A member of a Shiite Musilm militia wearing green and yellow, the Shia colours. (photo: موقع الحشد الشعبي)
It was particularly bad timing. This week, the 45-day deadline that the US government gave Iraq to come up with a plan to stop trading with Iran and to institute the sanctions the US wants, expires. At the same time, the half-formed Iraqi government, trapped between two feuding international allies and riven by internal issues, is slipping further into crisis mode.
The new Iraqi government, headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, was formed relatively hastily and it has quickly lapsed into quarrelling as major blocs in parliament began negotiating who would head the last eight ministries out of 22, including the powerful ministries of defence and the interior.
An uneasy alliance between the two largest blocs, one loyal to the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the other loyal to a senior figure in the Shiite Muslim militias, Hadi al-Ameri, is foundering on this issue.
Around 30 percent of the electricity produced in Iraq comes from Iranian gas.
At the same time, the two groups have differing foreign allegiances. The latter is close to Iran while the former demands Iraqi independence. And their political breakup comes at the same time as the Iraqi government is supposed to be distancing itself from Iran, a major trading partner, with strong political and security ties to Iraq, not to mention geographical proximity.
Trade volumes between Iran and Iraq sit at around US$12 billion per annum.
The main issue is electricity in Iraq. The Iraqi ministry of electricity estimates that around a third of power production in Iraq depends on Iranian gas imports. The US is pressuring Iraq to find alternatives and US company, General Electric, is offering to put in place several projects (for a price) to achieve better energy independence.
But it really isn’t that easy. Iraq can produce about 16,000 megawatts of electricity per day by itself, even though authorities readily admit that between a third and even up to half is often lost due to grid problems. The country realistically needs around 26,000 megawatts (for comparison’s sake, one megawatt is around enough to supply 2,000 average British homes for an hour).
“Around 30 percent of the electricity produced in Iraq comes from Iranian gas,” a senior government official, who wished to remain anonymous because they were not authorised t talk to the press, told NIQASH. “The US wants us to abandon Iranian gas without realizing the size of the crisis we would have if we did so,” the official complained.
Iranian gas supplies result in around 4000 megawatts and the direct import of electricity from Iran adds up to another 1,500 megawatts. That is a significant portion of all power produced in Iraq. As it is, most Iraqis only get an average of eight hours electricity a day from the state. The rest of the time, they pay extra for power from private generators.
Iraq: torn between two allies, breaking all the rules.
The so-called Reconstruction Alliance that al-Ameri heads is one of the biggest in the Iraqi parliament now and it is well known to have a close relationship with Iran: It includes the Fatah bloc, which is composed mostly of representatives of the Shiite Muslim militias, as well as the State of Law bloc, led by former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is also an Iran fan.
“There is a strong relationship between our two countries, with commercial exchanges in the food and agriculture sectors, not to mention gas, electricity and oil,” said Mansur al-Baiji, a member of the alliance, from the State of Law bloc. “It’s just not logical to end all of these relations with Iran simply to appease the US.”
The new prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, appeared to agree last Tuesday when, during his weekly press conference, he said that he believed Iraq would not be taking part in the sanctions and that he had sent a delegation to the US to discuss an exemption.
Just a few hours later though, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry also talked about the sanctions during a visit to Baghdad with a trade delegation. "Sanctions were mentioned, they're a reality, they're there," he said, after meeting with oil and electricity ministries. He didn’t give any further details as to whether the US would extend the 45-day waiver given to Iraq. But he did encourage the Iraqis to wean themselves off Iranian power once again. “The time has come for Iraq to break its dependence... on less reliable nations seeking domination and control," he said, a clear reference to Iran.
Iran has insinuated it will cause chaos if Iraq does adhere closely to US sanctions.
Analysts suggest that the US will extend the waiver. But nobody really knows what will happen. Iran has insinuated it will cause chaos if Iraq does adhere closely to US sanctions, something that is virtually impossible for Iraq anyway. Meanwhile the US has threatened to sanction Iraq if it doesn’t do what the US wants.
Electricity is a huge issue in Iraq and has been one of the major grievances about which protestors in various parts of the country have been demonstrating. Recent anti-government protests in Basra, that turned violent, focused on the subject of insufficient power supplies as well as corruption and the lack of potable water. There is particularly high demand for electricity in Iraq in summer when temperatures can rise to over 50 degrees Centigrade and air conditioning and refrigeration is desperately needed. Although it is now winter, and cooler in the country, there’s no doubt that power shortages are still a crucial political issue.
That’s why sanctions that leave Iraq with even less power are such a problem, alongside the brewing political crisis in the new parliament.
This current crisis has much to do with who heads up the powerful Ministry of Interior, which controls several different branches of the security services. Last week, al-Ameri of the Reconstruction Alliance, presented his candidate for the job, Faleh al-Fayad, a former head of the militias. Al-Fayad became a somewhat controversial figure when he left the group headed by the former prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and crossed the aisle to al-Ameri’s rival party. It was seen as a double cross, but it is also one that al-Ameri would doubtless like to reward al-Fayad for, with this job.
However the Sairoun alliance, headed by Muqtada al-Sadr and previously allied with al-Abadi, doesn’t like that idea at all. During recent contentious sessions in parliament, al-Sadr’s MPs have not attended which has led to a lack of quorum, and an inability to fill the vacant ministerial posts.
The prime minister himself is unable to resolve this issue because he is most of all an independent, who was the most palatable option the various partisan blocks could agree on, and he can only wait for the larger more powerful political parties to resolve this problem.