Category Archives: Iraq

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

As Barzani heads for talks with Obama, has the battle against the Islamic State served to unify Iraq or merely underscored its division?

The Islamic State (IS) has rapidly occupied the Middle Eastern equation over the last year and the Kurds find themselves at the centre of the battle.

While the Kurds assumed control of disputed territories as the Iraqi army wilted away amidst the IS avalanche, they have endured great atrocities under the hands of IS and with the Peshmerga suffering hundreds of casualties.

The battle against IS is far from just a military conundrum. At the heart of the matter is a political crisis underlined by a fractured landscape and deepening sectarian lines. The Sunni dilemma has not been addressed and IS merely took full advantage.

This begs the question of the repercussions of remaining as part of the Iraqi state for the Kurds. The statehood ambition of the Kurds is hardly a secret or a new phenomenon. If you ask any Kurd when statehood aspirations arose and the answer is most likely long before the artificial map of the Middle East was even drawn.

Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani is scheduled to commence an official visit to the US where will meet both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. Barzani’s visit comes soon after the visit of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The fight against IS is likely to dominate the agenda, but according to statements by Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) presidency, the issue of independence will also be discussed.

The notion of Kurdish statehood at a sensitive time in the struggle against IS is hardly music to Obama’s ears. On the contrary, the Washington administration has tried hard in recent months to reinforce the principle of a “unified federal, pluralistic and democratic Iraq”. Key to this has been coordinating coalition’s efforts and weapons supplies via the central government.

Barzani is likely to repeat the calls for more arms but the US tip-toeing around Baghdad has been a big hindrance.

A great example was the recent international anti-IS conference in London, where despite their crucial role in the fight against IS, the Kurds were not even represented in the conference as the presence of al-Abadi was deemed sufficient to represent all Iraqis.

A key condition of the US intervention in Iraq last year was the ouster of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the onset of a more liberal and inclusive government. In fact national reconciliation and unity has been a common theme of the US list since 2003.

A US spokeswoman confirmed that Barzani’s visit will include talks on Wednesday with Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken to discuss “the combined campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.”

A key litmus test will be the liberation of Mosul. But this is not without its own perils. Ultimately, it must be Sunni sentiment and the local population that play the key role in driving out IS in conjunction with the Iraqi army.

And this is where Iraqi fault lines are best summed up. It is the Shia militias that are arguably the strongest force at the disposal of Baghdad and their presence in Mosul is hardly going to bode well for the locals.

The Kurds, who have shouldered tremendous sacrifices in largely liberating Kurdish areas, will have little appetite to lead the charge in Arab dominated areas such as Mosul but will ultimately still play a key support role.

Once IS is driven out, who is then responsible for the security and policy of the area? Without Sunni control over security, any Shia or Kurdish control of Mosul will simply stoke further unrest.

This ultimately leads to the question of arming Sunnis and creating an official Sunni force. Whilst it may be effective in the short-term, it will merely deepen the fractures in the Iraqi state.

Regardless of whether Obama entertains the notion of formal Kurdish independence or US insistence that the battle against IS has somewhat served to unify Iraqi ranks, IS has merely served to underscore the division of Iraq.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

The battle for Tikrit – Iraq going down “that” sectarian road again?

Why does the following sentence hold so much significance? Iraqi forces, backed by thousands of Shiite militiamen and Sunni tribesmen and supervised by the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, launched an attacked to retake the Islamic State (IS) held town of Tikrit, without the assistance of Coalition forces.

This sentences pretty much sums up Iraq’s past, present and most likely its future failings. Just who are the ‘official’ government forces and why after a decade of rebuilding, extensive training and supplied with vast amounts of weaponry, do they need to be significantly augmented by Iranian backed Shiite militia or indeed led by an al-Quds Force commander?

Any sense of a united force is lacking in Iraq and having wasted the chance for several years to build a cross-sectarian and multi-ethnic armed force, the scene is dominated by one of a number of different forces depending on where you are in Iraq.

Whilst hundreds of Sunni tribesman have played a role in the Tikrit offensive, currently it is more of symbolic than of real strategic value. There are plenty of Sunni tribes that are anti-IS and support Baghdad’s efforts but by large the Sunni position from the pre IS days has not been drastically addressed.

