Category Archives: Iraq

Dominance of militias may haunt Baghdad

The Shia-dominated Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), were instrumental in pushing back the Islamic State group from the gates to Baghdad, and later in driving out IS militants from major cities across northern Iraq.

Heeding a call from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, an array of old and newly formed groups rallied under the PMF umbrella. In Iraq, the growing stature of the PMF reaffirms the view that the most effective forces are those motivated by sectarian or political loyalties, posing an ominous long-term dilemma for the Iraqi government.

The interests of the PMF constituent groups converged over IS, and more recently, in pushing back Kurdish forces in Kirkuk and other disputed territories – but as a disparate alliance of Shia groups with various political and sectarian affiliations, the jostling for control and influence will intensify, especially in the run up to crucial national elections.

For Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the PMF has proved to be an opportunity and a headache, allowing him to build credibility with decisive victories over IS, but at same time he ha sbeen left struggling to assert control over the force, with doubts surrounding Baghdad’s jurisdiction over the Badr Organization, Sayara al-Salam, and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.

With PMF forces now legalised as an independent state-affiliated force, there are growing signs that the powerful PMF is becoming the equivalent of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whose loyalties are political and sectarian rather than to the state itseld.

In a similar vain to the IRGC-allied Hizballah in Lebanon, these powerful parallel security structures wield significant political and security influence.

PMF fighters celebrate victory of IS in Mosul
August 2017 [Getty]

Under Abadi’s Order 91 that legalised the PMF forces, the militias are supposed to be “cut from all political, party and social frameworks, and political work will be prohibited in its ranks”.

However, this is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in reality. With the Shia community far from united, PMF groups are certain to be at the forefront of the Shia political power struggle.

With former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki determined to wrest back the hot-seat, Abadi, favoured by Washington, has been under pressure to dispel criticism of being a weak leader.

The strong-handed response to curtail the Kurdish drive towards independence was a show of force to Kurds as well as those rivals and critics in Baghdad.

In attempts to counter the growing power of the PMF, Abadi sanctioned Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service, the Golden Division, as positioned as the frontline fighters against IS.

The aim was to give Abadi more military supervision with a force under his office, as opposed to the defence or interior ministries, yet this latest military division gave the security situation yet another layer of friction and command bureacracy.

The segmented command structure opens potential new lines of conflict between the state military and the PMF, but also raises the prospect of intra-militia fighting in a quest to marginalise rival groups or provide the platform for one political party to dominate power within the PMF.

The PMF subgroups are broadly split between allegiances to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – or political groups, with Muqtada al-Sadr in particular holding large influence.

Popular Mobilization Forces march
during a military parade holding a banner featuring
Ayatollah 2015 [Getty]

Al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army had been a ubiquitous thorn in the sides of the US and Maliki, leading Maliki to reach out to Iran in attempts to rein in the influential cleric.

With the most powerful groups within PMF, such as the Badr Organization, Asaib ahl al-Haq (AAH), and Kata’ib Hezbollah, aligned to Khamenei and Iran, this provides Tehran with a significant advantage in the political and military landscape of Iraq.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, designated a terrorist by the US, and Hadi al-Ameri of the Badr Corporation, head up the PMF. The likes of Muhandis, Ameri and Qais Khazali were primed by Iran and have strong ties to IRGC Quds Commander Qassem Soleimani, a well-known adviser to the PMF.

With these pro-Iran figures controlling the PMF, Iran-affiliated groups have garnered significant leverage in terms of salaries, arms and personnel. This was a key source of friction with Sadr’s Peace Regiments (Saraya al-Salam), who were angered at the dominance of groups linked to Muhandis and Ameri.

In turn, it gives Maliki – who has strong ties to these Iranian-affiliated groups and has the backing of Iran – an advantage over Abadi in the coming elections.

Meanwhile, al-Sadr remains intent on ensuring Maliki does not return to power, and has taken a growing anti-Iranian line in recent years. Al-Sadr has become a popular champion of the working class, with his supporters holding large protests against the corruption, lack of services and monopoly of power in Baghdad.

Maliki tried to take a hardline view on militias. His 2010 electoral bloc even went under the banner of “State of Law” [Dawlat al-Qanoon], but with pressure from IS well before their takeover in Mosul, his alliance with a number of largely Iranian backed militias rapidly grew.

As the elections in 2010 showed with al-Iraqiyya, a non-sectarian group with a loose alliance of Sunnis producing victory over Maliki bloc, the Shia front cannot take the next election’s results for granted – which will only increase political jockeying.

