Monday, April 9, 2018

Book Notes: Ali al-Wardi's Social Glimpses of Modern Iraqi History

Social Glimpses of Modern Iraqi History by Iraq's preeminent social scientist, Ali al-Wardi, is probably the most important work done to explain the Iraqi mind, and how and why it ticks. I recently stumbled upon my notes from when I first read vol.1 several years ago, and thought I'd share them, so here you go! But remember, there's no substitute for treading the whole 6 volumes.


The first volume of the book deals with the period from the beginning of the Ottoman era until the mid-eighteenth century. This period was characterized by two regional dynamics that had a deep impact on Iraq: 1) the competition for Iraq between Iran and turkey and the subsequent sectarian violence, and 2) the waves of nomadism coming from the desert. The author uses three hypotheses to analyze how the regional influences produced a number of unique social trends that remain visible in Iraq’s society until this day. The trends are: the dominance of sectarianism over nationalism, reliance on intercession, the dominance of nomadic morals, hostility towards governments, and resentment for individualism.

The Regional Forces

The Iran-Turkey rivalry and sectarian conflict: During the Safavid era, Esfahan became the capital and center of Shia scholarship. After the Safavid Empire collapsed, Kerbala replaced Esfahan in that role, until the end of the 18th century when Najaf became the new center, and it remains so today. Iran, once turned Shia, started to have significant influence in Iraq. A unique social situation emerged in Iraq; while the Shia were mostly Arabs, their scholars were mostly Iranian. The Iraqi society was confused and torn between Turkey (to which the government answered most of the time) and Iran (with which most of the people had strong religious ties). With the rise of the Safavid dynasty Iraq became a battleground for the Safavid and Ottoman empires for over three centuries. The fact that the first endorsed Shia Islam while the second endorsed Sunni Islam led to sectarian conflict in Iraq growing to unprecedented levels. The author points out that sectarian conflict in Iraq existed since the early day of Islam. During the Abbasid caliphate there were clashes between Sunni and Shai district in which many were killed, homes were burned and shrines desecrated. The conflict peaked when conflict erupted between Turkey and Iran.

The last nomadic wave: The last nomadic wave during the Ottoman era was harsher than any of the previous ones because: 1) Ottoman conquest came after the Mongol and Tatar invasions, which were the darkest and least civilized periods in Iraq’s history. Governments cared most about conquest and tax collection rather than of construction or establishing law and order. Town dwellers had to resort to tribal fanaticism and nomadic ways to protect life and property. Other reasons include: 1) the general weakness of the Ottoman Empire by the time it invaded Iraq, 2) the Empire’s rivalry with Iran which kept it busy and further encouraged the tribes to wreak havoc, and 3) deadly plagues and breakouts of diseases affected Iraq almost once every decade under Ottoman rule; because disease was deadliest in crowded population centers, the effect was devastating in towns. As a result, the population of professionals and craftsmen shrank below the level necessary to sustain a civilized society.

The Three Hypotheses

1) The clash between civilization and nomadism: Desert produces nomadism whereas fertile land produces civilization. Therefore Arab homeland has been a battleground for nomadism and civilization since the beginning of time. This clash was most stark in Iraq, the “land of Cain and Abel” in the words of Toynbee. The longest period during which nomadism prevailed in Iraq was the most recent starting with the fall of the Abbasid caliphate and lasting for over six centuries. During this time three quarters of the population answered to tribal hierarchy and adhered to values like tribal fanaticism, ghazo [raid for loot], revenge, honor killings, etc. The other quarter who lived in towns were not so different deep inside either, although they looked different in the way they dressed, ate, or built their homes. A city dweller often exhibited fanatical connections to his neighborhood, just like a nomad did to his tribe. The instinct among nomads for ghazo is stronger than that for work and production. They prefer quick gains through treachery or violence over slow, long-term gains through building skill and reputation. Nomads will leave one type of ghazo only if they found a more lucrative one. The author attributes the rapid spread of Wahabism—with its takfiri ideology that legitimizes killing and confiscating the possessions of non-Wahabists—among nomadic tribes of the peninsula to this particular trend.

