Tragedy of Iraq 

Anton VESELOV | 12.03.2015 | 00:00

Iraq has gone through real hardships in recent years. There were times when the country claimed to be the regional leader but the foreign intervention set it many years back. The events of 2014 put into question the very existence of Iraq as a state. In February 2015 Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, «If Iraq wants to stay together it has to pursue a different system of governance».

Actually the country has become divided. It’s extremely hard to piece it together again. There are influential forces that go to any length to prevent the unification process. The resurrection of Iraq as a strong, independent state is a nightmare for those who have achieved the main goal: it’s a long time since the issues of supporting Palestine and eliminating the «Zionist entity» (as they used to call Israel) vanished from the Iraqi agenda. Now they throw up their hands and complain about the intrigues of outside enemies. They believe that internal enemies are even more threatening. And they find them. Hatred and greed have become driving motives behind the actions of leading Iraqi political forces. Their miscalculations and intended deeds have moved the country to the brink of disaster – a full-scale civil war. Iraq has lost one third of its territory, including the cities of Mosul (with the population exceeding 2, 5 million till June 2014), Tikrit, Ramadi and other populated areas captured by radical extremists and sundry riffraff acting under the banners of Islamic State. In 2014 over 17 thousand people lost lives as a result of violence – the biggest death toll in the recent eight years.

There were other things that happened in 2014. The Iraqi financial-economic system collapsed. Baghdad started to make official statements about bankruptcy taking place in the country rich in oil and gas. Unemployment has risen to 25% among able-bodied people. The government of Nouri al-Maliki even failed to come up with a draft budget leaving the country without a document of fundamental importance. The rampant corruption in «the new and democratic Iraq» has reached an unprecedented scale. They steal wherever and whatever they can. Iraqi embezzlers don’t invent complicated schemes. Contracts with front companies guarantee multi-million benefits with no responsibility to face. There is a plethora of examples. On November 28, 2014 Lebanese special services detained in Beirut Ahmed al-Maliki, the son of Iraqi former Prime Minister and current Vice President of Iraq Nouri al-Maliki. Ahmed was arrested for having more than US $1.5 billion cash with him. Security sources in Lebanon mentioned that Ahmed had received the money via an Iraqi bank that transferred it to one of the Lebanese banks for him. They also stated that it was not the first time Ahmed received a large sum from an Iraqi bank. According to them, the money was sent to buy property in Lebanon, as well as in some European countries.

At the beginning of 2014, the US saw clearly that the time was ripe for changing the Iraqi government. US State Secretary John Kerry openly called on then Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to resign. The main goal of Washington is to maintain its control over the country. The prospects for losing the access to Iraqi oil made the West take more resolute actions than just weak protests condemning the Islamic State. In August an ad hoc meeting of the European Union was called in Brussels to discuss the measures to counter illegal oil trade practiced by the Islamic State militants. Two United Nations Security Council resolutions related to the issue were adopted in the following six months. Multiple conferences, meetings and consultations were held to discuss the problem.

It’s not an easy mission for the West. Iran defends its interests in Iraq. It has enough leverage to challenge the United States. For instance, on September 8, the Iranian Ambassador to Iraq said his country would not support the new Iraqi government if Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the radical Iranian-backed Badr Organization, did not head the Interior Ministry. Al-Ameri is an extremely odious figure in the eyes of Iraqis. At the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-1988 Hadi al-Ameri changed sides and was personally involved in the tortures of Iraqi prisoners of war. He saw military service in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and was promoted to General’s rank. During the Nouri al-Maliki’s tenure he was appointed the Minister of Transportation. Big «Law Above All!» posters appeared at airport buildings. Only the transport of one company could be used to get to and from national airports. It became a rule applied to all, except foreign diplomats. The company belonged to the Minister’s son. They tell a story that once al-Ameri Jr. was late for a MEA flight from Beirut to Baghdad. The captain was forbidden to land in the Iraqi capital and the plane had to return and pick up the latecomer. An international scandal sparked but Hadi al-Ameri apologized only when MEA suspended all flights to Baghdad in protest.

