Syrian refugees have been entering Iraq at inconsistent rates. While Kurdistan has maintained a generally open policy toward refugees, most of whom have been Syrian Kurds, Baghdad has remained fickle regarding its stance toward evacuees. After opening the border for a brief stint between July and August, Baghdad closed its al-Qaem border on August 16th, only to reopen it again on September 18th with some improved humanitarian conditions, yet generally insufficient provisions, such as a lack of hygienic supplies, low quality and quantity food, as well as inadequate medical assistance. Various reasons were given for closing the border concerning both camp capacity and domestic security. In Kurdistan, some younger male refugees have been welcomed and provided with military training.


On August 16th, when Baghdad decided to close al-Qaem border in al-Anbar province, two reasons were given, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report. The first reason was to wait for UNHCR to improve the camp and prepare for more refugees. The project included additional shelter, medical supplies, food supplies, and a plan to expand the water quantity to 470,000 liters. After the project, the camp was to be reopened (al-Qaem city council cited this as the main reason). The other reason, however, was security. The same HRW report states that “Iraqi authorities have announced that they will re-open the border after expanding the capacity of a camp at al-Qaem, though an official at Iraq’s Ministry of Displacement and Migration told Human Rights Watch on August 27th that the ministry had not recommended closing the border and described the decision as purely a ‘security measure.’”


Baqer Jabr al-Zubaidi, a former finance and interior minister, who is now a parliament member from Mr. Maliki's coalition was also quoted saying “[i]f al-Qaeda succeeds in toppling the regime in Syria, then the Shiite government in Iraq will be next."


Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari further supported al-Zubaidi’s assertion in a separate statement: "The flow of refugees, the entrenchment of terrorist organizations, the veil of a fundamentalist regime, all this could impact us," Zebari told Reuters. "We are trying to take an independent position. Based on our national interests... Things are not black and white."


Although there is no evidence whether closing the border actually contributed to Iraq’s national security and prevented infiltrators, it certainly had not stopped shelling and other threats from across the border. On September 7th, 3 shells were launched into Iraq from the Abu Kamal district in Syria, killing 2 civilians, one of whom was a 5-year-old girl, and injuring 5 others. And while the official rhetoric focuses on preventing a “Sunni” threat, the rockets were Russian Katyusha rockets, which were most likely used by the regime.


Eventually, al-Qaem was reopened on Tuesday, September 18th, with increased security, which, as of September 24th, prevents single young men from entering the camp, allowing only women, children, and elderly or sick people. Between September 19th and the 23rd, a total of 618 Syrian refugees were granted entrance into the Iraqi territories, averaging 123 people per-day.


Tying up humanitarian issues with national security is not new; nor is prioritizing national security over human rights. However, the way by which al-Zubaidi and Zebari generalize the identity of Syrian refugees and link their migration with al-Qaeda, while placing them in opposition to the “Shiite government in Iraq,” distances officials from a responsibility for fundamental humanitarian matters. By conjuring the al-Qaeda threat, real or imagined, and associating it with an influx of a population in need, the Iraqi government can, and has been able to, justify almost any policy on the basis of an identity.


Conversely in the north, the KRG hosts their (mostly Kurdish) refugees very differently. As of September 28rd, the KRG hosts approximately 28,074 refugees distributed throughout Domiz camp in Dohuk, as well as host communities in Erbil, and Sulaymaniyah. There is also a new camp under construction in Kasak, Mosul. Syrian Kurdish politics and their relationship with the KRG have created new regional dynamics, while the lack of international aid has generated domestic tension.


Syrian Kurdish identity in the KRG, as it relates to armed resistance, functions on several levels. By providing arms and military training, the KRG and various Kurdish political parties are offering a solution to Syria’s uprising, which would simultaneously provide “protection” to Kurdistan and offer a new instrument for Syrian Kurdish autonomy. However, the overall goals of the new militia are ambiguous.


Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) external relations chief, Hayman Hawrami, said that they provided military training to many of the young men “so they can be a main supporter of the Syrian opposition and a main supporter of the positive change in Syria.” Furthermore, although the training has been viewed as an aggressive measure, both by Baghdad and Ankara, Kurdish officials, such as Saleh Muslim, the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, maintain that it is “for the purpose of protection” and not explicitly to fight in Syria.