2) Social dissonance: The main reason for social dissonance in Iraq’s contemporary society is that modern civilization brought to Iraq ideas and concepts that contradict the social traditions that people grew up to. For example, equality, justice, democracy, nationalism and liberty do not conform with the values of fanaticism to the tribe or neighborhood, or other primeval loyalties that characterized the previous generations in the 19th century and continue to have deep influence in people’s psyche. New ideas come through schools, political parties, media, etc and people become familiar with them quickly because they fit the people’s aspirations or answered their grievances, however, this exposure is not accompanied by a parallel change in social traditions. When a person lives in an environment saturated with fanaticism, treachery and conflict, and then later grows to learn contradicting ideals, he finds that he must act along the former set of ideals at one time and then switch to the latter at another. In other words, he would be living two contradictory worlds; one of the ideals that he calls for in his speeches, and another of the reality he takes pride in. People can change their minds about ideas quickly—one great speech could resonate, but habits tend to linger and die slowly.

3) Dual personality: To have a dual personality is to act in contradicting manner without sensing or acknowledging this contradiction. The condition results when the individual is under the influence of two opposing systems of values of concepts. The condition is common among those who grow up in a strictly religious environment where preaching is abundant. When under the influence of preaching, the individual acts like a pious person but all that goes away once he engages in a neighborhood fight or his pride is challenged. Then he becomes a person who takes pride in acts of theft, treachery, rape and deceit. This old type of duality was common during the Ottoman era and was a result of the contradiction between religious instruction and local values. The modern type of duality originated from social dissonance. This type is more pervasive and obvious. The individual affected by this condition may be highly educated and even enthusiastic about modern ideas and concepts. But he tends to be harshly critical of others who oppose these ideas even though he himself acts against them every day. This duality is even more profound among politicians. They preach about the justice, equality and democracy but once they are in power they forget everything they preached and revert to primeval social connections to further their interests. The author points to what he calls a common mistake among Arab thinkers. He argues that the assumption that the society can combine the good things in modern civilization along with what’s good about social heritage is flawed. Because the two value systems are contradictory, a society cannot have modern institutions and rule of law while also maintaining the primeval connections that are the legacy of the nomadic past.

The Social Trends

The dominance of sectarianism over nationalism: The people of Iraq at the time did not know about modern political concepts like nationalism or independence. All that mattered to them was religious sentiment in the form of sectarian fanaticism. Shias and Sunnis did not view Iranians and Turks as foreigners with ambitions. Instead, Iran and Turkey were viewed by Shias and Sunnis respectively as defenders of the faith and saviors of the people. It was enough for the state to take care of shrines and uphold religious rituals to be popular. The people did not care what the state did otherwise.

Reliance on intercession: People believed that mortal life didn’t matter and that they had to focus on the afterlife. Therefore religious rituals and securing intercession from saints were paramount whereas ethics in daily life were ignored because the deity could forgive all sins if the right person interceded. The situation was such that the government oppressed the people, and the people oppressed one another, but all were confident that they would go to heaven with the intervention of their saints.

The dominance of nomadic morals: The morals of Iraqis under Ottoman rule were closer to nomadism than civilization due to the prevalence of nomadic influence. The desert adjacent to Iraq is perhaps the greatest source of nomadism in the world and there is no barrier isolating Iraq from its influence. Nomadic tribes were always ready to go to Iraq and live there, which was more often when the conditions were right, as in during wars and chaos, or whenever the government was weak and civilization was declining. When the tribes took over roads and threatened towns and villages, the people took up arms to defend themselves. This resulted in the spread of tribal fanaticism, revenge and ghazo among them.