In the spring of 2014 Iranian advisors came to Iraq. Qasem Soleimani, a Brigadier General in the Iranian Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution and the commander of the Quds force – a division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards primarily responsible for extraterritorial military and clandestine operations – has visited Iran on a number of occasions. Tehran let know the inviolability of Shia shrines in Iraq became its direct responsibility. Amiri makes no secret of his close relationship with Iran — and squarely credits it with frustrating the Islamic State’s advances. «If it wasn’t for Iran, Baghdad would have fallen,» he said. «Iran supported us very well. They gave us weapons, they gave us ammunition, they gave us their military experience».

The West did not watch the situation idly. Almost daily Baghdad and Erbil received US and European delegations visiting Iraq. As a result of employing a very crafty multi-phased scheme, the Iraqi ruling structures were completely changed without actually changing anything. Formally the changes were significant with only four ministers of previous government remaining in the cabinet and only one of them retaining his position. The decorations were changed accompanied by reshuffling the old pack of cards. The majority of old timers one way or another remained in the ranks of top echelon of power. Only spheres of responsibility and influence were changed. New positions were established (three vice-premiers and three vice-presidents) to make the old guard comfortable. Nouri al-Maliki became Vice President of Iraq to let know soon that he was not satisfied with the position of just another figurehead. According to him, he was ready to head the government if people wanted him to.

The power is divided between Pro-Iranian and pro-Western (some politicians managed to join the both) groups. It’s a pity there is no pro-Iraqi representation. The absolute majority of those who came to power in Iraq have spent 20-30 years abroad – they are all united by the feeling of hatred towards the previous regime and everything related to it. In 2003 many of them were transported to Baghdad from London by allied aircraft. Today they are the ones the West relies on. In late December 2014, Iraqi President Fuad Masum waived his passport and nationality given to him by Britain and returned them back to the authorities. The Iraqi constitution stipulates in its article 18 on the «inadmissibility of the multiplicity of sexual Iraqi forces while serving in a position of a sovereign or a senior security abandoning any other nationality that is regulated by law». The President spared no words of gratitude to the United Kingdom. Nothing has ever been reported about other top officials refusing their British citizenship, for instance: Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, his deputy Ayad Allawi, Ibrahim Jafari, Iraq’s Foreign Minister.

The list is not long. The advocates of Western type of democracy had to be mixed with those who have spent no less time in Tehran that the pro-Western opposition in London. They act as fierce supporters of Iran. Hadi al-Ameri is the best known among them. Many believe him to be a rather dividing than consolidating figure. Sunni Muslims offered stiff resistance opposing his appointment, but their opinion is ignored at best, and quite often force is used to quell them.

The Sunni politicians allowed to make it to the top are not popular even among their community. For instance, Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq barely escaped execution by Sunni Muslims when he visited the province of Anbar in 2012. Sunni protesters have been rallying in the area for more than a week to protest over second-class treatment by the Shiite-led government. The demonstrators insisted the Sunni official show support for their protest by submitting his resignation from the government. The appointment of Khaled al-Obeidi as Defense Minister may be considered as a kind of success reached by Iraqi Sunni community. He took over the position from Saadoun al-Dulaimi, his wishy-washy predecessor with dubious reputation who failed to get a permanent appointment and served as acting minister for three years. The new defense chief is a well-educated technocrat (a former military aeronautical engineer) never reported to have any relation to political squabbles. Pretty soon he was accused of …oppressing Shia Muslims. The accusations were voiced in the parliament after the Defense Minister fired 29 Air Force officers.

Part 2

Haider Al-Abadi was appointed the head of government in August 2014. He was deputy leader of the Islamic Dawa Party (the Islamic Call Party) when it was headed by Nouri al-Maliki, his old time associate. In October 2014 the Iraqi parliament held hearings on the defeat suffered by the military when the Islamic State forces took Mosul and Tikrit. Nouri al-Maliki accused everyone around him attempting to deflect blame for the rout. For instance, Kurds were condemned for betrayal. He never admitted his responsibility as the supreme commander.

