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The Lights Might Be Out, but Iraq's Iran-aligned Militias Sure Are in Business

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Protesters burning tires during a demonstration demanding the return of electricity in Basra, last week.
Protesters burning tires during a demonstration demanding the return of electricity in Basra, last week.Credit: Nabil al-Jurani/AP

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi had no doubts. The fire at al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in Nasiriyah resulted from a string of failures: Administrative failure, deep-seated corruption, the theft of building materials, sabotage of hospital infrastructure and a lack of supervision by the health minister, the provincial governor and hospital executives.

On Monday, just hours after the fire that killed 103 people and injured dozens more, Kadhimi fired the health minister and the governor of the province, ordered the arrests of about a dozen employees and announced the establishment of an official commission of inquiry that was scheduled to publish its initial findings Wednesday.

Reporters from Iraqi media outlets who interviewed hospital employees were not surprised to hear about practices familiar to them from other Iraqi government institutions. Funds earmarked for construction and development at the hospital instead filled the pockets of contractors who failed to meet the requirements of the technical specifications. Supervision of the electrical systems was negligible. Substandard switches and wiring were removed from the walls, firefighting positions were unscrewed, their equipment broken or missing, their trucks didn’t have water and their commanders were more often out on the town than at their desks.

It was the second hospital fire in Iraq in less than three months. In April, more than 80 people died and more than 100 were injured in a fire at a hospital in Baghdad. Then, too, an investigation was opened, its findings filed away soon after in the dusty drawers of the Health Ministry.

People taking photos as flames engulf Al-Hussein hospital, this week.Credit: ASAAD NIAZI - AFP

A conflagration of corruption

Iraq is one of the world’s most corrupt countries. Even nearly 20 years after Saddam Hussein was ousted from power, its enormous underground petroleum reserves have not been exploited to create proper civil infrastructure and civilian wealth. Tens of billions of dollars have disappeared into the bank accounts of party leaders, government hangers-on and the militias that are loyal to them.

The array of militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, for example, enjoy two sources of funding. The militias in the PMF that are supported by Iran receive arms, equipment, training and monthly wages from Tehran, but as part of Iraq’s Defense Ministry they also receive funding from Baghdad. The state budget allocates $1 billion a year to them, about the same as the Ministry of Trade.

But evidently these sums are insufficient. About a year ago, Iran announced that it was ending its support for the militias’ civilian activities, which include religious instruction, aid to families who lost members in the war against the Islamic State organization and benefits to the children of service members. To compensate for the lost funding, which could affect their ability to recruit new combatants, these militias created their own “banking system” that loans money to Iraqi civilians, with fees that can amount to 15 percent of the amount borrowed plus part of the borrowers’ monthly payment. Bank loans, for all intents and purposes, are meant for people who don’t meet the lending requirements of the banks.

The lending method is advertised on social media. Potential borrowers report to the militias’ loan office, where they receive a permit they take to a “regular” bank, from which they can withdraw cash the same day. The banks count on the implied threat of the militias to guarantee the loan, despite the borrower’s inadequate collateral.

Public criticism of the militias’ control of the underground economy and the government’s promises to act against them don’t impress the militias, which depend on the support of parliamentarians and cabinet ministers who are affiliated with Iran. “How can it be that the government gives them $1 billion a year, when that money could build a few more power stations, maintain the hospitals that are going up in flames, add to the education budget or pay the salaries of thousands of workers whose wages have been delayed for months?” asked one of the opposition websites that operates outside the country this week.

Popular Mobilization Forces parading in Diyala, Iraq, last month.Credit: HO,AP

On paper, the militias have a combined total of 170,00 combatants, and according to PMF headquarters, 30,000 additional fighters have been added this year. Tens of thousands of them, however, are “ghost soldiers,” existing only on paper, their salaries pocketed by militia commanders.

Payments to pro-Iran militias are only one of the absurdities of the Iraqi government. These militias recently expanded their attacks on American targets in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq, leading the United States to retaliate with strikes on the militias’ bases. Kadhimi denounced the attacks of both sides, but he can neither stop the initiatives of the militias that take their orders from Tehran nor demand that the U.S. not respond. He also cannot threaten to cut off the militias’ funding: That would require a change to the law that is sure to fail, given the corrupt and complicated structure of his government and the deep influence of Iran, which also benefits indirectly from Baghdad’s funding of the militias, part of which is used to purchase arms from Tehran.

Foreign investment

This situation is not new, but each time it is revisited it comes as a surprise that foreign countries and international companies are still willing to do business in Iraq, and on an enormous scale.

China, for example, plans to invest tens of billions of dollars in developing Iraq’s oilfield, in building tens of thousands of residential units as well as schools, hospitals and roads. Saudi Arabia has signed a number of cooperation agreements and intends to build a large power station. Norwegian, French and German companies are proposing projects to generate electricity from renewable energy sources, particularly solar energy. Egypt wants to join the party and build homes in Iraq, and it seems there isn’t an Arab or Western country that doesn’t want to build a base for itself there.

It appears that Kadhimi, who is preparing for a general election in October, isn’t bothered by the $19-billion budget deficit or the need to build new water and electricity infrastructure and to pay all the outstanding public-sector salaries. This week he published his plan to build a new administrative city west of Baghdad that is meant to ease overcrowding in the capital, which is home to an estimated 7.5 million people.

The project is to be executed in four stages that will include the construction of 75,000 housing units, an industrial zone, food factories and the development of Abu Ghraib, whose prison by that name gained local notoriety for torture and executions during Saddam’s time and international notoriety for torture and abuse in 2003, under the American occupation. Such grandiose plans have been published in the past, to the joy of the contractors and party leaders who know that a significant portion of the government funding will find its way to them.

After Afghanistan, which the Taliban are reconquering in the wake of the U.S. troop withdrawals, Iraq seems to also be disintegrating, despite its structured government and its potential for rebuilding. Protests have become a daily occurrence; violence in the streets, including armed robbery and the murder of civilians, is routine. This, combined with summer temperatures that can reach 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), is a lethal, volatile mixture that is only waiting to be ignited.

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