Hostility towards governments: Two connected social phenomenon were evidence of the prevalence of nomadism during the Ottoman era; the declining population in Iraq, and the large size of tribes relative to urban population.Tribes—both agrarian and pastoral—made more than 75% of Iraq’s population. Those people were all under the influence of tribal fanaticism, and they didn’t recognize another way. They viewed every government with hostility, whether Iranian or Turkish. The tribes tended to even aid the winning army and loot the broken one regardless of their affiliation or ideology. City dwellers were slightly different in that they had three levels of fanaticism, or social sense of belonging, while the tribes had only one. The urban individual was first fanatical for his district against other districts. The second level was fanaticism for the town; when the town is under attack all districts unite against the aggressor. The third level is sectarian. This level appears when a sectarian matter surfaces, or when the country is invaded by another affiliated to one of the two sects. At times like that people forgot their district and town level rivalries and focused on the new threat. Sectarianism is therefore only a form of fanaticism based more on social affiliation rather than keenness on the faith and religious teachings.

Resentment toward individualism: The author argues that the society, under the influence of old local traditions cannot view the individual outside the framework of fanaticism to tribe, neighborhood or sect. This means that the society did not appreciate individualism, which is one of the foundations of modern civilization. If a person in position of power or service refused to cheat or engage in corruption to benefit a neighbor, a friend or a family member, he is considered ungrateful, cowardly, useless, etc. By contrast, a person who engages in nepotism and favoritism is considered a champion of his people. A person is not measured by his own personal good or bad traits. Instead, all of the familial, personal and tribal connections have to be considered in the evaluation.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Scenarios for Kirkuk and KRG Oil Exports

Tensions between the government of Iraq and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the aftermath of a Kurdish referendum on independence culminated last week in the capturing of large parts of the oil-rich Kirkuk province by Iraqi forces. The military movements have so far resulted in limited actual violence as Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, retreated from Kirkuk and other disputed (and oil-laden) districts, with relatively minimal fighting. The dust hasn’t settled yet, and there remains risk of protracted conflict between Erbil and Baghdad, and potentially among the Kurdish parties blaming each other for the setback. The tense situation raises questions about the impact of the reversal of Kurdish fortune on the outlook for the Kurdish region, oil companies working there, and supply from Iraq as a whole.

The immediate impact was the loss of approximately 350,000 bpd of Kurdish oil exports--more than half the average export level. Oil flow through the Kurdish export pipeline connecting to the Turkish section of the Iraq-Turkey Pipeline (ITP) dropped to roughly 250,000 bpd.

Prior to these events, the contested Kirkuk fields of Avana and Bai Hassan,which had come under Kurdish control in 2014, following the collapse of the Iraqi military as ISIL swept across the country’s north, provided some 270,000 bpd of Kurdistan’s exports of nearly 600,000 bpd. Now these fields are once again under the guns of Iraqi troops.

Additionally, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) was receiving half of the roughly 150,000 bpd produced by another set of Kirkuk field (Baba Gurgur, Khabbaz and Jambur). This was a compromise solution between Baghdad and Erbil in 2016 to exploit those fields which were within Kurdish held territory but still operated by the Baghdad-controlled North Oil Co.

Things have changed. On October 10 the federal oil ministry announced a plan to repair its own northern pipelines and on the 18th the Iraqi oil minister called on BP to help develop Kirkuk fields. A week later Baghdad appears to have started its own limited export operations from Kirkuk. If these signals are any indication, KRG exports may not recover from this slump any time soon.

That said, if the two sides avoid further fighting, then while Kurdistan and companies operating there will suffer, the overall supply picture won’t change by much. Let’s look at a few of the more probably ways this crisis could unfold.

Passive hostility/disengagement
Baghdad seems determined to translate its territorial gains into control over the oil exports from the fields it captured last week. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi first alluded to this in his NY Times piece on 10/18 where he pointed out that Baghdad “intends to redress the inequitable distribution of our national resources to discourage corruption in the Kurdish region, and protect the people there and in the whole of Iraq.”