The breathtaking success of the Islamic State in 2014 in Iraq would have been impossible if the Shia government led by Nouri al-Maliki had agreed to meet the demands (mainly just ones) of Sunni community in late 2013 for the sake of preserving the country’s territorial integrity. Instead it made Sunni Muslims, who account for a third of the country’s population, take arms. By the middle of January, Sunni Muslims established their control over almost the entire province of Anbar, large parts of Ninawa and Salah ad Din provinces and swathes of territories in four Iraqi other governorates (provinces). It opened the way for the Sunni Islamic State to enter Iraq from the neighboring Syria where it was retreating beforethe Bashar Assad’s forces and Kurds self-defense units of peshmerga volunteers.

 

In a few months the military of Iraq suffered defeat while the Islamic State formations approached Baghdad with only 20-30 km left to get to the capital. The Iraqi regular forces fled leaving behind weapons and equipment. Five army divisions and a division under the command of the Ministry of Interior ceased to exist. Over 7 thousand military surrendered and were fusilladed, over 12 thousand are still listed as missing in action. The Islamic State seized 2,500 armored military vehicles (including 100 US-produced Abrams М1А1 tanks), artillery pieces, ammunition storages etc. The United States has spent around $22-24 billion on the Iraqi army which happened to be fully demoralized when it the time came to act. Actually there was no army in the «new Iraq» – it’s hard to call «an army» a crowd of armed people in uniform plunged into a vicious cycle of corruption and patronage. In September 2014 it came to light that there were over 60 thousand «ghost servicemen» crowding the payrolls of the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior (they call them «spaceman soldiers» or ‘fadhaiyin’ in Iraq) in major fraud. The money was pocketed by thieves in civilian clothes and in uniform. Selling military positions and ranks has become a popular business in the country. The anticorruption commission has recently revealed that there were senior officers on active service without military education who did not know how to read and write.

Haider Al-Abadi, the new Prime Minister said the disarmament of armed formations and para-military forces operating outside the government control was a priority mission along with the fight against the Islamic State. But the new government still refuses to admit the fact that Iraq is split along ethnic lines. The plight of Sunni Muslims, who are insulted and humiliated, calls into doubt the accomplishment of set goals.

It their turn, Sunnis put forward the conditions for the support of the newly formed cabinet. They demand a formation of a national guard and the amnesty for former members of the Baath Party. It should be noted that not only Sunni Muslims were the party members as the US propaganda says. Iraqi Sunnis want their formations to have an official status to join the government forces in their struggle against the Islamic State. Their tactical alliance with the Islamic State came to an end in the summer of 2014 after the supporters of the caliphate went on a rampage introducing barbarian laws. They took hostage the entire populated areas and mercilessly eliminated everyone suspected of resistance. Back then Sunnis began intensive activities in the enemy’s rear preventing the seizure of Baghdad. The Sahwa (or Awakening Councils) forces are a military militia of Sunni fighters. In their fight against the Islamic State they are joined by the Naqshbandi Army (the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order), which is mainly manned by former professional military who served in the armed forces in the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, as well as other Sunni armed formations. They all want one thing – up-to-date weapons. The central government stubbornly refuses to meet their demands. It went as far as to make the sheiks of Anbar province ask Iran for arms supplies. They approached Tehran on the issue in December 2014.

As before, the Shiite members of parliament constitute an irreconcilable majority now. They have certain apprehensions concerning the request for arms supplies. Sunnis formations are 80-120 thousand strong, according to various estimates. Providing them with weapons may lead to the creation of a powerful force which could turn against the central government after the Islamic State is pushed out of Iraq. Baghdad finds this prospect more frightening than the emergence of Islamic caliphate. The bill prepared by Haider Al-Abadi was first sent back to the government. Then the Shiite members of parliament came up with an idea to include the people’s militia into the national guard or unite the Sunni armed units with the formations under the command of Hadi al-Ameri who believes that all Sunnis are supporters of the Islamic State and calls for their elimination on account of religious faith! He controls the Ministry of Interior which has twice as many personnel as the Ministry of Defense. The Shiite armed groups Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Peace Brigades (the Mahdi Army formerly) and Hezbollah come to the fore. New armed organizations have emerged like Division Abbas, for instance. They fill their ranks with Shiites only.

