The Antichrist’s Men (Revelation 13:18)

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/uK4Qex6rApw/maxresdefault.jpgIraq’s armed forces urgently need reform

The unsettling detail of the Iraqi army’s final conquest of Mosul from terrorist forces was the sectarian flags and icons that decorated military vehicles. The recapture seemed a pyrrhic victory that was caught up in the religious, ethnic and political divisions that plague Iraq.

With a supposed active force of some 270,000 military personnel, the army could only field 48,000 as Daesh overran swathes of Iraq in 2014. The country’s military institutions, babied by the US since the 2003 invasion, have suffered from corruption, administrative dysfunction and sectarianism that have affected their potency as a fighting force.

An understanding of the modern history of Iraq’s armed forces is essential to explaining its failure today. Set up by the British after the 1920 revolt, since its inception Iraq’s army has been a force geared toward internal security. Its first major action was putting down a Kurdish insurrection in Sulaimaniyah in 1924, and its subsequent involvement in the coups of 1936, 1941, 1958, 1963 and 1968 ensured it remained prey to factionalism and politicization.

Its only wartime battle engagements in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the Iran-Iraq war and the invasion of Kuwait were all military failures. Since then, sanctions and the consequences of the US-led invasion have stripped it of its ability to institutionalize, leaving it a hive of corruption and infighting.

Daesh’s dramatic initial success was in great part due to the unpreparedness and inefficiencies of Iraq’s army. In the context of the group’s initial conquest of Mosul, 800 fighters dislodged 30,000 Iraqi troops who scarpered from their 40-1 advantage over the enemy. Troops ill-trained to fight and unwilling to die for the authorities led to a state of affairs where the terrorists controlled up to 40 percent of the country.

The post-invasion Iraqi authorities have failed to build a state that all citizens are willing to subscribe to, reflected in the ineffectiveness of its fighting men and the ease with which civilians were absorbed by Daesh. The lack of inclusiveness in the Iraqi state is perfectly reflected in the security forces. Under the divisive tenure of former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, nepotism and rampant corruption came to characterize the military.

Hollowed out by the resignation of senior and experienced officers following de-Baathification, the force shrunk and became heavily reliant on sectarian militias. Between 70,000 and 120,000 militiamen have played a central role in the army’s push from the Shiite-dominated south to the Daesh-controlled north and west.

The sectarian nature of these militias has raised serious questions about their role in Iraq going forward. Hard-line cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, whose Mahdi Army has now been renamed the Peace Companies, has publically called for the role of such militias to be curtailed in post-Daesh Iraq.

The authorities must combat racism, discrimination and sectarianism to strengthen the unity of their fighting force, and to encourage all elements of society to take part in the defense of the nation. The army must be molded into a national institution that seeks to defend all Iraqis.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The sectarian nature of these militias alongside certain elements of the army has exacerbated an already very delicate state-building process that Iraq desperately needs. The military’s adoption of apocalyptic sectarian discourse alongside religious acts and iconography defies international conventions that oblige states to work to prevent racist practices and actions that cause intolerance and human rights violations.

The disproportionate violence of some Iraqi army units in areas retaken from Daesh are of great concern. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law; this includes most of the aforementioned violations.

In this context, the Iraqi authorities must combat racism, discrimination and sectarianism to strengthen the unity of their fighting force, and to encourage all elements of society to take part in the defense of the nation.

Arguably the most compelling case against the issues with which the army has been associated is that of “ghost soldiers,” when in 2014 50,000 fictitious members of the armed forces were identified. It transpired that over 120 billion Iraqi dinars ($104 million) had been diverted to the pockets of corrupt commanders as a result of the affair.

More worryingly, the scandal contributed to the significant lack of boots on the ground, deeply impacting the performance of Iraqi troops in Mosul, Salahuddin and Anbar — in some cases, the fighting capability of battalions was no more than 20 percent, according to senior commanders.

Such instances have highlighted to both the authorities and international audiences that Iraq’s forces are as yet unable to defend the country. Symptomatic of this problem, as the Pentagon signs off on the further supply of resources to Iraqi forces, the New York Times reported that “some of the weaponry recently supplied by the army has already ended up on the black market and in the hands of Islamic State (Daesh) fighters.”

Following a long battle against the terror groups operating in Iraq, Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has promised a crackdown on corruption. Going forward, the army must be molded into a national institution that seeks to defend all Iraqis.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Iraq and the Antichrist

While the U.S. led coalition is advancing against ISIS in Iraq, unsolved problems and differences in fragmented Iraqi society are gradually making their way back into the conversation about the country’s future. Lack of understanding for these nuances among the Western decision-makers in the midst of invasion frenzy in the early 2000s paved the way to insurgency, chaos and protracted conflict in the region. While the invasion and its disorganized aftermath are an important factor in current crisis, they are hardly the exclusive reason for it. This guide is an attempt to shed some light on internal dynamics of Iraqi society both in pre-Saddam and post-Saddam era.

Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Ba’athist Rule

Despite sharing the same name, Ba’athist regimes in Syria and Iraq carry a lot of differences, with the Iraqi regime embeded in much stronger ethnic, tribal, religious and social networks, described as “a peculiar combination of authoritarianism, tribalism and rentierism. The connections within these networks often remained hidden, making it problematic to analyze Ba’ath-era Iraqi society. The focus often remains solely on Saddam Hussein and his close group of associates, which is the ultimate mistake in the approach to post-war Iraq.

Iraq’s Ba’athist leaders mostly originated from lower-middle provincial classes, bringing into the party the value and importance of kinship, using it to strengthen both the Ba’ath party and their personal standing. In Hussein’s security and intelligence network, kinship played a vital role, which is how he gradually asserted his dominance over “the most powerful clan within the most powerful tribe. The members of the political elite were subsequently recruited from Hussein’s family, clan and allied tribes his lineage Albu Ghafur belonged to Baijat clan, part of the Albu Nasir six-clan tribal confederation. Among the political elite were also the Ba’ath party senior circles, approximately 10 percent of overall party membership. These people were placed in the Regional Command division, section and branch officials. The Ba’ath party had around 800,000 members, and while some were hardcore loyalists, many members were just people seeking personal advancement, while some, such as Kurdish nationalists and Islamists, sought membership in order to stay safe under the regime’s reppressive security apparatus, which quashed any source of opposition.

Saddam Hussein waves to supporters in Baghdad, Iraq, October 18, 1995, one day after being sworn in as president for another seven years. (Photo: AP/INA)

Despite the socialist components of Ba’athist ideology, the Iraqi economy was delivered a serious blow during the war with Iran in the 1980s, enabling development of private sector and foreign Arab investment in the country. That hardly brought any fair game to the market — owning a private business also required ties with the ruling elite, facilitating corruption and crime through awarding loyal partners with licenses and contracts. State employees, on the other hand, suffered with stagnant income under the weight of international sanctions. The same could have been said about the unemployed and semi-employed population, both in provincial and urban areas.