Sunnis continue to view the Baghdad political chambers and its Shia dominated security apparatus with distrust and resentment. It is easy to forget that IS strolled into town amidst widespread Sunni protests and continued clashes in the traditionally problematic Anbar province.

As the combined Iraq force slowly makes progress around Tikrit, there is a growing danger of a wider sectarian divide. Crucially, the liberators must be separated from the eventual protectors. If the Sunnis do not lead the protection and control of their heartland then this is a recipe for disaster.

Iranian backed militias on the Sunni doorstep simply echoes the sentiments that led to the Sunni welcome from some sections as the IS blitzed in to town.

In fact, the Iraqi Sunni tribal and various Baathist forces became so blended with the IS ‘label’ that it is often misleading when attacks merely become tagged as against IS. There is a danger that sectarian atrocities could be committed under the banner of banishing the evil of IS.

The Sahwa or Sunni Awakening Councils that drove al-Qaeda out of the Sunni hotspots is an example that Sunnis can be enticed into the fold – but the success of the Sahwa initiative was greatly diluted as the Sunni tribal forces were not sufficiently embedded within the national security apparatus and the opportunity to lure the Sunnis into a greater political role was lost by Baghdad.

Even as the Coalition plays no part in a key offensive against IS in Iraq, the US has somewhat tried to brush off the Iranian influence in the battle for Tikrit but this fact is not lost on weary regional powers. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal pointed to the offensive in Tikrit as the prime example of the anxiety of Gulf States of Iran “taking over” Iraqi forces.

With the U.S. in deep negotiations with Tehran over the curbing of its nuclear program and concern amongst regional powers that US is softening its stance on Iran, hardly soothes this regional anxiety.

In the words of US General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the hodge-podge of Iraqi Humvees and various vehicles who darted towards Tikrit like “rush hour on the Washington Beltway”, will ultimately overcome IS forces in Tikrit due to their “overwhelming numbers.”

The US is naturally worried that their enormous investment in eradicating IS will be hijacked by Iran as it increasingly displays its influence and plays a leading role by training militia and providing general arms and increasingly sophisticated weaponry.

Of course, Iraqi forces in spite of any backing from Iran would not be anywhere near Tikrit if it was not for the significant coalition airstrikes.

The greater concern for Iraq is whether the common threat of IS, where battles rage from Kurdistan to the north, Anbar to the West or to the gates of Baghdad further south, will be bring the county closer together or even wider apart?

Unfortunately, augmented by the growing political rifts with Kurdistan, all the signs currently point to the latter. As U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter pointed out “We’ve been down the road of sectarianism in Iraq and it’s important that the government of Iraq not go down that road again.”

When you have a significant Shiite militia backed by Iran that is perhaps more powerful than the official state forces leading the road to Tikrit, it’s hard not to see that in spite of Carter’s warnings, Iraq is going down that road again and fast.

Tikrit is the all-important dress rehearsal for Mosul. If Iraqi forces get bogged into a protracted battle with IS or worse the situation turns into sectarian anarchy, then the battle for Mosul will no longer be Iraq versus IS but Shiite versus Sunni.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As Iranian commander and Shiite militias spearhead attack on Tikrit, more questions than answers emerge from Iraq

As lines of Iraqi Humvees and trucks jammed the roads to Tikrit with thousands of Iraqi forces looking well-motivated and itching for battle, on the surface this would point to all the positive signs – Iraq was finally ready to banish the Islamic State (IS) from their doorstep.

However, as Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, pointed out, eventual recapture of Tikrit is not the burning question. The key issue is the security and political apparatus that is left behind to support Tikrit and other Sunni towns that are retaken.

Whilst Sunni tribal forces play a role in the battle for Tikrit, it is the unmissable presence of thousands of Shiite militia supervised by commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani that speaks volumes.

Kurdistan leaders have repeated warned that without the support of local Sunni tribesman in Tikrit and particularly Mosul, any military offensive will ultimately not have the desired long-term goals.

Masrour Barzani, Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, reiterated warnings this week that “Without the Iraqi army and, more specifically, Sunni elements within these forces, it will not produce the results that we all hope for.” Barzani also lamented the lack of supplies of heavy weaponry to the Peshmerga forces even as Kurds play leading role against IS.

