Tag Archives: Security

Recent attacks show the fragility of the situation

It is Ramadan in Iraq. A month of humility, peace, forgiveness and charity. However, a number of deadly coordinated attacks in the past week shattered any hope that even hard-line groups in Iraq may show some semblance of remorse or humanity.

Ironically, al-Qaeda, the group widely believed to be behind the spate of bloodshed, is the self-proclaimed flag bearer of Islam.

The 42 attacks this week did not discriminate its target. It was designed to induce maximum carnage and kill anyone and everyone within its radius.

The attacks that killed at least 89 people and wounded over 300 more evoked a chilling echo of the recent past and provided a stern reminder that in the current fragile and tentative political climate and with Iraq’s painfully slow healing from historic and deep rooted ailments, the dark days of sectarian civil war and mass bloodshed may not just be a tale of the past.

The proof that al-Qaeda is alive and kicking and with eyes firmly  on derailing any chance of a positive American withdrawal at the end of the year, is worsened by growing tension, ethnic killings and evictions in the disputed regions between Kurdistan and Iraq.

Too often deep lying problems in the Iraqi framework have been covered by so-called symbolic milestones and ceremonial political achievements.

The key issues that continue to blightIraqremain as intense as ever. The Sunni population in spite of successive years of reaching out by Baghdad and Washington, still feel marginalised and after  a high-profile fall from grace, look with great suspicion and resentment at their Shiite counterparts who control Baghdad and who they believe is been manipulated by Tehran.

The Kurds, whose existence under the Iraqi banner has been tainted with tears, repression and bloodshed, continue to view Baghdad with animosity and scepticism that has only grown by constant foot-dragging over the implementation of constitutional articles.

Several years after its legal enshrinement, article 140 of the constitution continues to gather dust. Despite decades of Arabisation and forced eviction of Kurds from their ancestral homes, thousands have been denied justice. Ironically, Arabs continue to accuse the Kurds of attempting to change the demography of the disputed regions, for wanting to correct the wrongs of the past.

With the provision of security such a core pillar of the newIraq, Kurds in the disputed regions demand their defence and protection from theKurdistanregional forces. The growing crisis in the Diyala province and surrounding areas has underscored the vulnerability of the Kurdish population under the protection ofIraqnational forces.

Peshmerga forces left the Diyala province in 2008 under an agreement with Baghdad but recent events prove that they are needed more than ever.

Continued reports of murders and the eviction of thousands of Kurds is a stark warning to the KRG. It is the responsibility of the KRG to protect the Kurds wherever they may be. Protection of Kurdish rights and livelihood has no boundary. The lands may be so-called disputed but there is no dispute that the Kurds have every right to live in their homes with full safety and assurance.

While deportations and ethnic cleansing may have been a common part of Saddam’s regime, this is supposedly the new democratic and all inclusive Iraq and a far cry from the dark days of the past.

Escalating tensions between the Kurdish forces and the Iraqi forces was only partially papered-over by U.S. mediation. As the foot-dragging continues over Kirkuk and the disputed regions and as the safety of the Kurdish population is endangered, it would be a great detriment for Kurds to remain idle and hope that one day Arabs will soften their nationalist stance and embrace Kurdish aspirations.

The deadly attacks by al-Qaeda and the growing incapacity of Iraqi forces to provide peace and stability in the disputed regions continue to place al-Maliki under a firm spotlight. As the already fragile political shape in Baghdad is tested further, continued bloodshed will continue to undermine al-Maliki’s grip on power and increase Sunni influence.

Analysts often tie the perseveration ofIraq’s security with an extended American stay.Iraq’s security forces are a far cry from the early post Saddam era. The soldiers and police forces now number in the hundreds of thousands, all armed and trained.

Iraqis security forces are not affective as they are still plagued by sectarianism, distrust, lack of direction, coordination and sense of duty to all of Iraq, not because they are small in numbers or do not have weapons to provide protection. 

Al-Maliki yearns for a U.S. troop extension not because Iraq needs more firepower but because Washington’s continued hand in Iraq fortifies his grip on power. The appointment of a member of his governing coalition as acting defence minister in the aftermath of the recent attacks was seen by many as a move by al-Maliki protect his authority.

Several months after the coalition government was formed, al-Maliki has failed to appoint ministers for the defence and interior portfolios, with rival groups accusing him of harbouring security agencies. Furthermore, the Erbil agreement that ushered an uneasy alliance has not been implemented.

Owed to the fractured nature of Iraq, providing a true national army has been difficult. Sunni Awakening Councils continues to represent a large bulk of the Sunni defence forces. The thousands of Awakening forces have not been properly integrated into the national security makeup and Sunnis continue to look at the predominantly Shiite national forces with unease.

As for Kurdistan, they have rightfully refused to reduce their forces under pressure fromBaghdadand the Peshmerga forces continue to function as the only true representatives of the Kurds.

In reality, until there can be a comprehensive and true national coalition government in Baghdad that somehow appeases the fractured socio-ethnic mosaic, American presence for another 10 years won’t make a difference.

All Washington has done is buy time for successive Iraqi governments and Iraqis have reacted by wasting this time and failing to build bridges. As long as the unity of Iraq, common trust and the political climate continues to be fragile, the security situation will be unstable at best.

As for Kurdistan, Baghdad has squandered years of opportunity in resolving the issues of disputed territories and enacting national hydrocarbon laws through constant failed promises.

Kurds cannot wait for several more years of dithering and inaction by Baghdad especially if the violence against the Kurds continues. Keeping lid on such emotive issues cannot be achieved indefinitely, sooner or later the situation between Kurdistan and Baghdad will come to the boil. As U.S. departs sooner or later, it will become clear that Iraqi misfortune is much more down to Iraqis than Americans, in fact in losing America Iraq loses the glue that has bound Iraqis however loosely in recent years. 

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc.

Will Iraq experience ‘withdrawal symptoms’

A sight of departing US forces was a long-time dream for sections of the Iraqi population opposed directly and indirectly to the American occupation. However, as the remaining US combat forces trickle over the desertous border, ahead of the 31st August deadline as per their strategic agreement with Baghdad, what kind of an Iraq will they be leaving behind?

Back in April 2003 amidst short-lived euphoria, the ambition and vision for the new Iraq was bold and inspiring. Not only did the US overthrow a brutal dictator but aimed to induce a sense of western values and democracy to Iraq that at the same time would serve as a model for the greater Middle East. 

Seven battle-hardened years later with over 4,400 troops dead, 30,000 wounded and not to mention war costs that now run into trillions of dollars, the Iraqi adventure will always remain a blot on US foreign policy and one that will symbolise the contentious tenure of George W. Bush.

While the US was seemingly bogged in a quagmire and stuck in a vicious cycle between insurgents on the street and bickering politicians in parliament, the situation in Iraq was averted from a total failure with Iraq finally turning a corner, the appeal of sectarianism slowly waning and security improving dramatically.

However, the situation in Iraq is by no means irreversible and the crunch period for the stability and future of Iraq is yet to be seen. No better way sums up the continual frailties that remain than the current circumstances that encompass the US withdrawal.

Almost six months after the milestone national elections that was hoped to foster the first genuine post-war national government, Iraqis still bicker on the choice of prime minister lest forming a new government to deal with the decisive issues that loiter on the parliamentary shelf.

While Iraq may not necessarily make the front pages of the news as it used to, this shouldn’t mask the fact that Iraq is still tentative and has great strides to make. As such, even as Washington can breathe a sigh of relief after almost a decade of two brutal wars that stretched even the might of the world’s greatest army to its very limits, Iraq is far from a “job done”.

