Category Archives: Iraq

Reliance on militia forces sows more sectarian cracks in Iraq

With much focus on the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (IS), there lacks a full consensus on the political future of the city, especially, how to maintain security.

As the Iraqi army, Peshmerga, Sunni tribal militia, and Shiite-led Population Mobilization Units (PMUs), painstakingly clear Mosul of IS fighters, an active local security force will be vital to keep the hard-fought gains.

Well-armed Iraqi forces wilted away as IS launched its lightning advance on Mosul in 2014.

It was the PMUs or Hashd al-Shaabi, an umbrella of mainly Shiite militia factions formed after a fatwa from influential cleric Ali al-Sistani, that stopped IS at the doors of Baghdad which was also instrumental in ousting IS from Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit.

The effectiveness of militia forces, when government forces already exist, speaks volumes about the sectarian undertones that continue to undermine Iraq.

The most effective forces are those motivated by sectarian or political loyalties, which poses a grave long-term dilemma for the Iraqi government.

The reliance on sectarian militias raises the prospect of more communal fuelled violence and revenge attacks. Reports of sectarian crimes marred the liberation of Fallujah and Tikrit.

In many ways IS capitalized on long-running Sunni discontent to assume power. Many tribal forces sided with IS as they saw them as a lesser evil than Shiite-dominated Baghdad.

A demand of the Sunnis has long been greater autonomy, and it is unclear what Baghdad will do to maintain long-term security in Sunni heartlands such as Mosul.

Leaving weak state forces in control of Mosul is risky, but at the same time, the presence of more powerful Shiite militias is a red line for Sunnis.

With even state forces lacking the overall trust of Iraqis as a sectarian neutral force, the only solution may well be to empower Sunni tribal militias. The PMU have already incorporated some smaller Sunni militias to give the flavor of a national force, but these are Sunnis with positive affiliations with Baghdad.

The Sunni Sahwa or Awakening councils were capable of driving out al-Qaeda at the heart of the Sunni insurgency in 2007-2008. While the PMUs were given a legal status in November 2016, former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, refused to incorporate Sahwa councils into state security apparatus for fear that they may turn their guns on Baghdad.

As an official independent entity of the Iraqi Armed Forces, the PMU in theory come under the command of the Prime Minister. However, it’s doubtful if Baghdad has jurisdiction of the many disparate groups such as Badr Organization, Sayara al-Salam, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

It’s hard to ensure that these militia forces will cut political or social group affiliations, if not impossible.

The presence of many powerful militias also raises prospects of intra-fighting amongst sects. For example, it could lead to the marginalization of rival militias, Iraqi forces or allows a political party to dominate power.

According to Lt Gen. Stephen J. Townsend of the US-led anti-ISIL coalition, if the PMU forces could resemble more of a national guard and not a “puppet” of Iran, it could make Iraq more secure.

Many of the groups within the PMU already have strong connections with Iran, and this only adds to animosity with Sunnis and a sense of Iranian leverage over Baghdad. Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Suleimani, has personally overseen many PMU battles raising suspicion.

But with their official status ensured, there is a danger that the powerful PMU forces may become the equivalent of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, a force that serves political and sectarian loyalties than that of the state alone.

Hezbollah similarly mirrors this in Lebanon. They became a powerful parallel security structure that enjoys vast political and security influence.

Animosity and potential for clashes also stretch to Peshmerga forces, and there has been heightened rhetoric leading to skirmishes between both sides.

After a recent attack by a sub-unit of Hashd al-Shaabi on Peshmerga positions in Shingal, Sarbast Lezgin, a Peshmerga commander, warned of “loosely supervised groups within Hashd al-Shaabi who wish to create tension.”

According to Lezgin, “in December of last year alone, our positions were targeted four times.”

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has emphasized the need for a comprehensive political solution post-IS to ensure same sectarian-fuelled environment does not lead to more instability. Barzani underscored in addition to fighting on the battlefield, “the intellectual, financial, political and social support for ISIS should be eliminated.”