The Tikrit offensive was underscored by a lack of Coalition involvement. It also comes amidst signs of cracks with the coalition over strategy. Where the U.S. openly lauded a looming spring offensive to retake Mosul, Iraqi Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi quickly reminded that Baghdad would determine the timing for any Mosul offensive.

It was Iran pulling the strings in Tikrit and whilst U.S. officials have played this down for now, this has hardly soothed regional anxiety.

“As the Iraqi army stands up more and more, militias and external actors are going to be less and less imperative and needed,” US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to reassure its coalition partners. But for Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, Tikrit was example of the Iranian “take over” that they are worried about.

Iraq has been engulfed in sectarian storms since 2003. On paper it built a considerable state force with years of training and US military aid, yet without support from Shiite militias, attacks such as that on Tikrit are simply not possible.

Sunni Sahwa or Awakening Councils that were crucial to previously driving out al-Qaeda have shown that Sunni tribal leaders can be enticed. But many of their demands, such as embedding Sahwa forces into the official security apparatus and greater control of their affairs were not met and increasing sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki fanned more Sunni discontent which eventually led to the welcoming of IS in various Sunni circles.

If greater local Sunni support can be attained in Tikrit and Mosul, IS can be much more readily defeated.

Of greater importance is the shape of Tikrit and Mosul that is left behind, if Sunnis can take control of their own security and see humanitarian assistance and reconstruction from Baghdad then stability can be achieved.

If Shiite militias or any semblance of Iranian marks are left behind on these cities or if Baghdad wastes yet another opportunity to entice the Sunnis with greater political and security representation, then a sense of déjà vu cannot be avoided.

One of the conditions for the eventual support against IS was that the new Iraqi premier, Haider al-Abadi, could achieve the elusive U.S. hope of a plural and stable Iraq with cross sectarian and ethnic representation.

In Iraq, there remains as always more questions than answers.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As Iraq prepares for Mosul battle, sentiments in post-Islamic State Iraq unlikely to change

Fasting approach a year since the Islamic State (IS) darted across the Syrian desert to rapidly occupy Mosul, this week an official from the U.S. Central Command laid out plans for a spring offensive on the city involving Kurdish and Iraqi forces.

The five Iraqi brigades expected to spearhead the attack are subject of frantic efforts by coalition forces to complete training on schedule. The smaller brigades will serve as reserve forces with three Peshmerga brigades playing the crucial role of pinning down IS fighters in the north and west of the city.

Whilst a spring offensive is highly symbolic for Iraq and the Coalition, it is less a question of training but more whether Iraqi forces will sufficiently motivated to drive out thousands of well-armed IS fighters or if sectarian affiliations will once again prove a handicap.

Moreover, the long-term questions still cast a dark cloud over Iraq – the size and buy-in of any Sunni force, their role in the battle for Mosul and whether they will be sufficiently enticed into an IS-free region after years of animosity and mistrust of the Baghdad government and Shiite dominated forces.

Even if IS driven from Mosul, who assumes control of the city? If Baghdad does not deal with the Sunni card effectively, something that it has failed to properly address since 2003, then any post IS Iraq may not be a far cry from the one before it.

Sunnis continue to view Iraqi forces with mistrust, not to mention the sectarian militias who have for many years been a source of blood-letting.

As for Baghdad-Erbil tensions, although the Kurds have played the pivotal role of containing and driving back IS, the divide with Baghdad has if anything only increased.

The oil exportation deal struck in late 2014 between Baghdad and Erbil, which delivered a glimmer of hope that age-old tension over oil exports and revenues would finally be settled, has once again stalled. You would think that with the menace the IS poses, Baghdad would focus on the task at hand, and not the ubiquitous policy aimed curbing Kurdish drive towards full autonomy.

The Kurds quickly took control of Kirkuk in the aftermath of the IS onslaught as Iraqi forces wilted away. Giving up control of Kirkuk has become a Kurdish red-line, but there are clear signs that Sunnis and Shiites will not accept such a view.

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani warned that Kurdish control of Kirkuk was not a topic of discussion. “…they must know that either we will all die, or Kirkuk will never fall to the enemy ever again,” Barzani vowed.

Barzani warned that only the Kurds can decide if they needed support in Kirkuk, “unless we make such a decision no other force is allowed in Kirkuk,” Barzani stressed.

