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The Iraq Report: Political shockwave of Beirut blast reaches Iraq

Iraqis are urging the removal of ammunition dumps and hazardous chemicals from residential areas. [Getty]

Date of publication: 7 August, 2020

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The tragedy in Beirut has reignited calls by Iraqis for militant factions and groups linked to the government to remove their weapons stockpiles from residential areas.
Like most of the rest of the world, Iraqis have expressed their sorrow and anguish at the devastating explosion that occurred at Beirut's seaport on Tuesday.

Vigils and demonstrations were held in Baghdad in solidarity with the victims of the deadly blast that has killed at least 157 and wounded thousands, leaving the famed Arab city a mess of shattered glass and broken lives. 

However, the tragedy has also reignited calls by Iraqis for Iran-backed militant factions and groups linked to the government to remove their weapons stockpiles from residential and urban areas.

With Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi's announcement that there will be early elections next summer, the government's actions to safeguard its citizens from both legal and illegal ammunition dumps and hazardous chemicals will be closely monitored and could impact Kadhimi's chances at re-election.

Iraqis fearful of a Beirut-style explosion in their cities

Iraqis were quick to take to the streets to show solidarity with the Lebanese people following the deadly twin blasts that devastated Beirut earlier this week after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate detonated in the coastal city's port.

Vigils and demonstrations were held in Baghdad in solidarity with the victims of the deadly Beirut blast

However, Iraqis also carried placards and chanted slogans calling on the Iraqi authorities to ensure that ammunition dumps, munitions warehouses, and arms depots are removed from urban and particularly residential areas to avoid the risk of Iraqi cities meeting the same fate as Beirut. 

Activists not only took to the streets, but also social media to express support for "the brotherly Lebanese people", launching a hashtag in Arabic that translates to "distancing military equipment from the cities".

The Iraqi transportation ministry has already announced that it has ordered Basra's port authorities to conduct a full inspection of all hazardous, explosive, radioactive, and flammable chemical stockpiles held in the coastal city's warehouses within 72 hours.

Read more: Beirut Explosion: Be angry, not just sad,
for Lebanon

While Iraq is largely landlocked, the city of Basra, and other smaller towns on the Shatt al-Arab waterway, connects the country directly to the Arabian Gulf and is home to the country's only major port, drawing comparisons with Beirut. 

Iraq's political situation also shares many similarities with Lebanon's, except on a much larger scale with far more frequent violence. 

Aside from law enforcement and military forces maintaining their own munitions depots, Iraq also has a large number of militias operating beyond the law who also have their own logistics networks to maintain a steady supply of arms and ammunition. 

These militias are often also represented in parliament by Shia Islamist blocs with close ties to Iran and have access to arms supplied semi-officially by Tehran as well as weapons supplied officially to the Iraqi government by the United States. 

The searing summer heat in Iraq makes it even more vulnerable to the danger of accidental explosions of poorly stored hazardous materials. This year is particularly hazardous as temperatures in Baghdad have reached highs of 53 degrees, the highest on record.

The accidental ignition of munitions stocked in residential areas has caused deadly explosions in Iraq in the past, although such incidents have largely been put down to the costs of war.

Iraqis carried placards and chanted slogans calling on authorities to ensure that ammunition dumps, munitions warehouses, and arms depots are removed from residential areas

A weapons cache belonging to the federal police but also used by the Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) paramilitary group in southern Baghdad detonated at the end of last month, after poorly stored munitions and summer heat caused a fire and a series of explosions.

The same base also had an accidental munitions detonation last August, causing rockets and artillery shells to rain down on the surrounding residential area. That accident led to one death and almost 30 people required hospitalisation. 

Security sources told Reuters at the time that negligent storage and summer heat exceeding 50 degrees were likely to be responsible. The fact that it has happened again shows that Iraqi authorities and allied militias have not learnt their lesson and could be evidence of the same negligence that led to the disaster in Beirut.

"These people always lecture us about Imam Ali and other saints," Yasir al-Bazi, a resident of Baghdad, told The New Arab referencing the cousin of the Islamic Prophet Muhammed. 

The Iraq Report: Support for Iran evaporates as tempers and temperatures flare

"Would Ali condone what they do to us? It is the same in Lebanon, they all talk the same religious talk, then continue to place us in danger by putting explosives near our homes," Bazi continued. "How many more of us have to die before they are satisfied?" 

Early elections called as problems fester

Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has called for early elections to take place next summer in a gambit that may be foiled by his opponents in parliament. 

"June 6, 2021, has been fixed as the date for the next legislative elections," said Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in a televised speech to the nation. "Everything will be done to protect and ensure the success of these polls."

Elections in Iraq are often marred by both violence and fraud, and the next parliamentary elections had originally been due to take place in May 2022 bringing the current polling date forward almost a full year.

Months of protests began in October, with thousands taking to the streets of Baghdad and across the south demanding that the political system be dismantled, pointing to endemic corruption and what many see as the malign influence of sectarian interests, particularly from Iran.

The searing summer heat in Iraq makes it even more vulnerable to the danger of accidental explosions of poorly stored hazardous materials

At least 560 protesters were killed by both government security forces and pro-Iran militant groups. While Kadhimi has promised them justice, no senior official has yet been brought before a court or tribunal to answer for their role in the slayings.

Kadhimi was nominated in April, months after Adel Abdel Mahdi stepped down - the first time a premier has resigned before the end of his term since the US-led invasion of 2003. He replaced his predecessor in May this year after almost half a year of political wrangling and horse trading. 

Despite being derided by powerful militia groups and their political blocs, like Kataib Hezbollah, Kadhimi was seen as the compromise candidate between US- and Iranian-backed groups. This again raised hopes that he would try to steer Iraq away from its sectarian politics. 

However, and despite often public attempts to curb Iranian proxies that have invariably failed, Kadhimi has been singled out for criticism by the Iraqi public after renewed protests resulted in the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of government agents.

Faced by his ever-dwindling political capital, and with the reality that he is powerless to accomplish anything while he is being resisted by parliamentary blocs who benefit from a weakened executive, Kadhimi has seemingly realised that he can only achieve a political agenda with a popular mandate. 

However, by setting a clear date for elections, he will have given his foes a time frame within which to maximise their political damage against him before polling takes place. 

For instance, the Binaa and Fateh blocs in parliament are openly critical of the premier, with many of their cadres enrolled within the Iraqi security forces and federal police. Similar to the incident at the end of last month where police officers killed protesters, rogue agents of the state could continue to kill demonstrators to undermine Kadhimi's credibility.

Kadhimi will therefore have to walk a tight rope between managing Iraq's relations with powerbrokers such as Iran and the United States, while avoiding appearing to acquiesce too much to domestic forces for fear of losing even more support amongst the Iraqi public.

The prime minister is therefore in an unenviable position of having to appear to be tough on malevolent political and military actors who in reality control his tenure in office through a system of confidence votes, while avoiding antagonising them too much for the sake of remaining in office. 

Navigating Iraq's treacherous political waters is no easy feat and, should he succeed, then Kadhimi may go down as post-invasion Iraq's first real statesman. However, should he fail, he will join the ranks of many other premiers who have come and gone and presided over one of the most corrupt and sectarian systems in the world today.

The Iraq Report is a regular feature at The New Arab.

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