While certain circles have been all too frequently keen to highlight US deficiencies in Iraq, Iraqi politicians must take a lion share of the blame for protracted progress and slow reconciliation. The US is hardly responsible for every Iraqi misfortune and the controversy over the US occupation merely masked key issues on the ground that was tapered for decades by totalitarian rule.

The huge US presence particularly in the aftermath of the surge campaign was designed to offer Iraqis crucial “breathing space” that was hoped to cement political progress. However, much of the benchmarks set by the US failed to be achieved by the Iraqi government.

Even as Baghdad has progressively moved towards full sovereignty in recent years and become more confident to stand on its own feet, the same fundamental handicaps continued to undermine the Iraqi mission.

Iraq is a disparate nation with a deep history of mistrust amongst its ethnic and sectarian mosaic. Too often direct US influence in the Iraqi political chambers allowed key legislation and government forming to ensue. More strikingly, whilst progress and milestones were often hailed over the years to showcase Iraqi path to success, many achievements could only be ushered by brushing key political hot-potatoes under the political rug.

For example, seven years later, enmity and ideological divides on the running of the country plague relationships between Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite camps. The Iraqi oil industry, which on paper has the power to propel Iraq to great economic heights, continues to linger behind with a lack of a census amongst groups on a true way to share its immense oil wealth.

Years after the onset of the constitution, the implementation of key terms such as article 140 continues to gather dust. While for many years, the spotlight was on the Sunni-Shiite showdown resulting in almost all out civil war, the strategic differences between the Kurdistan Region and Baghdad were not as relevant. However, one of the greatest dangers that continue to gather pace is the simmering tension in the disputed border regions in the north, particularly in Kirkuk.

Although, relatively calm for now, the growing issue is yet to bear its full fruit owed to years of foot-dragging in resolving key standoffs between Arabs and Kurds.

In reality, the US has invested too many lives, money and foreign policy to wave good bye just yet. Far from the end of an era, the presence of 50,000 full armed US soldiers is hardly a meagre figure. The US with its eyes on the growing menace of Iran and its ongoing war in Afghanistan, can not afford an Iraq that slips into deeper infighting and insurgency and drags the rest of the Middle East down with it.

In essence from the 1st September 2010 under its new label of Operation New Dawn, all that may be happening is a rebranding of the American escapade. Remaining “non-combat” troops have the legal jurisdiction to continue counter-terrorism operations, assists Iraqi forces and act in self defence.

Owed to the fractured nature of the state, Iraqis are very much susceptible to foreign meddling and without a strong government in Baghdad Iraq may well play a role of a client state for neighbouring countries in the years to come. Iran continues to exert strong influence on Shiite parties, Turkey continues to build and strengthen its ties with Kurdistan and Saudi Arabia, Syria and Jordan observe diligently to ensure that Sunni interests do not succumb to a new wave of Shiite revolutionaries on their eastern borders.

Political frustrations aside, security in Iraq is hardly clean-cut. One only has to point to the notion that there are now “only” 50 or so deaths a week. That is still 50 lives too many that Iraqi families have to endure. Although, Iraqi forces numbering over 600,000 are formidable on paper, by their own admission they are not ready to assume full responsibility for all aspects of security without US assistance.

Furthermore, just where loyalties lie within the forces is open to question. Until the security forces broadly comprise all three groups, sentiments will be cautious to the effectiveness and impartiality of the forces.

Above all else, as at least a phase of the US adventure comes to a close, people have lost sight of the overall picture. The new Iraq and foreign actors must realise that a brutal dictator, who killed thousands of his own civilians with chemical weapons, launched deadly wars, drained national resources and repressed three quarters of the population was removed thanks to the US. Just ask the Kurds in north at their gratitude towards the Americans.

The new Iraq can in theory excel economically and strategically. However, as the US has come to terms over seven years, they can only push Iraqis so far, the rest of the journey only Iraqis can assume whilst Americans anxiously watch. Iraqis must start to look at key differences that continue to blight progress and realise only they can muster a new dawn. There is nothing the US can do but hope that their grand and costly excursion in Iraq comes to fruition.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Epoch Times, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Deadly bombings and wrangling politicians – Just another week in Iraq

If feuding MPs in Baghdad, deadlocked on resolving a symbolic election law, needed any prompting about the reality that still exists in Iraq and dangers of ongoing political tension, the shudder of bombs across the Green Zone would have served as a stark reminder.

Whilst the security situation in Iraq is a far cry from the all out chaos that ensued three years ago, the coordinated bombings in Iraq on Sunday, the deadliest attacks since April 2007, sent shockwaves across Iraq and a warning that stability in Iraq is as fragile as ever.

Iraqis are increasingly angry and frustrated and unless a draft election law can be passed this week, the delay to the milestone national elections in January 2010 will become unavoidable.

Election law stalemate

The Iraqi parliament has already missed the deadline of October 15th 2009 for the passing of the important election law.

Once again the largest stumbling block was how to deal with voting in the hotly disputed city of Kirkuk. The fact that the Kirkuk electoral issue has once again resurfaced, is testimony to failing of the ubiquitous “side-stepping” mentality of Baghdad on key issues.

Fundamental issues such as the holding of elections in Kirkuk simply can not be sidelined indefinitely. There are calls once more to introduce a special election status for Kirkuk with Arabs and Turkmen groups keen on the idea of a predefined split of power amongst the three major groups.

Kurds have rejected any calls to delay voting in Kirkuk or introduce any special dispensation for the province at this stage. Reluctance to conduct elections in Kirkuk is greatly mirrored in the anxiety of Baghdad over the implementation of the much delayed article 140. Arguably Baghdad foot-dragging has been designed to ensure that subsequent provincial or national polls do not serve as a de-facto referendum on the future of Kirkuk, as tensions have risen rapidly with the Kurdish administration in recent months.

The other key issue has been the debate on whether voting should be based on an open voting list or a closed list as in previous elections. Ultimately it is better to have delayed but credible elections across the whole of Iraq, including Kirkuk on more reflective and transparent open party listing system, then rush through a piecemeal election law that may satisfy US withdrawal targets but may hinder Iraq in the long-term.

There were some indications this week that progress was made on resolving key differences on the election law. However, another snag dampened hopes as disputes arose on voter registration in Kirkuk. Arabs favoured using a voting listing from 2004 whilst Kurds favoured UN voter records list from 2009.

Difficulties in agreeing an election law were hardly helped with some calls for the replacement of the head of the Iraqi High Election Commission (IHEC) on claims of facilitating fraud at the last election. Any wholesale changes at this stage on the leadership of the IHEC would almost certainly see a postponement of elections.

US troop withdrawal

Whilst the US withdrawal timetable was designed to be firm and unambiguous, a term that many Arabs insisted on before signing the SOFA agreement, any delay in national elections next year will almost certainly derail US hopes and expectations and their intentions to accelerate troop withdrawal in the lead-up to the targeted withdrawal of combat troops by August 2010.

For a US, now seemingly sidetracked on Afghanistan, the tying of the Iraqi political noose around the White House is nothing new. Back in 2007, the same feuding politicians in Baghdad were tasked with achieving stringent “milestones” that was hoped to signal the US exit strategy. In reality, many of the milestones almost three years later still have not been achieved today.

The aim of the US surge was not necessarily just to tackle the every growing menace of insurgents and al-Qaeda. It was designed to pin down the terrorist “monster” long enough so that Iraqis could reach the aforementioned millstones and thus diminish public support for radicalism.

It is perhaps unsurprising that bombing patterns have coincided with periods of political wrangling and instability. Recent bombings are designed to derail the political process and undermine the Shiite dominated government.