However, the growing presence of Shiite militias on the borders of Kirkuk, principally aimed at IS, but certainly as a show of force against the Kurds, demonstrates that in spite of all the Kurdish sacrifices against IS, Baghdad’s stance towards the Kurds remains unchanged.

As Barzani insisted that Shiite militiamen would be “prohibited under any circumstances” from entering the Kirkuk, Hadi al-Amiri, a top Shiite militia commander, vowed that his forces “are able to go wherever if needed”.

The question remains, are such forces really needed to protect Kirkuk or attack Tikrit and Mosul?

If IS can be defeated, then it is likely that Baghdad would insist on a return of Iraqi troops to Kirkuk. It was the lack of competence of the 12th division in Kirkuk that caused the vacuum in the first place.

Barzani urged Arabs who oppose IS to “play your roles” and to come forward “with action, not words alone”.

But are Arabs really ready to reconcile, unite and bridge the sectarian divide? Unfortunately, this is very doubtful.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

At the forefront of the war on Islamic State, yet Arab suspicions of Kurds highlight failed state

Months of fierce fighting and several hundred coalition air-strikes later, the Islamic State (IS) finds itself largely on the defensive, but as a spate of attacks across Iraq clearly showed in recent days, IS is an adaptive and determined organization that is far from a finished force.

As recent Peshmerga advances around Mosul threatened to choke vital IS supply routes, IS militants launched a series of attacks on Kurdish positions to the south of Kirkuk. The aim of the move was to sow new fear amongst the people and show it can still strike at the heart of Kurdistan but also to divert Kurdish forces from the real IS prize – Mosul.

US-led coalition airstrikes have no doubt been in instrumental in keeping IS militants on the back foot, but the protracted and deadly battles have shown the limitations of airpower without an effective ground force.

Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani highlighted this very point, “The question is: is the policy one of containment, or to dislodge and destroy them?” adding, “In order to totally eradicate them, further action must be taken.”

Barzani rejected any notion of the Kurds spearheading an attack to wrest control of Mosul, to avoid any ethnic battle between Kurds and Arabs.

Such fears speak volumes about the fractured nature of the Iraqi landscape. Whilst Kurdish advances have proved pivotal against IS in recent months including protecting areas where the Iraqi army originally fled, some noises in Baghdad and in segments of the Sunni population have viewed Kurdish advances against IS and their defense of disputed territories with suspicion.

The Peshmerga have lost over 700 men since the start of the conflict with thousands more wounded. They have afforded protection to Arab areas not to mention hosting thousands of refugees. Furthermore, Kurds filled a security vacuum and didn’t oust Iraqi forces from Kirkuk and the like. What would have happened to such cities if IS had a free ticket to roam in or indeed if Kurdish forces were not protecting the city in recent days when IS launched attacks on Kirkuk?

As Barzani explained, “there is no loyalty to a country called Iraq. It really is important to find a formula for how to live together within the boundaries of what is called Iraq. Unless a formula is found, there will be more bloodshed and the country will remain a destabilizing factor in the region.”

And here is the problem, whilst Peshmerga have advanced against IS in the north, it is Shiite militias and not really an Iraqi army that have thwarted IS from the doors of Baghdad in Anbar and Diyala provinces.

A number of Sunni tribes are fighting IS but by large the disenfranchised Sunnis have not been enticed to fight IS forces. On the contrary, prior to the IS advance, Sunni dominated areas of Iraq where gripped with protests and violent skirmishes with security forces and some influential tribes welcomed IS with open arms.

Barzani played down any imminent joined attack on Mosul setting the fall of this year as a more realistic target. For any chance of IS to be eradicated, Iraq needs some semblance of an effective national force including the all-important Sunni components in Mosul.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

Obama’s IS strategy and new “inclusive” government in Baghdad highlight make or break time for Iraq

Just six months ago US President Barack Obama deemed groups such as the Islamic State (IS) as minor players. Obama’s recent speech outlining his strategy to defeat IS, including extending air strikes to Syria, underscored the gravity of the situation just a year after Obama hurried away from launching air-strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.

Obama’s revised approach is testament to the growing power and influence of IS in Syria and particularly Iraq and the foreign policy failings on Syria where a devastating civil war shows no sign of ending.

