The Iraq Report: Risk of legalised paedophilia grows
Aside from a deadly earthquake that led to a tragic loss of life and property in both Iraq and Iran on Sunday, several other events have been threatening to send tremors throughout Iraqi politics and society. Shia militias are making their presence felt more than ever, while Kurdish leaders continue to accuse each other of treachery over last month's debacle that saw them lose oil-rich Kirkuk in a day.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been gearing up for next year's anticipated elections, attempting to strike deals with some major players in Baghdad while threatening to prevent armed groups from asserting themselves as political parties.
This comes as Shia religious parties position themselves to amend laws that will make it legal to marry girls as young as nine, drawing the ire of many Iraqis.
Deadly earthquake kills hundreds in Iraq, Iran
A deadly earthquake struck Iraq on Sunday night near the Kurdish town of Halabcha, causing severe loss of life, injury, and damage to property.
According to the US Geological Survey, the magnitude of the quake measured 7.3 on the Richter scale, leading to at least 11 deaths and 547 injuries in Iraq alone. Neighbouring Iran suffered hundreds more deaths, with the effects felt as far away as the UAE.
Footage shared on social media from the night showed shop shelves being violently emptied onto the ground from the force of the earthquake, and people running in fear towards shelter.
The most damaged areas were in Iraqi Kurdistan, where there are fears the death toll may rise as emergency services continue to sift through the rubble left in the wake of the tremors. Many houses in rural Kurdistan are made of mud brick, leaving them susceptible to powerful quakes.
The Turkish Red Crescent were quick to mobilise aid, and have been working with their Iraqi counterparts to alleviate the humanitarian catastrophe that has seen people made homeless and living on the streets.
Kurdish leadership decries 'treasonous elements' over Kirkuk loss
As Iraqi Kurdistan contends with the aftermath of the quake, they are still dealing with the humiliating defeat they suffered at the hands of the federal government last month. This defeat saw them lose 40 percent of their territory, including the "Kurdish Jerusalem" of Kirkuk.
In an exclusive interview with The New Arab published earlier this week, former governor of Kirkuk Najmaldin Karim blamed the stinging defeat on "treasonous elements" from within his own party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
According to Karim, elements from within the PUK came to an agreement with the Iraqi government during a memorial service for former PUK chief and president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, who died in early October.
The agreement – which stipulated that PUK-aligned Kurdish Peshmerga fighters would not resist Baghdad's forces – was sponsored by Iran, which has long enjoyed warm ties with the Talabani family and even supported them during the 1994-97 Kurdish Civil War.
Karim claimed that he and others in the party were kept in the dark about the agreement, and had not told him they promised Baghdad "there would be no resistance by the Peshmerga and the Iraqi forces would be allowed to come into the city."
This led to a collapse in the Peshmerga's lines and command, leading to the eventual conquest of Kirkuk on 16 October.
The PUK's reputation has undoubtedly been damaged due to its apparent dealings with Iran and Iraq to abandon Kirkuk. As a result, senior PUK officials such as former vice president Kosrat Rasul Ali and Najmaldin Karim have vociferously slammed some of the Talabani family, accusing them of betrayal. This could lead to a further split within the PUK, which has already produced the offshoot, the Gorran Movement.
Militias become more politically assertive
In a clear sign that sectarian Shia Islamist militias are becoming more assertive, Prime Minister Abadi has twice over the past week made announcements that he will prevent any armed groups from being involved in the political process. This despite his often vocal support for the Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces [translation: Hashd al-Sha'abi].
Last month, major militias within the PMF made moves to formalise themselves as political parties -following in the footsteps of Iranian proxies in the Badr Organisation.
Badr not only have one of the most powerful militias in Iraq, but they also control the interior ministry, which oversees the federal police and the Emergency Response Division. The latter was controversially embroiled in a sectarian war crimes scandal exposed by Der Spiegel earlier this year.
Despite Abadi's promises that no militias will be allowed to field candidates in elections, another Shia Islamist group, Asa'ib Ahl ul-Haq, acquired a license to form a party in May. AAH, led by controversial cleric Qais al-Khaz'ali, has now formalised that arrangement and made it clear it will be nominating candidates for political office, seemingly ignoring Abadi and his government entirely.
Abadi has also stated repeatedly that he has not authorised the PMF or its constituent militias to fight abroad, including in Syria.
However, Na'eem al-Aboudi, spokesperson for AAH, said on Wednesday there was no law preventing the PMF from fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria, and that Shia militants would continue to wage war "to defend [Shia] holy sites".
Although Abadi has been portrayed as a unifying and strong Iraqi leader, in reality the Iraqi premier is seemingly incapable of standing up to Shia militias who openly defy him. Their sense of entitlement comes from Iran's strong support for them, whereby they have entirely taken over public and private development and building projects, profiting handsomely from government corruption and nepotism.
While the prime minister is attempting to rally support for his re-election campaign, including by courting radical Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he will face increasing resistance even if he manages to win next year's vote.
Abadi's Dawa Party is led by his long-time rival and former premier Nouri al-Maliki, and other groups such as Badr and AAH will want larger and larger pieces of the pie.
Fears over legalisation of paedophilia, spousal abuse
The impact of Shia Islamist political parties and armed militant groups on Iraqi politics and society has become even more influential by impacting laws that are decades old and have been around since the 1950s. This has led to public outrage and fear that paedophilia may be legalised, while women's rights also take a further turn for the worse.
The Iraqi parliament gave provisional approval to an amendment of the so-called Personal Status Law last week, which includes a number of amendments that have incensed large swathes of the Iraqi population.
Under the proposed amendments, men would be allowed to marry girls as young as nine, therefore legalising paedophilia.
The proposal would also open the way for men to enter into polygamous marriages without the consent of their first wife, as well as allowing the automatic custody of children over two in the case of divorce. Women may also be forced by their husbands to live with the husband's family.
The proposed amendments were slammed by a large cross-section of Iraqis across ethnic and sectarian divides. The Sunni Jurists Association decried the move as a backward step, and accused the Shia-dominated parliament of attempting to impose their own version of Islam on the entire population.
The anti-sectarian "Clean Brethren" organisation tweeted: "Parliamentarians or pimps? Have they become so low that they are now sacrificing our Iraqi girls? #EnoughIsEnough #NoToTheNewPersonalStatusLaw".
Supporting the demands of Iraqi protesters to prevent any amendments to the law, the United Nations mission to Iraq, UNAMI, called on the Iraqi government on Friday to respect women's and children's rights.
"Women and girls in Iraq have suffered violations of their basic human rights and violence in armed conflict," UNAMI said in a press release. "They aspire that the realization of their rights should be prioritized with a view to achieving equality with men…There is also a dire need for legal and institutional strategies to eliminate discrimination against women and girls."
UNAMI chief Jan Kubis called on Baghdad to "seize this opportunity to amend the Personal Status Law, repeatedly criticized by the United Nations treaty bodies…to recommit to and ensure the full respect, protection and fulfillment of women and girls' rights in Iraq."
However, UNAMI's words are likely to fall on deaf ears, as women's and children's rights have been repeatedly attacked by fundamentalist religious parties in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. Children are often bought and sold in Baghdad "sex markets", and organised criminals use government connections to facilitate these transactions.
Without significant international pressure on Iraq to change, it is sadly unlikely that life will improve for Iraq's women and children anytime soon.
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.
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