Whilst previously bombings were aimed at more open public spaces, targeting of government buildings have becoming more of a recurring theme in recent times.  Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who fared well at the recent provincial elections, has been credited with bringing security to Iraq. Easing of traffic restriction around danger hotspots of Baghdad were designed as a symbol of progress. However, for insurgents and foes alike, there is no better way to break the government grip and discredit their gains than to reintroduce fear and violence.

As the recent deadly bombing and tensions in parliament demonstrated, while security and general atmosphere is much more positive than 2007, it is also glaringly reversible. Until gains have been solidified in terms of the resolution of Kirkuk and disputed territories, the onset of a national hydrocarbon law and the appeasing of the disenfranchised Sunni minority with a sufficient piece of the Iraqi cake, chaos can easily return if not at a greater pace.

The increasing spate of deadly bombings, pose real questions on the capability and integrity of the Iraqi army, especially as they increasingly take on direct responsibility of their countries security.

It is short-sighted for the US to pressurise Iraqis into political progress so that they can execute their elusive exit strategy. In practice, no short-term gains in Iraq will ever truly act as a gauge to determine its long-term health.

America must be prepared for the aftermath of any Iraqi fallout in the long-term.

Appeasing Sunni sentiments

While the Sunni-fuelled insurgency has died down a great deal, owed in large to Sunni Awakening Councils, and general Sunni participation in the government and the democratic process has increased, the position of the Sunni population is still very much tentative.

Sunni’s may turn out in high numbers in January but will certainly be expecting a greater role in Parliament as well as within the security forces.

The problem with Iraq, with three distinct components, is that demands will not always be proportional to the voter weighting come January. Sunni’s may form a minority in comparison to their Shiite counterparts but will still expect to form a key part of the Iraqi horizon.

Whilst recent bombings have not provoked sectarian violence, especially from mainly Shiite targets, and the sides appear to be keen on battling out at the polls for the time been, this could easily change.

Iraqi provincial election results suggested a swaying of Iraqi sentiment from sectarianism. Iraqis fed up with years of violence, high unemployment and lack of public services, have gradually shifted from hard-line allegiances.

However, more disappointment with wrangling politicians or any significant fall out in the aftermath of the national elections may yet prove that the Iraqi house, with the absence of significant foundation, may well wilt under the smallest of storms.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Hewler Post (Kurdish), Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Iraqi withdrawal symptoms


As the continuous US adventure in Iraq enters yet another “new” dawn, the US can ill-afford to lose focus

Over the past six years or so, the US has have experienced many false dawns in their quest to attain success in Iraq. Many key milestones have been hailed in this time, in the hope that it would spark an elusive US exit strategy, but ominously Iraqi’s have too often failed to take real advantage.


Now it is hoped that the much hyped and celebrated US withdrawal from Iraqi towns and cities on June 30th 2009, would serve as one of the final “real” dawns of the new Iraq.

The withdrawal, as per Sofa agreement, was met with jubilation by Iraqis and subsequently declared a national holiday. While Iraqis rejoiced in public at the start of the end of a notorious occupation, behind closed doors in Baghdad and Washington, one couldn’t help but think that smiles in public were overshadowed with anxiety behind the scenes, particularly for the US.

After all, after so many years of sacrifice, lost lives and billions of dollars of investment that saw Iraq become a focal point of US foreign policy, the US can hardly just disregard or sidestep their Iraqi adventure. The US clearly has unfinished business in Iraq.

However, US President Barrack Obama has hardly kept his desire for a new stronger focus on the “forgotten war” in Afghanistan a secret, has consistently vowed for swift withdrawal and was opposed to the original invasion. This has fanned fears that the US is no longer focused on Iraq.

Biden’s calls for national reconciliation


The US has expressed their concern in recent days on the lack of political reconciliation and has openly urged Iraqis to make greater efforts. Public calls by US Vice President Jo Biden, the man charged with seeing out the Iraqi mission, for the need of more progress was rebuffed by Baghdad. The vice presidents comments came as he underwent a visit to Baghdad to strengthen diplomatic ties and push Iraqi leaders for greater political progress.

The response from Baghdad implied that they were unwilling to endorse US meddling in its internal affairs. The strong response from Baghdad, shows growing assertiveness from Iraqis as the assume the “real sovereignty” talked about in Washington and may be playing on the sentiments of the Iraq public ahead of January 30th general election, who are seemingly only too keen to see US forces depart, regardless of the demons that this may itself bring.

Al-Maliki’s office reaffirmed its commitment to the national reconciliation process. Al-Maliki had earlier stated that the countries had “entered a new phase” on the back of the US withdrawal.

In spite of Baghdad’s warning to its US counterparts about trying to influence internal Iraqi affairs, Biden suggested that the Iraqi leaders were “very anxious” to maintain strategic understanding and engagements with the US moving forward.

Obama’s message


Whilst hailing the significance of the withdrawal, Obama warned of “difficult days ahead” and once again reemphasised the importance of a “responsible” withdrawal. However, emphasise was equally placed on Iraqis new responsibility as they took control of their future. US combat divisions are due to withdraw from Iraq by September 2010 and all together from Iraq by the end of 2011.

In spite of public reassurance that the US had not lost focus, privately Biden gave the strongest indication yet that under their new “sovereignty”, the US was unlikely to come rushing back to keep peace if civil strife was to erupt in Iraq.

Biden has been a long-time advocate of federalism in Iraq, as a way of preserving peace and unity between Kurds, Sunni and Shiites, and it is somewhat unsurprising that he has focused on healing the national divide on his recent visit.

The end of the beginning


The beginning of the end for the US may well be the end of the beginning for the Iraqis. With the valuable cushion that the US has provided for so long, in spite of frequent criticism and backlash of their presence by Iraqis, ironically perhaps now as the US time in Iraq dwindles down, many Iraqis may now truly appreciate the relative if not forgotten comfort that the US has provided.

The US surge strategy was always a short-term measure designed to buy Iraqis time. It is ultimately down to the Iraqis to seek true compromise and build a new nation that can house such a contrasting array of views and ethnicities.

Regardless of the principles of democracy that now underpin the new Iraq, it is ultimately the true hunger of sides to settle their differences and end mistrust and animosity that will determine the future Iraq. This is easier said than done of course. Trying to keep an ethnic mosaic happy and working towards the notions of equality, are down to the individuals themselves and no amount of US military presence or political pushing can change that.

As the US have realised no amount of force or political pressure can make any side adopt any notion that they may not embrace at heart.

Key issues remain unresolved years after the advent of a new constitution and democratic elections. Growing discord between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over many fundamental issues such as oil production, federalism and disputed lands spell a clear long-term danger.

As we have seen with a rise in suicide bombings in recent weeks, the threat of terrorism and sectarian bloodshed are elements that can return to the stage ever so quickly. Too often long-term problems have been masked by short-term goals. An example of this are the Sunni Sawha councils, armed and founded by the US and a clear success story in the battle against al-Qaeda. If there demands are not satisfied, how long before they are keep onside?

The greater picture


Whilst the US may now provide added focus to Afghanistan, the US has to mindful of not needing to return to Iraq once they achieve a semblance of peace and unity in Afghanistan.

Issues and conflicts in the Middle East are delicately intertwined, and the US can ill afford to neglect the importance of the Iraqi domino in this puzzle. There is little in the Middle East that would have a greater ripple affect than instability and chaos in Iraq. The US has already underestimated the intricacy that is Iraq to its loss.

As future events will show, its unlikely that the US can simple afford to adopt a policy of “over to you now Iraqis” just yet.

