03 December 2021
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Iraq’s mobile phone service becomes latest political battleground

Saturday, 28 November 2020 04:34
A file picture shows Iraqi former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki (3rd-L) attending a parliament meeting in Baghdad. A file picture shows Iraqi former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki (3rd-L) attending a parliament meeting in Baghdad.

The showdown began to unfold when Sudani, a prominent leader in the State of Law coalition, filed a lawsuit against the government for renewing the companies’ licenses without collecting debt they had accumulated for years.

BAGHDAD – The State of Law Coalition led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has begun to push MP Muhammad Shiaa al-Sudani as a new front for the coalition that was severely affected by Maliki’s poor reputation.

Following the 2018 elections, Maliki’s poor reputation led the coalition to lose seats in parliament. The coalition’s parliamentary share could also further decline in elections scheduled for the summer of 2021, which threatens to practically force it out of the new power equation.

Maliki’s coalition considers Sudani, who did well when serving as minister of social affairs in the government of former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi between 2014 and 2018, a marketable and competitive face that could rival the current premier, Mustaf al-Kadhimi, who is believed to be highly popular due to his nonpartisan background

Iraqis largely believe the political parties that have led the country since 2003 have contributed to the country’s catastrophic situation.

In recent days, Sudani has begun launching criticism at Kadhimi and his government, questioning the prime minister’s integrity and attempting to shake the street’s confidence in his governance. To do so, Sudani has raised questions about Iraq’s mobile phone service, which includes a number of loopholes for providers that were passed on from previous governments.

The fate of Iraq’s mobile operator service remains unclear after the judiciary blocked the government’s move to renew the work licenses of three private communication companies that provide services to more than 20 million subscribers.

The story began when Sudani, a prominent leader in the State of Law coalition, filed a lawsuit against the government for renewing the companies’ licenses without collecting debt they had accumulated for years.

The judiciary then issued a state order to temporarily freeze renewal procedures, and invited the plaintiff and the defendant to present their defences during an emergency trial.

As the government is entitled to collect debts owed by the companies before their licenses are renewed, Sudani obtained a quick ruling to nullify the decision to have their licenses renewed. The three mobile operator companies, Zain Iraq, Asiacell and Korek Telecom, have been working in Iraq for years, turning the sector into a true success story, in a country where failure has been building up year after year.

Although the companies actually owe the government large, unspecified sums, sources say, Iraq does not have an alternative service to fill the void in their absence.

The three companies’ contracts expire at the end of next year, which means that the government must find other qualified companies and sell them the licenses, which may prove an impossible task.

The crisis could be further exacerbated. The three companies have halted an multi-million dollar investment process to upgrade to the fourth generation communication services and related internet services, when the judiciary revoked their work permits.

Experts said that the three companies could have launched fourth generation services soon, but this may not happen now.

Experts in the communication field emphasised that activating fourth generation services may require up to two years in developing countries like Iraq. In the event that the companies permanently halt their work, leaving the market for new players, Iraq would be unlikely to see fourth generation technology before 2024.

With Iraq’s mobile service at risk, Kadhimi was forced to file an appeal against the court’s decision, something that Sudani tried to exploit, claiming that the prime minister is squandering state funds.

Many have speculated that Sudani’s campaign is politically motivated, as he was a candidate of Maliki’s coalition competing against Kadhimi for the premiership, and is one of the candidates supported by Iran.

Sudani plans to compete for the post of prime minister again after elections, or to put himself forward as a compromise candidate before that if Kadhimi is ousted

For these and other reasons, Sudani has recently enjoyed broad support from militia-owned media and Iran-backed Shia parties during his campaign against the operator companies and Kadhimi.

Observers believe that the negative atmosphere created by Iranian media about the government’s decision to renew the mobile operator companies’ licenses may affect the judiciary.

Iran-backed militias and Shia parties claim that Kadhimi received commissions from companies in exchange for renewing their licenses and dropping their debts.

These militias and parties fear that Kadhimi will obtain funds and use them during upcoming elections to undermine the influence they use to challenge the state.

Sources close to Kadhimi, however, argue that the government did not want to take the risk of seeing companies end their services.

The companies argue that their profits have decreased by about two-thirds due to the coronavirus pandemic and the financial crisis afflicting Iraq, as the government has faltered in securing employees’ salaries, which are the main pillar in the process of securing the local economy.

Source: The Arab Weekly

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