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The Iraq Report: Post-IS politicking and divisions

Date of publication: 2 August, 2017

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Although the threat posed by Islamic State militants has not totally receded, despite the extremists losing their Iraqi capital, Mosul, last month, Iraqi politicians are behaving as though they were truly in a post-IS phase. The fissures and enmities that politicians had at least attempted to conceal before the crisis emerged in earnest in 2014 are reappearing as squabbling representatives make up on lost time, with major Iraqi parties fracturing and reconstituting themselves.

These political schisms have not only hit ruling Shia Islamist political parties, but also the main pro-government Sunni blocs, as rival factions lock horns in areas controlled by Kurdish forces over the question of the upcoming independence referendum. The renewed descent into division and enmity has reinforced beliefs that Iraq is being exploited by regional powers as chaos reigns.

Mosul continues to bleed, despite victory 

Following Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s declaration of victory over IS in Mosul, Iraq’s second city has slowly slipped out of the public eye even as citizens continue to suffer untold misery.

Though the city has been touted as being “liberated”, Iraqis continue to steadily depart Mosul despite Baghdad’s claims that the million or so residents displaced during the fighting to recapture the city can now return home.

The reasons behind the city’s abandonment are many - a lack of services, homes destroyed and uninhabitable, ongoing insecurity and continuing violence – largely perpetrated by the government and allied militant groups.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces, known as the Hashd al-Sha’abi in Arabic, is a parallel militia to the Iraqi army composed of predominantly pro-Iran Shia militants who answer to the prime minister on paper, but Tehran’s General Qassem Soleimani in practice. Competing factions within the PMF, as well as those Shia militants who have infiltrated entire units of the security forces, have been engaging in a campaign of abductions, torture and murder in Mosul.

The threat of violence against Mosul’s residents is so great that many have decided to abandon the city altogether, raising further concerns that one of Iraq’s greatest cities will be left to rot by the Iraqi authorities. As many the indigenous inhabitants of the city face a “sectarian cleansing” campaign, and with a cash-strapped Baghdad unlikely to fund the billions of dollars needed to rebuild the shattered city, Mosul is at risk of becoming a gangland dominated by Shia militants.

Since before the battle to recapture Mosul began, the Iraqi government was at pains to point out that sectarian Shia Islamist militias would not be allowed to partake in the fighting within the city limits itself. This promise by Prime Minister Abadi appears to have had limited – if any – impact on the ground, as the banners of the PMF could be seen throughout the operation and are now flying over key buildings and entry and exit points to the city.

A member of Iraq's Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS) walks in the rubble near the destroyed ancient leaning minaret, known as the 'Hadba', Mosul [AFP]

Fighting IS in Tal Afar

The PMF has continued to bombard the Turkmen-majority city of Tal Afar, 80 kilometres west of Mosul. Though the media often erroneously describes Mosul as IS’ last major urban stronghold, Tal Afar – which has been under siege since late last year – is one of the final holdouts for IS extremists, alongside major settlements such as Hawija, Rawa, Ana and al-Qaim near the Syrian border.

Major-General Najm al-Jabouri said on Tuesday that the fight to recapture Tal Afar would be a simple affair, as he claimed intelligence assessments showed that IS morale was low after losing Mosul. According to the Iraqi commander, IS had approximately 2,000 fighters in the city, and that the majority of civilians had already departed.

However, concerns have been raised that the authorities are merely stating the city is devoid of civilians in order to justify using the level of force and mass destruction seen in the final few months of the battle for Mosul. In Mosul, the US-led coalition oversaw an intensive air campaign that levelled much of the Old City and could have killed as many as 40,000 civilians in conjunction with other operations on the ground.

Further, Jabouri’s remarks may cause diplomatic problems with neighbouring Turkey, by claiming that many of IS’ Turkmen members – who are share bonds of ethnic kinship with Turks – fled to Turkey alongside refugees.

