Iraqis welcome 2018 with new hopes, old fears
LONDON - Iraq started the new year without parts of its territory under Islamic State (ISIS) control for the first time in four years but, as Iraqis look to a future free from the ills of the militant group, many of the country’s problems are in urgent need of being addressed.
When ISIS captured Falluja in January 2014, Iraq was plagued with serious levels of corruption and a revival of sectarianism. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to crack down on both, drawing support and optimism from many Iraqis.
“I will admit that I didn’t have much faith in Abadi in the beginning but he is dealing with sensitive issues very wisely,” Taha al-Tamimi, a former adviser to the governor of Basra and political adviser to the British government, told the Atlantic.
Others doubt Abadi’s ability to fulfil his promises.
Corruption is rampant in Iraq, which ranked in 2016 as the world’s 11th most corrupt country in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. It exists in sensitive institutions, including the military and in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which is beyond Abadi’s immediate control. Many senior and influential politicians, whether his allies or his foes, are thought to be corrupt.
There remains the challenge of ensuring that ISIS does not rise from defeat because the militant group thrives on despair and divisions. Life in the western side of Mosul is unbearable and, with an estimated cost of $100 billion needed to rebuild war-ravaged areas, many Iraqis are not expecting to see a swift change to their environment.
The role of the Iran-backed militias, which were grouped to fight ISIS but were accused of committing sectarian acts against civilians, remains a point of contention.
The relationship between the central government and the KRG is volatile despite moves by Baghdad to pay the salaries of employees in the Kurdish-majority region.
Abadi has lifted some punitive measures against the KRG after it went ahead with a referendum on the independence of the region, branded unconstitutional by Baghdad. He enjoys the support of Kurdish politicians, who have, to varying degrees, sided with him against the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates the KRG.
The problems of the KRG go beyond its dispute with Baghdad. Hundreds of people were arrested by Kurdish officials in Sulaimaniyah after anti-corruption demonstrations in late December. Five protesters were killed and dozens wounded by Kurdish forces loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Although the PUK and KDP are political foes, both parties have been accused of cracking down on dissent and freedom of expression in areas they control. There are no indications that such grievances will be addressed this year.