The path of least resistance would see Baghdad trying to place exports from all the Kirkuk fields it captured (totaling about 420,000 bpd) under the control of its Oil Ministry’s marketing arm, SOMO, but allowing the KRG to continue exports from fields located farther in Kurdistan proper.

Baghdad sought to secure Turkey’s cooperation, since Ankara controls the part of the ITP through its territory and the storage tanks at the Ceyhan terminal. Ankara’s cooperation seems forthcoming.

Indeed, on October 26, Reuters reported that export oil coming from fields in Kurdistan proper is being separated from that originating in the fields now under Baghdad’s control. The report indicates that “90,000 barrels of Kirkuk crude has been dispatched separately from the rest to be sent to tanks owned by Baghdad.”

This arrangement of alternating shipments is clunky, inefficient and therefore may be only temporary. Baghdad will likely start diverting the oil from fields under its control to be exported through its own export pipeline once repairs are complete. The technical part of this process may depend not only on patching up the damaged pipeline, but also on the status of pipelines and pumping stations at Baiji, the former hub of Iraq’s pipeline network, and at the fields themselves.

In this case Baghdad will likely be willing to bankroll the budgets for the provinces of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. This would be a reward for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose leadership cooperated with Baghdad allowing it to reclaim Kirkuk’s fields. On the other hand Baghdad will leave the ruling party in Kurdistan (the Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP) with the responsibility to provide for for KDP-dominated provinces of Duhok and Erbil from the roughly 300,000 bpd from fields still under its control.

Baghdad seeks total control

The new push by pro-government forces toward the Fish-khabur border crossing, where the Kurdish export pipeline enters Turkey, suggests Baghdad may have set its eyes on the whole pie. It is possible that Baghdad will try to bring all northern exports, including from fields located inside Kurdistan proper such as Tawke, Taq Taq and Khurmala under SOMO control. This would entail Baghdad agreeing in return to provide for the financial needs of all Kurdish provinces from federal coffers. If the KRG is forced to acquiesce, they will likely try to restart oil sales via trucks, as was the case prior to the construction of the Kurdish export pipeline in 2013, to maintain a revenue stream independent of Baghdad’s chokehold.

Normalization is possible but very unlikely
In a rather idealistic scenario, Baghdad and Erbil can manage to put the events of the last 2 weeks behind their back and work out an agreement for joint oil marketing either under SOMO, or a new mutually agreed structure. The joint use of the Kurdish pipeline, as the cheaper and readily available route for exports, would bring Erbil and Baghdad closer. Baghdad may also seek to consider this cooperative path if repairing its section of ITP proves unfeasible. As this scenario creates economic codependence and would have to include an agreement on revenue sharing, it would be the most stable, with the least risk to physical disruption compared to Baghdad’s pipeline that runs through Salah-addin and Ninewa provinces, where ISIL could regain some ability to operate. It is, however, the least likely given the poor state of affairs between Baghdad and Erbil, which makes reaching such chronically elusive understandings a near impossibility.

Active hostility
The the ongoing clashes near Fish-khabur suggest that the prospects for war aren’t too slim. Should the situation lead to a protracted conflict between Erbil and Baghdad, markets can expect a tangible loss of supplies. Fighting could bring all piped exports to a halt, causing Baghdad to lose some potential revenue while wreaking havoc on Kurdistan’s exhausted finances.

If the pipeline is damaged, whether accidentally or on purpose, Baghdad’s exports via Turkey would stop until fighting ends, until Baghdad designs a solution to divert the Kirkuk oil to its southern pipeline network, or until a pipeline to Iran is in place--either measure could take years. The fact that the 300,000 bpd Baiji refinery, Iraq’s largest prior to sustaining heavy damage in fighting against ISIL in 2014-2015, remains offline means that Baghdad would be left with limited near-term options to evacuate the crude. It will have to truck whatever amount of crude possible to refineries in the country’s center and south and then reinject what’s left back into the reservoir.

