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The Iraq Report: Winning the war, squandering the peace

Date of publication: 31 May, 2017

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Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Mosul this week, reportedly preparing celebrations in Iraq’s second city in anticipation of its imminent full recapture. Baghdad has promised yet another deadline for Islamic State group militants to be forced out of Mosul, but it remains to be seen whether Abadi’s party will go ahead as planned or not.

 

Meanwhile, even if the IS group is defeated in Mosul, that will not necessarily end its presence on Iraqi soil. IS have several cities still under their control, including in areas bordering Syria where the Tehran-backed, Baghdad-sanctioned Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) continue to fight. The PMF –an umbrella force of Shia militias, many of whom have been accused of sectarian atrocities – is said to be furthering an Iranian strategic agenda rather than fighting for Iraq’s national security.

 

This, combined with the PMF’s increasing political clout, has raised fears of a new phase of fighting once IS is defeated

 

Final push on IS in Mosul begins

 

In contrast to the strategy in east Mosul of keeping civilians in their homes during the fighting there, Iraqi aircraft started on Friday to drop thousands of leaflets calling on people to flee IS-held districts in west Mosul. The leaflet drop precipitated the beginning of a large-scale Iraqi assault on Saturday in a final push to dislodge IS from the labyrinthine Old City, its last major holdout in Mosul.

 

There are grave concerns that the Iraqi military and federal police’s guarantees of safe passage for civilians fleeing the fighting may not be enough, with charities such as Save the Children urging Baghdad to ensure that civilians are unharmed.

 

Last week, The New Arab, Der Spiegel and ABC News all reported Iraqi units committing atrocities against civilians that could amount to war crimes. Soldiers and special police units were witnessed – and sometimes caught on camera – carrying out acts of torture, abduction, rape and murder. Saad al-Muttalibi, an Iraqi Security Council official, later appeared to admit that his government was executing prisoners without trial during an interview with TRT World.

 

Baghdad has attempted to dampen the outrage of these revelations by claiming that IS would be defeated in “one week”, with Abadi reportedly ordering the preparation of celebrations. However, the extensive abuses and atrocities committed against the civilian population will likely overshadow the inevitable military victory and could pave the way for political defeats and deeper sectarian divisions.

 
Displaced children outside Mosul play with kites made from plastic bags [AFP]

 

NATO intervention heralds more violence

 

Civilians have not only been killed by the Iraqi government and IS, however, as the United States finally concluded its own inquiry into a deadly airstrike in March that is thought to have killed as many as 237 people.

 

The Pentagon said that a “precision-guided bomb” was fired at a building in west Mosul on 17 March targeting two IS snipers, claiming that the explosion subsequently detonated an IS weapons cache which caused a secondary explosion. The US admitted to killing at least 105 Iraqi civilians in the attack.

 

Concerns over the lives being lost by the US-led anti-IS coalition’s heavy bombardment of Mosul may now be exacerbated by news that NATO will be joining the coalition. Although NATO members – including Britain, France and Germany – have already been active in the coalition, the alliance joining fully marks a rapid escalation in anti-IS activity in both Iraq and Syria.

 

Civilian casualties in coalition operations are being significantly underreported, and a sharp increase in the death toll is expected once the coalition is expanded. Including the March airstrike in Mosul, the coalition has confirmed that it has killed approximately 500 civilians since airstrikes began in 2014. Monitoring group Airwars, however, disputes this and says that following 21,820 airstrikes, approximately 3,681 civilians have been killed in both Iraq and Syria, leading to further concerns about what may happen when the wider military alliance joins the fight.

 

Shia militias further Iran’s strategic designs

 

The PMF this week announced that it had pushed IS out of villages near the Syrian border in Iraq’s Sinjar governorate, later releasing photographs showing that its fighters had reached the border with Syria - with Shia militants on both sides of the border saying they would now unite their efforts.

 

Iraqi militants are already in Syria, particularly the Kata’ib Hezbollah group, an Iraqi offshoot of the Iran-backed Lebanese Shia movement. The PMF has also consistently stated that it would be willing to fight in Syria, and the head of the PMF committee, Faleh al-Fayadh, was photographed meeting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier this month. PMF fighters even filmed themselves firing on US-led coalition aircraft in Syria.