Such was the danger that just weeks ago, well-armed IS militants were advancing to doorsteps of the Kurdish capital of Erbil. US air strikes helped push back IS forces with the US and Europeans powers providing much needed arms and supplies to Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

No doubt the timing of events over the past few weeks has been interlinked with the changing strategy of the US. Obama has always emphasised the importance of Iraqi unity and an inclusive government that can truly entice the disenfranchised Sunni community into the political fold and into an alliance against IS. A key precondition for the launching of air strikes and with it the resumption of military activities in Iraq, years after Obama cleaned his hand of George W. Bush’s legacy, was the end of Nouri al-Maliki’s quest to seek another term.

Just days later Maliki backed down and Haider al-Abadi was announced as the new Prime Minister. As for the Kurds, US and European support of Kurdish forces was on a clear basis – the reluctant Kurds must participate in the new Baghdad government, help in the greater fight against IS outside of Kurdish borders and preserve the unity of Iraq.

Furthermore, Iraqis were under pressure to cobble together a new inclusive government before Obama’s crucial strategy was announced this week.

Obama may have been reluctant to launch an inevitable war on IS, but aside from public shows of unity, Iraqi politicians will have been just as reluctant in forming a new inclusive government.

It was reminiscent of the days of the past, where US pressure often was a key factor for Iraqi political breakthroughs and agreements at various junctures of the Iraqi transition post Saddam Hussein. However, whilst agreements and coalitions were ultimately made, often it lacked real basis or buy-in from all sides.

Although US air power will be a significant hand, the US strategy relies heavily on Iraqi forces on the ground driving out IS militants. Whether Peshmerga forces, Shiite militias and Sunni tribal forces can be united to oust IS remains to be seen. A great deal depends on whose turf they are fighting for.

Such is the disparate and fragmented nature of Iraq, that it is doubtful whether the aforementioned forces will truly fight anywhere other than where their zones of interest lie on the ground.

The Kurds may have joined the new government, but the centralist and marginalisation policies of al-Maliki still ring in their ears. The Kurds participated in Baghdad with much scepticism that al-Abadi will succumb to their key demands or follow a different course to the policies of Maliki on oil exports, national budget, disputed territories and status of Peshmerga forces.

The Kurds negotiations with al-Abadi have already hit an impasse on Baghdad’s outstanding payment of the Kurdish share of the national budget and the status of Kurdish oil exports.

After giving successive Baghdad governments many ultimatums and agreeing various pre-government accords over the years, many of the key promises and agreements were never fulfilled. For example, there is still no official Hydrocarbon Law and seven years after the original deadline for implementation of article 140 has passed, it still remains to be resolved.

In this light, the Kurds have been somewhat predictably sceptical on further agreements or promises from Baghdad, giving al-Abadi 3 months to meet their demands and 12 months to settle issue of disputed territories.

Al-Abadi’s proposal includes a peaceful settlement to territorial disputes as well as the incorporation of the Peshmerga forces as a National Guard Force, including arms and training, a Kurdish demand that stretches to 2005.

The Kurds have received four Iraqi ministries including Deputy Prime Minister, but it is clear that Kurdish interests do not lie in titles in Baghdad, but in expanding Kurdish autonomy, self-sufficiency and security capabilities i.e. all the factors that hinge on Baghdad fulfilling Kurdish demands.

Either way, the situation in Iraq has long changed, and the Kurds are not about to give-up control of disputed territories they have secured with much sacrifice or control of oil exports only to see their economic fortunes pinned on the good-will of Baghdad.

Aside from the Kurds, it remains to be seen whether the concessions to the Sunnis will be deemed enough. The buy-in of powerful Sunni tribes and armed Sunni groups are much more important than buy-in of Sunni politicians in Baghdad. Key Sunni demands remain decentralisation of power, an autonomous Sunni region and the incorporation of Sunni tribal militiamen into the Shiite dominated Iraqi security forces.

Above all, this latest attempt at forming an inclusive government and the breathing space that the US is willing to afford Iraqi forces in battle to eradicate IS, makes this make or break time for Iraq as a state.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

As ISIS maneuverers to extinguish Yezidi and Christian communities around Mosul, it’s not only Iraqi borders at threat of vanishing

One of the unique features of Iraq was always its rich ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that spanned thousands of years and across multiple civilisations. Religious co-existence generally prevailed until the fall of Saddam and the rise of extremist groups.

