The Iraq Report: Social and geopolitical deep waters

Mamassani Array
6 min read
17 January, 2023
Ongoing sectarian and bureaucratic issues continue to hamper efforts at national reconciliation in Iraq, while the development of new ports has flared geopolitical tensions with Iran.

The aftermath of the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) group in Iraq has led to a protracted process of recriminations and continued marginalisation of communities demonised as being “friendly” to the terrorist organisation, particularly the Sunni Arabs, who once were the social and political elites of the country until the US-led invasion in 2003.

This has crippled efforts at national reconciliation across the ethno-sectarian divide, destabilising Iraq’s security.

Iraq finds itself in further geopolitical tensions as neighbouring Iran expresses concerns and fears about Iraq developing its deep water ports to further facilitate the country's role as a hub for trade and transport.

While Iranian-sponsored militias still influence the Iraqi port authorities and have undermined Iraqi sovereignty across numerous domains, Tehran likely fears that a future Iraq free of foreign influence may use its infrastructure to threaten the Islamic Republic’s long-term interests.

"The problems faced by Iraqis in obtaining civil status documents are not just bureaucratic in nature but also have a sectarian dimension"

Sectarian bureaucracy hinders reconciliation

In the aftermath of the defeat of IS in 2017, Iraq has been faced with the daunting task of national reconciliation between its different ethno-religious groups. However, this process has been complicated by bureaucratic and often sectarian policies that have made it difficult for many Iraqis to obtain crucial civil status documents.

One of the main issues faced by many Iraqis is the lack of access to basic services like education, healthcare, and social security benefits due to the absence of these documents. This is a problem that affects not just individuals but entire families and communities.

Speaking to AFP, Alia Abdel-Razak, a 37-year-old mother of four from Mosul, is one of many Iraqis who are struggling to obtain civil status documents. She faces many challenges in getting her children into school and obtaining food subsidies for her family.

Her story is not unique, as many others also struggle with endless red tape and the fallout from the country's gruelling battle to defeat IS to obtain documents like birth and marriage certificates, over a decade after their weddings.

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Hussein Adnan, a 23-year-old also facing similar difficulties, lost his ID card while fleeing the battle against IS in 2017. According to AFP, he was subsequently arrested and spent five months in detention before being declared innocent.

He was married and had a son under IS rule, but the marriage and child's birth were not recognised by the government and he is now relying on aid organisations to try and get his documents in order.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that many civil bureaus that kept records of these documents were destroyed during IS' rise to power or in the years-long war to drive the group out. This has led to a situation where one million Iraqis are living without at least one missing civil status document, according to the UN.

The problems faced by Iraqis in obtaining civil status documents are not just bureaucratic in nature but also have a sectarian dimension. Many Sunnis who were married or had children under IS rule have found it difficult to have these marriages and children officially recognised by the government.

"Many Sunnis feel marginalised and excluded from the political and economic life of the country. This has the potential to fuel further sectarian tensions and violence in the country"

This is because of the perception that they have ties to IS and the fear that recognising these marriages and children would legitimise the group's rule.

As a result, many Sunnis feel marginalised and excluded from the political and economic life of the country. This has the potential to fuel further sectarian tensions and violence in the country.

The process of national reconciliation in Iraq will be difficult in the post-IS era if these bureaucratic and often sectarian policies are not addressed. The government must work to ensure that all Iraqis have access to basic services and that their civil status documents are recognised.

This can be achieved through measures such as increasing the budget for the Civil Affairs Directorate and coordinating mobile missions in camps to allow displaced people to obtain their missing documents.

Non-governmental organisations also have a role to play in raising awareness among state bodies, reducing the waiting time for paperwork, and facilitating a genuine national reconciliation process that can put Iraq back on the path to long-term peace.

An aerial view of imported goods waiting on the pier at the port of Umm Qasr, south of Iraq's southern city of Basra, on 14 March 2021. [Getty]
An aerial view of imported goods waiting on the pier at the port of Umm Qasr, south of Iraq's southern city of Basra, on 14 March 2021. [Getty]

Iraq ports a 'threat' to Iran

Iran has expressed concerns over the development of the Umm Qasr port in southern Iraq, claiming that it poses a threat to its geostrategic and commercial interests.

Javad Hedayati, the director-general of the transit office in Iran’s Road Maintenance and Transportation Organisation, stated that "the country [Iraq] is planning the development of Umm Qasr with the cooperation of Italy, so that it can compete with Fujairah and Jabal Ali and Iraq can be connected to Turkey, Syria, and the Mediterranean, a route that is parallel to Iran and is actually a threat and a warning to our country".

Umm Qasr is Iraq's main deep-water seaport and is located approximately 70 kilometres south of the major city of Basra. It is a vital strategic location for Iraq as it serves as the main port for importing goods, including food and medical supplies.

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However, it has also been the site of rampant corruption, with pro-Iranian armed groups accused by former Finance Minister Ali Allawi in 2021 of dominating the customs department of the port and supervising the security of the area to divert billions of dollars away from Iraqis.

Iraq's development plans for Umm Qasr, which include cooperation with Italy, aim to turn the port into a major hub for trade and commerce, connecting Iraq to Turkey, Syria, and the Mediterranean. The development of the port would also allow for larger container ships to dock, bringing in greater profits.

The development of Umm Qasr and the upcoming completion of the Grand Faw Port – which is even deeper than Umm Qasr – could also mean significant economic losses for Iran.

The ports of Fujairah and Jebel Ali in the United Arab Emirates are already major competitors for Iran's ports, and the development of Umm Qasr and Faw could further threaten Iran's commercial interests in the region.

"It is clear that the development of these ports poses a significant challenge to Iran's commercial and geostrategic interests in the region"

Furthermore, the development of these ports in Iraq could also challenge Iran's geostrategic interests. The ports could serve as a potential base for the presence of foreign military forces in the region, which could be seen as a threat to Iran's national security.

It is not clear what specific steps Iran will take to address its concerns over the development of Umm Qasr and Faw ports. However, it is clear that the development of these ports poses a significant challenge to Iran's commercial and geostrategic interests in the region, and therefore Iran may once again lean on its proxies in Iraq to sabotage the projects.

While unlikely considering the imbalance between the relative bargaining power of the two parties, with Iraq being significantly weaker, it is important for Iraq and Iran to engage in dialogue and find a way to address these concerns in a constructive and peaceful manner to avoid conflict in the future.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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