However, although Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki to heal the long neglected sectarian divide, Iraq remains at the mercy of sectarianism and violence.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Time for Trump to abandon Washington’s ‘One Iraq’ policy

Throughout his tenure as President of the United States, Barack Obama, stuck to a “one Iraq” policy. It was the continuation of his predecessor’s, George W. Bush, policy who worked hard to promote the idea of a unified and inclusive Baghdad, even as sectarian fires in the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq led to a costly experience for Washington.

However, the Kurdistan Region took a very different course from the rest of Iraq, and other than been confounded to the same state borders, their fortunes and ideals could not be more different.

US enjoys strong ties with Kurds, especially as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) became a bastion of peace and stability post-2003, but the concept of upholding Iraqi sovereignty meant that Washington would often tip-toe around Baghdad in dealing with the KRG.

As Falah Mustafa, Head of the KRG office of Foreign Relations, pointed out, the US relations with the Kurdistan Region are not new and “the US has had a significant role in the making of today’s Kurdistan since 1991.” However, throughout these times, successive US administrations have been careful not to undermine Baghdad or give encouragement to any Kurdish secession from Iraq.

KRG is not without its own downfalls but is certainly no Baghdad. It has remained stable, inclusive, secular, prosperous and pro-Western.

Clinging to the notion of a one Iraq policy means placing the (KRG) as a subsidiary of Baghdad.

Today, Kurds find themselves at the pinnacle of the war against Islamic State (IS). Therefore, treating Kurds as a sub-party of Baghdad discredits their vital strategic role.

The US has even shown hesitation in by-passing Baghdad when it comes to arming the Peshmerga.

In 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry, was strongly against a US Senate motion to directly arm the Kurds, urging “Iraq’s fragile territorial and political unity would be in jeopardy if the amendment passed.”

Even former US Vice President Joe Biden, who was a long-time advocate of splitting Iraq into three distinct federal regions, insisted on coordination through the “government of Iraq.”

That said, there is much doubt whether Baghdad delivered all the arms shipments intended for Erbil. Hence, Kurds deserve a distinct status of relations from the Donald Trump administration—owed not only to their importance in fighting against IS, but also in achieving greater stability in the Middle East.

Trump has made clear that he deems Islamic militants as the biggest threat to US national security.

Recent comments from Senator John McCain, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, indicate the US may directly arm the Peshmerga, which is a welcome step. Moreover, McCain, in a previous interview with Kurdistan24, emphasized that the Peshmerga need sufficient “arming, training, and equipping,” before adding “sometimes, it may mean direct.”

Chief of Staff of the Peshmerga Ministry Jabbar Yawar recently stated that “the US is expected to fully arm two more brigades this year, the same way the first and second brigades were armed.”

An agreement last year between Washington and Erbil saw the first two Peshmerga units directly armed by the US. However, it is unclear whether the new US administration will take a different approach with the KRG by arming the Peshmerga directly.

McCain, like many other US officials, has been actively vocal praising Kurdish forces, yet the one Iraq policy serves to diminish the Kurdish standing.

Many international conferences on security, and the fight against IS have been held where ministers from Baghdad were deemed sufficient in place of representatives from the KRG. Such a policy highlights the contradictory policy towards Kurds: Baghdad will never fairly represent Kurds or their interests.

President Masoud Barzani expressed confidence at the recent Davis World Economic Forum that Trump, who had previously stated that he is “a big fan of the Kurdish forces,” will provide military and political support to Kurds. Barzani said, “Fortunately, many of those who are supposed to take high positions are acquainted and friends with me personally and Kurdistan.”

Trump, in a thinly veiled criticism of Obama but especially Bush, stated the US had wrongly “spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”

Kurds hope Trump will not overlook the fact that in the Kurdistan Region, the US mostly achieved what they had expected for the rest of Iraq.

Kurds have always yearned for a long-term US military presence in Kurdistan and will hope that the plan to build one of the largest US consulates in the world in Erbil, is a prelude to a more active cooperation.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Stability of Mosul after liberation requires a political solution

After months of planning, the much-anticipated battle for Mosul is expected to arrive in the coming weeks. Not only will the liberation of Mosul prove a bloody and attritional struggle, but the political future of Nineveh province is unclear.

For every day that Iraqi forces have prepared for the offense, IS has been planning its own systemic defense with oil filled trenches, complex tunnels, and widespread booby-traps.