At the dawn of the 21st Century, 48 percent of the Iraqi population was under 18. These people, alongside the population younger than 35, grew up in a perpetual state of war, violence and crisis. Most of them had basic military training and little political or ideological vision, making Iraq the ideal recruiting ground for Islamists and jihadists in the years following the insurgency. However, the recruitment commenced long before Hussein was ousted. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs follow the moderate Hanafite teachings, and Sunni Kurds follow the rationalist Shafi’ite approach, both schools of thought having a strong anti-Wahhabi attitude. Also, Iraqi Shi’ite scholars differ from their Iranian counterparts, who adhere to the supreme authority of clerics. Iraqi scholars viewed clerics’ role as advisory. In order to counter the influence of Iranian hardliners after the Shi’ite uprising in 1991, the Ba’ath government encouraged growing religious and sectarian sentiments among the population, even tolerating Wahhabi preachers. In this atmosphere, with any kind of vibrant political and ideological narrative repressed and silenced, grew an entire generation who knew a lot about religion, but nothing about politics. They were highly susceptible to Islamist ideologues. Their sense of nationhood eventually failed the test, with tensions between Arabs and Kurds, and Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims, escalating after Hussein’s regime crumbled.

An iconic photo: a statue of Saddam Hussein as it is pulled down in Baghdad’s al-Fardous square on April 9, 2003. (Photo: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The invasion and prolonged occupation of Iraq remain controversial topics to this day, both in the U.S. and internationally. Hussein and the United States already had their stand-off during the Gulf War in the 1990s. Several years later, intelligence reports surfaced suggesting that Iraq had developed weapons of mass destruction, therefore posing a threat to American allies in the Middle East. These reports were tirelessly peddled by the U.S. and U.K. political establishments, who were eager to wrap up what they had started with Hussein. Fifteen years later, no proof of such weapons in Iraq has ever been found. Other supporters of intervention pointed out the need to topple Hussein’s brutal regime. According to Human Rights Watch, 25 years of Ba’ath party rule accounted for the murder or disappearance of 250,000 Iraqis, among those 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds in 1988, and 25,000 to 100,000 people during the Shi’ite uprisings in 1991. Some observers pointed out that death toll didn’t tell the whole story of the systematic use of torture, conducted both by secret police and Hussein’s close circle of confidantes and advisors. Given the scarcely limited access of observers and journalists in Iraq, estimates of deaths and human rights violations vary greatly.

By the time invasion was imminent, it was not entirely clear how the Iraqi people felt about it. According to International Crisis Group, which conducted interviews pointing out that the scope of their research was rather confined, Iraqi people seemed “eager to alter the status quo” and felt that the intervention was tolerable for a limited amount of time if it was going to bring an immediate change. In that sense, the invasion was a success. U.S.-led troops swiped the country in a matter of days and easily toppled the Ba’ath regime and Hussein. That proved to be the only success of the army and decision makers who didn’t really know what kind of society they were dealing with, much less what kind of future they envisioned for that society.

Post-Hussein Iraq and Sectarian War

After the Ba’athist government fell in 2003, the Coalition Provisional Authority was established to pick up the pieces of the immediate fallout. It failed — it couldn’t guarantee security or reinstate and provide basic services to the Iraqi people. With Ba’ath party members swiftly removed from all managing positions, the bureaucratic system and industry were falling apart. There was no chance of organizing elections immediately, so while the opposition was rallying, Ba’athist loyalists were recuperating, and the insurgents were organizing. The opposition to occupation came in the form of Ba’athist loyalists, nationalists, Islamists (mainly Sunni), tribal members who sought revenge for the deaths of family members or dishonoring them, criminals and a growing number of foreign fighters from other Arab countries. The Interim Governing Council was an attempt at legitimacy, formed by the CPA and consisting of 25 members placed in consultations with pre-chosen political parties, inadvertently created by confessional and ethnic lines. Thus, the CPA set a precedent for organizing Iraqi politics along these lines for the first time in modern history of Iraq.

Iraqis fleeing Baghdad in 2003 after the city descended into chaos (Photo: CNN)

One of the immediate hopeful sides in post-Hussein Iraq was the Shi’ite majority, which had the first chance, after many decades, to be represented in the government in accordance with its demographic presence in the country. Despite the ideological and religious differences among the Shi’ite population in Iraq, the persecution throughout the 1980s and 1990s led them to a certain sort of sectarian unity. This, in addition to having a lack of a clear political vision and being in touch with constituents among many figures in opposition, led to a strengthening of Shi’ite Islamists, who carefully stepped in where the state disappointed, delivering welfare services and protection to civilians. The three groups with the greatest influence became the traditional establishment in Na

jaf, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) based in Tehran and supported by Iran, and the Iraqi-based radical movement led by Moqtada al-Sadr, with a well-developed welfare and da’wa network.

The elections and ratification of the constitution in 2005 further solidified all kinds of self-fulfilling prophecies about ethnic and sectarian divide. Clerics turned into politicians, with their respective mosques taking care of their political PR and advertisement. Each ethnic and religious group played into radical insurgents’ hands, with attacks and retaliatory attacks that drag on to this day. The elections saw a Shi’ite-Kurdish alliance emerging as the dominant political force, which confirmed that they felt that post-Hussein Iraq was payback time for multi-decade grievances, marginalizing the Sunni Arab community by the letter of the constitution and indiscriminately retaliating against them after attacks against Shi’ite civilians or the newly established security apparatus. Federal security forces have disproportionately been deployed in Baghdad’s Sunni neighborhoods and Sunni-populated governorates (Anbar, Salah al-Din, Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala).

In this atmosphere, insurgents centered in Sunni Arab areas were able to overcome differences among various groups, appealing to the disenfranchised population with basic Salafi ideological points and patriotism, focusing on the fight against the proven oppressors U.S. and Iraqi government forces. They were well-organized, unwilling to negotiate and understood the value of publicity, capable of offering short-term answers people desperately needed and lacking any long-term vision. For most of the young population who had no means of entering the system in post-Hussein Iraq, joining insurgent groups and militias was the only way out of poverty, unemployment and a lack of sense of direction. While Islamist radicals such as Al-Qaeda snatched Sunnis in Anbar province and the suburbs of Baghdad, Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr led his own Mahdi Army, which took over the capital. As time went on, they grew more violent and competitive for resources.

Kurdish refugee in camp in Kirkuk in 2003. (Photo: CNN)

Yet the violence did not end there tensions started escalating in Kirkuk between the Kurdish majority and Arabs, with Kurds essentially seizing civilian and military control in the region, and also crossing the Green line separating Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq in other governorates. This was bitterly opposed by Arabs and Turkmen, and eventually the Iraqi government itself. While Kurds felt that re-establishing their rule in Kirkuk and other regions was fixing the injustice, massive oil reserves also made it a question of resources, valued by Kurds who were seeking to strengthen their claim to local autonomy and eventual statehood. A similar situation happened in Nineveh governorate, with Mosul as its capital. The region was also seized in ensuing post-invasion chaos by Kurds, but the Sunni Arab insurgency was particularly strong thanks to an open border with Syria, enabling them to import fighters and weapons, and establish their civil and military presence in various pockets across Nineveh. By 2009, this stalemate set the scene for ISIS spillover into Syria and the subsequent capturing of large swaths of Iraqi territory several years later.

U.S. military surge and leaving Iraq

The U.S. military surge from 2007 to 2009 reduced violence to a certain extent, but containment could not offer the solutions Iraq really needed: political compromise. It also facilitated a vicious circle of Iraqi youth entangled in conflict, by paying Sunni tribal chiefs to rally young people to fight against Al-Qaeda in their respective villages and areas, while the Iraqi government did the same in Southern Iraq to counter the power and influence of the Mahdi army.

