the northern regional elections on an anti-corruption ticket against the Kurdish Alliance and won 23.6 per cent of the vote.

Goran will compete against the PUK and the KDP in national elections in March, the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that the Kurdish vote will be split. This development has rocked the Kurdish establishment and damaged the region’s stability — when a Goran meeting was attacked this week, the finger was pointed at Talabani’s PUK.

The vice-president of Goran’s bloc in the Kurdistan parliament, Shaho Saaed, said: “A PUK militia disturbed a meeting of our electoral list before opening fire and wounding three people.”

As recriminations fly and the region’s reputation for security is dented, the worst effects could be on the Kurds’ bargaining power in post-election negotiations. With the status of Kirkuk, regional division of oil revenues and the integration of the various armed forces all crucial matters requiring attention in post-election bargaining, any lack of Kurdish unity will hamper the region’s ability to reassert itself in post-Saddam Iraq.

Written by Henry Smith

17/03/2010 at 23:49

Iraq election reprieve fails to hide sectarian tensions

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Published on the newstatesman.com (04/02/2010).

Last month, 511 candidates were barred from participating in the 7 March Iraqi elections, ostensibly due to their links with Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime. While this applied to a mix of Sunni, Shia and secular candidates, the lack of transparency and accountability ensured that the step was widely regarded as a measure to marginalise the Sunni community.

Despite a history of co-operation and peaceful coexistence, sectarian identities were politicised in Iraq by Saddam’s extensive use of patronage networks. The security vacuum and insecurities that have plagued the country post-occupation have exacerbated these tensions. So has the use of proxies by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

The boycott by Sunni parties undermined the legitimacy of the 2005 election and a similar scenario was feared again this year. The decision by the Independent High Electoral Commission to allow the barred candidates to run, although not to hold office until they are cleared of Ba’athist links, should restore some credibility to the process.

The decision appears to have been pushed through in part by US Vice-President Joe Biden, who visited Baghdad late last month. As such, the move has been dismissed by some as an attempt to ensure “smooth sailing” until the US withdrawal.

Meanwhile, there are visible signs that the problems are far more ingrained in Iraqi society.

Since Monday there have been five reported bombings in Baghdad, Karbala and Hilla. Wednesday’s attacks in Karbala came two days after a woman disguised as a Shia pilgrim struck a procession in north Baghdad, killing at least 38 people.

The targets are Shias travelling to Karbala to mark the end of 40 days of mourning the anniversary of Imam Hussein’s death. The pilgrimage was banned under Saddam and has routinely attracted violence since it started again in 2004.

Although the violence is undermining Prime Minister al-Maliki’s election platform of improving security for Iraqis, it is arguably doing more to halt attempts at reconciling existing sectarian tensions. While the perpetrators clearly have an interest in preventing the latter, it is surely in the interests of Iraqis and regional security.

Written by Henry Smith

04/02/2010 at 20:08

Martyrdom in Lebanon

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Driving through the villages surrounding Tyre is a somewhat schizophrenic experience. On the one hand the scars of the 2006 Israeli invasion are visible due to the remaining rubble and bullet-holes, while on the other it is hard not to be struck by the vibrancy and vitality of everyday life. Experiencing the hospitality and generosity of local families confirms this and rather belies the trauma of their recent history.

A photo of a martyr.

A photo of a martyr.

This trauma is vividly displayed on row upon row of streetlights. Young men who lost their own lives gaze over the continuation of life below them. All are the brothers, fathers and sons of local families who resisted Israeli attacks; some are members of the internationally lamented but locally revered Hizbullah.

Looking at these images, these iconic representations and statements of resistance, I wondered as to how the loss of a loved one impacted on the families. Of course there is the natural grief and suffering that stems from losing a loved one. However, I wondered if a family’s identification with losing something so dear and irreplaceable to them conferred respect or status within the local community?

A community’s experience of conflict and militarism is well documented as impacting on constructions of gender roles and relationships.

For example, Achim Rohdhe argues that eight years of war with Iran led to the identification of Iraqi men, and especially soldiers, as the saviours of the nation. Although this is perhaps not an unusual claim about male gender roles during a time of war, it is curious to note the damage the conflict did to the relatively progressive policies towards women embarked on during the 1970s.

They were reneged on for a variety of reasons induced by the war. For example Hussein’s acquiescence to demands from leaders of communal groups, particularly some tribal and sectarian groups, in order to ensure their support, led to ‘conservative’ and ‘traditional’ policies towards women. This reinforced classical patriarchy’s essentialist binary of masculinity and femininity that had been previously unpicked.

Julie Peteet’s analysis of conflict in the Palestinian territories suggests that beatings by IDF soldiers conferred a sense of heroism and manhood to young Palestinian men. It also created access to roles of leadership for young males; older males became increasingly bypassed for resolving community disputes in favour of those men who had illustrated their capacity to resist the occupation. This usurped the classical pattern of the patriarchal system; senior male social dominance.

In reference to Lebanon Lara Deeb’s work on Shi’a women engages with the photos of martyrs. She claims that the public portraits of martyrs ‘…memorialized the deaths of individuals while representing solidarity with the community epitomized by the lives that were sacrificed.’ The iconic status of these men, the photos that adorn streetlight after streetlight, thus serve to establish community solidarity and political loyalties.

However, her study fails to engage with my query as to how having a martyred brother, father or son impacts on the family within the community. It appeared that the images were hoisted with pride and the men were admired within the community; they had denied their own needs in order to provide for others. Constructions of martyrdom and heroism are perhaps to be expected when conflict exists so symbiotically with the lived experiences of communities in Southern Lebanon.