Without a long-term plan to appease various sides, especially the restive Sunni population, the future of Mosul will prove as contentious and complicated as its eventual liberation.

Mosul has been a hotbed of al-Qaeda and Sunni fueled insurgency since 2003. The ability of IS to gain support from the disenchanted Sunnis and form loose alliances with various Sunni militant groups was the key to its success.

The basis of these alliances was greater hatred of the Shiite-led government than any real affinity with IS. This fact was underscored by the Sunni demonstrations against the Shia hegemony of power and the marginalization policies of the former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Without addressing the root-causes of Sunni animosity and discontent, Baghdad could end up at square one.

Owing to the fragmented and fractured Iraq, Mosul and the surrounding regions requires a long-term solution that can finally provide a sense of equilibrium between Kurds, Sunnis, and Shias.

US President Barack Obama echoed this sentiment as he stressed to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that Mosul needed stability and rebuilding so that IS and its “extremist ideology born out of desperation will not return.”

The various forces taking part in the liberation of Mosul tells its own story. Kurdish Peshmerga, who have played a vital role in pushing back IS, will play a key role as will the Iraqi forces, Sunni tribal militias, and Shia Popular Mobilization Units. This is augmented by Iranian elements that will directly or indirectly support the operation, thousands of US Special Forces, and a multi-national force patrolling the skies.

It makes great reading on paper – Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds join forces in a national struggle. But it’s anything but a united effort, and even a central command is difficult to establish. Arabs remain as opposed to Kurdish forces entering the city as they are with IS remaining, the Shia militia forces are looked upon by great distrust from large sections of the local Sunni population and Baghdad remains worried of empowering Sunni militias.

Then there is a question of who retains control of a predominantly and restive Sunni province.

Nineveh is one of the most divided areas in Iraq and as such as the security forces holding the fort once IS is ousted must reflect this.

The boundaries of the Nineveh province must change to reflect the ethnosectarian reality. Large sections of the province are already part of the Kurdistan Region; the borders must be redrawn to ensure that the realities on the ground are reflected in the political and security apparatus.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces should continue to control the liberated Kurdish areas until a referendum can be held. It is important that the fate of disputed territories is resolved on a legal basis to provide stability. Ultimately, an autonomous Sunni federal region should be established and local Sunni tribes need empowerment to keep security in their own areas.

It was the Sunni Awakening Councils, local Sunnis armed and paid under the auspices of the U.S. that proved the turning point in driving out al-Qaeda between 2007 and 2008.

Sectarian mistrust destabilized the region. This time, Baghdad must take heed and make concessions in the post-IS era. Without a political solution, the city will ultimately return to instability and violence.

Baghdad has been busy rebuilding the Iraqi Army for the second time since 2003, yet Shia militia remains the strongest Arab based force. This fact underscores that a national army is hard to achieve in a deeply divided state.

The danger now after 13 years of bloodshed and Sunni marginalization is that Baghdad may find it impossible to resurrect the notion of a united Iraq, let alone heal the Gulf of sectarian mistrust and animosity.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani has emphasized many times for the need of a clear and comprehensive “political plan” for the post-IS era in Mosul.

In the absence of such a plan, the deep-rooted animosity, mistrust and political instability between the various groups in Iraq will quickly extinguish any sense of triumph.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Aftermath of Chilcot Report – Iraqi invasion through narrow lens and overlooking inhumanity

The obsession with the legitimacy, legality and value of the invasion of Iraq and the ousting of Saddam Hussein from power in 2003 was renewed with the release of the Chilcot Report.

The much anticipated report by John Chilcot gave fresh fuel to sceptics of the invasion in the UK and the West with mass media focus on the anarchy and mass suffering unleashed by the decision to remove Saddam by George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

However, the war is been viewed with narrow lens and without any real perspective.

Can the numerous fires raging across Iraq and the Middle East really be ascribed to the downfall of Saddam and were Iraqis better off under Saddam’s rule?

It is often overlooked why Iraq enjoyed relative stability under Saddam. It was not due to charismatic and popular leadership but owed to his iron-fisted rule and zero tolerance to the various uprisings launched by the Kurds and Shiites.