In the following year, U.S. forces started pulling out, and by 2011, Iraq was on its own, and the U.S. hoped that the lack of that hammock would help the Iraqis handle the political crisis. Re-elected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki proved not to be up to the task.

In 2011, it was clear that Iraq was repeating its history, with slight modifications. Corruption was deeply entrenched in all institutions, from security and political establishment, to bureaucratic and service providing sector, relying on political, sectarian, and ethnic identities and allegiances. The government continuously interfered with the judiciary, while institutions in charge of checks and balances were either never formed or faced pressure and violence. Key elements of the power-sharing agreement reached in 2010 were never carried out. After Vice President, Tareq al-Hashimi was arrested (many believe for publicly criticizing al-Maliki), his opponents among Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites grew dissatisfied. The standoff with the Kurdish government continued well into 2012.

Sunni protests in 2012 and 2013 rallied hundreds of thousands of people in Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, Mosul and Samarra (Photo source: Asia News)

As Al-Iraqiya, a secular cross-confessional movement, fell apart due to internal rivalries and a lack of an assertive stance in fighting al-Maliki’s growing authoritarianism, numerous Sunni Arabs who identified with their ideology started peaceful protests. On top of the stand-off between al-Hashimi and al-Maliki, the triggering event was the arrest of the bodyguards of a prominent Iraqiya member. The government responded with bureaucratic procedures, refused to negotiate directly and ultimately deployed security forces in Sunni neighborhoods.

In this stand-off, coupled with the Syrian civil war escalation spilling over to Iraq, radical voices gained prominence, giving the government an excuse to storm a camp in Hawija, killing more than 50 people and injuring 110 more. At the same time, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, alarmed by developments in Syria, recruited young people and ex-insurgents into militias, which were deployed to Syria. Retaliatory sectarian violence soon spiraled out of control, with 2012 ending with more than 4,600 civilian deaths, mainly in terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In 2013, the death toll doubled, with more than 9,800 victims, according to ICB. Al-Maliki was ultimately unseated and replaced by Haider al-Abadi after newly elected president Fuad Masum nominated him for that position.

Islamic State

In 2014, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant conquered parts of Northwestern Iraq in only a few days, conveniently aiming at Sunni regions and the cities of Fallujah and Mosul, where they found little organized resistance among people angry at Sunni elites and Iraqi government, closely identified with Shi’ites. Sensing the threat from the ultra-radical unified group with significant territorial presence, Shi’ite groups called their population to join various militias on the grounds of protecting Shi’ites from ISIS. Iraq’s highest religious Shi’ite authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a fatwa, which obliged Shi‘ites to join the defense what was to become Al Hashd al Sha’abi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella organization composed of some 40 militias which currently fight ISIS.

ISIS fighters in Iraq

Over the course of 2014, ISIS also captured larger parts of Anbar province, Al Qaim, Ramadi, Abu Ghraib, Tal Afar, Tikrit, Nineveh province and parts of Kirkuk and Diyala provinces. More than 1,700 Iraqi soldiers who surrendered were brutally executed, with videos and photos finding their way to social networks. ISIL declared creation of a calpihate in June 2014, with Abu Bakr Al-Bagdadi appointed as caliph. After capturing Sinjar, ISIS besieged, killed or enslaved thousands of Yazidis, prompting U.S. president Barack Obama to authorize U.S.-led aistrikes on ISIS positions. On the ground, ISIS was countered by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who managed to break the siege of Sinjar by the end of the year. They were joined by Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, making new advances.

In 2015, Iraqi forces made significant gains, recapturing Diyala from the Islamic State. Pro-Iranian Shi’ite forces took back Tikrit. The country saw a wave of deadly terrorist attacks, which claimed more than 200 lives. Peshmerga forces recaptured large parts of the area surrounding Mosul, as well as all of Sinjar. By the end of the year, Ramadi was liberated.

The battle for the last ISIS urban stronghold in Iraq Mosul began in October 2016, and it was proclaimed liberated by Iraqi forces in June 2016, although jihadists are still present in some pockets of the city. Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria, is encircled. Currently, the broad coalition consists of the Iraqi armed forces, Kurdish peshmerga and various Turkmen Muslim, Assyrian Christian, Yezidi, Shabaki and Armenian Christian forces.

(Source: International Crisis Group)

Antichrist Cancels Baghdad Conference

A conference in Baghdad aimed at stabilising Sunni areas of Iraq liberated from ISIL has been postponed because the government wants to celebrate the victory in Mosul.

Named the “Sunni” Conference, the meeting aimed to bring together Iraq’s leading Sunni figures as well as some prominent political figures from the Shiite community.

Abdel Al Malik Husseini, spokesman for the speaker of the Iraqi parliament, confirmed that the conference was originally scheduled to take place on Saturday 15th July.

“However victory celebrations for Mosul are scheduled to take place in Baghdad on Saturday, so we had no other choice but to postpone the conference” he said. “We cannot give a clear date on when the conference will be rescheduled. It’s extremely difficult to say as there are many factors to consider from  re-inviting everyone to ensuring that all sides are availbable on the specified time and day.”

Over 1,000 individuals were invited from a number of ministries to leading political and tribal figures.The conference is one of a series of many, aimed at paving the way for an inclusive alliance to unite Sunni political heads in the post- ISIL period while also strengthening national unity and reconciliation.

The main purpose of the conference was to “discuss future visions for liberated areas within the country” said Saleeem Al Jubouri, the speaker of the Iraqi parliament..

Political heads who had confirmed their attendance this time  included the leader of the Islamic Supreme council Ammar al Hakim and the Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, who heads the Sadrist Movement..

Dr Renad Mansour, academy fellow at the  London based think-tank Chatham House stressed that the conference’s main “priority should be to establish an agreement to oversee the post war phase”.

Meanwhile, Charles Tripp, professor of politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, advised that Iraq’s Sunni block would have to “ formulate a common position to put pressure on the Iraqi government to address the question of the thousands of Sunni Arabs who have been interned but not charged, to ensure that the Hashd Al Shaabi militias in particular are kept under control and don’t indulge in acts of revenge in northern Iraq.”

The Hashd Al Shaabi  are a predominantly Shia group of militias, sponsored and funded by the Iraqi state.

“Given the demands the Sunni politicians of Iraq have made over the past year, the will be trying to formulate a common position to put pressure on the Iraqi government, to  have concrete plans in place for the reconstruction of Mosul and other devastated northern towns, to ensure the safety and eventual return of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people and to pursue a much more inclusive policy towards the north and west of Iraq than that pursued by the previous government of Nouri Al Maliki, ” Professor Tripp added.

The Antichrist Unites Iraq

It is widely accepted that Daesh’s defeat in Mosul, declared this weekend, ends a battle but not a war, and that the group’s thousands of extremist supporters could turn in revenge to targeted suicide bombings in the west as well as in cities in Iraq and Syria. What has been less often predicted is the risk of mass violence from a different quarter. Iraqis themselves may slip back into fraternal conflict now that their temporary need to unite against Daesh is almost over.

Three years of war against the extremists created a national sense of urgency which overcame regional, ethnic and sectarian disputes. But with Daesh now on the back foot, and deprived of most of the territory it once held throughout western Iraq, old tensions could resume.

