A look behind surging violence in Iraq

The civil war in Syria and a resurgent Al Qaeda are the proximate causes for rising bloodshed in Iraq. But persistent government failure deserves a closer look.

By , Staff writer

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    People gather at the site of a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, 155 miles north of Baghdad, August 11, 2013. A series of car bombs in mainly Shi'ite areas of Baghdad killed 57 people and wounded more than 150 on Saturday, in what appeared to be coordinated attacks on people celebrating the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
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Eid al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, was marked in Iraq last week with a string of murders carried out by Al Qaeda's local affiliate, which has driven violence this year in the country to its highest level since 2008.

As mothers shopped to prepare feasts and families gathered in parks to celebrate the end of the fast, the group detonated bombs, claiming almost 80 lives. That after an unusually bloody period: July was the deadliest month in the country in five years.

The immediate reasons for a resurgent Sunni jihadi movement in Iraq are clear. The civil war in Syria has energized regional jihadis, and the flow of arms and men across the porous Iraqi-Syrian border have created more opportunities for fighters inside Iraq. Iraq's local Al Qaeda affiliate formally merged with the one in Syria earlier this year, and now calls itself the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. 

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National reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni Arab minority and the Shiite Arab majority who emerged as the big political winners of the Iraq war never really materialized after war cooled in 2007 and 2008. Many Sunni Arab fighters who switched sides to fight with the United States and the government were left disillusioned when the jobs and money they were promised from the government of Nouri al-Maliki never materialized.

But often lost in the daily reports of rising violence in Iraq has been the truly awful job of basic governance carried out by Mr. Maliki, his ministers, and the national parliament. When you scratch the surface in Iraq, examples of state failure abound. The spectacular jihadi jail break from Abu Ghraib prison at the end of last month, when jihadis attacked and defeated government forces there and released hundreds of their comrades, is one instance that has made the headlines.

But often missed is how bad electricity production in Iraq is, how irregular trash collection and sewage repairs are even in cities like Baghdad, and the general failure of the elected government to deliver on basic services, even as oil revenue has surged.

From 2010 to 2012 Iraq managed to increase daily crude output by over 25 percent, to 2.9 million barrels a day (though even in this most crucial area for any Iraqi government, progress has slowed, if not reversed). Oil production in July of this year fell slightly compared to a year earlier, the first decline since 2010, as a combination of increased insecurity and pipeline attacks in the north of the country and poor maintenance in the south have eaten into the nation's lifeblood.

Still, the country is the 11th largest oil producer in the world and the fifth largest in the Middle East, and daily production of about 2.7 million bbl is worth about $270 million a day– or $98 billion a year. Has increasing oil revenue been invested wisely? Not as far as anyone can tell.

As the blistering heat of the Iraqi summer settled over the country this year and demand for power to run air conditioners rose, Iraq once again experienced wide-spread power outages, and in July protests demanding the resignation of Maliki and Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani over the shortages erupted in five provinces. Joel Wing had a good roundup of Iraq's electricity woes – and what it says about the deficiencies of the government – last month.

"Many Iraqis have simply lost faith in Baghdad providing for their needs," he wrote.

"Every year since 2003, the Americans and then the Iraqi authorities have claimed that the country would overcome its chronic power outages in just a few months to a year. While production has steadily increased, so has demand as Iraqis, freed from sanctions, have bought more and more consumer goods like refrigerators, televisions, and air conditioners. That’s what has led to these constant protests over the last several years, as the Electricity Ministry has never produced enough power to catch up with the escalating levels of usage."

When I lived in Iraq from 2003-2008, the American failure to produce a regular and adequate power supply was constantly harped on by Iraqis as a sign of US bad faith and, even by Iraqis sympathetic to the US-led mission there, as a reason for why the insurgency was growing. Now failure is owned by Maliki's government, and is one of many signs that while Iraq has elections now and is theoretically a democracy, meaningful oversight by the elected representatives of the people by and large does not exist. Mr. Wing writes:

Parliament has tried, but failed to hold the government accountable for the repeated failure to solve the electricity problems. The legislature recently called on Deputy Premier Hussein Shahristani and Electricity Minister Abdul Karim Aftan to appear before it, but the former refused. Aftan testified to the oil and energy committee, and tried to deflect blame to the Finance Ministry for not allocating funds for projects, and the Oil Ministry for not providing enough fuel. At the same time, the minister admitted that he lacked experienced and trained staff to man all the new power plants being buil[t]. Parliament has brought up other issues as well such as why Iraq bought gas driven turbines when it doesn’t have enough natural gas to fuel them, and continues to purchase them, as well as why 18% of the country is not connected to the national grid. These problems and others have been known for years, and brought up again and again by lawmakers, but to no affect. The parliament is given wide ranging oversight powers under the 2005 constitution, but either chooses not to exercise them or is ignored by the government. Electricity is a perfect example, as lawmakers’ constant criticism has brought no changes.

That's evidence of a toothless parliament, though there are perks: The $22,500 that an Iraqi MP makes in a month is among the most lavish parliamentary salaries in the world. While government ministers may refuse to explain themselves to the legislature, particularly over the purchase of essentially worthless gas turbines, Iraq's MPs have been loathe to hold a vote of no-confidence in the government – since that would lead to new elections and perhaps the loss of their lucrative seats. Meanwhile Maliki has blamed Mr. Shahristani for the problem, while Shahristani has blamed Karim Aftan, the electricity minister.

Not surprisingly, this contributes to an environment of contempt for the central state – which exercises only nominal control over parts of its territory at the moment.

The below video, for instance, purports to show Al Qaeda style jihadis riding in convoy out of Iraq to fight in Syria – whose government the Maliki regime nominally supports. Hardly a covert operation:

The central government meanwhile says it needs more arms to fight insurgents on its territory, and the country recently inked a $4 billion contract with Russia on the sale of attack helicopters and air defenses, though deliveries have been held up because of allegations of massive kickbacks demanded by government officials. It wouldn't be the first time. In 2006, former Finance Minister Iyad Allawi alleged that $800 million had been stolen by officials in an arms deal. In 2008, Iraq's Interior Ministry was involved in the corrupt purchase of fake bomb detectors from a UK company – and was insisting that officers continue use them, despite all evidence that they didn't work and were putting police and average Iraqis in harm's way, as recently as May of this year.

Does all this breed contempt among average Iraqis for their government? Certainly. And it increases the numbers of Iraqis willing to take up arms against it, or at least look the other way when others do so.

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