Every chapter of Iraq's modern history can be seen in the sprawling cemetery of Wadi al-Salam outside the holy city of Najaf. Its sandy expanse is growing, this time with coronavirus victims.
A special burial ground near the cemetery has been created specifically for COVID-19 victims because such burials have been rejected by Baghdad cemeteries and other places in Iraq.
In Iraq, the virus has been surrounded by stigma, driven by religious beliefs, customs and a deep mistrust of the healthcare system.
Iraq has recorded close to 132,000 coronavirus cases and nearly 5,000 deaths.
This is Zain al-Abidin’s predicament. A resident of al-Hartha district, in Basra province, Mr. Abidin lost his job due to pandemic-related restrictions. During the day he listens helplessly to his four-month old daughter cry in the unbearable heat, too poor to afford private generators to offset up to eight-hour power cuts.
“I have no tricks to deal with this but to pray to God for relief,” he said.
When Mustafa al-Kadhimi became Iraq’s prime minister on May 7, after five months of political deadlock in Baghdad, I argued his best chance of success was to fail fast. The only way to clean the Augean stables of Iraqi politics was with the strong broom of a popular mandate — and that could only be obtained from elections. Thoroughgoing political and economic reforms would require a majority — or at least a plurality with which to build an irresistible coalition — in parliament.
Last week, the prime minister called for early elections — on June 6, 2021, a year ahead of schedule. But Iraq’s circumstances have deteriorated so much in the three months since he took office, Kadhimi will have a much harder time convincing Iraqis to give him a mandate to rule.
All the crises he inherited have deepened. The coronavirus pandemic, already alarming when Kadhimi was sworn in, has since only grown more frightening, forcing him to announce fresh lockdowns. The Iraqi economy, having suffered extensive collateral damage from the Saudi-Russian oil war, has weakened. Powerful, Iran-backed Shiite militias have grown more brazen. Corruption, already ingrained in the body politic, seems to have metastasized across every aspect of the state.
Even the weather has been worse than expected. Iraq is now wilting in the hottest summer ever recorded, with temperatures nearing 52 degrees Celsius (125 Fahrenheit) in Baghdad and 53C (127F) in Basra last week. The heat threatens to bring the protests against electricity and water shortages — a summer fixture in the Iraqi political calendar — to a fever pitch. Some demonstrations in Baghdad have already boiled over into clashes with security forces: Two protesters were killed last Monday.
In the power vacuum left after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government, a thicket of corruption has erupted. The corruption took hold during the end of Saddam’s reign, when international sanctions against Iraq resulted in the slashing of government officials’ incomes and the workers resorting to taking bribes, according to a recent report in The New York Times.
The World Population Review report ranks Iraq the 11th most corrupt country in the world in 2020.
In 2011, a $148 million project was planned to turn Baghdad’s Sadr al Qanaat thoroughfare into an idyllic outdoor park with sports fields, restaurants, playgrounds and a canal with decorative bridges over it. But that site is now “a dismal dumping ground with little sign that anything was ever spent on it.”
Where did the money go? According to The Times, it went into the pockets of corrupt officials who, with the backing of militias, funnel billions of dollars supplied by the United States for construction projects into their personal international bank accounts.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is set to visit Washington soon, although he does not yet have a date or an invitation, so he is scrambling to say all the right things in order to secure a meeting with US President Donald Trump.
Iraq is worse off than it was two weeks ago and this last week has propelled two items to the top of the list for Al-Kadhimi’s visit to the US: Kata’ib Hezbollah’s continued attacks on the US and Iraqis, and calls by Al-Kadhimi for early elections that Kata’ib Hezbollah and its allies in Iraq’s Council of Representatives won’t allow to happen.
The top agenda item for Trump is for Al-Kadhimi to do something about the militias that he supposedly commands as Iraq’s commander in chief. The militias that fall under the government’s security apparatus are attacking US personnel in Iraq, which are there to partner with the Baghdad government to ensure the enduring defeat of Daesh. The militias have now become more of a threat to the US and Iraqis than Daesh.
Trump wants to know if the US has a partner in Iraq. The president is willing to pull US forces out of Iraq if this “partner” continues to disappoint. Republicans and Democrats are looking for a reason to end this experiment. And it won’t be without costs to Baghdad and Tehran.
Two actions by the Democrat-led House of Representatives point to a breakup if nothing changes. Democrats voted to cut funding for the US mission in Iraq by $145 million and Republican Rep. Joe Wilson was able to get two amendments passed that would ensure no US dollars go to any institution in Iraq where the militias have access to the funds — that would mean the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior would be most affected.
It’s been three years since the guns fell silent in Mosul, the onetime capital of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). With the Caliphate finally pushed out, it seemed the nightmare of extremist rule was finally coming to an end, giving Iraq’s Christian minority a chance to reclaim their homes after years spent sheltering under brutal conditions, fleeing to refugee camps, or taking flight abroad.
Instead, their hopes of rebuilding have diminished even as the threat of the Caliphate has faded. The region’s few remaining Christians find themselves caught between Iran-backed Shia militias and an Iraqi government that, nearly twenty years after the American invasion, is politically paralyzed and still unable to provide basic security and services—let alone protect the country’s embattled minority populations. As a result, most Iraqi Christians are searching for brighter pastures, even if it means forever parting with the land of their ancestors.
“Of the twenty thousand Christians that fled Mosul when ISIS came, only one hundred have returned,” said Reine Hanna, director of the Assyrian Policy Institute. “People can’t work and earn a living among ruins. There’s little incentive to return.”
The country that is now Iraq has been home to various Christian communities for more than two thousand years. Falling mostly outside the Roman Empire, where the Christianity familiar to most Westerners today took its basic shape, Iraqi Christians developed their own unique forms of Christian worship and theology which endure to this day; they draw heavily on ancient liturgical rites, prayers, and customs.
The fortunes of the region’s Christians vacillated with the many empires that rose and fell over the centuries. Prior to the US-led invasion in 2003, the country was home to 1.5 million Christians. But, despite their endurance over the centuries, the subsequent occupation and insurgency proved to be a breaking point. By 2014, shortly before the rise of ISIS, over eight hundred thousand of Iraq’s Christians had fled abroad, with many making new homes in the United States and Western Europe.
The establishment of the ISIS Caliphate drove the few remaining Christians out of the region to avoid living under a regime that gave them an ultimatum: pay a special tax for non-believers or leave or be killed. Nearly all chose to leave to the Kurdish north. While ISIS’ territorial defeat provided an opening for the return of Mosul’s Christians, that hope has quickly faded in the face of the grim state of Iraqi politics. The biggest challenge facing the country are the militias that control the territory formerly occupied by the Caliphate.
Today, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of various militias—mainly backed by Shia clerics and Iran—that were once seen as integral to the fight against ISIS, are now focused on controlling the areas they liberated. They are also determined to further their own political agenda. The PMF have already been documented committing a number of crimes across Iraq, including looting, revenge killings against Sunni Arabs, and seizure of property.
There is a growing fear that many PMF units will ultimately occupy towns indefinitely, since they have not left the ones they liberated. This is creating a climate where they mete out whatever justice or injustice their militia leaders dictate. Exploiting Iraq’s fractured political and security landscape, PMF units have erected their own system of check points and recruitment offices in towns across the country, giving them an advantage over the domestic security situation. They have even entered politics, helping Iran-backed groups gain even more leverage over Iraqi affairs, such as its economy.