Saturday,23 September, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)
Saturday,23 September, 2017
Issue 1345, (18 - 24 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s lawlessness

Terrorism is only part of a much bigger security problem in Iraq

Iraq’s lawlessness
Iraq’s lawlessness

When gunmen kidnapped female journalist and anti-corruption activist Afrah Shawki in December, many Iraqis thought that Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi would act decisively to find out who was behind the abduction and refer them to the courts.

Shawki was released a week later after outrage by activists and pressure on Al-Abadi from international press organisations and rights groups. Yet, no perpetrator has since been identified or made to face justice.

As has happened in other cases of abduction in Iraq, the government has glossed over the high-profile case even though it caused immense political damage and helped to draw attention to the existence of vast ungoverned spaces in the country.

For many Iraqis, the surge in criminality and societal violence is no less worrying than the terrorism and political instability that continue to plague the country a decade-and-a-half after the US-led invasion of Iraq.

Some even believe that the lawlessness will be more trouble than terrorism after the end of the military campaign against the Islamic State (IS) group that threatens to transmit shockwaves through the fragile and strife-torn nation.

Last week, powerful Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr warned of dire consequences for the collapse of law and order in post-IS Iraq. “The kidnappings that are taking place now are only a small portion of what we will see in future,” he said.

Al-Sadr also pointed the finger at “impudent militias” as being behind the kidnappings, a reference to rival Shia paramilitary groups, some of them part of the government-sponsored Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF).

Acts that go beyond and outside the law are already pushing Iraq over the edge, as violence, whether criminal, private or committed by the state, continues to spin out of control.

Last week, seven young anti-corruption activists were kidnapped by armed men from their apartment in central Baghdad before being released a day later after having been tortured and abused.

The abductions were another case of the government’s failure to search for a solution to the problems of crime, violence and general lawlessness in the country.

An Interior Ministry official who announced the activists’ release did not elaborate on the identity of the kidnappers or the circumstances of their release.

Beyond such well-publicised abduction cases, however, are many unreported episodes of a general disregard for the law that have been placing Iraq on the edge of a precipice.

Many Iraqi cities appear to be in the grip of increasing lawlessness, with violent crimes such as murder, armed robbery, gang extortions and drug-dealing almost a daily occurrence.

One of the signs that Iraq has crossed the threshold of lawlessness has been the rise in tribal violence, now almost a daily occurrence and often carried out in full view of the authorities.

The situation of lawlessness and the failure of the government to deliver security and protect communities have made the country’s tribes take matters into their own hands, often pitting one tribe against another.

In Basra, Iraq’s main port and home to about 70 per cent of its oil reserves, tribal clashes have been frequent as clans have fought for influence over and control of state resources, including oil and customs revenues.

Residents describe the situation in many districts of the city as one of pervasive lawlessness. Armed tribesmen fight each other and sometimes besiege oil fields or government offices demanding jobs for tribe members.

Last week, a curfew was imposed briefly after members of rival tribes fought street battles using heavy weapons including mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

In recent weeks, Baghdad has dispatched military units, bolstered by helicopters and tanks, to Basra to help the local police restore law and order after bloody fighting has taken place between rival tribes.

To the north in the Maysan Province, the governor also asked the government to send reinforcements to Amara, the provincial capital, to help local police quell clashes between rival tribes over patronage and resources.

In major cities including Baghdad, tribes are building vast power bases through exercising influence over resolving neighbourhood and communal problems.

Tribal courts and arbitration sessions are now the norm in solving criminal, family and commercial disputes. Tribal tribunals are now resolving cases such as marital problems, personal disputes, car accidents, children’s brawls and even doctors’ medical mistakes.

The tribunals usually impose financial penalties, but in some cases the victims are rewarded with women in line with some tribal codes. The rulings and settlements are guaranteed by tribal traditions.

Iraqi lawyers and judges say the tribal courts have severely undermined the state legal system and police and court work. They say the phenomenon has made people turn even small problems into legal disputes, sometimes for reasons of blackmail or extortion.

Teachers, for example, may face tribal courts for failing students in school exams. Iraqi doctors are reportedly leaving their jobs or seeking exile abroad because they have been sought by tribes for making medical mistakes.

Some towns and neighbourhoods have fallen entirely under the tribes’ control, with tribesmen imposing their own rules under the noses of the local authorities.

Even government institutions and the security forces have been infiltrated by tribal traditions as members of these two state branches have resorted to tribal courts in order to resolve disputes instead of by-laws and disciplinary tribunals.  

While some Iraqis are keenly awaiting political and security reforms after the end of the war against IS, others have already lost faith in the government and its security system, even questioning whether the country’s ruling elite is willing to make the needed changes.

Most Iraqis do not go to the police or the courts to report a crime because they know they will not get the needed help. They believe that the country’s judicial system and police are corrupt, inefficient and poorly managed.

Sometimes police turn against the victims of crimes after receiving bribes or coming under the influence of powerful groups undercutting state authority. Many abuses are committed by the police themselves.

Early this month, a young man died while in police custody in Iraq after he was arrested in the small town of Twareej in the Karbala Province.

The police said the teenager had died of an unspecified illness while under investigation for not carrying an identification document. His family said they had found signs of torture on his body.

One of the main reasons why the government has failed to uphold the rule of law is corruption. Graft is rampant in Iraq, and one of the most corrupt organs of the state apparatus is the security forces.

The Iraqi media thrives on horrifying reports of corruption in the Interior Ministry and about its politicised and sectarian-based police forces. While the government usually does not comment on such reports, officials often come to the defence of the security forces.

Commenting on the death of the teenager in Karbala, Al-Abadi said that “it is not acceptable to make accusations against the security forces because they are making sacrifices against terrorism.”

The combination of corruption and lawlessness now at work in Iraq is manifested in the state’s failure in some of essential institutions, like border crossings where the central government often does not control customs levying and collecting.

Iraq’s customs offices on the borders with neighbouring countries are in many cases under the control of political groups and their affiliated militias.

Data from the Iraqi parliament suggest that influential political groups in the government make millions of dollars in taxes levied in these offices that are not controlled by the state. They also benefit from the smuggling of fuel, cigarettes and narcotics.

Last Friday, Majid Al-Gharawi, a member of the parliament’s Defence and Security Committee, said that the legislature had formed a panel to probe into the millions of dollars in lost revenues at the Shalamcha crossing with Iran.

The move came in reaction to reports that one of the main factions in the ruling Shia coalition, the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, had been imposing its control over Shalamcha, one of Iraq’s main crossing points with Iran.

However, in Iraq today it is difficult to find a political group that is not crooked. Worse still, these groups have their own military wings, or are often intertwined with militias, helping to facilitate corruption and lawlessness.

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