Erbil, meanwhile, would revert to trucking its own oil via Iran and Turkey. The neighbors, while recently expressing great hostility toward Erbil, may decide to allow the trade and enjoy the financial benefits, as they did in the past.

As a result of these measures, even in the case of active hostility, the 600,000 bpd of combined KRG/Kirkuk exports will not entirely vanish. The federal and regional authorities will perhaps send a total of up to 250,000 bpd to be utilized at their respective refineries. The KRG may manage to export another 100,000 bpd by trucks to Iran and Turkey. The remainder, up to 250,000 bpd, will comprise the loss in export volumes, a loss that will be felt the most in Kurdistan and among the oil companies working there.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

An Iranian Land Bridge Is Not the End of the World

Originally posted on Fikra Forum, October 16, 2017

Fear that Iran is working to build a bridge to the Mediterranean as a path to regional hegemony is hanging over U.S. military thinking and actions in Iraq and Syria. Allowing this suspicion to drive strategy could drag America into an unpredictable conflict that may continue long after the Islamic State is gone.
The speculation started after Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias created a role for themselves in the campaign against the Islamic State in Mosul, pursuing control of small towns in the desert south and west of the city. They made gains since October of last year: they surrounded the Islamic State-held town of Tal Afar and captured its airport, took a number of other small towns and villages around the town of Sinjar, cut Islamic State lines west of Mosul, and advanced south along the Iraq-Syria border.

The Iranian-backed militias’ advance toward Kurdish frontlines in northern Iraq at that time alarmed Iraqi Kurdish leaders. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is concerned mostly with defending their adjacent territory. These concerns grew more intense in the aftermath of the Kurdish region’s controversial independence referendum on September 25. Kurdish anxiety spiked this week with reports of Iraqi government forces and pro-Iranian militias concentrating around the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders now think confrontation is imminent. To outside actors, the advance to the Iraq-Syria border from one side by the Iraqi Shia militias, and from the other side by pro-Assad forces, raised warnings of an Iranian project to connect with the Mediterranean shore.

Despite the fact that nobody has articulated how exactly this Iranian scheme would work, the administration seems to assume that Iran has a secret plan at work. The Washington Post reported on June 21, that senior White House officials now believe Iran to be “focused on making that link-up with Iran-friendly forces on the other side of the [Iraqi-Syrian] border…to block us from doing what our commanders and planners have judged all along is necessary to complete the [Islamic State] campaign.”

The two sides have been trying to assert their military presence in Eastern Syria. This has precipitated serious incidents, including, in May and June, the U.S. bombing of Syrian military convoys, shooting down Syrian aircraft and Iranian drones, and brazen, if ineffective, Iranian ballistic missile launches.

The military tit for tat suggested, at least for a while, that the administration’s yet-to-be finalized strategy for Syria’s future involves keeping pro-Assad forces out of eastern Syria, but denying Damascus access to the border would be easier said than implemented.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this approach and mission creep could lead to U.S. troops permanently stationed in eastern Syria, or even to state-building to create a Sunni statelet in Iran’s path. Obsessing over this vague land corridor notion can put the United States on a perilous path to another Middle East entanglement.

The lack of hostilities between the United States and Iran in eastern Syria in the last three months is hopefully a sign that cooler heads prevailed, but the unpredictability of the Trump White House could produce another escalation so long as wary policy circles continue to stoke the fears.

Before letting this theory drive U.S. policy, we must consider whether such a path to the sea is a top Iranian priority. There are three primary reasons to think not.

First, Iran already sends fighters and supplies to Syria and Hezbollah on a significant scale. Improving Iran’s transportation logistics through Syria to Lebanon is not, in itself, a convincing motive.

Second, a land corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean--the Baghdad-Damascus highway-- existed from 2003 until almost 2013, until the Islamic State cut the link. It was not a game-changer then. What would make it so now?