This week, US presidential candidate, Donald Trump, even went as far as praising Saddam for his stance against terrorists. Yet, these same “terrorists” were Kurds who were battling decades of repression, campaigns of genocide and even chemical attacks.

Saddam was not in power for a year or two by the time he was toppled, he had ruled since 1979. Mass graves from Saddam’s tenure are still been unearthed. These graves did not discriminate between men, women or children – it was all the same to the Baathist regime.

Regardless of flawed Western intelligence on Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) capability at time of invasion, Saddam had already expressed his ease in deploying such weapons in Halabja as well as on Iranian forces.

Moreover, anyone who can raze thousands of villages, murder thousands of civilians and repress and torture en-mass does more damage than any WMD could ever do. Dictators such as Saddam are no different to any WMD.

Then there is the notion that the overthrow of Saddam started the anarchy that is rife across the Middle East and even led to the rise of the Islamic State (IS). An invasion of a country cannot be attributed to centuries of sectarian animosity or ethnic strife. Western and regional foreign policy mistakes since 2003 such as those that led to IS, cannot be masked every time by the Iraq invasion.

The seeds of discontent were sown in the Middle East long before Saddam was even born. The Sykes-Picot agreement that selfishly carved the Middle East was the real precursor to the flames of today.

Just because the effects of such arbitrary borders were masked by successive dictators across the Middle East does not justify the methods for the so-called stability of those regimes.

Sooner or later dictators fall and the injustice of the Middle Eastern landscape was always going to bite with or without Saddam.

One of those nations chained by history were the Kurds who have flourished under post-Saddam rule. Does the iron-fisted “stability” provided by Saddam justify holding a nation hostage to their human rights and freedoms?

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

West overlooks that Saddam was the ultimate weapon of mass destruction

13 years after the invasion of Iraq and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, UK and Western media remain engrossed with the obsession that the actions of former U.S. President George W Bush and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair unearthed the raging bull that is visible across the Middle East today.

The much-anticipated Chilcot Report drew a damning assessment with the notion that the UK decision was based on “flawed” intelligence leading to an invasion that went “badly wrong”.

The report was met with hysteria in the media with frequent pointing to Iraq as the original sin that highlight why the Islamic State (IS) was able to rise and unleash terror and why the Middle East is engulfed in flames.

Such viewpoints since 2003 simply fail to assess and accept the bigger picture.

The Iraqi invasion has also become an excuse for the numerous Western foreign policy failings since 2003 that ultimately allowed groups such as IS to flourish.

Evidence clearly points to a misalignment of evidence around Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction capability in 2003 but why is Saddam, Iraq or the Middle East been viewed with such narrow lens and lack of real perspective?

Saddam came to power in 1979, 24 years before the invasion of Iraq. Saddam was not any ruler, he was a brutal dictator who knew how to placate and control a disparate nation.

The seeds of the wide discontent on show today in Iraq and Middle East go well beyond 2003, the aftermath of the Arab Spring or even the birth of Saddam. The ultimate root cause is that Iraq and much of the Middle East was arbitrarily thrown together to fulfil selfish imperial interests.

There may have been relative stability in southern Iraq under Saddam compared to mass violence and chaos of today, but this was due to the iron fist rule of Saddam than due to a charming and popular leader who represented or was admired by the whole country.

Then of course, is the baffling disregard by Western critics of the Iraq war on the campaigns of genocide against the Kurds. Was the pre-2003 era really that glorious or are these so called experts picking and choosing facts to serve their arguments rather than viewing the bigger picture?

How can anyone overlook the devastating chemical bombing of Halabja in 1988 where thousands perished symbolised by mothers and fathers died on the spot holding their infants? Where even today the population and surrounding lands pay a price.

Thousands of Kurdish villages were razed in broad daylight and thousands more Kurds were confined to mass graves under the infamous Anfal campaign. Many of these mass graves have only been discovered after the overthrow of Saddam.

To those who question Saddam’s capability to possess and use WMDs need to look no further than Halabja. However, the biggest WMD remains to be Saddam himself.