There are also opportunities for conflict. Although Iraqi Kurds have already established an autonomous region and maintain a distinct heritage, part of their culture is still intrinsically tied to Iraqi Arab culture because of their converging histories, governments, customs, and even ethnicities. This is analogous to Kurds who live/lived in Syria and their relationship with Syrian Arab identity. Syrian Kurds may experience inequality for a number of reasons because they are “visitors” and have entered into a reciprocal relationship with their Iraqi Kurdish comrades. They may even face conflict if they support the PYD, a rival faction of the two ruling parties in the KRG and believed by some Syrian opposition websites to be supported by the al-Assad regime. Many Syrian Kurds are still fighting for their own autonomous region in northeast Syria and do, in fact, support the PYD. And although it is entirely possible that conflictive politics will be avoided and cooperative politics will prevail, this depends on how the factors above are publicly addressed and the ways by which conflicts are resolved.


Furthermore, international aid has also been a key concern for the KRG. The KRG has petitioned for additional and necessary aid from various sources to provide refugees with vital assistance during the upcoming months as winter approaches and more refugees enter Kurdistan. It has not yet received a sufficient sum, nor comparable to other host governments. Shakir Yasin, the Kurdish official who is in charge of Syrian refugees in the KRG, mentioned his petition to the EU. “Their reply was that the number of refugees should be at least 15,000 to qualify for financial aid. The number reported by the Kurdistan Region has exceeded 27,000 so far, and still nothing has happened.” While it is unclear if other governments are directly funding Kurdistan, the KRG has recently allocated $10 million to support Syrian refugees within its borders. The KRG has not placed any limits on refugee capacity as yet. Therefore, without significant international financial assistance, the strain and limit on the KRG’s resources will be felt by many.


The KRG maintains a volatile relationship with almost all of its neighbors, including Turkey, Iran, and Syria, as well as Baghdad. The mass influx of Syrian refugees into Iraq, combined with the KRG and Baghdad’s different reactions, creates new opportunities for opposition and conflict. Political and regional alliances, as well as demographic shifts are occurring, which will consequently inform and affect how NGOs operate in Iraq.

The Dangers of Electricity Shortages

The lack of electricity production capacity is a danger to citizens’ health, to national industry, and overall stability. Power outages for most Iraqis occur for 18 hours a day. The current Iraqi electricity market cannot even produce half of the demand. This harms Iraqi industry which cannot depend upon the electricity supply. As temperatures now regularly rise above 50ºC/120ºF in the shade, even the most basic cooling devices only have access to the national electricity grid for less than 5 hours a day. Electricity-specific unrest has been recorded in every Iraqi province in the last two years. That makes it one of the few protest issues to spread across the country as a whole before the short-lived Iraqi Spring of 2011. Unrest due to electricity shortages, such as those which occurred in Basra on the 19th of June last year leading to multi-province unrest which forced the resignation of the electricity minister, left dead in their wakes. Even an attack on a provincial governor has been carried under the banner of demanding increased electricity supplies specifically. Such electricity-shortage-based unrest was so disconcerting to authorities that some provincial governors have illicitly diverted power for their provinces from the central grid. The central government, under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, began demanding that all protests require a license from the Interior Ministry, in direct response to electricity shortage protests. He then ordered the Interior Ministry to refuse all requests therefore.

Gas Development Critical to Developing Electricity Production

Despite a massive gap in actual production of electricity, Iraq has substantial potential resources to meet demand, particularly gas. Iraq has the fifth largest gas reserves in the Middle East and eleventh largest in the world. Electricity plants could easily and efficiently use gas as fuel. Indeed many of Iraq’s electricity stations are currently designed to do so but run instead on heavy oil, which wears down the equipment faster. This is due to a significantly underdeveloped Iraqi gas industry. Iraq’s non-associated gas fields are largely untouched. More than half of gas available for development in the coming years comes from Iraq’s oil fields. But this associated gas (some 1.5 billion cubic feet per day) is currently flared and therefore wasted, for lack of infrastructure. Flared gas is both a waste of valuable finite energy resources, as well as damaging to the environment. While the government, for the foreseeable future, will continue to rely on sales of crude oil for most of its revenue, its gas supply can and should fuel the nation’s power stations by all capitalist calculations of economy as well as social-safety-net conceptions of the national interest.