 

Now that the PMF has reached the Syrian border near Kojo in Sinjar, they will likely move south to attack IS-held al-Ba’aj as part of a wider plan to capture another border town with Syria, al-Qaim. The aim, according to The Guardian, is for Iran to be able to clear a route that allows it to move men, weapons, supplies - and money - from Tehran all the way to Latakia on the Syrian Mediterranean coast. Iran is already heavily invested in the region, and made the rare admission that one of its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders was killed there on Saturday.

 

However, the PMF’s seemingly single-minded focus on furthering Iranian strategic interests – despite ostensibly being under Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi’s command – indicates that the IS threat may not be viewed as so crucial to Iran anymore. The district and city of Hawija in Kirkuk governorate remains under IS control, and may even become the militant group’s new capital once Mosul falls.

 

Another implication is that the Shia Arab-dominated Baghdad government may tolerate an IS presence in Kirkuk in order to panic the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) who have de facto annexed Kirkuk city into territories under their control after Iraqi troops fled an IS onslaught in 2014. With IS right at the Kurds’ doorstep, Baghdad could use the militants as a pretext for a future intervention, or else leave them to harangue Kurdish Peshmerga units and sow discord and terror in Kirkuk.

 

 
Men displaced from IS-held Mosul have been having their beards shaved off [AFP]


 

Baghdad insecure as militias hold sway

 

Security in the capital has again come to the world’s attention as yet another bombing in Baghdad’s Karrada district killed at least 13 people and wounded dozens more. An IS suicide bomber targeted a “gathering of Shias” who were attempting to enjoy ice cream after shoppers broke their Ramadan late on Monday night.

 

The sectarian bombings in the capital have raised concerns that Baghdad’s vulnerability may be due to the corruption that has plagued Iraq’s security forces since the US-led invasion in 2003. The police and other security units are recruiting individuals from several competing militias, and the uniform is used as an opportunity to receive bribes and extort money rather than protect the public.

 

Examples of this continue to emerge, with yet another scandal erupting on Monday after a member of the parliamentary anti-graft committee exposed an enormous smuggling ring operating out of Baghdad International Airport. According to reports, tons of contraband – including drugs and weapons – were flowing through Iraq, seemingly proving the security forces’ complicity or negligence.

 

This problem is exacerbated by the steadily strengthening presence of Shia militias who field their own political parties and enforce their own territories in Baghdad through force of arms. One of Iraq’s most infamous pro-Tehran militias, the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or the League of the Righteous, has been granted permission to field its own political party under Shia cleric Qais al-Khazali to contest the upcoming local elections.

 

Although militias are technically illegal under Iraq’s constitution, they continue to thrive and multiply, with firebrand Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr creating his third militia in 14 years, dubbed simply the “Rapid Response” militia. Sadr first formed the Mahdi Army – blamed for thousands of sectarian executions – and more recently the Peace Brigades, to face off against IS. Khazali himself formed his militia as an offshoot of Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

 

Winning the war, squandering the peace:

 

With Iraqi society and even politics becoming increasingly militarised and sectarian, there is an increasing chance that already sharp and violent divisions could be agitated even further. With various factions within the PMF trying to form political parties, politicians in Baghdad have been trying to curry favour in order to win this year’s local elections, and next year’s general election.

 

Both Abadi and Vice President Nouri al-Maliki are at loggerheads – despite being from the same party – over who will have the final say in Iraq. Abadi is likely to fete the victory against IS in Mosul as evidence that he is the right man to lead the country, and he will point to the victory as having “fixed” the problem Maliki’s sectarianism created.

 

On the other hand, Maliki will seek to take advantage of his hard-line anti-Sunni, pro-Iran rhetoric popular amongst Iraq’s Shia militias, and will court the PMF in order to form a new electoral bloc to challenge Abadi’s grip on the top job. The PMF is already preparing itself to back Maliki in the general elections, and with their support, Maliki may be able to unseat his rival.

 

If Maliki returns as prime minister following the elections in the wake of an IS defeat, and if Maliki resumes his sectarian anti-Sunni policies, Iraq may win the war against IS - only to squander the peace, leading to a future of unabating violence.

The Iraq report is a new weekly feature at The New Arab.

Click here to receive The Iraq Report each week in your inbox

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