The Kurds have flourished remarkably under self-rule and in their dawn of freedom. Kurdistan forms a sizable portion of Iraq, so how can the successful Kurdistan model be ignored with focus on Baghdad and the Sunni triangle that has been the hotbed of violence?

The real question is why topple Saddam in 2003? Why not when he committed such grave acts against his own population or when he launched a devastating war on Iran or when then invaded Kuwait? The simple answer is that Saddam’s barbarous rule was masked as he served Western interests.

Is it really the fault of Blair and Bush that Sunnis and Shiites have held centuries of animosity? Is it really their fault that Iraq, even with the advent of democracy, has been ruled by corruption, controversy and policies that have widened the ethno-sectarian divide than really unite a country?

The notion that Iraq would have been a better place today if Saddam remained in power is seen through narrow and tainted lens. No dictator can survive forever!

Yes, Middle East was more stable under Saddam and prior to the Arab Spring but this was all due to a common factor – the unsustainable scenario of dictators who ruled with a strong hand.

The invasion of Iraq simply opened Pandora’s Box. With the artificial ethno-sectarian lines across the Middle East, sooner or later the locked-up devil would have been unleashed.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Post IS reality in Mosul as tricky as the protracted liberation of the city

It took the Islamic State (IS) just days to seize Mosul and large swathes of territory, yet the Iraqi forces and the US-led coalition have been planning or trying to liberate Mosul for several months.

As Iraqis were caught up in the prolonged planning for the liberation of the city and the protracted training of a new Iraqi force, IS has become more deeply entrenched.

A new battle for liberation of the city was launched in March but this has quickly stalled. If breaking down the doors of Mosul and eventually eradicating IS wasn’t difficult enough, the future of Mosul is just as precarious.

It was as much as support from disenchanted Sunnis in Iraq and coordination with various Sunni militant groups as IS firepower that helped overrun large stretches of land.

If the root causes of Sunni animosity and discontent is not addressed, then Iraq could end up at square one. The local tribes must play a crucial role in any liberation, but this is difficult when the Iraqi forces rely heavily on Peshmerga forces and Shiite Popular Mobilization Units for any chance of beating IS.

It seems great on paper, Sunnis, Shia and Kurds join forces to launch a national struggle. However, who then retains control of a predominantly and restive Sunni province?

Leaving a weak Sunni force will simply invite IS to quickly regroup and launch more attacks. Leaving a stronger force may well mean presence of Shia militias and Kurdish forces.

The Kurds have already expressed reservation at spear-heading any attack or becoming embroiled in ethno-sectarian violence.

US President Barack Obama recently vowed to clear Mosul of IS by the end of this year which would coincide with the end of his final presidential term. US defense Secretary Ash Carter was in Baghdad this week to provide support to Iraqi forces and pledge another 200 American troops to the fight against IS including deployment of Apache helicopters in combat.

As much as Washington can press Iraqis and set goals, it can only influence the picture so much. The US has been involved in training new Iraqi forces and providing weapons, as well as carrying out thousands of air strikes over the past 18 months or so.

Air strikes and months of training is no match for determined and loyal fighters on the ground. The battle for Mosul with IS deeply entrenched and with widespread booby traps is not one for the faint hearted. IS will fight for Mosul to the death and unless Iraqi forces have a deep belief in the cause, progress will be slow, indecisive and costly.

The bloody and protracted battle for villages on the outskirts of Mosul as well as other smaller cities and towns is a testament to this.

But even if Kurds, Sunni and Shiite forces combine together and are successful in their national battle for Mosul, far too much animosity, mistrust and political instability exists that will quickly extinguish any sense of triumph.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

More reforms but same old problems hamper Iraqi fight against Islamic State

The visit of U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, to Baghdad this week in what he deemed as “a very critical time” for Iraq, coincided with 13 years since the downfall of Saddam Hussein.

Iraq remains in a critical battle against the Islamic State (IS) that continues to hold large swathes of territory almost two years since their rapid routing of the Iraqi army. What makes this already tricky fight all the more strenuous is the political and economic struggles that have crippled the government.

Kerry arrived as a show of support for under-fire Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi whilst reinforcing Washington’s readiness to assist at a crucial time.

