Iraq Oil Report's Daily Brief compiles the most important news and analysis about Iraq from around the web.

Baghdad’s Green Zone, a barometer of war and peace

Bassem Mroue writes for AP:

Baghdad’s Green Zone has been a barometer for tension and conflict in Iraq for nearly two decades.

The 4-square mile (10-square kilometer) heavily guarded strip on the banks of the Tigris River was known as “Little America” following the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. It then became a hated symbol of the country’s inequality, fueling the perception among Iraqis that their government is out of touch.

The sealed-off area, with its palm trees and monuments, is home to the gigantic U.S. Embassy in Iraq, one of the largest diplomatic missions in the world. It has also been home to successive Iraqi governments and is off limits to most Iraqis.

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How ISIS Still Threatens Iraq

Pesha Magid writes for Foreign Policy:

Each day, villagers in the hamlet of Abu Teban fear the arrival of darkness.

“At night, they attack us,” said Dakhyl Ibrahim Ramayed, a local leader, referring to the return of the Islamic State to this desert region of Anbar province. He pointed to the arid land bordering the small clump of homes that make up the village and a nearby blown-up house. “Daesh”—the Arabic pejorative for the Islamic State—can spring out of nowhere, said Ramayed, who was imprisoned eight times under the militant group and knows its brutality first hand.

The Islamic State appears to be returning to an insurgency in Iraq—or trying to. Since the fall of Baghouz, the last Islamic State stronghold in Syria, in March, at least a thousand militants are suspected to have crossed into Iraq. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the spiritual leader of the organization, was believed to be in largely Sunni-dominated Anbar when he issued his first video in five years last month. Many militants live in tunnel networks built by the Islamic State and stocked with the necessary food and clothing, and they operate in cells of five to 10 people.

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The Problem with the Narrative of ‘Proxy War’ in Iraq

Douglas A. Ollivant and Erica Gaston write for War on the Rocks:

On May 7, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a surprise visit to Baghdad, warning Iraqi officials that the United States had a right to respond to attacks “by Iran or its proxies in Iraq or anywhere else.” His comments came after a month of escalating U.S.-Iranian tensions over the designation of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization, renewed U.S. sanctions on Iran, and threats and counter-attacks in the Strait of Hormuz.

Just over a week later, the United States evacuated all non-essential U.S. personnel from Iraq on the grounds that Iranian-linked militias — embedded within a now-official Iraqi security force, the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) — might have been on the verge of mounting an attack. The intelligence suggesting that these militias presented an increased threat was met with skepticism, including by Maj. Gen. Chris Ghika, second in command of the Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). Analysts and U.S. officials alike questioned whether the United States was not so much inflating as overreacting to the threat because of the perceived association of these forces with Iran.

To be sure, these Iranian-linked groups are dangerous, and likely would have no qualms about launching rockets on U.S. embassies or consulates. Many of these militias would attack U.S. assets (and have before, for which some of them were designated as terrorists by the United States). However, even if these groups are worth watching, the recent escalation also illustrates how the narrative of proxy warfare can misdiagnose the nature of the threat and help escalate a geopolitical standoff based on what are in reality local actors’ strategic positionings and machinations.

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French Citizens Allege Torture, Coercion

Human Rights Watch reports:

Two French citizens tried in recent days in Iraq for affiliation with the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) have alleged that they were tortured or coerced to confess, Human Rights Watch said today.

Seven French citizens were sentenced to death in the trials between May 26 and 29, 2019, and another’s verdict was postponed. At least one defendant said that Iraqi officers tortured him and another said that officers forced him to confess under duress and to sign a statement he could not read. Despite these allegations, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, stated on May 29 that the defendants had “fair trials.”

“France and other countries should not be outsourcing management of their terrorism suspects to abusive justice systems,” said Lama Fakih, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “These countries should not be sitting idly by while their citizens are transferred to a country where their right to a fair trial and protection from torture are undermined.”

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Deliberate crop burning blamed on ISIS remnants compounds misery in war torn Iraq and Syria

AP reports:

It was looking to be a good year for farmers across parts of Syria and Iraq. The wettest in generations, it brought rich, golden fields of wheat and barley, giving farmers in this war-torn region reason to rejoice.

But good news is short-lived in this part of the world, where residents of the two countries struggle to cope with seemingly never-ending violence and turmoil amid Syria's civil war and attacks by remnants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group. Now, even in areas where conflict has subsided, fires have been raging in farmers' fields, depriving them of valuable crops.

The blazes have been blamed alternately on defeated ISIS militants seeking to avenge their losses, or on Syrian government forces battling to rout other armed groups. Thousands of acres of wheat and barley fields in both Syria and Iraq have been scorched by the fires during the harvest season, which runs until mid-June.

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With Iraqi tribes settling more disputes, sheikhs are in high demand

The Economist reports:

After discovering that one of his employees had embezzled $800,000, Saif took him to a court in Baghdad and won. When the thief still did not return the cash, he was thrown in jail. But he was soon released, probably after paying a bribe. Fearing he would never see his money again, Saif began negotiating with the thief’s tribe—or, rather, his rental sheikh did. Saif, who grew up abroad, was unfamiliar with tribal practices, so he hired a tribe to back him and its leader (the sheikh) to represent him.

Iraq is home to around 150 tribes, whose sheikhs long helped resolve disputes. Saddam Hussein tried to weaken them, but after he fell in 2003, sheikhs filled the vacuum left by a fragile and corrupt state. Today even some corporate lawyers advise their clients to use tribal councils rather than courts, especially if the sheikhs involved have links to powerful militias. This has led to a booming new business: sheikhs who rent out their services. Only some are real.

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Battleground or Bridge-Builder? Iraq and the New Regional Order in the Middle East

Ramon Blecua writes for War on the Rocks:

The Middle East has been in turmoil since 2011 as a result of uprisings that rocked existing political structures in the Arab world, with the declaration of ISIL’s caliphate as its dramatic result. The void resulting from the implosion of the existing regional order, guaranteed by the United States, has been filled by competing coalitions organized around Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Iran, and Turkey. The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (more generally known as the “Iran nuclear deal”) — which together constituted the Obama administration’s strategic vision to rebuild a security architecture in the region — have been replaced by an effort to empower the new Saudi leadership to galvanize an anti-Iran front consisting of the Arab Sunni countries and Israel.

The Middle East Strategic Alliance, also known as the “Arab NATO,” was supposed to be the foundation of the new, U.S.-inspired regional security architecture. But instead of confronting Iranian influence, the alliance has become the stage of intra-regional disputes and competing ambitions. The recent upheaval in Sudan, Algeria, and Libya, the tensions between Oman and the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and the endless war in Yemen are not just sideshows to the main confrontation between the pro-Iran and anti-Iran camps. If a war with Iran breaks out, it will not be a neatly defined fight, but the confluence of multiple faultlines that could easily converge in a scenario reminiscent of World War I. The attacks on tankers off Fujairah and the East-West Saudi pipeline from Damman to Yambu, the allegations of Qassem Suleimani instructing Iraqi paramilitary groups to prepare for war or Saudi Arabia’s call for retaliatory airstrikes against Iran are a reminder of this.

In contrast with the increasingly belligerent narrative being pushed by various regional actors, Iraq is more assertively promoting a new regional order based on cooperation and mutually beneficial interests. By refusing to take sides in its neighbors’ conflicts, the new leadership in Baghdad is presenting an alternative to inevitable conflict and increasing its outreach as a bridge-builder accepted by all sides. The trilateral summit in Cairo last month, gathering Jordanian King Abdullah, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi, and Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, was a significant achievement indicating that there are alternatives to a general confrontation in the Middle East. The marathon diplomatic efforts of President Barham Salih, Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi and Mahdi have put Baghdad at the center of regional politics, since all players recognize that Iraq may be far from the regional hegemon of the past, but could nonetheless tip the balance in any regional conflict. If Iraq does not succeed in being the bridge-builder, it may end up being the battleground where the fight will be decided. It remains to be seen whether Baghdad can maintain this delicate balancing act in the face of U.S. pressures and Iranian interest in preserving its influence in the country.

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Storytelling, games make Iraq comeback on Ramadan nights

Raad al-Jammas and Shwan Nawzad write for AFP:

"Once upon a time" tales and folksy games from the pre-television days are making a comeback in Iraq during the long nights of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Traditional storyteller Abdel Wahed Ismail, a red fez atop his head, yellow scarf draped over his shoulders, in a black gallabia gown, captivates audiences in the northern metropolis of Mosul.

As in other Muslim countries, the annual month of dawn-to-dusk fasting is a time for evening gatherings in restaurants, coffee shops or homes of family and friends across Iraq.

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US sanctions on Iran felt in Iraqi Shiite tourist districts

Bassem Mroue writes for AP:

For years, Karar Hussein has sold sweets in his shop near the entrance to one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines, accepting whatever currency was offered to him by his clients, many of them religious tourists from neighboring Iran. But lately, when Iranian pilgrims ask about prices, he tells them he can only sell if they pay in Iraqi currency. They often walk out, disappointed.

Hussein and many other shop owners in Baghdad's northern Shiite holy neighborhood of Kadhimiya have seen sales drop sharply over the past year since President Donald Trump began re-imposing sanctions on Iran, home to the largest number of Shiite Muslims around the world.

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Long after guns fall silent, Mosul residents suffer hearing loss

Raad al-Jammas reports for AFP:

For months, Alia Ali endured the din of fighting in Iraq's second city Mosul. Then a missile slammed into her home, killing her husband and her hearing.

The 59-year-old lost her sense of sound in the final phase of the ferocious battle between government forces and jihadists of the Islamic State group, not long before the guns fell silent in July 2017.

For nearly nine months, air strikes, mortar rounds and car bombs pummelled the city relentlessly, and thousands of residents still suffer hearing problems ranging from tinnitus to profound deafness.

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