As Obama’s speeches to the Muslim world have highlighted, however, the US is unwilling to put all its eggs in one basket. It needs the support of the greater Middle East in keeping the tentative and fragile peace. This is something that it simply can not do by itself.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Can the US Really be Blamed for Every Iraqi Misfortune?

Bush Departs From Iraq Amidst Controversy Much the Same Way as He Entered in 2003, but can the US really be blamed for every Iraqi mishap?

Shoe-throwing debacle guarantees that Bush’s aim of ending his Iraqi excursions on a high are thwarted, but would the same journalist have dared to throw a shoe at Saddam?

The White House has been on somewhat of a publicity drive in recent weeks, as George W. Bush’s tenure at the presidential helm comes to an end. Bush and his aides have tried hard to promote a positive portrayal of his period in charge and point to successes from his time in high command, particularly regarding the Middle East.

However, hopes for a productive and glitch-free farewell visit to Iraq, targeted to boost ratings and end undoubtedly his most contentious flash point as president on a high, were all but dashed.

Bush’s grand finale in Iraq was tainted with much publicity and media attention, but for all the wrong reasons as the now infamous shoe-throwing incident at a press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, dampened all chances of a subtle but constructive departing from the Middle Eastern plains.

However, Bush can be far for blamed for every note of discontent arising out of Iraq or indeed the Middle East, and conclusive assessments of his time as president must be made in context of the greater historical handicaps that have scarred the Iraqi horizon.

Contentious Times

Bush’s legacy in Iraq can perhaps be best summarised by one of his last speeches in Iraq, warning his forces and Iraqi comrades that “the war is not over”.

This statement is all the remarkable and speaks volumes of the “new” Iraq, when compared to the bold announcement he made on 1st May 2003, just weeks after Saddam Hussein was dramatically ousted from power that “major combat operations have ended”.

Almost six-years since the highly-contentious invasion of Iraq, what was hoped to usher a new era of prosperity and democracy, to serve as a beacon of light for the greater Middle East, was swiftly bogged down with bloodshed, sectarian terror, political squabbling and ubiquitous obstacles on the Iraqi transitional road to democracy.

While there were initial high-hopes in 2003 that focus could now be turned to rebuilding a shattered country after years of war, brutal dictatorship and economic sanctions and start the process of building a stable society, the Iraqi dream turned into a reoccurring nightmare.

However, to blame the Americans for every mishap in Iraq is simply misleading and a distraction from other pertinent facts on the ground. Who can forget decades of barbarian rule under a cold-hearted dictator who launched wars on its neighbours and even chemically-bombed its Kurdish civilians in broad-daylight?

Any critic, no matter his social background or political affiliation, who can condone the murder of thousands of innocent people, where mass graves are still been uncovered today, and the destruction of villages, is inhumane. In reality, the real weapon of mass destruction, Saddam Hussein, was disposed.

Lack of Plan B

As events over the past number of years have hardly disguised, it is no secret that US policy to deal with the new dawn in Iraq was indecisive, incoherent and simply lacked practical assessment. The decision to disband the Iraqi army and the expectation that brief post-liberation euphoria would turn into mass support for a concept that has been practiced for hundreds of years in the West but unseen in Iraq, was out of touch and lacked du-diligence one would come to expect from the world’s only superpower.

Simply put, US saw their Iraqi dream shatter to pieces, yet seemingly had no alternate plans to the expectation that they would be met with open arms by most of the Iraqi public. It took the US almost 4 years with the onset of the successful surge strategy, to stop fire-fighting and finally try to prevent the fires from starting.

Reconstruction efforts have been greatly hampered with unemployment, lack of civil infrastructure and medical facilities still common place. However, reconstruction in Iraq, particularly in the aftermath of the chaos that ensued, was like rebuilding your house in the middle of a tornado.

The damning verdict on reconstruction was emphasised by a leaked government report in the US, detailing the failures to apply reconstruction funds into real physical achievements, as it struggled to rebuild even what had been devastated by the war itself.

Harvesting the Seeds Sown Before

For all the popular opinion amongst some Iraqi and Western commentators, every misfortune or problem currently experienced by Iraq is not purely down to the US. 

The key problems engulfing Iraq emanate from its artificial creation in the aftermath of the First World War. Iraq was composed of three disparate former Ottoman provinces that was essentially stitched together by Britain and her allies, and then “glued” by dictatorships.

It is true that the US lifted a can of worms in an unceremonious manner, however, Iraq would have come to a boil, sooner or later, regardless of US intervention. Americans knew that challenges lay ahead of the new Iraq, but they simply did not know the extent of the challenge that would cost them billions of dollars, see them commit thousands of soldiers and shatter their foreign policy image.

Iraqi politicians have squabbled intensively and failed to pass key legislation, national reconciliation continues to prove elusive and sectarian violence, despite drastic security improvements, remains a real threat. Surely, all these factors attributable to Iraqis can not all become pinned on the US?

Signing of Security Pact

Bush fourth visit to Iraq was designed to underline strong ties between the US and Iraq, that was to be symbolised by the signing of the SOFA agreement.

On previous visits, Bush’s visits were short and surrounded by tight security, owing much to the volatile atmosphere on the ground in recent years. This visit was undertaken with ‘relative’ security, as Bush met with key Iraqi leaders and US commanders inside the fortified green zone.

By Bush’s own admission, the Iraqi project had been “longer and more costly than expected”, but despite openly expressing his regret at failed intelligence prior to the invasion, he firmly believed his decision to invade was justified.

With only weeks remaining before President-elect Barack Obama takes charge, many have accused of Bush of tying the hands of the next administration with his policies in Iraq. Obama, inheriting many issues in Iraq and across the Middle East, is now expected to oversee what is hoped to be the final chapter of the US adventure in Iraq, the departure of the estimated 150,000 US forces within the next few years.

Iraqi politicians were quick to praise Bush’s role, with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, hailing the US for an Iraq that was now “dramatically freer, dramatically safer and dramatically better”.

As Bush came “to herald the passage” of the new accord, much debate and controversy still lingers around the security agreement. Pasted after months of protracted and tense negotiations, the deal has left a bitter taste in the mouths of many sceptical Iraqis.

For these Iraqis, the pact remains unclear with regards to certain stipulations and they remain unconvinced that US would leave by the end of 2011 as agreed. In tune with divisions amongst the Iraqi landscape, for others Bush has abandoned his promise to the stay the course.

The Iraq Left behind

Iraq may have become Bush’s achilles heel, but he at least he narrowly averted all-out disaster. Security is improving and hopes remain for greater political alignment next year with the provincial elections in Iraq.

It is easy to look at Iraq as all doom and gloom but productive progress, although at times at a snail-pace, has been made since 2003, particularly with the first elections in decades, the onset of a national constitution and the building of a new security force.

However, gains have been all too often become quickly overshadowed and the Iraqi project is far from implemented and certainly far from over. Key obstacles continue to blight the Iraqi divide, with frequent disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, debate over interpretation and amendments to the constitution, a lack of a national hydrocarbon law and many flash points, such the hotly contested dispute over oil-rich Kirkuk, have simply been delayed and too often brushed under the political rug, for the perception of greater political progress.

For one, Sunni Awakening councils, the ironic saving grace of Bush after the same groups wrecked havoc on US dreams, continue to represent a grave threat if not enticed by Baghdad into the political sphere.

In summary, Kurds, Sunni and Shiites continue to agree to disagree, with the tug-of-war for the new Iraq just heating up, taking the argument back a full circle that problems experienced today in Iraq, have had the same root cause since its inception all those decades ago. However, where Iraqi troubles and lack of unity could be masked in the past, the US has ensured that there is no hiding away from it now.