One of these deep-seated Iraqi problems has clearly worsened since Daesh emerged to capture Mosul in 2014. In the early months of the struggle to prevent the group from moving on to seize Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish regional government, Kurdish resistance forces occupied vast areas of the Nineveh plain east of Mosul which had long been disputed between Arabs and Kurds. The same happened in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.Under Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, the fate of these areas was supposed to be decided in a referendum which has been repeatedly postponed. New facts have now been created on the ground. Whereas up to 2014 it was Baghdad that controlled the disputed areas and had an incentive to delay any change, the Kurds are now the occupiers and in the dominant position.

The issue will only exacerbate already existing divisions over how Iraq is to share its oil revenues and the federal budget between the Kurdish region and the rest. Added to that will be the independence referendum the Kurds are holding in September.

The second major issue is the risk of violence between Sunnis and Shiites. In 2014 Daesh was able to seize Mosul relatively easily because the city’s largely Sunni population felt neglected by Baghdad. Some even felt that the new post-Saddam Iraqi army, largely made up of Shiites, was behaving like an occupying power.

The challenge now is to ensure that a new local government is chosen for Mosul which takes Sunnis’ interests into full account and ends their sense of alienation. Baghdad must also quickly find the resources to rebuild the shattered city and help its traumatised civilians. Thousands were killed in the struggle to retake it, in which the US-led coalition — like the Russian and Syrian air forces in Aleppo — enjoyed total air supremacy and used massive bombs to eliminate snipers.

Repairing the damage will be a huge task. The government’s record in other liberated cities is at best patchy. Fallujah and Ramadi were both freed from Daesh rule more than a year ago, yet visiting these cities this spring I could see huge swaths of ruined districts with little sign of reconstruction. The mayor of Fallujah was still living in Arbil, where he had taken refuge from Daesh. He made only occasional forays into the city he was meant to be running.

The good news is that most of Iraq’s leaders recognise the challenges. The prime minister, Haider Al Abadi, has shown himself to be more sensitive and inclusive than his predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki. Statesmanlike noises have also been coming from at least one of Iraq’s other Shiite power brokers. Earlier this year Moqtada Al Sadr told me in his Najaf home: “I’m afraid the defeat of Daesh is only the start of a new phase. I am very proud of Iraq’s diversity but my fear is that we may see a genocide of some ethnic or sectarian groups.”

To counter the danger, he has been proposing a series of visits by Shiitr community leaders to Sunni areas and vice versa to start a dialogue on reconstruction. More cogently, he has publicly warned members of the militia force that he mobilised when Daesh emerged that any abuse of Sunni civilians will be ruthlessly punished. He also promised to disband the force once the war ended.

The test of his sincerity comes now. Other militia leaders have been more vague about the future of the private armies, the so-called popular mobilisation units, which they sent into battle against Daesh. They too will have to come clean — either by disbanding their militias altogether or sending individual members to enlist in the regular army.

Restoring intercommunal trust is no easy task. It is barely a decade since Baghdad was torn apart by Al Qaida-inspired sectarian murders. The scars have yet to heal. Since then the arrival of hundreds of Iranian military advisers in the fight against Daesh has launched a wave of anti-Iran hysteria among Iraqi Sunnis.

Many Sunnis have a feeling of victimhood now that there is a shift in the political charge. But some Sunni leaders are willing to accept a new status for their communities and are working with Al Abadi. They should be encouraged. With Daesh out of the picture, Iraqi Arabs need to go back to the values of not so long ago when Sunni or Shiite identities were politically irrelevant.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Antichrist Calling the Shots in Iraq

He called on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi not to allow any irregular force to tamper with the security of areas liberated from ISIS and to hold the officials who are responsible for Mosul’s fall into ISIS’ control accountable.

Sadr also warned of political attempts to exploit the recent victory against ISIS in the city of Mosul.

Abadi announced on Sunday “victory” over ISIS in Mosul after a gruelling nearly nine-month battle. The Iraqi flag was raised in the city in the presence of armed forces.

Abadi arrived in the liberated city on Sunday and congratulated the heroic fighters and the Iraqi people for the great victory,”

The prime minister also thanked all the countries which stood by Iraq against terrorism.

Making Way For the Antichrist (Revelation 13)

  What Comes After ISIS?

BY FP CONTRIBUTORS

The Islamic State stands on the brink of a twin defeat. Mosul, the largest city under its control, has almost entirely fallen from its grasp, and Kurdish-led forces are advancing into its de facto capital of Raqqa. Now, as the saying goes, comes the hard part. The Islamic State’s territorial setbacks have introduced new questions about the basic future of the Middle East. Foreign Policy has assembled a group of policymakers and regional experts to answer them.

Iraqi forces pose for a picture with an upside down Islamic State flag in Mosul on July 8. (Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

By Elliott Abrams

The defeat of the Islamic State as a “state” will leave two serious questions facing the United States. The first is: Who will fill the spaces from which the jihadi group is driven? There is a clear effort by the new Iran-Hezbollah-Shiite militia-Russia coalition to reply: “We will.”

That is an answer the United States should reject. Such a development would cement an anti-American coalition in place, threaten Jordan and Israel, and leave Iran the dominant power in much of the region. To reject this challenge verbally would be a joke, however; it must be resisted on the ground, through the use of force by a coalition that must be built and led by the United States.

The conflict in Syria has destroyed any possibility of an easy formula for putting that country back together, but in the medium term, one can envision a discussion with Russia of how our interests and theirs can be accommodated while bringing the violence down to a level that allows many refugees to return home. But that discussion will achieve nothing unless American power first gains Russian respect and the Russians come to realize that compromise is necessary.

Even in the best-case scenario, with the Islamic State defeated and losing its control over a “state,” it may continue to exist as a terrorist group — and in any event al Qaeda and other jihadi groups will not disappear. So the second question is: How do we proceed against Sunni jihadis who continue to plot against the United States? It should be clear that Shiite domination of the region will help fuel these Sunni groups and assist in their recruiting at home and in distant Sunni lands. And the perception of American acquiescence or complicity in that domination will help make the United States a larger target.

The defeat of the Islamic State will not end our involvement in Middle East conflicts and may in fact lead it to increase.
All of this leads to an unwelcome conclusion — unwelcome surely in the White House and to many Americans. The defeat of the Islamic State will not end our involvement in Middle East conflicts and may in fact lead it to increase. There will be no repeat of the Iraq wars, with vast American armies on the ground, but there will need to be a long continuation of the sort of commitment we see today: perhaps 5,000 troops in Iraq, 1,000 in Syria, 1,000 to 2,000 in Jordan, and many more in the 6th Fleet and in bases in the region from which we can exert power.

As long as Iran tries to dominate the entire region and Sunni jihadi groups target the United States, the defeat of the Islamic State changes — but does not diminish — America’s stake in Middle East power politics.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His new book, Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy After the Arab Spring, will be published in September.

The War After the War

By Robert Malley

For most of the United States’ allies in the Middle East, the war against the Islamic State never was the primary concern. Even as Western nations decreed this struggle a universal priority, these nations largely humored Washington, echoed its alarm, joined its international coalition — and looked the other way. Almost from the start, their gaze was fixed on the wars after the war against the Islamic State.

