Iraqi politics move online
Ongoing disputes in Iraq's governmental crisis have moved onto the Internet and social-networking sites, writes Salah Nasrawi
As efforts to end Iraq's most serious political crisis since the 2003 US-led invasion stumble, rival politicians are increasingly using hardball tactics, including rumours and hoaxes, to attack their challengers in a tireless and vicious tug of war.
The result has been a kind of political drama, and among the weapons in use have been websites and social networks on the Internet that have been providing Iraqi politicians with ammunition to slog it out with their opponents or score points against them.
For months, Iraq has been gridlocked in a governmental crisis over power-sharing and the distribution of national resources, following the US troop withdrawal in December.
The protracted dispute has escalated into demands to unseat Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who is accused of attempting to consolidate power in his hands and marginalise other political leaders, raising sectarian tensions in the already war-battered country.
With the row now reaching a crescendo, the digital media has entered into the fray, this being increasingly widely used by the warring sides.
Although most Iraqis still get their news through the radio or television, the Internet has become a major source of information in the country, allowing millions of people to read different kinds of news about Iraq.
In most parts of Iraq, electricity supplies only last for two to four hours a day, but research suggests that Iraqis are spending more time online by relying on electricity provided by private generators.
What makes reading online news reports from Iraq interesting is that some of them appear to have had free access to breaking stories as they happen in the country.
The sites are increasingly becoming major sources of information on the country, and the international media, unable to access the conflict directly, is now taking news from such sites, sometimes with little or no concern for authentication.
Dozens of such websites describe themselves as digital news outlets and have no easily identifiable ownership.
It is difficult to know who is behind the sites, but it is clear that they are serving various political interests, even reflecting the well-known agendas of politicians or sectarian groups.
Experts say that Iraqi politicians have been spending large sums of money on public-relations, including radio, television, newspapers and online media outlets.
Many suspect that some of these media outlets have been involved in dirty political campaigns.
Some Iraqi leaders, such as the powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, have active personal Web pages, using them to post statements or to address their supporters.
In recent weeks, Al-Sadr, who has joined Kurdish and Sunni leaders in efforts to unseat Al-Maliki, has been using his Website extensively to rally his followers behind such demands, infuriating the Al-Maliki camp.
Some sites have recently posted a fatwa, or religious edict, from Iran-based Grand Ayatollah Kadhum Al-Haeri, forbidding support for secular politicians in their efforts to topple Al-Maliki.
Websites which support Al-Maliki have applauded the fatwa, seeing it as being aimed at Al-Sadr, who has been accused of dividing the Shias, a serious charge in Shia Islam, tantamount to accusations of heresy.
While Al-Sadr has cast doubts on the edict, describing it as a "fake," pro-Al-Maliki websites have claimed that Al-Sadr will be charged with terrorism and murder, a reference to Al-Sadr's alleged killing of a prominent Shia cleric in 2003 and his followers' rebellion in 2008.
In their war of words, the sites usually employ anonymous abuse, attributing controversial news to unnamed sources.
One Website reported last week at the height of the political crisis, for example, that US Vice President Joe Biden had visited Iraq for two hours to try to help resolve the conflict.
Hours earlier, the same Website had reported that US Ambassador in Baghdad James Jeffrey has warned the anti-Al-Maliki camp that Washington considered unseating the prime minister to be "a red line".
The two faked stories were apparently posted in order to frustrate Al-Maliki's opponents by claiming that Washington was standing firm behind the Iraqi prime minister.
Several Websites reported on Monday that Iraqi parliamentary speaker Osama Al-Nujaifi, among the staunchest opponents of Al-Maliki, had resigned, in an attempt to portray the anti-Al-Maliki's politicians as defeatists.
On Tuesday, Qeraat, a pro-Al-Maliki site, alleged that al-Nujaifi's son Saif had been involved in a $12 million scam.
While such postings aim to discredit opponents, some others seem to be designed to evoke the national interest and to rise above the political and sectarian conflict.
The Al-Bayana Al-Jadida Website reported on Monday, for example, that an Israeli military delegation had recently been in the northern city of Erbil for talks with Kurdish regional government leaders.
It said that the delegation had met with one of Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani's sons in order to offer Israeli weapons to the Kurds to help them in their dispute with the central government in Baghdad.
While news about such Kurdish-Israeli contacts is not new, the timing of the posting is indicative.
On Monday, a posting on UR, another digital news outlet, claimed that a prominent tribal leader from the Sunni western Iraqi province of Anbar was leading a network involved in smuggling Iraqi artifacts to Israel.
In another posting, the website claimed that a famous tribal chieftain was being groomed by the Americans to replace Al-Nujaifi as speaker of parliament.
Another site reported this week that Kuwaiti and Qatari officials had been meeting over recent days to coordinate anti-Shia activities in Iraq.
It said that the two countries had been trying to recruit Sunni tribal leaders to participate in activities against Iraq's Shia-led government.
On Tuesday, the leader of Iraq's Sunni Iraqiya bloc, Iyad Allawi, dismissed these reports in an interview with the Al-Hayat newspaper, saying that they were designed to cover up Iranian support for Al-Maliki.
Social-media sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter have also been playing an important role in the political disputes.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has been trying to curb the influence of such sites. In April, the Iraqi parliament discussed a proposed new cyber-crime law, which human rights groups criticised for the planned harsh penalties on offenders, saying that the law could be used to attack journalists.
The proposed law came after many Iraqis began turning to the Internet to help spread reports about what is happening in the country.
Among the most popular stories published by the Websites are those about corruption among government officials.
Last year, various sites published revelations from a former Iraqi planning minister that a Canadian registered company had been able to obtain a $1.2 billion contract to build power plants in Iraq.
According to the story, extensive investigations had proved that the company only existed on paper and that it had no capacity to complete the contracts.
The story triggered a major political scandal in Iraq that toppled the minister of electricity.
On Sunday, Al-Zawra, another site, published documents that appeared to show that the current minister of electricity, Karim Aftan, had appointed his son to the ministry a day after he had been sent to Egypt on official business.
Last week, Kitabat, a popular site, revealed that senior oil ministry officials and lawmakers had been involved in a scandal regarding stolen equipment from an oil field in Basra that was worth millions of dollars and had been smuggled outside Iraq.
The website supported its claims with official papers, claiming that these were forgeries.
These are troubling times for Iraqis, but seeing their politicians' dirty linen being put on line for all to see could at least help to demonstrate that they have feet of clay.