Abadi has been under pressure from popular protests led by influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and successive drives at implementing reform and measures to root out corruption have largely failed. Abadi’s latest attempt to appease sentiment with a move towards a technocratic government and streamlining of cabinet posts still lack the broad endorsement needed.

13 years on, the old cracks that underscored post-Saddam rule are seemingly as wide as ever. Years later, the US is still pushing for national reconciliation, reconstruction of the country and ethno-sectarian concord.

In addition to Baghdad’s own conundrums, years of friction with the Kurdistan Region and continuous withholding of the Kurdistan share of the national budget has left an unrepairable divide. As Abadi announced his new cabinet, the Kurdish leadership has strongly insisted that only they can decide on their nominations.

Kerry insisted that he is not in Baghdad to mediate but no doubt that after meeting the Kurdish delegation that included Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, that the warning and demands from the Kurds was clear. They would not participate in the fight to liberate Mosul or support any measures to instill political stability in Baghdad without firm preconditions.

Kurdistan has its own bitter fight against IS and continuous to house millions of refugees, whilst tackling their own economic hardships that have been fueled by Baghdad’s withholding of budget payments.

The Kurds have also reiterated to Kerry their insistence on receiving a portion of any military or financial support provided by Washington to Baghdad.

Iraqi forces have made steady gains against IS but they have relied heavily on US-led coalition support and Shiite military forces.

As Kerry stressed that Baghdad must “unify and rebuild its country and to reclaim territory that was occupied by Daesh”, a challenge tougher than ousting IS would be the soothing of the sectarian animosity that helped IS to solidify their advance.

The need to entice the Sunnis into wider political framework stems from 2003 and IS simply took advantage of years of Sunni discontent, much in the same way as al-Qaeda and various other hardline groups in the past.

Unfortunately, for the much suffering population, doubts linger of a better tomorrow even when IS is out of the picture.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

In spite of mass protests led by al-Sadr, al-Abadi’s reform drive is unlikely to succeed

Since 2003 Iraq has witnessed many false dawns and against a tide of sectarianism and corruption has failed to significantly improve the lives of the people.

The job of reconciling the Kurds, Sunni and Shiites and the dozens of sectarian groups and militias under the Sunni and Shiite camps is difficult enough without a crisis that saw Islamic State (IS) take large swathes of Iraq whilst knocking on the door of Baghdad. To make matters worse, the dramatic fall in oil prices has severely dented Iraq’s already brittle economy.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was enlisted with the thankless job of patching up the Iraqi divide, defeating IS and tackling years of corruption.

He is tasked with appeasing many factions, keeping the U.S. on their side without undermining the strong reliance on Iran and fighting IS when his best card are powerful Shiite militia forces that are largely out of his control.

The fact that IS have become stubbornly entrenched in Iraq is a blow to Iraqi nationalism. The collapse of the Iraqi army, supposedly the national guardians, was hardly the right reassurance for weary streets.

In the midst of economic troubles, the fight against IS and social anger, protests last summer led to announcement of a reform package by al-Abadi. Although reforms were backed by Iraq’s highest Shi’ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, they lacked weight, were deemed inefficient and Abadi’s efforts to instill greater change was largely rejected.

After all, small reform programs are not going to make amends for years of neglect and abuse and al-Abadi is hardly going to appease all the influential groups and militias that dominate the socio-political landscape.

On top of this, influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an old foe of the U.S. and a thorn in the side of successive governments due to his immense local support, is increasingly returning to the socio-political stage.

In recent months al-Sadr has been vocal in pushing for sweeping reforms and made a list of demands that have largely not been met. This culminated in massive protests last week against a “struggle with death, fear, hunger joblessness and occupation”.

He has 34 seats in parliament and has threatened to withdraw from the political process if his demands such as a cabinet reshuffle are not met.

Al-Sadr continues to enjoy strong grassroots support from the working classes and although his party alone cannot change the course in Baghdad, his voice has great ramifications on the political circles in Baghdad.

Al-Sadr even threated to storm the gates of the green-zone, but this was more rhetorical and symbolic as he lacks the support to stage a coup, and Iran, U.S. and other powerful Shiite factions will hardly stand idle.

Al-Sadr is reasserting himself on the political stage and wants to be portrayed as the choirmaster of reform and reconciliation.