For Turkey, what mattered was the fight against Kurds, and for Kurds a self-determination struggle; for Saudi Arabia and Iran, their regional contest took priority; within the Sunni Arab world, competition between the more Islamist (Qatar and Turkey) and the less so (Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) was viewed as existential; among Iraqis, a sectarian and ethnic race for post-conflict spoils had pride of place. The counter-Islamic State campaign always served as an imperfect cover for regional conflicts and contradictions. With the Islamic State increasingly in the rearview mirror, these will be laid bare.

When the dust settles, Washington will confront a Middle East struggling with familiar demons. It will also face its own familiar dilemma: How deeply should it get involved? Allies will plead for it to leap into the fray. They know Washington’s current predilections and will cater to them, dressing up raw power plays in more appealing garb. President Donald Trump’s administration is preoccupied with countering terrorism, combating Iran, and — no less important — doing whatever former President Barack Obama did not. That’s how America’s allies will frame their respective pursuits.

There is evidence already. Saudi Arabia and the UAE presented their war in Yemen as pushback against Tehran and their attempt to bring Qatar to heel as an anti-Iranian and anti-terrorist gambit. Syria’s Kurds, fearful of being jettisoned by Washington once their utility in the anti-Islamic State fight is exhausted, champion themselves as long-term bulwarks against Iranian influence and Turkish-inspired Islamism — while Ankara paints those same Kurds with a broad terrorist brush. Egypt masquerades its indiscriminate intolerance of all Islamists as a holy battle against terrorism.

All assert that the particular brand of U.S. activism they crave contrasts with Obama’s alleged passivity, which they bemoan. They know their target audience. They play to it.

The Trump administration will be tempted to take sides and take the plunge, but it would be a losing bet. The optimal way to secure U.S. interests in a post-Islamic State world is not to join or intensify conflicts over which it has little ultimate say and that would unleash the very chaos and sectarianism from which the terrorist group was born and on which it thrives. It is to de-escalate proxy wars, broker a Saudi-Qatari deal, press for an end to the Yemen war, stick to a measured stance toward political Islam, and lower tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran — indeed, for that matter, between the United States and Iran.

That is not what America’s regional allies want. But if they truly yearn for leadership, better to lead them where the United States believes they should go than where, stubbornly and recklessly, they already are headed.

Robert Malley is the vice president for policy at the International Crisis Group and served in former President Barack Obama’s administration as special assistant to the president, senior adviser to the president for the Counter-ISIL Campaign, and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region.

The Islamic State Will Survive

By Cole Bunzel

How are the Islamic State’s territorial losses going to affect the landscape of transnational Sunni jihadism? Many suggest it could usher in a radical transformation: Perhaps the damage to the Islamic State’s brand will be so severe that al Qaeda reasserts itself as the uncontested leader of the jihadi movement, or perhaps the two groups set aside their differences and seek a rapprochement for the sake of keeping the flame of jihad alive.

These predictions — of an al Qaeda triumph or a jihadi merger — have been made repeatedly over the past year in light of the Islamic State’s seemingly terminal decline. Yet neither of them has begun to pan out — and there are reasons for remaining skeptical of both.

The first of these predictions relies on the assumption that al Qaeda is strong, resilient, and guided by a prudent strategy of winning over populations and subverting local conflicts to its own ends. But how accurate is this picture, really? To be sure, al Qaeda still exerts some control over a network of affiliates from North Africa to India. But it recently lost its strongest and most successful affiliate of all, Syria’s Nusra Front (known now as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), which was seen as the epitome of this hearts-and-minds strategy.

When the Nusra Front cut ties with the mother organization back in July 2016, to many it seemed a ruse. But later it emerged that al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was not consulted and did not approve of what happened. This followed al Qaeda’s loss, only two years earlier, of its former affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, which went on to rebrand itself and declare the caliphate. None of this speaks to a brilliant long-term strategy.

And then there are al Qaeda’s apparently declining terrorist capabilities. Zawahiri continues to insist in his numerous pronouncements that attacking the West remains his top priority. But when was the last time al Qaeda pulled off a major attack in the West or even something on the scale of the attacks in Manchester or on London Bridge? It has been years. The Islamic State remains far more capable in this regard.

The idea of a jihadi reconciliation is even more difficult to fathom than that of an al Qaeda triumph. The level of mutual animosity between the Islamic State and al Qaeda cannot be overstated. These groups and their respective followers revile each other. Al Qaeda loyalists describe Islamic State partisans as “extremists,” “Kharijites,” and “takfiris”; the Islamic State, in turn, has dubbed al Qaeda devotees as “the Jews of jihad” and loyalists of the “Sufi” leader of the heretical Taliban. This split is simply unbridgeable. It may appear to be of recent vintage but is in fact rooted in theological and strategic differences in the jihadi world that go back decades.

Jihadism, in short, will remain divided. The Islamic State, which has been around in one form or another since 2006, will almost certainly survive. So will al Qaeda. Neither will swallow the other, and neither will make amends.

Cole Bunzel is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and the author of “From Paper State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State.”

Syria’s Kurds Gamble on Washington’s Staying Power

By Noah Bonsey

As an American visitor in northern Syria, you get the question all the time: Will the United States eventually abandon its Kurdish friends? The answer may hinge on how President Donald Trump’s administration weighs four competing priorities: minimizing open-ended commitments abroad, repairing its strained alliance with Turkey, protecting against jihadi resurgence, and countering Iranian influence.

The U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State relies on an unlikely partner in Syria: the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a military formation with close ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group at war with NATO ally Turkey. The YPG dominates the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, rules much of northern Syria, and is an indispensable partner against the Islamic State.

For the YPG, the importance of U.S. support extends far beyond the fight against jihadis. The presence of Americans deters major attacks by the powerful Turkish army and protects against pro-regime forces with which the YPG competes for territory. Should the United States withdraw from Syria, these could pose existential threats. The YPG is betting that Washington will ultimately extend its protection via political and military “guarantees,” which would help secure the substantial degree of autonomy established in areas under its control and which it promotes as a model for a future federal arrangement in Syria.

This risky gamble has persuaded the YPG to prove its utility to the United States by fighting in Raqqa and potentially beyond, progressively farther away from its Kurdish popular base. Yet, paradoxically, defeating the Islamic State in Syria would enable the United States to consider reducing its role there, leaving the YPG dangerously exposed. That option may appeal to a Trump administration keen to limit expenditure and avoid further damage to its alliance with Turkey.

Much will depend on whether the United States is prepared to extend its role past the defeat of the Islamic State in an effort to prevent jihadi resurgence. As the Islamic State’s predecessor, al Qaeda in Iraq, demonstrated so dramatically, radicals can rebound quickly if fundamental threats to stability are left unaddressed. Limiting that danger in Syria would require continued U.S. engagement focused on averting escalation between Turkey and the YPG and on promoting sustainable governance in areas the latter liberates from the Islamic State. For its part, the YPG could improve its appeal as a partner in stabilization by implementing necessary changes to its governance model.

Iran is another factor that could spur sustained cooperation. The YPG depends on transportation links controlled by Tehran’s proxies and Damascus and would likely gravitate closer toward that axis (and Russia) if the United States withdraws support. But the YPG also views growing Iranian power in northern Syria as a threat and seeks to limit the Syrian regime’s footprint there. If Washington aims to maintain leverage in Syria vis-à-vis Tehran while avoiding direct confrontation, it may see value in continuing its investment in the YPG.

Noah Bonsey is the senior analyst for Syria at the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organization.