Without building a real foundation to the take the ‘whole’ of Iraq forward, gains in Iraq will always be tentative and life will always remain on the edge.

Shoe-throwing shame

No matter how passionate sentiments may get, the act of petulance demonstrated by the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at Bush and shouted insults in Arabic, is unacceptable.

Especially, in the ‘new’ Iraq, Iraqis have every right to their opinion and US can seldom disagree, after all it was one of the defining reasons for the invasion. However, shoe-throwing in such circumstances is a step that does not do the image of the Iraqi public or Iraqi media a great deal of good. It will only raises perception that some Iraqis remain confined to uncivilised mannerism, especially ethics one comes to expect from a professional national press.

Indeed, Al-Baghdadiyah TV urged authorities to release the detained journalist as he was only practicing ideals that the US introduced. Such statements speak volumes about some mentalities that prevail and the huge strides that Iraq still has to make.

Every Iraq has a right to an opinion and none more so than a journalist but would the same journalist have even dared to utter a word against Saddam if he was performing a speech, let alone throw his shoe? Failing that, why didn’t the journalist throw one shoe at Bush for the suffering he has afflicted on Iraq and one at al-Maliki for his many failings at serving the Iraqi people?

Undoubtedly, the incident would have been met with jubilation in some circles, but such abrasive action in the knowledge that it was Bush’s last speech in Iraq and under the heavy eyes of the world, left little room for coincidence.

Bush and the US are by no means perfect, but the time to blame the West for each and everything is outdated and delusional.

If Iraqis can not get their act together for greater national progression, then no magic wand of Bush or anyone else could ever have done the trick.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Online Opinion, PUK Media, Peyamner, Various Misc.

Further Stalling by Iraqi Politicians, Leaves Great Danger of US Suspension in Iraq

After Iraq’s Political Council for National Security stalled in successive days to approve, the presumed ‘take it or leave it’, final draft of the SOFA agreement, US officials once again pressed their Iraqi counterparts to accept the deal. 

It is hoped that if approval is obtained by the council, which practically brings together key political heads across Iraq, from presidency to the heads of major blocs in parliament, ratification by parliament would be a formality.

However, in Iraq where finding broad political agreement is notoriously painstaking, this may be easier said than done.

Dramatic Consequences

In a stark warning, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, stated that without the Status of Forces Agreement (Sofa), then the US activities would be effectively suspended.  Such “dramatic consequences” noted by Gates, should give the Iraqi political process a firm jolt.

However, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh had earlier claimed that leaders were “still hesitant to approve or reject” the deal, placing uncertainty on the chances of a fast turn-around, if not rejection of the draft altogether.

According to al-Dabbagh, ministers would meet in the days ahead for consultation and put forward suggested amendments.  It is hoped that the amended draft can then be sent back to the negotiation table. With US expressing “great reluctance” to renegotiate, the table may remain bare.

Intense Negotiations

After months of negotiations and compromise, an agreement in principle stretching as far back as late 2007 and a missed target of the end of July originally earmarked for the approval of the strategic framework agreement, hopes for a swift pact evaporated.

After months of tense, protected and at times controversial negotiations and over 5 years of what should now in theory at least represent a blossoming partnership between the US and Iraqi governments, the absence of the strategic agreement strikes a blow to future cooperation and will undoubtedly undermine ties.

The original perception from the both governments was that the draft agreement, after concessions from both sides and a multitude of meetings, was now in its final format and can only be accepted or rejected by the Iraqi parliament. US certainly believe that they have done all they can to appease Iraqi anxiety over its sovereignty.

Fragmented Iraqi Landscape

After pushing US compromise to the limit, there is a general consensus amongst some Iraqi parliamentarians that the current form of the deal is the best they can attain.

However, even this reality may not be enough to enforce agreement. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that in the diverse ethnic fabric that is Iraq, establishing such an agreement with the Americans has proved a thorny national issue and the source of much debate.

The fragmented nature of the Iraqi landscape is best depicted, when one-side of the Iraqi divide, namely the Sadrist block are dead against an agreement in any form with the American “occupiers”, whilst conversely for the Kurdish Coalition, a long-term US hand in Iraq is strongly advocated and actively supported.

Only this weekend, thousands of supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demonstrated against the security agreement.

After deadly-conflicts between the Mehdi Army and US forces in past years, Sadrist opposition is hardly surprising. However, rising voices of discontent from the main Shiite coalition, United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), has clouded the chances of concord.

Iranian meddling in this affair is more than likely. After all they will certainly use all their “friends” within Iraqi government circles, to drastically dilute, if not revoke such an agreement affecting their sphere of influence, and at times of such animosity with the Bush administration.

US Reassurance

At the pinnacle of Iraqi concern, and the main cause of delays, is the issue of sovereignty. A growingly confident Iraqi government has continually strived to assert its dominance in recent times. The primary question, for sceptical Iraqis is who will really call the shots in Iraq, the Iraqi government or the US administration?

US Ambassador Ryan Crocker once again defended the draft agreement and tried to provide reassurance that Iraq will assume its sovereignty in full.

US officials had pressed hard not to include a definitive timetable for withdrawal, but under the watered-down agreement still to be published, it is envisaged that US forces will leave Iraqi cities by June 2009 and withdraw from Iraq altogether by the end of 2011.

The other Iraqi obstacle to agreement is wording around the liability of US troops and contractors from Iraqi prosecution. Phrasing on the conditions for immunity has been drastically altered, but has still failed to strike the right sentiments with the main Shiite alliance.

The key message from the US administration is that the security pact was always designed with Iraq’s best interests in mind, and based on a voluntary Iraqi endeavour to request continuing US assistance, rather than a forcibly-applied US presence.

What now for the security agreement?

If chances of renegotiation of the draft are slight, then the probability of major concessions at this stage is almost certainly out of the question. However, something must give in this impasse.

If no agreement is reached by the end of this year, when the ‘final’ UN mandate ends, either the current powers afforded continue under a new mandate, which by Gates own admission is not a “clean” option, or the US leave altogether. Ironically, Iraqis do not seem to want both these scenarios.

In recent times, the much-pressurised Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, has tried hard to be portrayed as a strong nationalistic leader, rather than a tool of the US administration. Al-Maliki has expressed his desire to see the draft pass by a two-thirds majority in parliament, to win wider national endorsement.

But such a contentious issue, and the diversity of opinion across the Iraqi social mosaic, means that pleasing all sides is always going to be impossible no matter how agreements with the US are dressed.


Clearly, the US can ill-afford to hastily cut their losses in Iraq, after 5 years of sacrifice and much effort to establish stability and elusive national reconciliation. Security achievements remain brittle and certainly gains are reversible as quickly as they were yielded.

The US administration must ensure that a minimum they keep a strategic-hand, albeit in less-militaristic terms, for years to come, to prevent their Iraqi and more importantly their greater Middle Eastern project, from dramatically falling to pieces.

However, the popular belief that US will remain under any circumstance is misleading. Growing US public discontent, a daunting economic recession, rampant unemployment, a global credit crisis and the impeding change of president, coupled with the billions of dollars spent every month in Iraq, will mean that the US will want to cut back their Iraqi adventures sooner rather than later, without leaving civil anarchy behind.

On the hand, the security agreement represents the best terms that the Iraqi government can get. They have won major concessions and can ill-afford to see their US counterparts leave the country in haste at such times of deep national vulnerability. It is true that Iraqi politicians will aim to be viewed as strong national leaders and thus try to surmount a tougher stance, least to be seen to succumb to US “occupiers”, but they need the US more than ever.