What is important is that al-Sadr is shying away from sectarianism and playing on the nationalist card. He has struck a more reconciliatory tone with the Sunnis and vowed that the demonstration is also a voice of the oppressed Sunni.

Even his militia was rebranded Saraya al-Salam or Peace Brigades after the fall of Mosul to IS and the militia’s key hand in fighting IS.

Al-Sistani and al-Sadr have pushed for change and al-Abadi has tried his best to oblige, but against so many obstacles and factions to please this is unlikely to bear real fruit.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As ISIS strolls into Ramadi…

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) storms into a key Iraqi city, the state forces are routed leaving their weapons behind, refugees flee in their thousands in sheer panic, hundreds of slaughtered bodies dot the streets and a sense of panic reverberates across the region. All this sounds very familiar. However, this is not June 2014, but a full year later. The fall of the symbolic Sunni town of Ramadi has assumed the same fate as Mosul and other Iraqi cities, just when ISIS was supposedly in retreat and weakened by months of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.

The fact that Ramadi suffered such a similar fate to other cities in 2014 shows that the Iraqi political, sectarian and military scene has not shifted a great deal 12 months on. Until Baghdad addresses these common ailments, the fight against ISIS will merely drag on.

The Iraqi army continues to lack the real ingredients, not a lack of training and arms, but willpower and motivation, which the much smaller ISIS forces show in abundance. Why do ISIS forces struggle in Kurdish-dominated areas or Shiite strongholds around Baghdad and yet seem to make steady gains in Sunni areas? This is far from a coincidence. The disenfranchised Sunni population was not sufficiently enticed into the political fold after suddenly playing second-fiddle to the Shiites after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein with Iraq practically entering a sectarian civil war between 2006 and 2007. It was the establishment of the “Sahwa,” or Sunni Awakening Councils, that successfully turned the tide against al-Qaida and other insurgent groups in the restive Sunni triangle that had crippled U.S. and Iraqi forces since 2003.

However, Baghdad did not capitalize on the opportunities. The Sunni tribes in return for ousting al-Qaida wanted a bigger piece of the political cake, integration of Sahwa forces into the official security apparatus and more concessions from Baghdad.

A continuation of monopolization of power under former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stoked further sectarian fires. Iraq was gripped with mass protests in Sunni areas by the end of 2012, and by the end of 2013, ISIS had already established a strong footing in Anbar province.

ISIS could not have made such steady gains if it did not have grassroots support. It is these Sunni tribes that remain key to defeating ISIS not only today, but preventing any ISIS mark from entering their heartlands once more. While U.S. President Barrack Obama’s belief that “I don’t think we’re losing” or that Ramadi was merely a “tactical setback” is a delusional assessment, Obama was spot on with his statement: “If the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.”

Iraqis have been quicker to point a finger at the U.S. than their guns at ISIS, and that is the fundamental issue. National reconciliation has been a key condition of U.S. support since 2003 with the U.S. surge strategy of 2007, as thousands of troops were poured in to stabilize the security mayhem in Iraq at the time instigated under the proviso that Baghdad would mend ethno-sectarian wounds. Then the U.S.-led coalition intervention against ISIS last year was under the firm condition that Maliki would be replaced by a more inclusive figure that would placate the national divide.

The U.S. has spent trillions of dollars and thousands of lives to afford Iraqi politicians an opportunity to rebuild the state and bridge the elusive national divide in the post-Saddam era. But years of sectarian policies have only strengthened this divide and it is easy just to blame the U.S. for all of Iraq’s troubles and not look closer to home. Whether ISIS now or al-Qaida in the Sunni insurgency heyday, these militants are simply exploiting glaring gaps in the ethno-sectarian fabric of Iraq. Prior to ISIS’s attacks in 2014, Iraq had on paper one of the largest security forces in the Middle East with the U.S. providing significant advanced weaponry and training programs. Now in 2015, the theme is once again the need to build up and train Iraqi security forces and provide weaponry.

This may make little difference if the core issues are once again not addressed – the army’s low morale, sectarian mistrust and animosity that dot the landscape as well as state forces that are not sufficiently inclusive of vital Sunni and Kurdish ranks.