Syria’s Festering Wounds Will Spark a Jihadi Renaissance

By Amr al-Azm

As the Islamic State loses ground, the United States and Iranian-aligned forces in Syria are likely to turn their guns on what they perceive as the gravest threat remaining — each other.

The U.S.-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have steadily driven the jihadi group back in Raqqa, and previous examples indicate that the Kurds will allow the regime and its state institutions to gradually return to the city and begin providing basic services. The SDF would in turn provide the necessary security for the area. This partial handover of the city to the regime, however, is a temporary marriage of convenience.

The next critical phase will be the recapture of the strategically important city of Deir Ezzor, the last remaining major urban center under Islamic State control in Syria. The Syrian regime and its allies have been positioning themselves to move against the city and recapture it from the Islamic State, which would also bring the regime very close to the Iraqi border — an important objective of Iran, its principal ally.

The elimination of the Islamic State from eastern Syria can only be achieved with the recapture of Deir Ezzor. This however is unlikely to sit well with the U.S. administration, which is now seeking to actively minimize Iran’s influence. The United States, however, has few options at its disposal. The elimination of the Islamic State from eastern Syria can only be achieved with the recapture of Deir Ezzor, and the SDF are unlikely to be willing to move against the city while the U.S.-allied Free Syrian Army factions in southern Syria are too weak to launch such a major offensive — leaving the regime and its allies as the only viable option. Furthermore, the Iranians have rightly assumed that the United States will not engage in a full confrontation with the regime’s forces over this matter.

Therefore, in the immediate aftermath of the Islamic State’s defeat in eastern Syria, the emerging winners will be the Syrian regime and its Iranian ally. The ongoing arrangement with the Kurds in cities like Raqqa and Manbij is temporary at best and will eventually break down, causing continued instability and uncertainty in the region.

While it is unlikely that the Islamic State will have any operational capability in Syria in the immediate aftermath of the current campaign, the ongoing challenges of partition and regional dynamics ensure that festering ethnic and sectarian tensions will continue to fuel extremism, eventually allowing the next reincarnated version of the Islamic State to re-emerge in both Syria and Iraq.

Amr al-Azm is a history professor at Ohio’s Shawnee State University and a member of the Syrian opposition.

Iraq’s Power Struggles Are Just Beginning

By Renad Mansour

To many Iraqis, the destruction of Mosul’s iconic al-Hadba minaret this month symbolized the defeat in Iraq of the so-called Islamic State. It was under this minaret, in al-Nuri Mosque, that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had declared his “caliphate” — and now it has been destroyed by the jihadi organization in the face of the Iraqi security forces’ advance. Yet the shape of this defeat, and the likely trajectory of a “post-Islamic State” Iraq, remains unclear.

Although its stint in state-building has ended, the Islamic State will continue to exist. A restructured organization that does not control territory represents new challenges. Militarily, the group is resorting to guerrilla warfare, including attacks against civilians in densely populated areas of Iraq. Unlike in the past, it also has plenty of resources and has shifted to mafia-esque tactics, laundering its massive cash reserves through seemingly legitimate businesses including currency exchanges and pharmaceuticals. Until recently, that also included exchanging Iraqi dinars for U.S. dollars via the Central Bank of Iraq’s currency auctions.

Underlying conflicts among Iraq’s many political forces will also come to the fore as the common cause of defeating the Islamic State recedes. Simmering disputes over land in northern Iraq are set to flare up: The leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan, Shiite Arab and Turkmen paramilitary groups affiliated with the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), local political leaders, Sunni Arab tribal fighters, and regional actors will compete for greater influence in critical hotspots such as Kirkuk, northern Nineveh, and the Iraqi-Syrian border area.

In Baghdad, an intra-Shiite power struggle among Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Shiite populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is also set to burst out into the open. U.S. and Iranian policies are at odds here: Tehran will work to empower its trusted allies, including Maliki and senior PMF leaders such as Hadi al-Ameri, Qais Khazali, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Meanwhile, Washington is focusing on strengthening Abadi’s hand. Importantly, the Abadi-Maliki-Sadr contest is fueled by an increasingly aggrieved population that now believes corruption, not sectarianism, is the root cause of the Islamic State.

For Iraq to navigate these challenges, it must strengthen local and federal state institutions to combat the power of violent nonstate actors and reach a new understanding of local power-sharing. Only then can the state address the root causes for the rise of the Islamic State and work to translate the current military victories into long-term political settlements — and ensure that Iraq is not destined for another round of conflict.

Renad Mansour is a fellow at Chatham House, and the author of the recent paper “Iraq After the Fall of ISIS: The Struggle for the State.”

The Little Horn Is Finally Crushed (Daniel 8)

Mosul Liberated as Islamic State Faces Total Defeat in Iraq

Caroline Alexander and Donna Abu-Nasr 3 hrs ago

 

An Iraqi federal police member waves his country's national flag as he celebrates in the Old City of Mosul on July 9, 2017 after the government's announcement of the 'liberation' of the embattled city.© AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images An Iraqi federal police member waves his country’s national flag as he celebrates in the Old City of Mosul on July 9, 2017 after the government’s announcement of the ‘liberation’ of the embattled city. (Bloomberg) — Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi traveled to Mosul to declare it liberated from Islamic State, three years after the city’s abrupt fall to the jihadists alerted the world to the group’s growing strength, territorial ambitions and barbarity.

Abadi congratulated the Iraqi people and fighters on a “great victory” as the last pockets under Islamic State control were being retaken, according to a tweet from his media office.

The campaign to free Mosul from Islamic State entered its final phase in the narrow streets of the Old City in mid-June, eight months after thousands of Iraqi troops and Kurdish fighters backed by U.S.-led airstrikes began their offensive. Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition, has described it as the toughest urban warfare he has seen in 34 years of service.

Retaking Mosul marks a major blow against Islamic State, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first speech as self-proclaimed caliph from one of the city’s mosques in 2014. The group is now diminished, having lost much of its territory spanning northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Its ability to attract foreign fighters is also dented, although it continues to inspire militants abroad who have staged terrorist attacks from London to Tehran. For Abadi, whose government has struggled to overcome political and sectarian challenges and rebuild an economy stripped of oil revenue, it’s a major success.

There have been scenes of jubilation as Iraqi forces have slowly taken back control of Mosul, removing the black banners of the jihadist group. The United Nations says as many as 150,000 residents were trapped in the Old City when the battle there began, with illness and disease spreading as clean drinking water, food and medicine ran low. Islamic State used those who stayed as human shields, according to the UN. Over the last few months, it has massacred hundreds who attempted to flee the city in an attempt to deter others from doing the same.

Brutal Punishment

In one of its final acts of defiance, Islamic State blew up the Great Mosque of al-Nuri on June 22. The monument, whose iconic leaning minaret is pictured on Iraq’s 10,000-dinar note, once towered above the historic city center. It was there that Baghdadi made his first sermon as self-proclaimed caliph and called on the world’s Muslims to obey him, dressed in a black robe and turban to signify his claim of descent from the Prophet Muhammad.

As the group sought to entrench its strict interpretation of Islam, it meted out brutal punishments to those who opposed it. Children were trained to be fighters. It also destroyed ancient sites it said were heresy to its ideology — apart from the Great Mosque, Mosul also lost the Tomb of Jonah. Its museum was ransacked.