With many groups and divergent loyalties, coalition blocs will be difficult to form and will be susceptible to cracks.

As for the long-disenfranchised Sunnis, the same seeds of discontent that facilitated the rise of IS and other Sunni militant groups remain. In addition, the growing power of the PMF over the state security apparatus, and especially around traditional Sunni heartlands, means that Sunnis remain as wary as over.

Sunni anxiety at continued Shia domination paves the way for more militias to emerge to offset and challenge the PMF. While the PMF were given a legal status, the Sunni Sahwa or Awakening councils, instrumental in driving driving out al-Qaeda at the heart of the Sunni insurgency in 2007-2008, were largely sidelined.

Wary of empowering Sunni forces with guns and legal status, Maliki took a more antagonist view of Sahwa councils.

Sunni tribes and militias may well resurrect their struggle for a political voice, as well as work to root out the PMF in their areas, possibly forming a loose alliance with Kurds.

When Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replaced Maliki, one of his goals was to heal the country’s long-neglected sectarian divides.

However, with Sunni discontent unaddressed, Iraqi security forces splintered along sectarian and political allegiances, and Kurds and Arabs in an increasingly violent standoff, Iraq remains at the mercy of sectarianism and violence.

First Published: New Arab

Baghdad obstructs Kurdish referendum but is Iraq’s constitution now void?

As Kurdistan’s historical independence referendum draws near, Baghdad continues to argue the Kurdish drive toward independence is illegal and against the Iraqi Constitution.

However, over a decade of failure to implement key articles of the Iraqi Constitution such as Article 140 that determines the future of Kirkuk, oil sharing, payment of Peshmerga salaries, and Kurdistan’s share of the national budget, is the Iraqi Constitution now void?

The Iraqi Constitution has become a double-edged sword to confine Kurds. On the one hand, Iraqi politicians argue it prevents the Kurds from independence and, on the other hand, Baghdad refuses to implement it fully.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated again this week that no article in the Iraqi Constitution mentions a referendum on independence while warning of the negative effects of such a move.

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continued this line, stating in a recent interview, “Kurdistan cannot become an independent state from the point of view of the law or from the point of view of the constitution.”

“The Kurds determined their fate when they voted for the constitution and decided that Iraq is a federative state,” he continued.

The Kurds may have been willing signatories in 2005, but the Iraqi Constitution is a legal framework.

If Iraq fails to implement any aspect of the constitution or if politicians fail to adhere to its terms then, ironically, Baghdad would be the one on illegal grounds.

Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, who accused the Iraqi leadership of having “the same culture” of genocide as past Iraqi governments, hit back and blamed Baghdad of violating the constitution.

“It was the Iraqi governments who neglected Article 140 for 10 years and didn’t allow the establishment of a federal council,” President Barzani stated.

“In Iraq’s diplomatic institutions, Kurdistan’s share is decreased dramatically, Kurds were isolated, forcing Kurds out,” the President added.

In a recent letter to the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC), the Iraqi government claimed the government “cannot implement” Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution in Kirkuk.

Rebwar Talabani, the Head of the KPC, recently told Kurdistan 24 the Iraqi government had “no intention” of implementing the constitution, before concluding there is “no option left for [Kurds] but to use other means outside of the constitutional framework” to determine the future of Kirkuk.

If Iraq refuses to implement Article 140 of the constitution, then the Kurds have a strong case to counteract the lack of application of the constitution with their referendum.

Furthermore, the international principle of self-determination is not bound to any state constitution. When Kosovo separated from Serbia, or when South Sudan ceded from Sudan, the respective countries had a constitution.

The United Nations Charter states that nations, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no external compulsion or interference.

Self-determination is also protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as a right of “all peoples.”

The independence of Kosovo set a legal and moral precedence that strengthens the Kurdish case.

Kosovo was the first case of secession raised before the International Court of Justice who ruled in 2010 their declaration of independence was legal and did not contravene international law.

World powers at the time including the US, EU, and the UK defended the move.

Then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the situation “a special case” for reasons such as “Yugoslavia’s breakup, the history of ethnic cleansing and crimes against civilians in Kosovo, and the extended period of UN administration.”

More specifically, they argued Serbia’s repression had forfeited their right to govern Kosovo by “breaching its responsibility to protect” its civilians under international law, and thus the Kosovars were free to determine their destiny.

Like Serbia, Iraq has forfeited the right to rule the Kurds after decades of genocide and repression under the hands of successive Iraqi governments, but also due to the failure of Iraqis to adhere to the constitution of the new Iraq.

