Iraq: So Much Oil, So Little Joy


October 16, 2010: The stalemate between prime minister Nuri al Maliki, and former premier Iyad Allawi (who has a small plurality in parliament) continues into its seventh month. Broadly speaking, Maliki is seen by his enemies as too pro-Shia and too willing to work with Shia radicals and Iran. Allawi is seen as too secular and too willing to work with the hated Sunni Arab minority (who have done most of the killing in the last sixty years). But both men are very much Iraq nationalists, and each believes only they can lead Iraq to a better future. While Maliki has broad support among Shia (who are over 60 percent of the population), Allawi has the rest (mainly the Kurds and Sunni Arabs), as well as the large number of secular Shia. The key block here is the Kurds, who are united, independent minded, and control about 18 percent of the seats in parliament. But the Kurds want more autonomy and control over oil in their territory. This offends the Arabs, who are 80 percent of the population.

Most Iraqis understand that, if spent properly (and not plundered by criminal politicians), the oil wealth could make Iraq a modern and prosperous country. But that's rarely how it works. However, other Arab states in the region have managed to keep the stealing under control, and spread the largess around. It's still unknown if Iraq can join this club. For a while in the 1970s, there was a widespread, oil fueled, prosperity. Older Iraqis remember this period fondly. But then Saddam went to war, and three decades of death and destruction followed.

The relative peace of the last few years has allowed much delayed (by Saddam's shaky finances) oil exploration. This expensive effort has paid off, with another 12 billion barrels found. That's more than a trillion dollars in future oil sales, and increases Iraq's reserves to 150 billion barrels. So much oil, so little joy.

Inability to form a government is not the only problem Iraq has in creating a "civil society." Political and criminal gangs have shifted their terrorism to the security forces. The belief is that it's cheaper, and  more practical if you are short on cash, to murder police officers and commanders than to try to bribe them to cooperate. Many government officials are also victims, but the main target is the security forces, especially police and investigative agencies. The police have become too effective in shutting down lucrative criminal operations and, worse yet, killing or jailing gang bosses. Thus, so far this year, over 1,300 policemen have been assassinated, either by rifle (usually a sniper) and pistol (often with a silencer), or, as was the case in about 45 percent of these deaths, by car bomb (explosives attached to the underside of automobiles and detonated remotely or when the engine is started.) Many police have got the message, and know which gangsters are untouchable. But most Iraqis have come to appreciate law and order, and are pressuring the police to keep up the fight, and win. To do that, the police are experiencing the same level of losses they suffered back in 2007, at the height of the battle that finally crushed the Islamic terror groups. That is the past, today's foes are smugglers, kidnappers, robbers and extortionists. The bad guys often win, as can be seen in the growing number of police commanders getting arrested for being on some criminal's payroll.

Both Sunni and Shia terrorist groups have increased, by about 50 percent, their rocket attacks on the heavily guarded Green Zone in downtown Baghdad. Over the last ten weeks, 2-3 small rockets land inside the Green Zone each week. But there's a lot of open space in the zone, so someone is killed or wounded for every 3-4 rockets that land. The rocket attacks are more for harassment than homicide. One reason for the increased rocket activity is the withdrawal of most American troops, and all their specialized security measures to defeat rocket attacks.

Although there is a lot less combat in Iraq, the remaining 50,000 U.S. troops are still at risk. They can still earn combat wards and still get hazardous duty pay. So far this year, 55 American troops have died in Iraq (compared to  400 in Afghanistan). There have been several hundred injuries. But most of these casualties are from non-combat actions (highway accidents are still a big problem). Many American troops still suit up for combat frequently, especially those who advise and train Iraqi troops. American combat troops have to be called in, by the Iraqis, to any combat situations, and frequently the U.S. troops are (but usually only in situations where the Iraqis are getting hammered).

No matter who has the money, or how they got it, a lot more profit is being made in Iraq, and a lot more of it is staying in Iraq. You can see this in the form of a building boom. Not just skyscrapers and reconstruction in the cities, but also new buildings and compounds in the countryside. A lot of this has to be guarded by private security, but that means even more jobs. It's boom times, even if it's still dangerous times.

There is still the occasional Islamic terrorist attack, usually Sunni Arab terrorists killing Shia Arabs. These attacks are a mixture of politics and religion, and that's a very nasty combination. But the terrorists are a tiny minority now, and a very unwelcome one. Most of the them moonlight as common criminals just to get by. Given the suicidal tendencies of the Sunni Islamic terrorists, they will die out sooner, rather than later. But in the meantime, the terrorists are using all their criminal skills to get what they want, which included demands that terrorists or their families be released from prison. They have threatened to kidnap wives and children of senior officials for this purpose. But the senior politicians have lots of bodyguards, and no terrorists have been able follow through on these threats.


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