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The Iraq Report: From Mosul gains to foreign disputes Open in fullscreen

The New Arab

The Iraq Report: From Mosul gains to foreign disputes

Date of publication: 3 May, 2017

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The New Arab gives a breakdown on what has been happening in and around Iraq over the past week.

The Iraqi military has made some slight advances in Mosul but have largely been forced to maintain static lines as gruelling fighting against Islamic State (IS) extremists continues.

However, senior military officials have made indications that the end of the now almost seven month operation may come by the end of May.

While the battle for Mosul, IS’ last major urban stronghold in Iraq, may be coming to an end, the war is far from won as IS maintain their ability to launch devastating attacks across the country.

This past week has also been action packed for foreign powers in Iraq, with the US announcing that one of its servicemen was killed by an IED in Mosul.

Qatar finally resolved its year-and-a-half long hostage ordeal and retrieved its citizens, while Turkey has been busy carrying out strikes against military targets associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed leftist separatist group recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

As usual, Iran also had something to say on the issue of Iraq, and started proceedings to allow Iraqis to sue the US over the illegal 2003 invasion and occupation.

War against IS

Iraqi military sources have not only been continuing their offensive against IS in Mosul, but have also been going on a media offensive with a steady stream of “good news” stories.

Last Tuesday, the Iraqi army announced that they had seized the Tenek neighbourhood, one of the largest in west Mosul.

Read more: Battle for Mosul: Special coverage

The following day, Iraq announced that Shia extremists fighting under the aegis of the controversial state-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) had managed to recapture the UNESCO-listed ancient city of Hatra, 120 kilometres southwest of Mosul. The Iran-backed PMF reportedly faced little resistance, suggesting that IS would rather focus the remainder of its forces elsewhere.

To wrap up the past week of positive news, the Iraqi army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanmi, said that fighting for Mosul should end “in a maximum of three weeks”.

While Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, have been known to make wildly optimistic predictions about the end of major operations to retake Mosul, analysts and experts had long predicted that the battle for Iraq’s second city would end sometime this summer.

But while IS may be losing the battle for Mosul, the war against the extremist organisation is far from over.

While IS may be losing the battle for Mosul, the war against the extremist organisation is far from over

In a demonstration of its reach, IS launched ambushes in Iraq’s western Anbar governorate, capturing strips of highway and successfully ambushing soldiers, at one point killing ten troops last Tuesday near Rutba. Days later, IS struck the heart of Baghdad with a car bomb, killing four people.

Throughout the Mosul operation, IS has demonstrated that it has retained its capability to strike sensitive targets along the length and breadth of Iraq.

In the early days of the operation, IS raided Kirkuk and killed dozens of Kurdish security forces. They also successfully raided the Anbari towns of Rutba and Kubaysah, while also successfully launching a devastating raid on Shirqat in November, a town that was supposed to have been cleared two months earlier.

These attacks are likely to increase as the battle for Mosul winds down, and IS are cleared out of other strongholds like Hawija, Tal Afar and the western border town of al-Qaim.

Attacks are likely to increase as the battle for Mosul winds down, and IS are cleared out of other strongholds

Beholden to foreign powers

Showcasing yet again the extent to which Iraq is beholden to foreign powers, several events in the past week drew attention to not only the usual United States and Iran, but also Turkey and Qatar.

After US President Donald Trump declared in March that American soldiers were fighting in Iraq “like never before”, Washington announced its fifth combat fatality since operations against IS began in 2014. 

First Lieutenant Weston Lee was killed by an IED blast whilst on patrol in Mosul. Though long suspected of being involved in direct combat support, the Obama administration was keen to stress the “advisory” status of US troops in Iraq. Trump, however, has taken a more candid approach, likely as a way to emphasise his warfighting credentials.

Though large-scale US military deployment was supposed to have ended in Iraq in 2011, Iran has reportedly been encouraging Iraqi political parties and organisations loyal to Tehran to begin legal proceedings against Washington.

Iran has reportedly been encouraging Iraqi political parties and organisations loyal to Tehran to begin legal proceedings against Washington

The class action suit will allegedly seek to hold the US to account for the loss of life suffered by Iraqis following the illegal 2003 invasion and occupation that is said to have cost over half a million lives by 2006 alone.

Iran may well be using Iraqi suffering as a political tool to pressure the Trump administration who have declared their intention to curb Iranian influence over Baghdad, but Iran’s efforts are likely to be bolstered by the fact that US airstrikes have killed hundreds of Iraqis since the US-led coalition began air raids against IS positions in 2014.

Another major story involving Iran is Abadi’s unusually harsh criticism of Qatar, after Doha paid a ransom worth “hundreds of millions of dollars” to free 26 hostages – including 24 Qataris – taken by Shia militias loyal to Tehran in 2015.