Growing frictions between the KRG and Baghdad, the lack of a hydrocarbon law, bitter disputes over Kirkuk and the implementation of the constitution, and not forgetting the potentially disastrous ramifications if the incorporation of the Sunni Sahwa councils is not treaded with utter caution, all highlight the dangerous road ahead in Iraq.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

The Enduring US Presence in Iraq

Long-term US occupation in the “midst of a frail Iraqi landscape” was always likely

As Iraq and the U.S. continue negotiations, long-term strategic ties have never been more critical for both parties.

Five years of a contentious occupation, thousands of US casualties, billions dollars of expenditure, and unabated battles against insurgents mixed with ever-elusive national reconciliation, paints its own picture. 

However, despite the heavy price that the US has continued to pay, their vision of Iraq as a pluralistic, stable and democratic bastion to act as a model for the volatile Middle-East is far from been realised.

In truth, amidst all frequent calls amongst some Iraqi factions, Iraqi neighbours and rivals in the US Senate to end the occupation, the long-term presence of US troops in Iraq has never been more inevitable.

Simply, a significant troop cut let alone complete US withdrawal at the current time would spell disaster. The US is far from executing its project in Iraq and the short-term goals alone may require 7-10 year of active US military presence. Indeed, any hasty withdrawal in the next 24 months would undo much progress that US has painstakingly attained.

The US without a long-term legal foothold in Iraq, is in danger of seeing the pack cards it has implemented with immense sacrifice, topple at a glance.

Critical issues remain as tentative as ever. Despite, the losses inflicted on al-Qaeda and the small but sturdy strides towards national unity, Iraq remains a magnate for foreign terrorists. The general animosity within the patchwork that is Iraq runs high and radical figures continue to execute influence. More importantly, Iran, Syria and its proxy forces throughout the region continue to pose the greatest danger to the strategic-objectives of the US, its national security and to undoing all the hard-work in Iraq.

Declaration of Principles

In late 2007, George Bush and Nouri al-Maliki signed a somewhat controversial “declaration of principles” to serve as a basis for current talks with view to defining the legal basis for the long-term relationship between the two countries.

The proposed agreement to be completed by a deadline of July 31st, is designed to augment the final UN mandate for the presence of multinational forces which expires at the end of 2008.

The framework of the initial deal included the basis for deterring foreign aggression against Iraq, assisting Iraq against terrorism, and encouraging much-needed foreign investment, primarily American, into Iraq.

With an insurgency fuelled by the presence of “foreign occupiers” and a battle, sometimes violently by Iraqi groups to end the occupation, the idea of such a deal naturally caused much of a stir. 

Ongoing Negotiations for Security Agreement

Negotiations have been ongoing between the Bush administration and the government led by Nouri al-Maliki on two key accords, with view to reaching a final framework which will take affect from 2009.

The first accord is referred to as a “status of forces agreement” (or SOFA), which will serve as a legal framework for the status of the US military in Iraq. As part of this accord, it would allow US forces to launch unilateral military operations, to detain Iraqis and would provide immunity to US contractors from Iraqi law.

The scope of agreements on these articles is unclear. Iraq has in the past month, stressed the need for US compromise on “sensitive issues”.

Although, it is was agreed that specific troop numbers will not be stipulated as part of any accord, it is expected that negotiations will indirectly determine how many of the existing 160,000 troops will remain in Iraq. Giving the current plight of the Iraqi government and future reliance of Iraqi forces, it is likely that at least 50,000 troops will be needed in the years to come. As such, it is unlikely that the agreements will contain timetables for the withdrawal of US forces, which is sure to fuel sentiments in some Iraqi circles.

The second agreement is seen as a long-term “strategic framework”, which will outline US cooperation in the key fields of security, politics, culture and economy.

It is widely believed that the Iraqi government accepted the accord on the basis of certain conditions. The US would need to recognise Iraqi right to secure deals with other countries, US should avoid using Iraqi territories for military campaigns and no large scale bases should be established.

In the coming years it is likely that the US troops will be out-of the public limelight but will serve to support and train Iraqi troops.

Permanent Bases

The idea and in-turn definition of ‘permanent bases’ has caused much debate. The majority of Iraqis have frequently objected to the idea of a full-time military presence in Iraq.

However, although a much looser definition of the word ‘permanent’ will be adopted in the agreements, in all likelihood the agreements that both sides hope to sign envisage just that.

In the same manner as Japan and South Korea in the past, it is unlikely that the US would have cut all its military ties in Iraq and withdrawn all forces. In fact, for the US it would have been a little short of strategic suicide.

Despite, the US seemingly in search of an exit strategy once Iraq has stabilised and democracy has been established, in reality US dreams in Iraq, let alone the Middle East, will take decades.

The US was never likely to wash its hands all together. Iraq is part of a wider picture that is crucial for long-term security and regional stability. Giving the scenario that US forces leave, in the current climate with sectarian tensions high and lack of a strong national army, Iranian agents would have a field day. The country will be at the mercy of its neighbours, with Turkish aggression only exasperated in the north and Syrian elements keen to complement Sunni influence.

US backing in the long-term is intended as a message to neighbouring countries that the US sees Iraq as a vital factor in regional stability. However, the risk is that this will induce a vicious cycle – the US are in Iraq to keep Iranians and other foreign forces in check, whilst foreign agents will not leave Iraq until such Western “occupation” has ended.

Even if no military presence was advocated in the rest of Iraq, in the Kurdistan Region the idea of fermenting long-term US bases would have been highly-popular and a strong possibility. The Kurds strongly encourage US presence and protection, to safeguard their hard-fought gains.

Iraqi Objections

Unsurprisingly, the onset of such deals with the Americans was bitterly opposed in some Iraqi circles. The idea of a long-term US presence, for groups such as the Sadr Movement who based their following on ending foreign occupation, is a testimony to their claims that US wants to “colonise” Iraq.

It seen as a move that would violate the countries sovereignty and would put the country under de-facto US hegemony.

Senior clerics, including Ayatollah Seyyed Kazem Haeri and Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have strongly objected to a ‘security accord’ between the US and Iraq. According to some sources, the Grand Ayatollah has insisted he would not allow Iraq to sign such a deal with “the US occupiers” as long as he was alive.

The Sadr movement, fresh from deadly battles against government forces, accused the government of unnecessarily turning Iraq in a battle front with many countries.

Objections at Home

The elusive battle for stability and success in Iraq has turned Iraq as a centre stage for growing US public discontent. Clearly, the presidential race has been by-far dominated by the Iraq war blamed on sky-high fuel prices and economic recession.

With President Bush under the firing line for tying the hands of the next administration by passing his mistakes, the long-term arrangements have been criticised by Democrats and some Republicans and raised fear amongst the public.

Although the deals, claimed as ‘non-binding’ by the Bush administration, are within the executive powers of the president, congressional Democrats have called for Senate ratification.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker moved to dampen fears by describing the framework as a “political document” and reassuring Congress that they will be fully briefed on all negotiations.

The Bush administration have emphasised, that any deal will not tie the next US administration or commit the US to defend Iraq, as either side could cancel the deal at any time.

However, some members of Congress, criticised the administration for making obligations without understanding the consequences of not fulfilling assurances, regardless of whether they are legally binding.


Despite the focus and controversy such security deals may receive, in reality it was a necessity for both the US administration and particularly the new Iraq.

Although, conspiracy theorists will be working overtime, long-term US occupation in the midst of a frail Iraqi landscape, the current regional mire and the greater US Middle-Eastern project, was always very likely.