In spite of the rhetoric around the importance of Iraq’s unity, once the Kurds achieve independence, US, EU, and even regional powers, will quickly realize the benefit of strategic relations with the world’s newest state.

Russia is already a step ahead, warming to the idea of a secular Kurdistan as a key strategic partner in the Middle East.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently emphasized his country’s mutual interests with Kurdistan.

“It is important for us that the Kurds like all other people of the world achieve their ambitions and legal rights and political goals,” he said.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Mass destruction and ongoing national issues: IS defeat in Mosul a success?

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Monday announced “the end, failure, and collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism” with victory in Mosul over the Islamic State (IS) amid jubilant scenes.

However, the symbolic ousting of IS from a city they have occupied for over three years may paper over the cracks, but the deep underlying socio-political crisis that contributed to the rise of IS remains largely unresolved.

IS was only defeated after the sacrifice of thousands of forces, a constant barrage of coalition air strikes since 2014, deaths of countless civilians, over a million displaced persons, untold human suffering and, not least, the destruction of much of the historic city.

When the euphoria of victory dies down, the price of success and the immense task that remains on the political, social, and security front will quickly dent short-term joy.

Victory celebrations in Mosul should not mask the political soul-searching required in Baghdad.

Why was IS able to swiftly sweep into a major city protected by thousands of well-armed Iraq forces? Moreover, is the sectarian climate that facilitated IS’ rise to power dealt with?

Long before IS, Mosul and other Sunni-dominated governorates in Iraq were hotbeds for al-Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups.

Several of these insurgent groups, and key Sunni tribes, entered into a marriage of convenience with IS.

There may not have been a common endorsement of IS ideology or their rule of law, but their hatred of Shia monopoly of power and Iranian meddling was stronger.

Now, the disfranchised Sunnis remain the key to the future security and stability of Mosul and their areas, but only if they can be enticed into the political and national fold.

Many of the same problems that blighted the sectarian landscape remain rife today. However, it remains unclear if Baghdad is ready to devolve powers to Sunnis.

Furthermore, much of the corruption and deep mistrust that has led to mass protests in the past against the Iraqi government remain.

If Baghdad had a difficult job in enticing the Sunnis before IS, then the roadmap for stability has become even more complicated.

According to the United Nations (UN), in the Old City alone, fighting resulted in the damage of over 5,000 buildings, with 490 destroyed.

Additionally, the UN believes over a billion dollars is required to reinstate basic services.

The sheer destruction of the city and the great suffering of millions of people will leave a deep scar that will be difficult to heal.

The aftermath of IS rule leaves behind not just mass destruction, but new political realities.

The borders between Kurdistan and Iraq have altered significantly, Iranian influence has only deepened, and Sunnis may well seize the opportunity for greater autonomy from Baghdad.

For the sake of long-term stability, Baghdad must make several key concessions, but doubts remain if it has a true post-IS stabilization and reconciliation plan, let alone the means to implement it.

Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh when Mosul was captured in 2014, ominously stated: “We are back to where we were before Mosul fell, (because) there is an idea among the hardline Shia leadership to keep the liberated areas as loose areas, with no (local) political leadership, or security organizations, so they can control them.”

Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani, while emphasizing victory in Mosul does not equate to a return of stability in Iraq, stated, “I have a big concern about the future of the area. I hope I will be wrong.”

The local composition of future security forces will be vital in achieving any semblance of peace.

The gains against IS can be attributed to Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Shaabi) as much as the Iraqi forces.

Reliance on militias sows seeds of further discord and conflict, especially without a strong Sunni military hand in their areas.

The Sahwa or Sunni Awakening Councils showed in 2008, as al-Qaeda was finally driven out of Sunni heartlands, a strong local Sunni force is vital.

However, Baghdad was constantly weary of empowering Sahwa forces, and the hesitancy to include them as part of state forces ultimately backfired.

The US-led coalition should not continuously support, train, and fund Iraqi forces, as it has done since 2003, without key prerequisites met by Baghdad.

Without the great support from the coalition, victory against IS would not be possible.

Likewise, the reconstruction of the battered cities will not be possible without significant international aid.

However, this aid should be provided under the provision of an all-encompassing plan from Baghdad.

As the old saying goes: Prevention is a better cure. Iraqis, along with international powers, can ill afford not to learn great lessons from the bitter fight against IS.

Either way, no matter what happens in the post-IS era, Iraq or its ethnosectarian mosaic will never be the same.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

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