According to the Iraqi premier, Doha attempted to pay the hostage-takers without Baghdad’s approval, but this was sharply denied by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

Speaking to Doha-based Al Jazeera on Wednesday evening, Qatar’s top diplomat said that his country was shocked by Abadi’s accusations, and said everything was conducted with full Iraqi government knowledge and approval.

To date, Iraq’s interior ministry, controlled by the Iran-backed Badr Organisation, has yet to reveal the identity of the group responsible, but the hostages – which included members of the Qatari royal family – were only released after talks held in Doha involving Iran and Lebanese Shia group Hizballah.

Doha attempted to pay the hostage-takers without Baghdad’s approval, but this was sharply denied by Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani

This is likely indicative of a deeper involvement of Iran than is currently being discussed publicly, as it is unlikely that Tehran did not have knowledge of the abductions or the whereabouts of the hostages.

Finally, Turkey has also had a busy week in Iraq, and has extended its military campaign against PKK militants sheltering in the country.

Though Ankara has long been known to strike PKK targets in Iraq’s northern Qandil mountains, its air forces struck deeper than before last Tuesday and hit targets in Sinjar, near the Iraqi-Syrian border.

The Turkish airstrikes killed not only PKK fighters, but also accidentally struck nearby Peshmerga units loyal to the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) currently led by Ankara’s Iraqi Kurdish ally, KRG President Masoud Barzani.

This attack had several effects. It not only caused the US to condemn Turkey – despite Washington recognising the PKK as a terrorist organisation – but it also led to the KRG demanding PKK militants withdraw from Iraq as they were “destabilising and escalating tensions in the area”.

However, the most interesting development was Baghdad’s reaction. Although an Iraqi minister told The New Arab that Baghdad would likely summon the Turkish ambassador but “no stronger action will be taken”, the mayor of Sinjar, Mahma Khalil, said on Saturday that the Iraqi was taking advantage of the situation and providing support to the PKK.

While Baghdad has been happy to allow dozens of countries, including the US and Iran, to deploy military forces on Iraqi soil, it has had a long-running dispute with Turkey over its troop deployment in the Bashiqa camp near Mosul.

Baghdad has been happy to allow dozens of countries to deploy military forces on Iraqi soil, but has had a long-running dispute with Turkey over its troop deployment

Turkey says it is there on the invitation of the KRG, but Baghdad says that Turkish troops must withdraw immediately – a demand Ankara has largely ignored.

Iraq is incapable of imposing its will directly on Turkey, so if Sinjar’s mayor is accurate in his allegations that Iraq is providing military and logistical support to the PKK, that could represent a major escalation in what is already a tense standoff between the two neighbours.

Challenging times

Domestically, Iraq is facing a number of challenges as the country prepares for local elections later this year, with a general election set for 2018.

One of the largest Shia political blocs, the pro-Tehran Supreme Islamic Council led by Ammar Al-Hakim, appears to be fracturing as senior leaders within the organisation disagree over strategy, with founding members disagreeing with al-Hakim who backs the younger generation of party loyalists.

This is not the first time the Council has splintered. Formerly known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the group adopts an openly Khomeinist ideology and espouse the political doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih, or the Rule of the Jurist, that sees a top cleric have the final say on all affairs as is the system currently in Iran.

The group sought to topple the Baathist Saddam Hussein regime and, from Iranian territory, formed its own military wing in 1982 known as the Badr Brigades who became infamous for running death squads that perpetrated sectarian atrocities and mass killings against Sunnis following the collapse of Saddam’s regime.

Should the Council splinter again, it would raise further questions about the erosion of the leadership of the Al-Hakim family, one of the oldest and most influential clerical families in Iraq

However, and under Hadi al-Amiri, a former cabinet minister and current militia commander, Badr formerly broke off and formed their own political party.

Should the Council splinter again, it would raise further questions about the erosion of the leadership of the Al-Hakim family, one of the oldest and most influential clerical families in Iraq.

The leaders of the rebellion appear to be “old guard” members, loyal to Ammar’s more conservative father Abdulaziz Al-Hakim who died and passed on the mantle to his son in 2009.

These include figures such as Baqer al-Zubaidi, also known as Bayan Jaber Solagh, who was notorious as being the interior minister responsible for overseeing and failing to prevent mass human rights abuses and sectarian massacres against the Sunni Arab population during his tenure that ended in 2006.

Then-UN human rights chief in Iraq, John Pace, accused the interior ministry under Solagh in 2006 of torturing and executing hundreds of Iraqis each month, and there are concerns that more radical groups will emerge as a result of Al-Hakim’s steadily weakening influence.

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