The Deals

The four gas development deals signed in little more than a month between June and July 2011, both represent major steps toward developing the national gas industry and Iraq’s very first ones. They are the centerpiece of Iraq's master plan to boost electricity production to keep up with demand that is double the rate of supply. Contracts for the development of three virgin gas fields were signed in mid-June. They cover the Akkas field in al-Anbar in the West, the Mansouriya field in Diyala in the North East, and the Siba field in Basra in the South, together representing one tenth of all Iraqi gas reserves. July 12th a parallel deal for the capture and use of the associated gas from the Basra oil fields of Rumaila, Zubair and West Qurna I, was added as well, dubbed the Basra Gas Company. Output from the virgin fields and the capture of gas associated with current oil production mentioned above, each are to bring more than 700 million cubic feet/day online within six years.

Local Protests Demand Concessions to Local (Consumption, Employment and Industry) Interests

Popular forces and authorities at the provincial level protested against each of the above mentioned gas deals before their signature. These provincial protests disputed the insufficient consideration given to local consumption, employment, and industry interests by the plans. When, on 20 October 2010, then Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani announced the winning tenders for the Akkas, Mansouriya, and Siba gas fields in the third licensing round, in Basra, there were calls for the oil industry to be nationalized. In Diyala, people insisted that they be told about the investment contracts with international companies, before they were signed. In the province of al-Anbar, some tribal leaders dramatically threatened to demand independence and hundreds of people came out on the streets in protest in Ramadi and Fallujah alone, as hundreds had done before them in May 2010, against recognizing the contracts without assurances that there would be no export of raw natural gas from the Akkas field. These protesters insisted that output instead should be processed locally into value-added energy products and sold on the domestic market, as fuel for local power plants producing local energy. In the defense of this demand they rightly pointed out the efficiencies of local use rather than transportation of the electricity at losses of power over long tracts of land. They also frequently cited feelings of neglect by the central government, which they said has failed to provide adequate financing for reconstruction and services.

In an atmosphere of severe under-provision of services by the national government, assurances that the central government will receive a reasonable portion of the profits of the development of local natural resources has unsurprisingly proved insufficient to convince citizens that the province from which resources are mined will benefit in the end too. Such fear has not been confined to regions with particular ethno-sectarian makeup, such as the Sunni West. Rather it has surfaced in the South, East and even on occasion in the generally much better served and secured North as well. Such local protests held up the signing of the Akkas, Maysouriya and Siba field deals for 8 months even after the final official auction.

Uneven Concessions to Local Interests

Protest against the initial terms of the gas deals occured across all potential producer provinces; however the level of concessions to local demands varied considerably.

On the development of the Akkas field in al-Anbar, for example, the concessions were impressive. Considerations of the local Anbar community’s demands included promises of the Oil Ministry and foreign partners to provide power plants, petrochemical factories and other gas-related industries relevant to the province’s needs, as well as the installation of gas pipes to transport gas to local power stations. First rights to signing contracts for the construction of these facilities are to go to Iraqi companies. Only surplus in excess of the province’s requirement of 250 megawatts of electricity and 1800 megawatts to the Heet Thermal Station are to be exported. The Oil Ministry further estimated that the projects could provide jobs for as many as 85% of the province's unemployed.

By contrast in the Basra Gas Company deal the terms were less impressive. According to sources within the ministry, the Oil Ministry wanted the gas prices to be subsidized, while Shell and Mitsubishi were asking for global market prices. Iraq eventually agreed to increase prices for the gas that would be purchased from the Basra Gas Company. Questions were also raised about the non-competitive position of Shell in the signing which differed from the auctioning of other gas development contracts, as well as the priority given to foreign companies in exporting gas.

The Role of Provincial Authorities: Why al-Anbar Got Major Concessions and Others Did Not

Arguments between provincial and central government authorities have been ongoing at a diplomatic level in nearly all of the resource rich regions of Iraq, regardless of the ethnic or sectarian makeup of the majority of their inhabitants. The Kurdish Regional Government has long sought to sign contracts on its own, while companies signed by the KRG in bilateral agreements were then blacklisted by the national oil ministry in their own auctions. Shiite-dominated Basra, the country’s largest base of oil-production, like the Sunni-dominated province of al-Anbar, has been roiled by conflicts between residents and oil authorities. Some local Basra politicians have even tried to employ the supposed insufficient benefit from local natural resources as a reason for turning Basra into a federal region of its own.

What is notable in the latest round of discussions is that in the Anbar field deals, is that first, the local authorities have succeeded in actually attaining the lion’s share of what they wanted. Those that preceded them have not. Furthermore, the provincial authorities demands will probably be quite beneficial to the people of the province.