Lightning Assault

Mosul was Islamic State’s most important bastion along with Raqqa in Syria, its self-styled capital. It featured in its propaganda videos, many filmed in the style of television news reports. British hostage John Cantlie appeared in at least five that sought to portray the city as an example of utopian governance with a bustling economy. In reality, residents described shortages and struggles to cope with rising prices for basic foods and fuel.

An estimated 2.4 million people lived in Mosul before the war, making it northern Iraq’s largest city. Hundreds of thousands fled after it was captured and as operations began to retake it in October 2016, with many seeking refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and camps nearby.

Islamic State evolved from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. troops and Sunni militias defeated after its powers peaked in 2006 to 2007 in a campaign that was known as the Awakening. It was able to expand in 2013 in Syria, where a civil war has raged for more than six years, attracting fighters from Chechnya, Afghanistan, North Africa and Europe.

The extremists took advantage of the poor military performance of Iraqi troops — portraying themselves as a champion of Sunni Arabs who felt alienated by a Shiite-led government — in a lightening assault across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014. The group then headed south toward Baghdad, triggering fears of the country’s breakup as ethnic and sectarian tensions surged.

Last Stronghold

Iraqi forces and militias supported by Iran had pushed Islamic State into reverse with months-long battles in key cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi, before moving on to Mosul. The air power, artillery, and intelligence provided by a U.S.-led coalition helped secure the city’s eastern neighborhoods in January. Residents returned to their homes, children went back to school, and shopkeepers reopened stores, free to sell whatever they choose.

Battlefield progress then slowed as fighting moved deeper into the Old City, as Iraqi forces entered dense neighborhoods and faced persistent counterattacks. With the offensive from the south stalling, Iraqi troops repositioned to begin a new offensive from the north in May.

While Mosul was Islamic State’s last main urban center in Iraq, it still controls several areas in the west and northeast part of the country, including Hawija near Kirkuk.

Noureddin Qablan, vice chairman of the council in Nineveh province, whose capital is Mosul, said by phone on July 3 from the city that Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders have met to prevent the eruption of sectarian or nationalist conflicts. “There are possibilities, but they are weak,” he said, citing the absence of violence in parts of the city freed months ago.

Territory Losses

Keeping the peace won’t be easy, said Kamran Bokhari, a fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism. Local leaders need to prevent the spiraling of tensions over sectarian differences and the region’s political and economic plight, which Islamic State would look to exploit, he said. “But will they be able to?”

As Islamic State’s territory has shrunk, the group has shifted its emphasis from state building and governance to survival, and analysts say battlefield losses don’t spell the end of its ideology. A cappella hymn, or nasheed, released this month insists the jihadist group won’t vanish despite the setbacks: “Oh people of error, it (the state) is remaining, not vanishing, Anchored like the mountains.”

The message is “clearly addressing the current losses faced by the Islamic State amid the coalition campaign against it,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, an analyst at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence, who translated the nasheed.

“Military defeat and the loss of territory in Syria and Iraq will be insufficient to sway the views of Islamic State supporters,” IHS Markit, a London-based information and analytics group, said in a June 29 report. “The group’s video productions have declined in frequency, suggesting that it is less capable of disseminating its messages. However, it has already prepared its followers for the loss of territory.”

(Updates with comment from local official in 15th paragraph.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at calexander1@bloomberg.net, Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at dabunasr@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, Mark Williams, Ros Krasny

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

Antichrist’s Move Into Iraq (Revelation 13)

 7 July 2017, 7:12pm / Shannon Ebrahim – THE GLOBAL SPOTLIGHT

Fighters from predominantly Sunni Arab forces take part in a training session before the battle to recapture Mosul from Islamic State. Picture: Thaier Al-Sudani / Reuters

The last remnants of Islamic State are about to be forced out of Mosul, but what then? Getting rid of IS was but one critical step towards the stabilisation of Iraq, but the fractured social fabric of the country is a recipe for future insurgencies and instability.If Iraq is to move beyond its perpetual cycle of political violence it will need to find a way to address the concerns of the Sunni community, as well as those of other minorities. Failure to do this will lead to further bloodshed and cycles of revenge.

One of the fundamental challenges will be to transform the image of the Iraqi military as being a partisan one which has discriminated against Sunnis. There is enough evidence that segments of the military have been sectarian since 2003, often humiliating people at checkpoints, engaging in arbitrary arrests and demanding bribes. All these factors pushed Sunnis into the arms of IS. There have also been a number of Shia paramilitary groups backed by Iran which are feared by the Sunnis.

Some of these paramilitary groups, such as the Hashd al-Sha’abi, have played a key role in the battle of the Iraqi security forces against IS. In this last push against IS in Mosul, it is the Hashd al-Sha’abi which effectively severed its supply lines to Syria and drove it out. Out of recognition of Hashd al-Sha’abi’s contribution, its forces were incorporated into the Iraqi army in November, but this has also brought its own complications.

There were numerous reports of members of Hashd al-Sha’abi having brutally interrogated residents, beatings, killings, kidnappings and the recruitment of child soldiers. But due to their instrumental role in capturing Anbar, Diyala, Tikrit, Baij and Mosul, these human rights abuses were overlooked. Now with these unreformed members as part of the national army, it is understandable that Sunni communities are fearful that their rights will again be violated.

Iraq has always been a kaleidoscope of various ethnicities and religious sects, and for as long as it is perceived that one group is exerting its hegemony over the others, there will never be peace. But in the history of Iraq, these communities had peacefully coexisted, but the legacy of colonialism was to prop up certain groups at the expense of others. This has led to a trail of tears.

Nineveh, the second largest province in Iraq, is a perfect example of Iraq’s pluralist history. Nineveh used to see Christians, Jews, Shia, Sunni, Kurds, Turkmen and Yazidis living relatively peacefully together throughout the region’s history. When TE Lawrence had made his map exploring colonial partition of the Middle East based on ethnicities, he had two question marks over Nineveh. That is a testament to the type of pluralistic society it was in those times.

But given the dynamics of Iraq’s more recent history which saw Saddam Hussein creating Sunni dominance over other groups, and then the post-Saddam government being more Shia in character, the fault lines in Iraqi society have become increasingly toxic and violent.

It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the government to make all groups feel included as the country moves forward, whether in terms of the composition of the military, the public service or the distribution of resources.

Through its brutal campaign of repression, IS had become the enemy of all Iraqis, and most will welcome its demise. But now that the common enemy has faded into the woodwork, there is always the danger that Iraqis could turn on one another in orgies of revenge.

Despite the fact that in February, Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr had put forward a plan for social reconciliation, and reconciliation committees have been established, these efforts have been largely dismissed by Iraqis. This makes the job of the central government that much harder.

For the sake of Iraq’s stability and ensuring its territorial integrity, it is imperative that a roadmap be developed without delay.

* Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor

The Antichrist Nationalizes Iraq

Shiite cleric Sadr calls on Barzani to postpone, cancel referendum

By Rudaw 5 hours ago

Muqtada al-Sadr and President Masoud Barzani differ on the Kurdistan referendum on independence but are united in their opposition to Maliki making a return to Iraqi politics and governance. Photo: Sadr Movement media office

BAGHDAD, Iraq – Influential Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called on President Masoud Barzani to “postpone” and eventually “cancel” the planned Kurdistan referendum on independence scheduled for September 25.