Although, the US have tried to played down the agreement by pledging it will not stipulate specific U.S. troop numbers or “permanent” military bases, reality and not definition of terms, will determine their future role in Iraq.

With an already volatile and disenchanted nation who has suffered immensely, the provisions of the agreements were always going to be introduced with a degree of ambiguity, as transparency would have fuelled an outcry at the worst possible time for the Iraq regime.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Sadr City at peace… for now

After weeks of intense fighting in the Shiite district of Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, the Iraqi government and forces of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr reached a jittery truce, believed to have been brokered with the mediation of Iran.

The bloody conflict was a byproduct of a highly contentious crackdown on Shiite militias by the Iraqi government that began in Basra in late March.

The deadly street-to-street fighting, aided by U.S. firepower, proved costly for both sides. Weeks of fighting led to hundreds of deaths, countless wounded, and a population of over 2 million largely isolated and without basic commodities.

Under the ceasefire between the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) and the Sadrist bloc, a list of 14 points were agreed upon, which in essence gave both sides much-needed breathing space in a rapidly unpopular encounter.

After a period of hostility post-2003, the Sadrists were initially swayed into the political fold and formed a shaky alliance with other majority Shiite powers, but later boycotted their six ministerial positions.

The Mehdi Army, which in the past has waged fierce battles against U.S. forces on a number of occasions, has enjoyed a mostly unchallenged role in the new Iraq as the Shiite-dominated government is weary of inducing Shiite-on-Shiite violence while reliant upon the Sadrist bloc in the ruling coalition. Unfortunately, the long-term dilemma of dealing with the Mehdi Army was only delayed.

The controversial ideals of al-Sadr and his bitter stance toward the U.S. presence in Iraq have often proved a nasty thorn in an already-fractious political landscape. The decision by the Iraqi government to launch operation ‘Knights Assault’ was formulated for a number of key reasons.

With the Sadrist movement enjoying substantial influence in the Shiite south, Nouri al-Maliki’s tough approach was designed to undermine the group with the pivotal upcoming provincial elections in October fast approaching.

The well-armed Mehdi Army is widely known to receive training, arms, and funding from Tehran. With an Iranian regime intent on derailing U.S. forces, a proxy war has been raging in Iraq. Efforts by Baghdad to drive out al-Sadr, under pressure from the U.S. administration, is designed to send a warning message to Iran and show that Baghdad will no longer tolerate free spirits hampering national reconciliation.

As al-Maliki launched his assault on outlaws and militias to many a surprise, it introduced much hope that Baghdad may finally have the valor to deal with core issues.

Al-Sadr’s form of Shiite radicalism coupled with Arab nationalism has often formed a political barrier. Sidelining al-Sadr from the political fold may consolidate support of Kurds, whose key demands of federalism and a referendum on Kirkuk was heavily opposed by the Shiite cleric.

On their part, Sunnis naturally welcomed the advent of an impartial administration. The Sunnis have often complained of a lack of protection and bias from a largely Shiite security force. Such a move is seen as vital to strengthening the political arm of the administration.

However, contrary to the new atmosphere of optimism, the recent battles have also highlighted the fractious nature of the armed forces. With Iraqi armed forces dominated by Shiites and pockets of al-Sadr sympathizers, hundreds of troops deserted fighting on the first day in Basra alone.

Although the crackdown was a positive turning point, it also highlighted that Iraq was not ready to fight its own battles and was forced to rely on indirect U.S. airpower to overcome militants.

The cease-fire may also in essence reflect the fact that the Iraqi army, which only just launched a crucial new offensive in Mosul against al-Qaeda militants, is unable to fight on multiple fronts.

In Sadr City, an ever-present battleground, sporadic clashes continued. Further suffering will unfortunately persist regardless of any truce. Militias continue to act as a time bomb, which will take more than weeks of infighting to clear. In either case, however deadly, Baghdad may have no choice but to carry on the battle if Iraq, let alone the U.S., can escape the current quagmire.

The U.S. surge, which has resulted in greater security, is owed to a large extent to the cease-fire declared previously by the Mehdi Army, and long-term peace is tied to the fate of Sadrist forces.

Whether the new calm is a result of the deadly storm or just a deadly calm before a new storm is open to debate. A revered religious figurehead or a 60,000-strong militia cannot be dislodged all too easily.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

Are Sunni-led Awakening Councils a Growing Success Story in Iraq or Ticking Time Bombs?

The Expansion of Awakening Councils

Ninevah and Kirkuk provinces may be next likely areas for Sunni Sahwa. Are Sunni-led Awakening Councils a growing success story in Iraq or ticking time bombs?

A year after US President George W. Bush announced his controversial surge strategy to rapidly bring security and stability to Baghdad and the suburbs, a marked decline in violence has been reported and security has increasingly improved, a fact that even Bush’s Democratic challengers have found hard to deny. However, perhaps Bush’s greatest success story was not the effectiveness of the deployment of 30,000 additional US troops, but the onset and expansion of contentious Sunni local Sahwa, or Awakening Councils, armed and brokered by American forces.

The first tribal council in Anbar province was designed to take advantage of growing public unrest at the brutal al-Qaida tactics on the streets, with daily murders making life for communities untenable. Before then, the volatile Anbar region had been a notorious icon of the rampant Sunni-led insurgency.

The evident success of the Awakening Councils, also referred to at times as Concerned Citizens and other aliases, prompted the US government to expand the movement: it is now estimated to number at least 70,000 forces in mainly Sunni-dominated areas with about another 20,000 embedded in the Anbar police force.

On one hand, the disenfranchised Sunni population turning against al-Qaida forces as opposed to the traditional American “invaders” was naturally a welcome relief for US forces, seemingly stuck in a quagmire and still chasing an elusive exit strategy. On another hand, it marked a turn of fortunes in Iraq and made a terror-free and united Iraq at least a theoretical possibility.

Although at times embraced as a great tactical success for the US, the establishment of the councils has turned many a head within the Iraqi ethnic-mosaic and raised fear, predominantly among the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, of bolstering Sunni militias only to increase the magnitude of their war with Shiite-controlled Iraqi Security Forces and Shiite militias, where Sunni’s hold a deep mistrust.

Due to tribal affiliations in Anbar province, the Iraqi government reluctantly accepted that the risk of rogue splinter groups was less, due to the influence of tribal leaders in the region.

However, further expansion into Diyala province – where al-Qaida relocated and formed a new, self-proclaimed Islamic State – and talk of mobilising Sunni forces further north into ethnically disputed areas in Ninevah and Kirkuk, have caused a great deal of unrest for the Kurdish administration and become another deeply contested political issue on the Iraqi national level.

Kurdish fear of unrest

The Kurdish objective has always been to keep Iraqi civil strife at bay from the prosperous and stable autonomous Kurdistan Region, which they have achieved with much sacrifice, at all costs. The hotly disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk has been an intense focus of terrorists and rogue elements intent on creating sufficient unrest in the city to derail a planned referendum on its future status and spark bitter infighting between Arabs and Kurds.

Extending the Awakening Councils to arm and support Sunni Arabs in the Kirkuk province may make some sense to the US administration, which is hell bent on evicting terror groups in the area, but the Kurds, with a deep mistrust of their Iraqi brethren, fear the worst from such a proposition.

With the likely annexation of Kirkuk to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) once a referendum is finally held, the risk of a Sunni backlash is high. However, the potential bloodshed and unrest that could emanate from a newly armed Sunni Arab population would be catastrophic.

This led to a statement this week from Kurdish official Mohamded Mullah Qader, strongly emphasising that the Kurdish leadership would not allow the formation of any such councils in Kurdistan or surrounding ethnically disputed cities.