Kurds are a special case. 95% of Kurds are Sunni but the religious factor is not as strong as ethnicity. They enjoy the support of the West and have gained ground to significantly strengthen their positions. A US air base is under construction near Erbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. The Kurdish authorities consider Kirkuk and oil rich chunks of land to be the territory of Kurdistan. They are ready to use force to protect the Kirkuk’s status. Kurdish President Barzani says Kurds will not allow neither the Iraqi government forces, nor Shiite militia formations, nor anybody else enter the area. This land will always remain to be an inalienable part of Kurdistan. The Kurdish peshmerga forces did well fighting the Islamic State groups near Sinjar (Nineveh governorate), as well as in the provinces of Diyala and Kirkuk. Their commanders say they will join the Iraqi forces in the battle of Mosul but only because this city is located near Kurdistan and the radicals pose a threat to the Kurdish autonomy. Before that, Iraqi Kurds had actively supported Syrian Kurds by sending reinforcements to Kobane. Kurds have little desire to join the fight in the near-by areas which do not belong to what they consider as their sphere of interests (for instance, the Province of Anbar).

The Islamic State does its best to expand the battle area to other parts of the Middle East. They have attacked a Saudi border guard force, they threaten Jordan and try to get to US military facilities in Iraq. They have attacked air bases in Tikrit and Balad (2014), Ain al-Asad and Habbanii (2015) – the facilities with US military presence. The mission is to cause casualties among Americans and make them have boots on the ground. Shiites have let their stance known – in case of US ground forces intervention they will turn their weapons against Americans to change the correlation of forces.

The Islamic State has turned into a global threat, that’s what everybody agrees with. Jordanian king Abdullah II believes it’s the start of WWIII. 60 states have joined the anti-Islamic State coalition while citizens of 90 countries have come to fight under the Islamic State banners. The militants’ armed formations are 20-80 thousand strong. The estimates vary according to different sources.

Diversified, well-coordinated, tough and resolute steps are required to successfully counter the Islamic State. Nothing like that is on the horizon. The coalition announced its readiness to offer diplomatic, humanitarian and military support to Iraq. Some countries have sent military instructors to upgrade the Iraqi military skills. They all refuse the idea of boots on the ground.

Jurgen Todenhofer, former German politician, who has fiercely opposed the war in Iraq, visited Mosul in 2014 and could see with his own eyes what the caliphate was like from inside. He was shocked by unbelievable cruelty of the militants and the scope of their plans. “The first strong impression is that the Islamic State is much stronger than I thought, much cleverer.” He said the extremist fighters have an “incredible enthusiasm and sense of victory”, with total certainty that they will win the war for the Middle East. He described how he saw hundreds of fighters arriving each day to join the Islamic State with recruits from all over the world and all walks of life. Todenhofer stressed that the fighters display an “enthusiasm” about “killing hundreds of millions of people”. He concluded chillingly, “I do not see anybody who has a real chance to stop them.” According to him, “Only Arabs can stop the Islamic State; the Western countries will never stop it.”

The United States and its allies have been constantly saying that the caliphate had to be eliminated. Since August 2014 the US aviation has been delivering air strikes against the Islamists with 15-20 sorties a day (two thirds of strikes are delivered against the Islamic State forces deployed in Syria). For comparison the anti-Iraq coalition made over 1000 sorties daily in 2003.

On March 2, Baghdad announced its intention to launch an offensive to re-take Tikrit considered to be the main springboard for subsequent liberation of Mosul. The seizure of Tikrit and Mosul by Iraqi forces could become the starting point of the Islamic State’s debacle. It’s worth to note that the United States refused to provide air support in Tikrit because the Iranian Quds units (special operations) are taking part in the combat.

On March 8, Iraqi media reported that Tikrit was fully encircled citing the sources linked to the people’s militia led by Hadi al-Ameri. On March 9, US Army General Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi during a day-long visit. He listened to the opinion of US advisers who took part in the planning of the operation. Looks like Americans are in no hurry to exploit the success. Anyway, this is the sixth attempt to recapture Tikrit during the recent ten months. In 2014 they cautiously predicted in Washington that the war against the Islamic State would last at least three years. Pentagon spokesman Rear-Admiral John Kirby has recently said it will take five years to defeat the Islamic State. It’s hard to imagine how much grief and suffering it will bring to many thousands of people.

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