“Iraq is one and is for all,” Sadr said in a written statement on Tuesday in response to a letter sent to his office by a Faili Kurd who complained about the rise of public rhetoric against Kurds, particularly Faili Kurds who are Shiite Muslims residing mainly in the south and center of Iraq.

Sadr said that his movement opposes discrimination between Iraqis based on their religion or ethnicity, adding that those who do discriminate want to get more votes in elections.

“We do not discriminate in between them so long as they love their homeland and do not work for foreign agendas,” Sadr said.

Sabah Zangana, a Faili media professional and former candidate in Iraq’s 2013 provincial elections, wrote to Sadr asking the cleric to clarify his position with regard to calls to alienate Kurds in Iraqi provinces, in particular Faili Kurds who largely live in Baghdad and other central and southern provinces.

Zangana praised Sadr for his national views on a range of issues and his record against sectarianism.

Some Faili Kurds have expressed their concerns that they may become victims of a new dispute between Erbil and Baghdad over the referendum. Some in Baghdad and southern Iraq reported receiving threatening letters and phone calls since the Kurdistan Region announced it will hold the historic vote.

In Baghdad, the Failis have even considered forming their own militia to protect their community.

Ali Akbar, a Faili tribal chief, told Rudaw last week that taking up arms is on the table.

“Of course we are threatened because of the referendum,” Akbar said. “Therefore, we need to come up with a way to defend ourselves and reach an agreement among ourselves to form a military force. We have already declared that the force we are going to form will be secret and we will not reveal the numbers of the force or the commander.”

Last month, Saad Mutalibi, a member of the Baghdad Provincial Council from the State of Law Coalition warned Kurds in Baghdad that if the Kurdistan Region was determined to hold a referendum to build a state of their own, they would strip them of Iraqi citizenship and evict them from the city.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, head of the State of Law Coalition, is said to have reassured some Faili Kurds who visited him about this issue, saying that Failis are Iraqis and they are protected.

While Sadr attempted to reassure Faili Kurds about their place in Iraqi society, he also called on Kurdistan to cancel the referendum.

“Hereby I call on my brother Masoud Barzani to postpone the secession referendum, especially as we are on the brink of the liberation of Mosul.”

He said that the postponement would be “the first step to canceling it in the future.”

President Barzani told Iraq’s parliament speaker in late June that “the Kurdish referendum is a decision there will be no turning back from.”

Sadr’s Movement has 34 seats in the Iraqi parliament. It is a member of the Shiite National Alliance but has suspended its membership due to political differences with other members of the alliance, in particular with Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Maliki is a staunch opponent of the Sadr Movement.

Though they disagree on the referendum, Sadr and President Barzani are united in their opposition to Maliki making a return to Iraqi politics and governance.

Antichrist Ready to “Fix” Iraq (Revelation 13)

After eight centuries, the hunchback finally fell over. Having withstood wars and sieges, the Grand Mosque of Al Nuri in Mosul was finally blown apart from within the city. That may prove to be a metaphor for Iraq itself.

As the war against ISIL enters its final stretch in Mosul, attention must turn to the aftermath and how Mosul, and Iraq itself, will be rebuilt. The day after Mosul is retaken, a low-level battle will begin, as Sunni and Shia elements across the country – and their supporters beyond Iraq’s borders – restart their jockeying for supremacy. The divisions and rivalries between Iraqis are not readily apparent, but they are there. Under the cover of the battle against ISIL, all sides are preparing for the day after.

Iraq’s Shia-dominated and Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Units, having gained legitimacy in the battle for Mosul, will want an outsize role in Iraq’s army, and maybe even in Mosul itself. The Kurdish forces, moving towards independence, will not want their fight against ISIL to have been in vain; they will see any attempt to push them out of the towns they have liberated as a betrayal. The US will want to see Mosul under the control of the Iraqi army that liberated it, but the PMU and Kurdish groups want to carve out more influence inside the city.

Yet both groups have a chequered history when it comes to dealings with the Sunni majority city of Mosul. Human rights groups have noted that both Kurdish forces and Shia militias have detained Sunni men and boys fleeing Mosul. Kurdish groups have conducted revenge killings and house demolitions against Sunnis inside the disputed city of Kirkuk. Any temporary trust between the groups could evaporate if the rebuilding of and relocation to Mosul is not carried out with sensitivity.

What Mosul needs – what Iraq needs – is radical nationalism, a nationalism that can bridge the divide between Sunnis and Shia, and bring the Kurds, even if temporarily, into the fold. That will mean offering Sunnis a real stake in the political process and including many more Iraqi Sunnis in the army – something that will, inevitably, be at the expense of the Shia who now form a majority inside the army.

The Kurds, squeezed between Baghdad and Ankara, will need a grand bargain if they are to stay within the Iraqi family – and the only thing they seek is more autonomy. Sunni Arabs in mixed villages and towns that the Kurds have taken over have complained of being pushed, or forced, out. If Baghdad lets the Kurds keep those towns, the Sunnis will be outraged. If they are forced to give them back, calls for Kurdish independence will rise.

These are tricky political problems and Iraq’s prime minister Haider Al Abadi has so far shown no hint of knowing how to deal with them. He will, when it comes, be quick to claim victory against ISIL. But the hardline rhetoric he has employed against the militant group will need to be tempered when he speaks of the Sunnis and the Kurds. And if he doesn’t know how to be conciliatory, he has a rival who does.

Because, of all people in Iraq, Mr Al Abadi’s rival for moving beyond sectarian lines is a man who once embodied sectarianism and aggression: the firebrand cleric Muqtada Al Sadr.

Mr Al Sadr hasn’t gone away. Although the battle for Mosul has focused the political debate on the city and the battle against ISIL, Mr Al Sadr is still clearly in contention and has Mr Al Abadi in his sights. Piece by piece, he has been sending signals that he, not Mr Al Abadi, is the only person who can heal Iraq’s wounds. And it may be working.

Mr Al Sadr has widespread support among Iraqi Shias, although whenever his supporters take to the streets – which is regularly – they wave the national flag of Iraq. In that, Mr Al Sadr is being canny, seeking support from Sunnis as well. Well aware that the sectarian politics of the Nouri Al Maliki government did not work, Mr Al Sadr is looking to separate himself from other Shia leaders.

In February this year, he expressed sympathy with those inside Mosul who had at first sought refuge with ISIL. He suggested Sunnis across Iraq had reasons to be disaffected. These are powerful words from a man whose Mahdi Army once targeted Americans, Iraqi Sunnis and Christians. Indeed, many of the seeds of fear and discontent among Sunnis can be traced to the actions of the Mahdi Army.

He went further. His call in April this year for Bashar Al Assad to step down was not widely noticed in the West – but it made waves in the Middle East. His intervention mattered not merely because Mr Al Abadi has tried to tread a careful line on Syria and Mr Al Assad, but because here was a Shia leader calling on Mr Al Assad, himself an Alawite Shia, to step down. Many Sunnis in Iraq will have heard those as the words of a man willing to put a country before a sect, even if the country were not his own.

That is a powerful message and it will be needed after Mosul is liberated, more than ever. Whether or not Mr Al Sadr is merely remaking his image to take power, or whether he has seen the outcome of sectarianism and had a genuine shift in political thinking, his statements point to the best, perhaps only, way out of Iraq’s sectarian impasse. But many Sunnis will find to hard to accept that Mr Al Sadr is the man to lead them.

Faisal Al Yafai is a frequent contributor to The National