The following commentary originally appeared in Musings On Iraq
Image source: BBC
On Wednesday October 29, Wasit province in southern Iraq was turned over to Iraqi control. It was the 13th of 18 provinces to be handed over to Baghdad. This follows closely after Babil went through a similar process on October 23.
Wasit has a population of 941,800 people, 100% of which are Shiite. The province’s economy is based upon farming, oil, and natural gas. Many of these natural resources are not being exploited however because the government has shown no leadership in developing them. The pace of reconstruction in the province is also slow, and there is little investment. On the positive side, in September 2008, Iraq and Iran signed a free trade agreement, which would includes a border crossing in Wasit. As reported earlier, Iran is Iraq’s largest trade partner, and supplies most of the country’s consumer goods.
The Gathering of Iraqi Elites runs the provincial council, which is part of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC). The U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team in the province ranked their governance as “Developing,” the second lowest of five rankings. In terms of running Wasit, the council spent $33.7 million of its $83 million budget, 41% in 2007. That made it the eighth best among Iraq’s 18 provinces in budget execution. As with Baghdad, most of this money has been spent on salaries and expenses, rather than on infrastructure to rebuild the area. The major issue politically today, is the attempt by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to sway voters away from the SIIC to his Dawa party. In September the Prime Minister tried to set up a Tribal Support Council to this end, but the provincial council objected. The next month, Maliki went ahead and formed a council there anyway.
The province is also home to several thousand internally displaced Iraqis. The Special Inspector General for Iraq (SIGIR) reconstruction counted 75,325 in its July 2008 report. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted 118 families, 708 people, had recently returned to Wasit. In a separate report, the IOM reported that 100 displaced families had left for their home provinces.
Security in Wasit is considered good. SIGIR ranked it the 9th most violent province. The major source of conflict in the area recently was not between insurgents and the government and U.S., but with Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and Iranian-backed Special Groups. Wasit and its capital Kut was part of one of the major routes Iranian operatives used to funnel weapons into Baghdad. In the fall of 2007, the U.S. began expanding its Sons of Iraq program to Wasit, aimed largely at stopping the flow of Iranian supplies and Shiite militias. During the security crackdown in Basra in March 2008, Iraqi forces were also involved in fighting Sadrists in Kut. These operations continued through the summer with senior Sadrists arrested, along with Special Group fighters. The conflict with the Mahdi Army also led to hundreds of local police being fired as suspected followers of Sadr. Iran continues to try to infiltrate the area as three members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were just arrested in Kut on October 20, and another one was killed and one detained in separate incident south of Kut on October 24.
Overall, Wasit is relatively secure, but lacks an effective government and economy. There are few attacks, although Special Groups and Iranian agents are still operating there. At the same time, Iran is playing a positive role in the province, with a major trade route running through Kut, that provides essential goods to Iraqis. The ruling SIIC provincial council hasn’t done that good of a job running the area, and they are facing a strong challenge by the Prime Minister’s Dawa party, who is attempting to organize tribes behind him. The province is an example of post-Surge Iraq, where security is still an issue, but economic and political ones are becoming more important.
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