Written by Henry Smith

07/10/2009 at 00:32

Saddam’s corrupt legacy

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The Guardian’s expose of the possible Iraqi government complicity in the kidnap of five Britons is testament to the unfortunate legacy of Saddam Hussein’s system of rule.

On the 19 May 2007, Peter Moore, a British computer specialist, and his four bodyguards were kidnapped by a fleet of 19 Toyota land cruisers, containing a veritable army of eighty to a hundred armed men. Without engaging completely in the details of the operation here, I wish to focus on the (very real) allegation of government complicity in the process and the reasons behind it.

Moore was implementing a system (the Iraq financial management information system) that would monitor the movement of finance ministry revenues in an attempt to improve accountability and transparency. The ministry of finance was at the centre of the tracking system, which linked 11 other ministries. Following the kidnapping the Ministry of Finance immediately stopped the system. Thus, the entire system collapsed; accountability and transparency with it.

Eight months later, the Iraqi Central Bank, the only other institution with a full record of the government’s financial transactions, was destroyed by arson.

It is alleged that certain government officials did not want their corruption exposed. Indeed, the potential financial gains were/are not meagre. Judge al-Radhi, former commissioner of the Commission of Public Integrity in Iraq, stated in October 2007:

“The cost of corruption that my commission has uncovered so far across all ministries in Iraq has been estimated to be as high as $18bn.”

Three months previously he had fled to the US after his family’s home was targeted in a rocket attack.

How do we interpret this level of government complicity in corruption and the violent attempts to hide it? I maintain that such degrees of personal gain and complicity cannot be detached from the institutionalisation of corruption during the period of sanctions.

Following the imposition of UN sanctions following the First Gulf War, state institutions were weakened whilst Hussein’s position was strengthened through the dual state that he operated. On the one hand there was the elaborate system of public bureaucracy and government institutions; however real power was not concentrated here.

Power was found in the dual ‘shadow’ institutions, the networks of associates, patrons and clients, which dictated exclusion and privilege. Being plugged in to this system was integral for personal survival. Moreover, it was integral to survival of your dependents.

Central to these institutions were individuals (male) close to Hussein, however their positions of were never unconditional, never a foregone conclusion. Government institutions and political access and support became ruled by handouts and widespread corruption. Whilst the majority of Iraqis suffered through sanctions, those plugged in to the system lived in relative opulence.

Corruption was endemic. It was the norm. Indeed, it is fair to maintain that it was institutionalised by Hussein’s response to sanctions, most infamously by the ‘oil for food’ corruption networks.

The current levels of corruption cannot be detached from the legacy of this system. This legacy is still being felt in Iraq due to the appalling ethical standards of those catapulted to power within the post-invasion security vacuum. Ali Allawi concurs in The Occupation of Iraq, illustrating that the weakness of current state institutions do not in themselves explain the explosion of corrupt practices that border on the open plunder of the state’s resources.

Alternatively, to explain and understand current practices we must trace their origins and normative legitimation within the previous systems of governance in Iraq. The networks and practices are not conterminous with those under Hussein; rather they have been constructed using similar principles and ethical standards within the new state institutions.

This legacy and the violent implications it necessitates is testament to the old adage that old habits die hard. They cannot be changed through violent means but by a real commitment to democratic accountability, something Iraq must discover for itself.

Written by Henry Smith

05/08/2009 at 23:08

Saudi’s commitment to Palestine: America’s fault?

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‘The Saudi-U.S. Relationship; Past Developments and Future Prospects’ read the PowerPoint display behind Turki al-Faisal’s head at the LSE today. However, the entire length and breadth of his speech was dedicated to rhetorical support for the Palestinian cause.

The irony of this should not go unmissed.

The U.S. is Israel’s staunchest ally in the international arena. The power of AIPAC in particular, along with the interconnected networks of lobby groups, think tanks, and media that comprise the Israeli Lobby in general, routinely ensure that we do not see a decisive change in U.S. strategy to the Israel-Palestine situation. On the other hand, Saudi is denigrated by secular and Islamic voices within the region, not only for its lack of political pluralism, but for the fact that it has traditionally been America’s hand-maiden in the Middle East. If Saudi were committed to making a difference to the Palestinian issue then why not lever some influence on the Americans?

In my opinion, they won’t because they can’t. Aside from the fact that U.S. policies since 9/11 have not served Saudi interests particularly well, Saudi does not appear to be particularly high on Obama’s regional agenda; Riyadh was not on Obama’s first round of phone calls or Mitchell’s itinerary. Furthermore, there is no one in Obama’s inner circle who has any experience or knowledge of the Saudi family, or indeed of the historical relationship between the two. I am not suggesting that the two are destined to conflict, but Saudi just doesn’t appear to have the weight it once had with the U.S.
The Saudi’s decline in influence is also visible in the region as a whole, and is in fact partly a result of U.S. policies. Iran has taken the mantle of the legitimate regional actor when it comes to Palestine, due to its support in word and deed for the cause. Furthermore, Iranian influence has extended into Iraq through since America imported anarchy into the country. Saudi has had to accept that the Sunni groups they back will not exert the same influence as the Shi’a parties. Thus, Saudi appears to be turning to the Palestinian cause to try and establish more regional legitimacy and to counter the ‘diplomatic’ efforts of Iran, and indeed its regional power status.

Therefore, can Saudi support for the Palestinians be observed as a result of the deterioration of their relationship with the U.S., or indeed the effects of U.S. policy on Saudi’s regional position?

Written by Henry Smith

07/05/2009 at 23:33