The key to local authorities success in achieving their demands varied considerably from province to province. Working within the legislative framework, threatening and helping activate civil protest, and threatening not to coordinate with gas companies against security threats, were some of the methods employed. Then the Anbar authorities simply waited. After waiting some two years the national Oil Ministry eventually came to the provincial authorities to “clarify” their and the foreign developers’ position, under pressure from foreign companies which steadfastly refused to sign without assurances from the provincial authorities about their safety. The “clarification” of the national Ministry of Oil simply meant giving in to nearly all the stated demands.

By contrast the Basra Gas Company the ministry was more pressed to reach a deal since the gas, by virtue of being associated with already developed oil production, was being continuously flared and therefore lost during the negotiations. In the Anbar fields undeveloped gas simply remained under the earth. In addition, provincial authorities in Basra, unlike in al-Anbar put up little resistance to the national level plan by giving specific proposals regarding local value-added gas production, employment demands, or labor rights. To the contrary, Basra authorities’ past actions have shown them to be active in suppressing rather than encouraging the demands of labor in regard to natural resource development in the province, be it foreign or Iraqi run. Basra workers have engaged in independent unionized action in the natural resource extraction sector previously despite the lack of a legal mandate to do so. The oil unions have stopped or threatened to stop production as well as holding rallies over issues like legislation, pay and treatment. In response, they have been fined, targeted by local security forces, or even been relocated to areas hundreds of miles away from their families. In February 2011, 16 workers were fined nearly $60,000 for work stoppage at the Basra refinery, a sum difficult to imagine, much less pay for such individuals. As a result of the weaker civil society participation and lack of pressure from provincial level authorities on the terms of the contracts in the negotiation of the southern deals, the Basra gas-development deals had notably less favorable terms for the local community’s workers and industry.

Need for Increased Monitoring by Government, Foreign Companies, and Civil Society

To reach the recent gas deals the national authorities have been negotiating a fine line between rushing as much as possible to get the gas online, and trying to provide local benefit in the way the gas is extracted. The labor and local market issues associated with gas extraction however, will require continued and increased monitoring to ensure it does not result in unrest. Such oversight must come internally from foreign companies working on the fields, as well as externally from the central government and labor rights organizations.

The absence of laws on gas production and exports, as well as protection for the right of all workers to unionize are serious gaps in Iraqi legislation. Currently many Iraqi workers are forbidden from forming independent unions not formally sanctioned and controlled by the state. This regulation dates from the pre-2003. Iraq is a signatory to international workers rights agreements, and the 2005 constitution called for a new labor law. However the drafting has since languished. Such legislative gaps must be sewn up by Iraqi lawmakers, and then implemented by local authorities.

Foreign companies for their part must be alert about their employment processes and conceptions of how to “give back” to local communities. During the period following the occupation of Iraq in 2003 foreign companies have often heavily relied on foreign labor at all levels of their operations in the name of the security of their facilities. However such reliance on foreign labor, when labor with equal qualification exists for the same positions locally, itself directly fueled discontent that contributed to the insecurity of their operations. Foreign employers must also be wary of middlemen. Jobbers in other natural resource extraction operations in the South have been known to take commissions of as much as $2,500 from people seeking jobs in the foreign companies. Finally, heavy reliance on extremely short term contracts for employees and lack of sales of gas at prices that could encourage gas-based value-added production locally also increase public discontent toward these companies. Investment in value-added local gas industry is far more valuable to the local communities than projects such as parks, and recognized as such by them. Previous protests show that people demand sustainable employment, and investment in overall livelihood development, not short-term handouts.

Civil society as well as provincial authorities have and should continue to demand transparent discussion of the terms of contracts given to foreign and national companies regarding the development of their resources. This most minimal level of participation is clearly guaranteed provincial level actors by Article No. 109 of the Iraqi Constitution which mandates that the federal government should manage oil and gas “with the producing governorates and regional governments”. As the case of al-Anbar shows, civil society and provincial authorities in particular can have a critical role in pushing for local development priorities and labor rights as well which national authorities are unable to achieve on their own.

These first steps in the development of Iraq’s national gas resources are critical to increasing the supply of electricity. This is an important objective in itself. However an increase in the provision of electricity without other social and market planning regarding the development of Iraq’s finite gas resources is insufficient. Sustainable market-sound alternatives to make resource extraction appealing to local communities, especially regarding gas, are available. Such alternatives immerge with the combined efforts of local and national government, foreign companies, the pressure of civil society and can also draw upon the ongoing humanitarian presence in Iraq today.

Published in NCCI Studies