Third, a new corridor would pass hundreds of miles through Iraq under the watch of the U.S. military, Sunni tribes, Islamic State sleeper cells, and former insurgents. It is unlikely to be safer or more convenient than current air or sea alternatives.
There are five more likely explanations for the movements by Iran’s affiliates.

In northern Iraq, Shia militias have been working to establish a strong presence that keeps Islamic State remnants from regrouping. That area south of Mosul was a staging ground for the group before Mosul’s fall in June 2014. So much so, it earned the nickname “Tora Bora” by dispirited Iraqi crews struggling to defend nearby strategic oil pipelines. Baghdad’s announcement this week of plans to repair the export pipeline to Turkey makes securing this area a priority.

Further, Iran may consider it advantageous to establish a base west of Mosul close to KRG areas, in order to apply further pressure on the KRG and prevent them from incorporating these territories into a future independent Kurdistan. Following the Kurdish independence referendum, which Iran strongly condemned, this element will likely receive more emphasis as Iran seeks to deter the KRG from taking further steps toward secession from Iraq.

There may have been two counter-Turkish objectives in the minds of Iranian and militia planners. An outpost west of Mosul can enable Iran to support the nearby Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)-affiliated Syrian Kurds who are under threat from Iran’s rival Turkey. Ironically, these are the same Syrian Kurds the United States considers allies. Moreover, an Iranian outpost there would counterbalance Turkish military presence in Bashiqa to the north of Mosul. It would allow Iran to have a say in Mosul’s future, perhaps to deter a push for autonomy by Sunni politicians backed by Turkey and Gulf Arab states.

These two considerations may become, at least temporarily, less important as Iran and Turkey explore joint action to punish the KRG and prevent its secession from Iraq. Their strategic value, however, cannot be overlooked.

Finally, if Iran can claim some credit for helping Iraq and Syria defeat the Islamic State and reclaim control over their borders, it could improve Iran’s - and its proxies’-image in the region.

The United States could be concerned that Iran’s actions are shoring up Tehran’s allies and working against the interests of U.S. regional allies. But, Washington needs to remember that even if a land bridge from Iran to Syria is Iran’s goal, such a bridge existed before today. It would be a manageable geographic nuisance the United States could learn to mitigate, preferably by working with Iraqis on their side of the border.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Qatar blockade fallout? Plans to convene divided Sunnis in Baghdad hit by boycott

Internal divisions among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs continue unabated as Iraq gears up for elections next year. Sunni Gulf States all have their respective allies among Iraqi Sunnis and the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar may have contributed to further deepening those divisions.

A string of conferences to foster cohesive Sunni position failed over the last few years. Efforts to hold two more conferences, this time inside Iraq, appear to have already faltered, creating recrimination instead of cohesion.

One of the events was planned to be held in Erbil. Baghdad, in a remarkable reversal of traditional government opposition, was to host the other. Both are being boycotted by influential Sunni politician and financier Khamis al-Khanjar. Others boycotting include Jamal al-Dhari, the young and ambitious nephew of the late chief of the Association of Muslim Scholars.

Both Khanjar and Dhari are thought to be closely associated with Qatar. This may be the reason that chameleon Sunni politician Mishan Jubouri (currently a friend of Iran) last week praised their decision to boycott the meetings and condemned the organizers as trying to use sectarianism to consolidate political gains. Mishan recently said he was ready to recruit thousands to fight to defend Qatar against Saudi aggression.

On the one hand, there is a sign of a promising opening in relations between the mainstream Sunnis in parliament and the government of PM Haider al-Abadi. Reportedly the government not only agreed to host the conference, but also instructed courts to review the cases of wanted Sunni leaders Tariq Hashimi and Rafi Issawi to allow them to attend the meetings.