As the forces wilted away in Ramadi, the baton was once again passed to the much more effective Shiite militia forces to take the fight to ISIS. It is becoming increasingly evident that Iraq can only survive if it effectively has three armies -Kurdish peshmerga forces, a new official Sunni battalion and Shiite forces. If the ISIS advance in Iraq was about exploiting fractures in the Iraqi state then this is no different in Syria. ISIS took control of the historic city of Palmyra in Syria just days after assuming control of Ramadi.

But, as with victories in Iraq, the ISIS victories in Syria are as much down to the weakness of the Syrian state and opposition forces as the sheer strength and capability of ISIS. The U.S. train-and-equip program in Syria is slow and unclear. Even then, these forces are designed to confront ISIS and not the real reason why we are even talking about ISIS today – the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Until a strategy is devised to effectively tackle both Assad and ISIS in Syria, and ISIS and ethno-sectarian fractures in Iraq, the fight will merely be a day-to-day reactionary affair rather than the onset of any true long-term strategy.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

U.S. House of Representative approves direct arming of Kurds as arms and oil payments from Baghdad trickle in

At the heart of the fight against the Islamic State (IS), the Kurds have long complained at the lack of adequate weapons as the raging Peshmerga battles with IS forces reaches a year. At the center of Kurdish irritation is their share of the $1.6bn Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) but more importantly that key weapons are not funneling through at a sufficient speed or volume from Baghdad.

In recent days, the US House of Representatives passed a controversial defense bill that facilitated direct arming of the Peshmerga and Sunni militia forces as part of the $612 billion defense policy bill for next year.

The House Armed Services Committee of the US Congress caused controversy when it proposed clauses into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), referencing the Peshmerga and Sunni militias as “countries” in order make the direct provisioning of arms easier.

The bill was objected by the Obama administration who threatened to veto and drew strong rebuke from Iraqi politicians who considered this as a step to Iraq’s division. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a historic thorn of US forces in Iraq, even threatened retaliation.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who ironically for years was a strong advocate of splitting Iraq into 3 distinct federal regions, stressed just last week that “all US military assistance in the fight against [ISIL] comes at the request of the Government of Iraq and must be coordinated through the Government of Iraq”.

The bill that was ultimately passed was rewritten to remove references to “country” and toned down any inference to the division of Iraq but nevertheless has proved just as contentious. The Peshmerga and Sunni tribal forces could directly receive $179 million of the US$715 million allocated to the Iraqi government.

At the same time, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its own 2016 defense bill where strong support is expected for direct arming of the Peshmerga.

The Kurdistan leadership has attempted not to be drawn into the bill or the friction that it has caused for the Obama administration, with Kurdistan President, Massoud Barzani, declaring his satisfaction on White House assurances that “the necessary weapons” will be provided.

Although the bill is symbolic for the Kurds, in reality it is only a 25% share with the Sunnis. For Kurdish forces that are crucial to any victory against IS, a significant share should be provided by Baghdad that should not need US politicians or White House pressure to ensure Kurds receive a share of such arms.

At the same time, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the long established Kurdistan Region enshrined in Iraqi legislature and recognized internationally should not be compared with burgeoning and disparate Sunni forces. With no formally recognized Sunni force and some directly aligned with IS or deeply against Shia dominated Baghdad, who is the ultimate Sunni beneficiary of such arms?

The Kurdish apprehension at the lack of arms filtering from Baghdad is the tip of a much larger iceberg. The Kurds and Baghdad have been at loggerheads over oil payments even as a deal was struck in December. The lack of budget payments from Baghdad, including only a part payment for April, has hardly aided relations.

With Mosul firmly in IS hands, it remains to be seen of the sacrifices that the Kurds would be willing to make when Baghdad doesn’t fund the Peshmerga forces as per the constitution, doesn’t provide arms or even budget payments.

All this has a familiar tone. The US has tried to promote the principle of a unified Iraq at every turn since 2003 whilst ignoring reality, with the Kurds having to tip-toe between their important US allies and a Baghdad that they must work with but who appears not keen on any step that strengthen Kurdish hands or breaks the remaining umbilical cords that it has over the Kurds.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc