The media spotlight on the Arab world rarely stays on Iraq for long, because the violence there has been going on so long that it has become part of the scenery. But just be patient a little longer.
Five months ago, a British fraudster called James McCormick was jailed for ten years for selling novelty handheld golf-ball detectors (cost $20) to the Iraqi government as bomb detectors (cost $40,000). Yet the Iraqi security services are still using the preposterous devices, which don’t even have a power source. This tells you all you need to know about the situation in the country.
Iraq is currently losing about a thousand lives a month to terrorist bombings. True, five times as many people are being killed each month in the civil war in neighbouring Syria, but civil wars always kill many more people than mere terrorism. And the fear now is that Iraq is drifting towards a sectarian civil war as well.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, which is dominated by politicians from the Shia majority of the Arab population, effectively controls only about half the country. The Kurds, who would really rather be independent, control the north, and have little interest in inter-Arab disputes. And the Sunni Arabs deeply resent being under Shia rule.
Mass Sunni protests began almost a year ago, and until last April they were almost entirely non-violent. Sunni terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda-related jihadist organisations – another by-product of the American occupation – were killing about 300 Shias a month, but they had little support in the broader Sunni community.
Then in April the Iraqi (i.e. Shia) army raided a peaceful protest camp in Hawijah, killing about 50 Sunnis, and suddenly the violent minority of Sunni jihadists came to be seen as defenders of Sunni rights. In May the death toll from terrorism leaped to 700. By June it was almost a thousand, and by now some of them were Sunnis killed by Shia counter-terrorists. July, August and September have each brought about a thousand more victims.
This is heading back towards a civil war on the scale of what happened in Iraq in 2006-2007, under the American occupation, when some 3,000 people were being killed each month, and the government is doing nothing effective to stop it. But then, the government does nothing effective in any domain.
The Iraq government gets $100 billion a year in oil revenue, but nothing gets built or maintained or repaired. Most people live in poverty, while the bulk of the oil income goes on salaries for government employees who either don’t show up for work at all, or fail to do any useful work when they get there. The rest of the money is simply stolen by the government’s own senior officials.
The fake bomb detectors are part of that vast haemorrhage of cash, and one possible reason that they have not been replaced yet is that some people will obviously make a lot of money out of the contract for whatever replaces them. Until the question of which group of people in the government will strike it rich has been decided, nothing will be done.
The soldiers and police using them in the streets don’t mind. If they should find a bomb in a car, the suicide bomber driving it will almost detonate the explosives and kill them. So a bomb detector that doesn’t detect bombs is just fine with them.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.