But on the other hand this boycott promises more infighting that’s bound to get uglier as Iraq gets closer to elections.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sadr, the Kingmaker: The Protests and Washington's Choices in Iraq

On Saturday, protesters stormed Iraq’s parliament in reaction to lawmakers’ failure to convene and vote on a second batch of new ministers. The vote was intended to complete a partial cabinet reshuffle that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had initiated the previous week as part of broader reform plan to replace sectarian party quotas with independent technocrats in top government positions.

It was a sharp escalation of a political crisis that has rocked Iraq for almost nine months now. Although the immediate threat to the government abated with the protesters leaving the compound, the situation is still unpredictable, and Baghdad seems unable to walk itself away from the brink. The United States will thus be critical in brokering a settlement between the prime minister and the parliamentary blocs who oppose him. And, for the first time, it will have to open a direct conversation with Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia leader who once fought U.S. troops during the Iraq War and is now the de facto leader of the protests. Continue reading...

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Prime Minister Abadi Initiates Promising Cabinet Overhaul

PM Abadi presented his choices for a new cabinet formation before parliament today. Here are my initial thoughts on what I think is a very positive development:

--Abadi showed that he can act decisively and meet deadlines. He did not get bogged down in the bickering of political parties.

--Abadi showed toughness and succeeded in absorbing great pressures from multiple parties, including threats by Sadr to storm the green Zone and uproot the government. Moqtada responded rather positively by ordering his followers to end their sit-in, which is welcome deescalation of the tensions of recent weeks.

--Sherif Ali bin Hussien, a Sunni Arab related to Iraq's former monarchs, is a good choice for foreign ministry. Sophisticated and respected. Giving him the foreign ministry will be good for repairing Iraq’s connections with the Arab world.

--Ali Allawi is an excellent choice for finance and planning. Intelligent and thoughtful. Merging these two portfolios can consolidate and streamline planning and execution of budgets. Having a clean minister at the top promises to control corruption and inefficiency. 

--The fact that many of the other candidates don't sound familiar is generally a good sign in Iraq!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Abadi buys time with promise to change 9 ministers

Sources in PM Abadi's bloc said today that he will nominate 9 technocrats on Saturday as his candidates to fill ministerial portfolios in his promised cabinet reshuffle.

Moqtada Sadr, who had set a 45 day deadline that expires Monday for Abadi to reform his cabinet or face removal, seems to be satisfied by the news, at least for now. Sadr called the announcement “brave” and urged the PM to implement his cabinet reshuffle in no more than 2 stages, “without appeasement or fear from parties covering up for the corrupt in their midst.”

I wouldn't call it crisis averted, yet. It's still not clear if the announcement actually holds water. So far there's no direct statement form Abadi or his spokesperson. Also, as of yesterday, the major parties were still dragging their feet on nominating replacements for their to be ousted ministers. 

If today's announcement came without Abadi receiving nominations from the parties then there's a good chance that no names will be presented on Saturday. And if Abadi actually ends up presenting 9 names on Saturday that were not nominated by their parties, then getting a confirmation vote in Parliament will be quite a feat.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The threat of Moqtada al-Sadr grows

The news reporting on relations between Sadr and Abadi can be quite misleading. The headline at Reuters today reads "Iraq's al-Sadr supporters back PM's move for non-partisan cabinet to fight graft"

But taking these words at face value would be a mistake. Sadr is bullying Abadi rather than supporting him. He has given him 45 days to implement cabinet changes that would place in office candidates who are selected by Sadr and his aides. Sadr has publicly threatened to uproot the government and have his followers storm the Green Zone if Abadi did not comply.

In what world does this qualify as support?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

ISIS attacks Iraqi army base near Makhmour

I warned on Twitter a few weeks ago that ISIS will likely strike at the Iraqi Army camp near Makhmour to try and disrupt the force buildup before the Iraqis are ready to commence offensive operations.

Well, today this happened. Th news says that "Four Iraqi soldiers were killed and at least 23 others wounded," when ISIS attacked the base Thursday morning.