Ankara last year stated that it would not allow Tal Afar to be subjected to any “sectarian massacres”. However, Turkey seems to have done little to prevent the PMF’s involvement in the operation to recapture Tal Afar, where sources have indicated around 50,000 civilians still remain.

Iraqi political courtship and intrigue

Politically, Iraqi parties and politicians have seemed to have moved on from the threat posed by IS, and have already restarted manoeuvring against one another by currying favour with powerful armed groups and militias.

By way of rewarding them for their participation in the recapture of Mosul, Prime Minister Abadi has announced that the Iraqi government would be parcelling out gifts of land to the families of “martyrs” who fell fighting IS, and also to those maimed during the fighting. Abadi described the land grants as an “expression of loyalty”, and said that soldiers and their families would be entitled to receive 200 square metres of land “in good residential areas”.

Some of those who fell to IS militants were also members of militant groups themselves, financed, trained and equipped by regional Shia power Iran, to whom they owe their loyalty. While the families of IS fighters are exiled into “re-education” camps, the families of Shia Islamist extremists are to receive land grants, raising concerns that some types of extremism are acceptable to the Iraqi state.

Abadi’s move may be seen in light of shoring up support before local elections this year, before more important general elections scheduled for 2018 determine if he is to remain in his job. As the economy continues to founder, with lucrative oil and defence contracts going to hegemon Iran, Iraqi politicians prefer to securitise politics and gain voters by pointing to military success and rewarding powerful armed groups who also command electoral blocs.

This same pre-election jockeying for influence and power has led Iraqi Shia leader and cleric Ammar al-Hakim to step down from the leadership of the Supreme Islamic Council in Iraq, one of the most influential Shia Islamist parties in post-2003 Iraq.

Hakim, a long-time protégé of the mullahs in Iran, has created a new party called the Wisdom Movement, and is now seeking to distance himself from the increasing militarisation of Iraqi society – a militarisation to which he and his father before him contributed significantly.

The move by Hakim comes as SICI stalwarts, such as Bayan Jabr Solagh, complain to Tehran over Hakim’s policy of sidelining senior party leaders who commanded considerable influence under Abdulaziz al-Hakim, Ammar al-Hakim’s father, who died in 2009.

Hakim has been accused of opportunism by trying to split ranks with more overtly sectarian party chiefs such as Solagh – infamous for turning the interior ministry into an apparatus for death squads in 2005-2006 – in order to paint himself as a moderate, despite having overseen the activities of militants himself over the past eight years.

Sadr was in Saudi Arabia this week [AFP]

Saudi Arabia attempts to poach Shia leaders

It is not only Iran who is actively interfering in Iraq. Regional Sunni power Saudi Arabia has recently been making forays into Iraqi politics, not by courting Sunnis who may be able to counterbalance Iranian influence, but by poaching Shia militant leaders who have historically enjoyed extensive Iranian support.

Hot on the heels of a visit to Riyadh by Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji –also a senior member of the Iranian proxy Badr Organisation – two weeks ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman invited firebrand Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for an official state visit. Sadr, who leads the Sadrist Movement, arrived on Sunday, and held talks with the ascendant bin Salman - despite not having any formal role in Baghdad’s government.

Sadr’s visit was hailed on Monday by the PMF Shia militants. In an official statement, the PMF said that Iraq still maintained its links with the Arab world, and so it was fitting that Sadr meet with regional Arab leaders. Members of the PMF, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, had previously threatened to march on Riyadh alongside the Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Bin Salman has long threatened to take the regional fight to Iran, and so his attempts to court powerful Shia groups and leaders who are fiercely loyal to Tehran has led to some to question his judgment. This is especially so as Riyadh only recently accused Qatar of funding extremist Shia groups and Iranian operations in Iraq.

It now appears that Saudi Arabia is practicing what it has accused other regional capitals of doing, and is building ties to Shia groups and Iranian proxies who are unlikely to follow Riyadh’s lead, but are certain to profit from Saudi favours in exchange for promises that may or may not be kept.


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

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