Iraqis argue over war strategy

by Dr. Hauke ​​Feickert, lecturer at the Centrum für Nah- und Mittelost-Studien (CNMS) at Philipps University Marburg (originally published in German).

Before a military offensive is launched against the Caliphate metropolis, Mosul, Iraqi forces must capture several IS strongholds on the Euphrates. However, the security force is divided: Both the army leaders under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Shiite militia leaders want to be seen as the real conquerors of the jihadists. Is costly attack imminent?

Shiite fighters launch a rocket towards Islamic State militants on the outskirt of Bayji.

Shiite fighters launch a rocket towards Islamic State militants on the outskirt of Bayji.

If it were up to Haider al-Abadi, the following scene would soon be repeated. On 8th April, the Iraqi Prime Minister and head of the armed forces moved into the city of Tikrit. In the days previous, it had freed his soldiers from the hands of the Islamic State (IS). In a speech, al-Abadi explained what the success meant: First, the Iraqi army would be revitalised as the guardian of the state and be able to fight again after last year’s defeat. Second, residents of a Sunni city such as Tikrit could also count on the protection of ethnic-neutral forces in the event of a Schia/Sunni civil war. It would then be a matter of freeing other Sunni cities from the IS’s reign of terror and restoring the country’s unity. After his speech, in a grand gesture of reconciliation, the Premier handed over his personal weapons to Sunni recruits wishing to join the fight against IS.

However, despite the optimism propagated by Haider al-Abadi, the Premier came under harsh criticism. In particular, the radical wing of al-Abadi’s own, Shiite religious camp was disrupted by the warfare, which relied on US air support and Sunni auxiliaries. Prominent militia leaders such as Hadi al-Ameri of the “Badr Organization” and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis of the “Kata’ib Hezbollah“, who had media support from deputies and the ex-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, complained that al-Abadi did not lead their fighters to Tikrit, although they had laid the foundations for capturing the city under the leadership of Iranian general, Qasim Suleimani. The Shiite paramilitaries, who had last year jointly blocked the IS storm towards Baghdad as the national People’s Militia, “Hashd“, saw themselves deprived of their victory.

Haider al-Abadi, however, continues to show no interest in considering the Shiite militia. This is because the new commander in chief would like to use the reclaiming of the Sunni north and west Iraq to reconcile the population, which had been divided even before war broke out. However, this can only succeed if the Sunni parts of the country do not have to submit to Shiite militias, who are reputed to have committed war crimes. Instead of the well-equipped and motivated Hashd forces, the army should displace the IS terrorists, ideally with the support of Sunni tribes. Al-Abadi is thus currently setting his hopes on the military to establish ethnically neutral state power in Iraq, whereby the Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds will be treated equally.

Shia militia leader Hadi al-Amiri visits Ouja, on the southern outskirts of Tikrit (Photo: Thaier al-Sudani).

Shia militia leader Hadi al-Amiri visits Ouja, on the southern outskirts of Tikrit (Photo: Thaier al-Sudani).

However, many Sunni Iraqis feel that the Shiite ruling parties have fuelled inequality and repression for so long that little faith is placed in the “neutral” prime minister. Haider al-Abadi must first appeal to them – this means: First, resolving the Political Commission, which for many years has imposed a de facto occupational ban on ex-members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party; second, ending the strict anti-terror legislation, which allows the security forces to place all Sunnis under general suspicion and ignore their civil rights; third, financing and embedding the Sunni “Sawah” tribes; fourth, bringing about the participation of Sunni politicians in power and thus opening centrally managed economic and financial sources.

The new government is still a long way from achieving this. In parliament, rejectionists from Shiite and Kurdish representatives of all parties have so far rejected the attempt to revise the anti-terror laws. The work of the De-Ba’athification Commission will continue to be approved by parliament. Al-Abadi could set things into motion in order to support the Sunni soldiers. In April, he announced that he would open the “Hashd” for Sunni recruits – however, this objective will not be fully implemented. Although the People’s Militia has officially been under the military and fiscal control of al-Abadi since April’s cabinet decision, the militia leaders do not respect his authority. Considering the Iranian money and weapons that have been accrued over many years by the paramilitaries, it is highly doubtful that al-Abadi will win this dispute about the state monopoly on power.

Aside from this, the consignment of war funds to the existing Sunni “Sawah” is proving to be exceedingly difficult. Despite repeated denouncements, Haider al-Abadi’s assistance to the last loyal Sunnis in Baghdad’s bureaucratic guerilla war remains delayed. In the last month, some sheikhs in both Iran and Jordan have requested an alternative direct arms supply for their fight against the IS. Despite al-Abadi’s good will, nothing is happening in the capital. At the beginning of May, prominent Sunni politicians Athel al-Nudschaifi and Rafi al-Issawi spoke in favour of forming an autonomous Sunni region along the lines of Kurdistan. All Sunni recruits should come under the control of this new region according to their will.

Iraqi army soldiers fire a mortar during clashes with Islamic State militants in the Karma district of Anbar province in March 2015.

Iraqi army soldiers fire a mortar during clashes with Islamic State militants in the Karma district of Anbar province in March 2015.

In the conflict over the future military and political stance, Iraq’s prime minister has little hope of success; only one month after the success in Tikrit, the tide has once again turned in favour of the IS. After over a year of fierce battles in the suburbs of Ramadi, the jihadists were able to take the capital of Anbar province on 15 May. Critics of al-Abadi accused the premier of supporting the success in Tikrit (with territorial loss) and allowing the IS into Ramadi. The defeat of the Iraqi army also reconfirmed the indispensability of the militia as a powerful defender of the new Iraq.

The increased reputation of the Shiite militia after the fall of Ramadi reveals that some Sunni tribal soldiers are vehemently fighting for the use of “Hashd” in their territory — a gesture of despair that lays the ground for a campaign that can easily be defamed as a Shiite campaign against Anbar. Moreover, advocates of the militia overlook the fact that for months the “powerful” soldiers of “Badr”, “Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq“, or “Kata’ib Hezbollah” have been unable to eject the IS from the contested refinery Baiji in the province of Salah ad-Din or keep the rising IS attacks in their stronghold of Diyala under control. Nevertheless, People’s Militia alliances have been poised to attack in Anbar since June.

An Iraqi helicopter flies over military vehicles in Husaybah, in Anbar province July 22, 2015.

An Iraqi helicopter flies over military vehicles in Husaybah, in Anbar province July 22, 2015.

On 13 July, the military command in Baghdad officially announced that a major offensive to retake Anbar had begun. The ultimate goal is the liberation of the provincial capital, Ramadi. The offensive is supported by units of the Iraqi army, who are supported by air strikes from the US-led international coalition. The fact that the People’s Militia also launched their own attacks in Anbar — not directed against Ramadi but instead against Fallujah, 60 km to the east — was not mentioned in the announcement. The extent to which different organisations will cooperate with each other in the offensive (i.e. whether the army or “Hashd” can define the ultimate campaign goal) is unclear. Given the strong fortifications that the IS has built to protect its two strongholds on the Euphrates, a division of forces could have fatal consequences.

However, for Prime Minister al-Abadi, more than the outcome of the most recent offensive against IS is at stake; the massive push of the Shiite paramilitaries onto Sunni territory also threatens his political agenda, which would amount to the rehabilitation and reintegration of Sunnis as equal citizens — not a Shiite “repression”. However, the superiority of Shia hard-liners in parliament and the apparent superiority of the “Hashd” against the army are making this goal increasingly intangible.

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This entry was posted in English, Hauke Feickert, Iraq.

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