ISIS reportedly used Katyusha rockets in the attack. And now the enemy artillerymen have a pretty good idea of where to aim in order to make the next salvo land where it hurts

If this hasn't been done already, the Makhmour base should be given sufficient ISR capabilities to detect ISIS activity in plausible launch sites and prevent similar, or worse attacks in the future. The base and troops are too important for the Mosul battle-and indeed the entire campaign-to leave unprotected. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Ninewa council votes against PMU participation in retaking Mosul

But was the vote really necessary? I feel that there must be better things that the Ninewa council could spend their time doing. After Tikrit and, more importantly, after Ramadi, it's become rather obvious that the Hashd role in the fight for Mosul cannot/will not go beyond establishing perimeter and/or shaping operations. In my view messages like this vote seem unnecessary, divisive (as indicated by the PUK, Shiite and Turkmen representatives reported opposition to the vote) and therefore possibly harmful.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Abadi's cabinet reshuffle plan heats up competition among Shia parties

PM Abadi's plan to inject fresh blood into his cabinet is polarizing the Shia coalition. Sadr supports Abadi's plan while State of Law and ISCI seem more interested in replacing Abadi himself. Sadr is trying to position himself to increase his influence in the government. He's telling Abadi: I'll support you and your plan, but in return I get to pick the committee that gets to nominate the  new cabinet members. ISCI and State of Law are unhappy.

So the choice may end up being one between the current dysfunction and a Sadr-dominated cabinet, with probably greater dysfunction....Unless, Abadi manages to pacify ISCI and State of Law, while keeping Sadr's hand out of the cookie jar. That's a tall order.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Are Abadi and the KRG serious about a new oil deal?

So the Baghdad and Erbil governments are now negotiating, very publicly, a new arrangement to settle, at least temporarily, their differences over KRG oil exports and budget.

PM Abadi made an offer, which the KRG says it accepts. But does this mean a deal is happening? It's not that simple.

Abadi's proposal was this: "I have a suggestion: Give us the oil and we will give every Kurdish employee a salary like we do for every Iraqi employee."

The KRG interpreted the proposal as: "sending the entire salaries of the Kurdistan Region’s 1.4 million employees which amount to 890 billion IQD."

The problem is, 890 billion IQD is about $800 million, but the 600,000 bpd the KRG would hand over to State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO) are worth about $450 million (assuming $25/bbl). 

Is Baghdad ready to cover the difference of $350 million? Most certainly not.

The way I see it, Abadi's "like we do for every Iraqi employee," was meant to include implied austerity measures that are bound to increase as Iraq's budget deficit grows bigger and bigger.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Federal Oil Ministry includes KRG exports in January figures

Something is different. The Federal Oil Ministry today included oil produced and exported by the KRG via Ceyhan in it's production and export figures for January. The addition brought the total production figure to a nice and juicy 4,775,000 bpd! This was not the case in previous statements since the collapse of the last oil/budget agreement. Last month's statement, for example, stated that: "Oil exports via Ceyhan port are suspended because the agreed amounts have not been delivered by the Kurdistan Region Government"

Could this mean that a new deal has been struck? Or is Baghdad just messing with Erbil?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Fayadh and Ghabban under fire

The parliament defense and security committee--whose members are often associated with nonsense statements--seems to be making some sense this week. The committee members met with PM Abadi yesterday and pushed him to replace Hashd Sha'bi (aka PMU) administrator Falih Fayadh with a military officer because he's been unable to discipline some of the Hashd groups.

The committee was also quite upset with Interior Minister Mohammed Ghabban and his recent appointment of supposedly hundreds of fellow Badr organization members.

Obviously the members of the committee are all motivated by their personal and partisan interests first, but if Ghadban is on the road to becoming Solagh 2.0 and populate the ministry with death squads then I sure am glad that someone is trying to prevent it.