Kurdish officials and their Shiite counterparts in the Iraqi government have conceded that Awakening Councils have played a pivotal role in improving security in some restless and violent provinces. However, clearly the US may have unwittingly released a deadly virus into the Iraqi socio-political landscape by overlooking long-term implications of such a broad move by introducing another potential time bomb that Iraq could well do without.

Many fear that as thousands of Sunni insurgents dramatically turn against al-Qaida forces, sometime in the future if their demands are not met they may just as rapidly turn against the Iraqi government once more, only this time with a much more explosive velocity.

Awakening Council incentive

Evidently, newfound support from the once-avid American adversaries comes at a price. After years of bloodshed in Sunni-dominated provinces, the tribal sheiks and local population quickly realised that ongoing violence and support of terrorist cells was becoming increasingly fruitless when it came to supporting their basic necessities. The fierce sectarian passion that came from playing second fiddle to the Shiites in the new Iraq and being dominated by foreign occupiers was obviously high, but this could not be sustained under a backdrop of years of bloodshed, a crippling local economy, lack of food and medicine, and above all chronic unemployment.

Sunni militiamen demand, in return for ousting foreign terrorist organisations, permanent jobs and a greater influence in national Security Forces.

The new financial incentive is an evident advantage and highly popular among Awakening Council recruits.

As of December, total recruits are thought to be about 73,000, of which about 65,000 or so are paid a regular salary of an estimated $300-$400 a month, with tribal leaders and generals paid more.

Some reports have indicated that a big recruitment base has been Sunni teenagers between 14 and 16 years of age, who not long ago where brainwashed by hard-line cells and are now enjoying a substantial and previously unprecedented regular salary.

Currently, the group is active in eight provinces with about half of the Awakening Council forces in Baghdad alone. In addition to dealing a great blow to al-Qaida and terrorist organisations, their effective knowledge of key points in the districts of Baghdad and surrounding towns and their knowledge of the local insurgent network makes them a formidable ally.

Without winning the “hearts” of the Sunni population, America alone would find it impossible to permanently uproot terrorists and introduce long-term stability. For the US, the risk of future repercussions of encouraging a newly armed Sunni population was worth taking after nearly five years of battles with insurgents had proved inconclusive.

Pro-Sunni councils have been particularly effective in the so-called Sunni Triangle in Babil province, once a virtual terrorist production site and a conveyer belt for the distribution of explosives.

Awaking Council expansion

In Nineveh, Salahuddin, and Kirkuk provinces, only about 10,000 council forces are active with violence steadily rising. The US aim to bolster councils in these areas has caused a great deal of discomfort for the Kurds, who in the case of Mosul and Kirkuk share common neighbourhoods.

Recently, although currently on a smaller scale, Shiite Awakening Council recruiting, particularly around Baghdad, has increased.

As Awakening Councils have steadily increased in numbers and grown in effectiveness against al-Qaida forces the al-Qaida leaders have sent a strong warning to Sunni Muslims about taking up arms against them.

In a taped broadcast in late December, al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden warned that anyone who took up arms against his group would be considered traitors.

Earlier in January 2008, eight Shiite Awakening Council members and their leader were killed in the Shaab neighbourhood of Baghdad. In addition, in the past few months a number of prominent council leaders have been killed.

For the time being, at least, Sunni and Shiites may just have a common enemy to fight in Iraq.

Long-term ramifications

The Awakening Councils that have been formed with a communal underpinning and guided by local sheiks and tribal leaders are more likely to be effectively controlled and organised. However, the rapid expansion of the councils throughout the rest of the volatile, and now ethnically mixed, provinces may well mean that the number of armed Sunnis, alarmingly, could reach more than 100,000.

Even before the onset of a popular anti-insurgent movement, some sections of the Sunni population were divided. The risk of splinter groups joining al-Qaida-led forces cannot be discounted.

Furthermore, the independent-minded view of most of the tribal leaders formulates a key problem for the Iraqi government. If the Awakening Councils cannot be embedded into the Iraqi security force apparatus as they hope, thus diluting current Shiite domination of such forces, then potentially Iraq may well have three armed, autonomous, and formidable forces in the country: the established and widely respected Kurdish Peshmerga force, the Shiite-led Iraqi Security Forces and other regional Shiite militias, and an emboldened and dangerous Sunni force.

For the time being, the Iraqi government has been generally supportive of the councils while watching developments very closely in the background. Prominent Shiite leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim recently credited the councils with practicing an honourable national role and hailed the councils as an expression of unity against the enemies of Iraq.

Clearly, the key question is the long-term status of such councils. The primary question is whether the councils will the support the government for the long-term or whether they are just a more powerful substitute for the same insurgent forces that they helped eradicate.

For some Sunnis, the question is far greater now than driving the Christian “invaders” out. Increasing Iranian influence has taken equal footing to the “ill-fated” presence of their foreign occupiers.

Animosity toward their Shiite brethren is, however, untouched, and in reality this will remain in the long term. Centuries-old sectarian tension can never be swept aside with such a degree of ease. Perhaps the knowledge that they are now armed and protected inside strongholds may alleviate Sunni fears of being sidelined in the future Iraq, but deep mistrust of Shiite-dominated Iraqi Security Forces will remain until a satisfactory sectarian balance has been achieved.

Another key factor in the declining violence is the decision in the summer of 2007 by influential cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to temporarily cease fighting. This has contributed greatly to the drop in violence that the American administration has hailed. Once the powerful Mehdi Army is back in full swing, their influence on the sectarian stage will provide an interesting observation.


Iraq may in theory be heading toward stability and an era of improved security with a dramatic drop in violence and seemingly on a return to national harmony and co-existence: unfortunately, the lasting nature of short-term gains remains uncertain and to an extent artificial.

The Awakening Councils, although credited with playing a key role in bringing stability to Iraq, are supporting the security push under a number of caveats. For all the credibility they have mustered, the councils have equally stirred up fear, hostility, and deep mistrust.

Equally, what must not be overlooked is the significant fraction of Sunnis still fueling the insurgency and providing crucial support to terror networks.

Shiites fear that eventually, with more power, the councils may turn on them and suspected local forces may contain al-Qaida sympathisers wishing to infiltrate the Interior Ministry. Kurds equally fear Sunni Arab groups wreaking havoc on their region and their aim of bolstering and expanding their region.

As a reward for their efforts, the Sunnis want a bigger role in the Iraqi Security Forces and ultimately a bigger slice of the political cake. If they can be effectively enticed into supporting a democratic and economically sound Iraq that will provide future jobs, social services, and better opportunities, as we have witnessed in Sunni provinces, this may form a viable and attractive alternative to passionately pursuing sectarian loyalties and bloodshed.

However, reaching the stage where the shattered Iraqi economy can recover, with basic social services reinstated, medical facilities provided to all, and each household enjoying a comfortable wage and a good standard of living, may still be years away. The question of whether Iraqis are willing to succumb to more promises and wait patiently for another several years while experiencing daily discontent and resentment is very hard to determine.

Until a national unity government is truly established, harmony is short term and certainly reversible. Equally, a national unity government can never be established until all parties agree on the real hot topics, such as federalism, the future role of religion, the status of Kirkuk, oil sharing, and the future role of militias-topics that have been brushed aside for far too long.

As we have seen for almost five years in the Iraqi transitional road to democracy, promises are easy but real compromise is next to impossible. In spite of Bush’s claim, Iraq may not be a different place from a year ago.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Epoch Times, Online Opinion, Peyamner, Various Misc.