The Christian community from the Chaldeans, Assyrians, Mandeans and various other sects have dwelled in the Nineveh plains for more than 1700 years with Nineveh itself a centre of many biblical prophets and events.

The Christian numbers dwindled from as high as 60,000 before the fall of Saddam Hussein to around 30,000 by June of this year.

On the hand, Yezidi Kurds, number over 300,000 and are one of the world’s old religious communities with roots in Zoroastrianism and a mix of other faiths.

Persecution of the Yezidi and Christian minorities over the past decade or so is not new with thousands driven out, murdered or faced with intimidation and threats.

However, the Christian and Yezidi fate took a new twist as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) came storming along in Iraq, changing not only the political and geographic makeup of Iraq but its religious framework.

In recent days, thousands of Yezidis were brutally killed and driven out of their homes as Sinjar was overrun, with thousands more stranded and dying of thirst and starvation in appalling conditions on Sinjar Mountain.

Vian Dakhil, a Yezidi MP, made a passionate plea as the human catastrophe intensified, “There is now a campaign of genocide being waged on the Yezidi…We are being slaughtered…” Thousands of Peshmerga were mobilised as part of an ongoing counter-offensive against ISIS positions.

In recent weeks, ISIS issued a “dhimma” by which Christians and other minorities were given the choices to convert to Islam or pay the “Jizya” protection fee, and in the event they refused “then there is nothing to give them but the sword”.

By noon deadline of the next day, Christians were flocking in the thousands to the safety of Kurdistan.

Patriarch Louis Sako told the AFP, “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians,” whilst emphasising that “this has never happened in Christian or Islamic history.”

In the past few weeks, ISIS has destroyed religious relics and buildings dating back thousands of years. One of those reportedly destroyed was the tomb of Jonah. History takes thousands of years to build but in the blink of an eye is forever destroyed.

From Sassanid Persian rule to rule under the Umayyads, Abbassid, Hamdanid dynasty, Seljuks, Persian Safawids and the Ottoman Empire, Christian and religious minorities have largely preserved their faith and communities.

Baghdad did little to offer the Christians and other minorities protection since 2003 and under the the latest wave of persecution against Yezidis and Christians, the West and Baghdad watch on as the Islamic State is carved in front of their eyes and religious minorities are driven out of their homes.

The West in particular could have done much more over the past several years to help alleviate the suffering of these communities. Now with yet another humanitarian crisis unfolding at the hands of ISIS with thousands of Yezidi’s under great danger, global powers cannot afford to sit idle.

“The world must act, speak out, consider human rights” warned Chaldean Catholic Bishop Shlemon Warduni.

Indeed, Christian persecution is not new, but the recent events finally caught global attention. With ISIS gunmen now occupying Qaraqosh, the largest Christian town in Iraq, the plight of the Christian community there cannot be ignored. The question now is whether widespread condemnation will be met with any real action or international response on the ground.

Expressing grave concern, Pope Francis in his weekly public prayers decried the plight of the Christians, “Today they are persecuted. Our brothers are persecuted. They’ve been driven away. They must leave their homes without being able to take anything with them.”

With its own rich history, Kurdistan has always been a sanctuary for minorities and a symbol of religious and ethnic co-existence. It is the duty to protect any human, regardless of religion or ethnicity when they are faced with death and repression especially when they come running to you as men of understanding, compassion and protection. However, Kurdistan cannot shoulder the burden alone with ISIS becoming anything but a local crisis and now a grave global concern.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani vowed the full support and resources of his government resources to help the displaced families, and asked “the people of Dohuk and Erbil provinces to rush to help the displaced Christian families.”

Barzani appealed for international help to support the ever growing number of refugees in Kurdistan.

Barzani added, “We also encourage them to support the KRG in order to increase its relief efforts and be able to properly assist these families in times of crises.”

Meanwhile, Kurdistan President Massaud Barzani made a passionate pledge to the fleeing Christians,  “We will all either die together or we will live together with dignity.” Barzani also vowed to “defend Shingal and our Yezidi brothers and sisters.”

Rather than attempts at halting the drive towards Kurdish independence, on the contrary the West should support a new Kurdish state that not only will finally give the Kurds a well-deserved and long-denied homeland, but would afford unique protection and preservation of minorities and age-old history.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc