Who will fight for Iraq’s survival?

Who will fight for Iraq’s survival?

World powers will meet in Paris next week to consider prospects for ending the war in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

The Iraqis are aware that next week’s Paris conference will not produce the results needed to end the bloody conflict in their country. Nonetheless, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi has decided to attend the meeting, clinging to the hope that something good may come out of the high-level discussions.

‌Sceptics fear that the international conference will be another public-relations ploy by the United States and other Western nations to conceal their failure in helping Iraqis rebuild their country more than 12 years after the US-led invasion.

‌Worse, the conference comes amid increasing signs that US President Barack Obama, who ends his term in office in 18 months, is buying time through the talks to adjust his anti-Islamic State (IS) strategy, while planning to dump the Iraqi conflict on the next US president.

‌French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said some of the 60 countries that are part of the US-led coalition fighting against the IS terror group are expected to participate in the conference to take place in Paris on 2 June.

‌A few days after the stunning seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, by IS militants last June, Washington said it was launching a military alliance to help the Iraqis drive the militants from the city and from other terrain captured by IS.

‌Washington said it would work with its partners to contain the IS militants and reverse their gains in Iraq and Syria. In Obama’s words, their strategy was to “degrade and ultimately defeat” the group.

‌Washington’s approach to the campaign has come under fire for being ineffective. The critics’ main complaint is that the Obama administration has no clear vision, suggesting that better strategic planning is needed to defeat IS.

‌Meanwhile, instead of being degraded the group has expanded in both Iraq and Syria. Its capture of the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi and the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria in recent days has marked the latest in a series of setbacks for the US strategy.

‌Fabius said participants at the Paris meeting will “take stock of how the coalition wants to proceed” in Iraq, but he did not give details. He said that it was “not impossible” that Syria would also be part of the talks.

‌The last such talks were held in Paris in September and saw representatives from around 30 countries and international organisations meet in an attempt to come up with a strategy to combat IS and to determine what the roles of each would be in the US-led coalition.

‌Next week’s gathering comes amid mounting fears that IS militants will use their control of Ramadi and Palmyra to consolidate their gains in both Iraq and Syria and threaten the rest of the region.

‌For many critics, the fall of Ramadi amounts to a strategic defeat for the US-led coalition. It has raised a series of broader questions, not only about the viability of Washington’s approach in Iraq but also about its policies in the Middle East as a whole.

‌The key question now is whether the fall of Ramadi can serve as a wake-up call and if the world powers can handle the Iraqi crisis in a way different from the dozens of regional and international meetings on Iraq that have taken place since the US-led invasion in 2003.

‌It is unclear if the participants at the Paris summit will forge a new path against IS, apart from what is widely seen as the coalition’s ineffective bombing campaign to hit the militants in Iraq and Syria.

‌Washington has conceded that it is taking a “hard look” at its Iraq strategy after the fall of Ramadi, and it has said it will be streamlining the process for delivering weapons to Iraq and increasing the training of Iraqi troops.

‌But despite renewed calls from Republican rivals, such as Arizona Senator John McCain, to deploy US troops to help the Iraqis fight the terrorist group, the Obama administration is not expected to send combat soldiers to Iraq.

‌What Washington and other partners in the coalition are expected to offer in Paris is a renewal of their support for Al-Abadi’s government while restating their policy, which urges a more inclusive government in Iraq and the participation of the Sunnis in policing their areas.

‌What Washington needs to realise is that too much time has passed since it substituted action in Iraq with rhetoric. A close look at events in Iraq since the US troops were withdrawn in 2011 shows it now has fairly limited power in dictating what happens in Iraq.

‌Today, in an Iraq that is not conspicuously stage-managed by the United States, domestic and regional actors, including Iran and the Tehran-backed Shia militias, play pivotal roles. It is even difficult to imagine the magnitude of the forces working against, or at least not in line with, the United States policy in Iraq.

‌This probably puts into perspective remarks made by a senior administration official to Reuters on 18 May to the effect that the United States could support “all elements” of forces aligned against IS, including the Shia militias that are nominally under the Baghdad government’s control.

‌Washington had previously backed off from giving air support to what it considered Iranian-organised and -led operations dominated by Shia militias that answer to Tehran, and so this statement marks a departure from earlier policy.

‌It also underlines Washington’s decision to scrap earlier plans to supply Sunni tribes with weapons directly, without going through Baghdad. The United States has held back the delivery of much-needed weapons to the Iraqi army as an expression of displeasure at Al-Abadi’s hesitation to equip the Sunni tribes.

‌The most impressive sign of a retreat from taking responsibility for the setback in the war against the IS militants is accusations made by US Defence Secretary Ash Carter to the Iraqi armed forces, saying that they show “no will to fight” against the terror group.

‌Moreover, the United States has made little objection to Iranian forces taking an offensive role in operations to drive out IS militants from Beiji in recent days, in conjunction with Iraqi Shia militia.

‌The report of Iran entering the fight to retake this major Iraqi oil refinery, which came from US officials, was the first sign that Washington may have even dropped its opposition to Iranian participation in the war against IS.

‌What all this says about the shape of things to come after the so-called adjustment of US strategy after the spectacular fall of Ramadi is that Obama has no real intention of shifting course and seems determined to leave the war in Iraq to his successor.

‌In a recent briefing by a senior State Department official, the administration sent the clearest message yet to the Iraqis that no drastic change is to be expected in the anti-IS strategy before the end of Obama’s term in January 2017.

‌“I think some of the timeframes that might’ve been announced by various folks over the course of this thing might’ve been a little bit unrealistic. It’s three years: a three-year campaign, three years to degrade,” the official was quoted as saying at the special briefing posted on the State Department’s website.

‌This leaves the question why the Paris summit is being held, and whether or not this will be another pointless endeavour. Though the agenda of the meeting has not been made public, it is widely expected to be an attempt to breathe life into the dormant coalition.

‌Most of the coalition’s 60 members have not done much to fight IS, despite repeated US urging for them to play a more active role. Some of the countries that deployed aircraft at the beginning of the campaign have also since pulled back.

‌Nevertheless, the Obama administration seems to be keen on keeping the outfit working, ostensibly to portray coalition partners as reliable supporters in the crisis.

‌In the meantime, no one knows how the Iraq government will benefit from the high-level conference in Paris. Three previous coalition meetings have ended with many political statements but few tangible commitments.

‌The stunning fall of Ramadi and the Obama administration’s hesitation to come to the aid of the Iraqi forces should have taught the Iraqi government the lesson that it must now work according to its own schedule.

‌If the Iraqis won’t fight for their nation’s survival, no one else will either.

Chaos in Anbar

Chaos in Anbar

The war against Islamic State may be about to take a sharp turn as Baghdad commits Shia militias on the Anbar front, writes Salah Nasrawi

Hours after Islamic State (IS) insurgents seized the Anbar provincial government headquarters in the city of Ramadi and raised the group’s black flag over the compound, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi vowed the country’s security forces and Shia armed factions would drive the militants back “within the next few hours”.

“Like in any war, there might be a retreat here or there, but we are determined to beat Daesh [IS],” Al-Abadi said in a nationwide televised address using the Arabic acronym of the group. “It will suffer a bitter defeat,” he declared.

Taken at face value, Al-Abadi’s pledge to beat the terror group and retake Ramadi sounds like hollow rhetoric. The extent of the retreat of the Iraqi security forces at the hands of IS militants in Ramadi and the opposition to deploying the Shia Popular Mobilisation Force has called into question a fast victory over the brutal insurgents.

But things change in wars, though they remain largely unpredictable. Whether Al-Abadi can fulfil his steadfast commitment will depend on the “shadow of uncertainty”, or what one of the greatest war strategists, Clausewitz, calls the “interactive nature” of war.

In other words, Al-Abadi will need to have a scheme that will not only underlie the conduct of the war with IS, but will also deal with the Iraqi conflict as a whole.

Iraq’s latest round of chaos began early on 15 May when IS fighters made a foray into Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, Iraq’s largest province and the heartland of the Sunni insurgency since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Of course, like the widespread mystery surrounding IS militants since their stunning advances in northern and western Iraq last year, there have been many theories about what happened on that fateful day in Ramadi.

Whether the brutal jihadists made a daring push using armoured bulldozers, explosive-rigged cars and suicide bombings to burst through the defences, or whether it was the result of the security forces’ failure to put up a strong resistance, the assailants had taken over the city centre by the afternoon and hoisted IS’s black flag over the provincial government headquarters.

Exactly what happened remains a mystery. There has been no mention of the proximate reasons behind the fall of the city centre to the jihadists who were known to be preparing to attack Ramadi. Much less is known about the circumstances that led the security forces to withdraw from their posts.

Worse still, the entire strategic city fell to IS jihadists two days after government forces abandoned their positions following a massive blitz by suicide car-bomb attacks. The collapse of the police and the security forces recalled the retreat of the Iraqi military forces last summer when IS captured about a third of the country’s territory.

This week’s fiasco ranks among the most humiliating defeats for Al-Abadi, who vowed after retaking Tikrit from IS last month that recapturing Anbar would be Iraq’s next move. Instead, the fall of Ramadi has allowed IS fighters to close in on the capital Baghdad.

IS’s overall operations in Anbar show an offensive strategy intended to wear down the government security forces to the point of collapse through continuous losses of personnel and material. Part of this approach is to create chaos in Baghdad by sending in more suicide bombers and using a fifth column to undermine the city’s security.

Hours before the onslaught in Ramadi, a series of bombings in Baghdad killed and injured dozens of people, mostly Shia on pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Kadhum north of the city. A mysterious disturbance occurred on 13 May when some pilgrims set fire to a building of the Sunni Endowment after hearing rumours that terrorists wearing explosive belts were attempting to attack them.

By creating a precarious security situation in the capital, IS militants hope to pin down the security forces and the Shia militias in Baghdad and gain more footholds around the capital.

Meanwhile, Ramadi’s fall appears to be a significant blow to the US-backed military coalition to defeat IS. US President Barack Obama has pledged that the aim of the campaign is to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” IS through “a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy”.

Indeed, the clumsy strategy, which has excluded the deployment of US ground forces in the combat against IS, has made the United States a minor player in Iraq. Even as IS jihadists were making important gains in Ramadi, US officials were giving assurances that the war against the terror group was going well.

When the militants seized Ramadi in the deadly three-day blitz, Pentagon spokeswoman Elissa Smith said the IS militants had only “gained the advantage” in fighting in the city, stopping short of confirming reports that the group had seized full control of the Anbar provincial capital.

But while the Pentagon was playing down the onslaught on Ramadi and the humiliating new collapse of the Iraqi security forces, American soldiers were embarking on a Hollywood-style operation just across the border in neighbouring Syria.

As IS fighters stormed through Ramadi on 15 May, US special forces sneaked from their bases in Iraq into Syria and killed 12 IS operatives in a raid on their hideout. The White House later declared that among those killed was Abu Sayyaf, described as an instrumental figure in black-market oil smuggling.

The raid was quickly criticised as an attempt to shift the focus from supporting the Iraqi forces in the fight against IS to a PR stunt aimed at drumming up American bravery. If US forces can muster enough intelligence, combat skills and resources to go after one IS operative, Iraqis asked, why shouldn’t they come to aid their soldiers in Ramadi.

Clearly, the stunning fall of Ramadi has shown that the war against IS is in total disarray largely because Baghdad and Washington, having united in a war to stop the expansion of IS, are now utterly at odds as to how to proceed.

America’s proclamation of bringing the war to a triumphant conclusion has been buffeted by doubts by Iraqis about Washington’s commitment and fears about the motives of its policy.

While Washington remains satisfied with its airstrikes on IS targets and sees nothing further, Iraqis believe that the political limitations set by the White House on the US military have not stopped the militants from taking new ground.

The Iraqi government has been relentlessly calling on US forces to work out a joint strategy that could combine their airpower, weaponry and intelligence resources with Iraqi ground combat capability to retake territories lost to IS.

The Iraqis’ frustration was best illustrated by recent remarks by Martin E Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said that while he didn’t want to see Ramadi fall, its loss wouldn’t reflect the larger picture in the fight against IS.

Earlier, Baghdad and Washington differed publicly on the timetable, tactics and who should take part in the battle to liberate the strategic northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Worse, their main difference remains the role of the Iran-backed Shia militias in the war against IS. While Washington has been preventing Baghdad from resorting to the militias for fear of a backlash from the Sunni population, Baghdad has been relying heavily on fighters from the Shia factions to dislodge IS from its positions.

The fall of Ramadi, however, seems to have left Al-Abadi with no other choice but to resist the American pressure and ask the Shia militias to deploy in Anbar and to be prepared for a counter-offensive to take back Ramadi and the rest of the province.

While acting on a desperate request by the Anbar Provincial Council and tribal leaders to send Shia militias to help fight IS and win back its cities, Al-Abadi seems also to have acted on Clausewitz’s advice that a commander cannot remain for very long in such a state without incurring “the perils of hesitation”.

By sending the Popular Mobilisation Force to Anbar, Al-Abadi has been able to demonstrate a willingness to resist the US script which would have mortgaged the liberation of areas taken by IS to an ambiguous strategy that would not only have prolonged the dangerous standoff but would ultimately have threatened Iraq’s unity.

A lot of the success of Al-Abadi now depends on how the Popular Mobilisation Force will behave in Anbar, not only in driving the IS militants back, but also in winning the trust of the Sunni population.

With its vast territories and a powerful IS force in situ, Anbar is certainly a great military challenge, but it could be a political opportunity too.

Supporting Arab interests

Supporting Arab interests

Egypt’s role in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is part of a carefully calibrated regional strategy, writes Salah Nasrawi

When scholars at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies held a panel discussion on the turmoil in the Middle East and its implications for Egypt’s national security last week, one item was missing from the agenda: Egypt’s role in the Saudi-led campaign against the Houthis in Yemen.

Even after leading sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim intervened to ask the panelists at the opening session if they expected President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to fulfil his oft-stated promise to help defend Egypt’s Gulf allies, none of the five distinguished experts on the podium was prepared to venture an answer.

“We will leave your question to be answered by the panelists in the next session,” Ali Al-Din Hilal, a prominent political scientist, told Ibrahim. His remark was met with amusement by the audience that had assembled to mark the 30th anniversary of the first issue of the centre’s Arab Strategic Report.

As the ongoing crisis in Yemen continues to plague the Middle East, questions remain over Egypt’s role in the conflict and the extent of its help to its ally Saudi Arabia, which is leading the Arab military alliance to defeat the Houthis in Yemen.

Al-Sisi has repeatedly warned that the security of Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states is a “red line.” His statement that “it’s only a short distance” to go to defend them has become a catchphrase in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

Egypt announced on 26 March that it would join the Saudi-led military campaign against the Houthis, who are backed by forces loyal to Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Saudi Arabia regards the Shia Houthi group as a client of Iran, which the kingdom accuses of trying to increase its power in the region at the expense of the Arab countries.

Last week, Egypt extended by three months the authorisation for its military deployment outside the country but did not specify whether the renewed mandate could see Cairo deploy ground troops in Yemen to fight the Houthis.

Numerous media reports have since suggested that Egypt has joined the Saudi-led coalition in bombing the Houthis and has been sending naval vessels to the Yemeni coast. Some mainstream media outlets in the US have even speculated that Egypt could lead a ground operation in Yemen after the current air strikes campaign weakens the Houthis.

But there has been no evidence of Egyptians fighting alongside the Saudis in the war in Yemen, or of Egypt having plans underway to participate in a massive ground operation.

The Egyptian leadership continues to keep people guessing about its military moves in Yemen, while a debate goes on about whether Egypt should be partnering with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, who have provided billions of dollars in aid to help boost its ailing economy.

Egypt cannot spend time worrying about the repercussions of the conflict in Yemen and Iran’s expansionism in the region, which could have repercussions in the rest of the Middle East with a major impact on its regional role and security.

But it is critical that Egypt’s response to the Yemeni conflict and the wider implications of the Saudi-Iranian confrontation are carefully measured. Egypt must weigh its close relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members against its vital interests in the region.

Like other Arab nations not directly involved in the conflict in Yemen, the war poses a regional dilemma for Egypt. Because of the intense polarisation the conflict has caused, Egypt may have hoped it had never happened.

Many in Egypt worry that the country’s participation in the war, especially if this were to take the form of ground battles, could further entangle it in the sectarian conflict that is spreading in the Middle East, fuelled by proxy wars in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

A considerable part of the debate on Egypt’s role in the current crisis has been about whether Egypt’s participation could turn into “another Vietnam,” using the phrase to compare Egypt’s costly foray into Yemen in 1964-1967 to the US war in Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Many pundits who evoke the Yemen War in the 1960s argue that Egypt is not eager to enter into another military intervention in Yemen. The earlier war was a disaster for the country, and some 26,000 Egyptian soldiers died fighting Saudi-backed royalists.

However, this could be a false comparison since apart from the fact that the Yemen conflict in the 1960s featured a variety of factors that belonged to its specific historical and political context, today’s war in Yemen is not about the strategy for Egypt’s interventions abroad.

Instead, the war in Yemen started just as Egypt had embarked on a defensive project to assemble a joint Arab force to help it in its fight against terrorism both in the restive Sinai Peninsula and in lawless Libya on its western border.

The war in Yemen has clearly demonstrated the willingness of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states to tackle such challenges and be ready to help Egypt fight terror groups such as the Islamic State (IS) group, which has declared its presence in Sinai and Libya.

Aside from shifting the focus from combating terrorism to fighting the Shia Houthis, Egypt’s other concern is that the war in Yemen will create a realignment that could allow the Muslim Brotherhood, Cairo’s other domestic foe, to resurface as a regional political force and thus threaten Egypt’s security.

Since the war on the Houthis started, reports have circulated that Saudi Arabia has been in contact with Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah Party in an attempt to position it as a grassroots political organisation that would be empowered in post-war Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the other major ally in the war against the Houthis, are also reportedly in contact with Egyptian Brotherhood leaders and the movement’s branches in other countries. If true, the move would be seen as an attempt to put pressure on Cairo to bring about reconciliation with the group, which was banned in Egypt after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi, a Brotherhood leader.

The Yemen debate also comes at a time when Egypt is supporting a political settlement in Syria that does not include Sunni militants such as the Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, who are widely believed to be backed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations. The rise of the Islamists in post-Al-Assad Syria could spell an extremist threat to Egypt.

Saudi Arabia’s newfound robust approach to regional conflicts represents a daunting challenge to Egypt. The war the kingdom has initiated in Yemen and its all-out confrontation with Iran indicate that Saudi Arabia wants to be seen as an increasingly influential player in the region.

But many Egyptians are worried about what sort of power Saudi Arabia aspires to be. Will it use its influence to promote shared stability and prosperity, or will it seek to unilaterally alter the regional status quo?

Egypt has long been a cornerstone of the regional order, and any attempt to alter the geopolitical equation without Cairo being consulted and involved could be at Egypt’s expense as a key regional actor.

The notion that Egypt could be taken for granted or seduced by financial assistance will then be seen as little more than wishful thinking.

It is for such reasons that Cairo’s involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen is not a mystery. While it is opposing Iran’s increasing influence and rejecting its proxy wars in the region, Egypt has also resisted a rush to a large-scale military confrontation in Yemen.

Al-Sisi has bluntly declared that “the Egyptian army is for Egypt,” which can only be interpreted as meaning a rejection of the idea of putting Egyptian boots on the ground in a theatre where Egyptian interests are not directly implicated.

Egypt has sensibly invited Yemeni and Syrian political groups for talks in Cairo in an attempt to resolve the conflicts in these two embattled Arab countries.

This action, which enjoys the support of most Arab countries and of the international community, underlines the need to maintain the long-term interest of the Arabs and to resist the temptation to use short-term military muscle.

The looming Iraq disaster

The looming Iraq disaster

As Iraq remains bogged down with the war against IS, another catastrophe could be on the horizon, writes Salah Nasrawi

The Iraqi government is considering a set of measures to deal with the crushing financial crisis, which many fear could lead to economic collapse and accelerate the breakup of the divided and war-torn country.

Under the plans to stave off default, the government of Haider Al-Abadi will seek foreign loans, issue bonds and sell parts of Iraq’s huge oil reserves. It also plans to overhaul the economy and get rid of the socialist-era sectors inherited from Saddam Hussein’s era.

But doubts abound that an emergency fund based on international credits or a government bond-selling programme would ease the burden on the Iraqi economy, hard hit by lower oil prices, government inefficiency and rampant corruption.

Selling the country’s national resources could also trigger popular resentment against the government’s oil policies and gives credence to claims that Iraq’s invasion in 2003 was to improve Western access to Iraqi oil.

Falling oil prices since last year has wrecked Iraq’s state finances. Iraq’s 2015 annual budget has projected a deficit of some $25 billion and forced the government to struggle to balance and fund its public spending and stabilize the national currency.

Under the budget law the government is to meet part of the deficit by introducing new taxes, levies and duties. Obligatory saving accounts are also to be opened for senior government officials to deposit part of their salaries. The government also decided to turn to the Central Bank reserves.

Iraq’s government, however, has not disclosed full details about its plans to deal with the financial crisis. Prime Minister Al-Abadi has even been insisting that Iraq is not facing a default but only financial difficulties due to plummeting oil prices.

While Al-Abadi appears to be either in a state of denial or lacking direct experience in financial affairs, his finance minister, Hoshyar Zebari, seems to be the one who is making most of the talking about Iraq’s plans to manage the financial crisis.

Last month Zebari disclosed that Iraq is in discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and is seeking millions of dollars both in an emergency loan programme and by using Iraq’s Special Drawing Rights at the IMF.

Zebari later said Iraqi is seeking an aid package from the IMF that could total as much as $700 million in emergency assistance, a relatively small amount that indicates the sharp deterioration in Iraq’s financial conditions.

According to Zebari, the Iraqi government has also agreed for the first time to issue $5 billion in international bonds as part of a package to restore fiscal suitability and address its budget deficit. He disclosed that Iraq is negotiating with Citibank and Deutsche Bank.

In addition to the international credits and bond issue and a local-currency bond issue, Iraq is planning other measures, including a drastic shift in its policies.

Zebari said Iraq is planning to change the way it operates exploration and production contracts with oil companies. The switch will move Iraq for the first time to production- sharing contracts, where revenues are divided in a percentage split, from service contracts where oil companies are paid a set fee.

Moreover, one of the steps under consideration is to get rid of hundreds of state-owned enterprises, which employ some half a million workers. In one dramatic statement last month, Zebari described these companies as an “absolute failure.”

In its efforts to lower the deficit and cut spending, Iraq’s parliament approved in January a belt-tightening budget that reduced the lavish spending, such as generous allowances, travel and office expenses.

It also resorted to withdrawals from the country’s reserves, estimated at the time at $75 billion. Reports this week suggested that the national reserve has hit a new low at $60 billion.

But the worst part of the financial crisis is its overall impact on the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group which has occupied vast swathes of territories in Iraq since June last year.

The campaign against IS has been slammed by cuts in spending, including the government’s inability to buy necessary supplies and pay salaries to tens of thousands of recruits in the Popular Mobilization Force, the Shia paramilitary force set to join the fight.

In March, Al-Abadi made a visit to the White House to make an urgent request of billions of dollars in financial and military aid from President Barack Obama for the ongoing campaign against IS. Abadi argued that the budget shortfall has hampered his government’s ability to mount military challenges to IS strongholds in northern and western Iraq.

Still, Al-Abadi returned empty handed after the Obama administration turned down the request. To make a bad situation worse, the US House Armed Services Committee passed a law last week which imposed preconditions on funding for the Iraqi security forces over the next year.

Shortages of funding is also blocking the government from restoring basic services to those towns that have been reclaimed by Iraqi force from IS. Iraq is now turning to the World Bank for help in financing development projects in these areas that suffer from a lack of infrastructure, education and health services.

Many economists and many Iraqis blame much of the financial crisis on Al-Abadi’s government and that of his predecessor, Nuri Al-Maliki, whom they accuse of mismanagement and widespread corruption.

Even with increasing fear of financial crash, Iraq’s Central Bank is still holding daily auctions through which hard currency is sold to banks, companies and traders in exchange for evidence of import and transaction receipts.

Last week, Abdel Basit Turki, Iraq’s ex-chief auditor and former Central Bank governor, told Al-Baghdadiya Television that most of these banks are phonies set up by corrupt politicians to target the foreign currency sales.

He said during his tenure as Central Bank head from 2011 to 2015 some $12 billion were skimmed from the Iraqi reserve and transferred outside Iraq using false documents.

Writing on his Facebook account, Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the parliamentary Finance Committee, disclosed that one Iraqi trader alone had made such transactions of $1.2 billion to a company in the United Arab Emirates over a one-year period.

Now Zebari’s disclosures are sounding the alarm that the country may be facing a slow-death scenario. The question remains, however, if the intended measures could prevent Iraq going bankrupt and stop the violence-ravaged country from sliding into further instability.

It is also not clear if these plans were reviewed and sanctioned by the government and whether they will be put for debate and endorsement by the parliament.

Some of the measures such as selling Iraq’s oil reserves and introducing production-sharing contracts, seem to be controversial. Many Iraqis believe that they will be conceding sovereign wealth to foreign companies.

There are growing concerns that compliance with the IMF conditions unveiled by Zebari, further cuts in spending and foreign borrowing will result in worse scenarios. Iraqis are already hard hit by high prices, rising inflation and a high rate of currency depreciation.

In the meantime, Iraq’s oil production policy seems in disarray. While Iraq’s oil exports rose in April to a record 3.08 million barrels per day (bpd) from 2.98 million bpd in March, the country is not expected to raise much higher revenues as crude prices remain low.

At the same time, Iraq’s bill for paying foreign companies operating in Iraq under service contracts regime, created by the US occupation authority following the 2003 invasion, based on a fixed dollar fee per unit, has ballooned just as its oil revenues fall.

The Iraqi financial crisis is widely seen as largely the result of the massive corruption and economic mismanagement of its political elite and not the plunge in oil prices.

While Iraq remains mired in sectarian strife, an economic crash will be detrimental to the country’s future. There would likely be ramifications that would significantly impact the war against IS and the country’s unity.

Understanding the Yemen war

Understanding the Yemen war

Saudi Arabia has said it is scaling down its airstrikes in Yemen, but instead it has been stepping up both its rhetoric and the war, writes Salah Nasrawi

Two weeks after Saudi Arabia announced that the coalition it leads would end Operation Decisive Storm against Yemen after the airstrikes campaign had achieved its goals, Saudi jetfighters and gunships have continued pounding the kingdom’s restive southern neighbour.

The Sunni Arab powerhouse’s declaration that it is moving into a second phase of activities after downgrading the Iran-backed Shia Houthi group and eliminating threats from across its border has raised questions about what Saudi Arabia is up to in the war in Yemen.

Questions also persist about the role of the United States in the conflict as Washington tries to appease Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) following its tentative agreement with Iran last month over its nuclear programme.

The US dispatch of warships to the area to prevent possible Iranian arms shipments and Saudi threats that its navy would attempt to search the ships if they tried to dock in Yemen have raised concerns of a potential international confrontation in Yemen.

The disclosure by the United Nations envoy to Yemen, Jamal Benomar, that Yemeni warring political factions were on the verge of a power-sharing deal when the Saudi-led airstrikes started is bound to raise even more eyebrows about this war on one of the most impoverished Arab countries.

With Saudi strikes continuing, sectarian sentiments rising and competition for influence and military capabilities increasing, Yemen could likely become a flashpoint in the volatile Middle East and Gulf region.

What is at stake is whether Saudi Arabia, which appears poised to achieve the subordination of the Houthis, will be able to avoid a quagmire on its borders and if the region can avoid a sectarian conflict on a large scale.

Riyadh claims four weeks of airstrikes have wiped out the weapons and military installations of the Houthis, who took control of the capital Sanaa in September forcing Sunni president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia.

But on the ground Saudi Arabia does not seem to have made much headway, especially in breaking the grip of the Houthis on power. The Saudi-led air campaign is no nearer to stopping the advance of the Houthis alongside army units loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Thus far, the Saudi campaign has failed to split the Houthi-Saleh alliance, and it has not succeeded in creating a gap between the members of the alliance and the larger Sunni tribes in Yemen either.

The Saudis have been no more successful in creating a credible tribal or political opposition to the Houthis to help reinstall Hadi in power.

Many observers believe that Saudi Arabia may even have no viable strategy for achieving its political goals in Yemen and compelling the Houthis to come to the negotiating table on its terms.

The Houthis and their allies are still making gains. They have overrun large swathes of the country, including parts of South Yemen, and they have encircled the coastal city of Aden whose facilities were widely feared to be being used to unload possible Iranian arms shipments.

Meanwhile, Egypt and Pakistan, two key Sunni allies, have rebuffed a Saudi request to send troops into the country, underlining the Saudis’ inability to resort to a ground option to deal with the Houthis.

As if to underscore how fragile Yemen is, on Saturday the Islamic State (IS) group declared its official presence in the country in a video. IS is the second terrorist group operating in Yemen alongside Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) which has long been trying to take over the country.

Some of the political and human impacts of the war may be devastating and will have long-term implications on Saudi Arabia itself, which will have to live with the chaos and devastation in its backyard.

By the time Saudi Arabia announced it was halting its operations on 19 April, some 1,000 Yemenis had been killed, including 150 children. Thousands of others had been wounded, some 120,000 displaced, and millions more trapped in their homes in an attempt to escape the bombings.

The airstrikes have pushed Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, to the brink of disaster. The Saudi-led blockade has deprived the Yemenis of food, fuel, water and medicine, causing what a Red Cross official called a “humanitarian catastrophe” in the country.

According to UN reports, almost 16 million people, or 61 per cent of the total population, have required humanitarian assistance, hundreds of thousands of these having been displaced by the waves of conflict over the past decade.

As Yemen suffers and Saudi Arabia continues its bid to bludgeon the Houthis into submission, attention is also being focused on the United States, which has aided the Saudis both diplomatically and militarily.

By publicly claiming that Iran was still seeking to supply weapons to the Houthis the White House has not only given credence to the Saudi pretexts for waging the airstrikes but also added more fuel to the fire.

Moreover, Washington has provided Riyadh with intelligence information and tactical advice, including vetting military targets, and it has accelerated the sale of new weapons to Riyadh and its Gulf allies.

The US navy has beefed up its presence by deploying the warship Theodore Roosevelt off the Yemeni coast, reassuring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies of its continued support.

American pundits have been defending the Obama administration’s approach in Yemen as part of the US president’s broader “Iran doctrine” to reintegrate the Islamic Republic into the rest of the world by encouraging Tehran to break through its isolation.

They explain Obama’s approach as a “dual engagement” strategy by which Washington will bolster the Saudis and their allies through new US military commitments while continuing to seek to finalise a nuclear deal with Iran.

Others commentators believe the US engagement is about weapon sales. According to the New York Times, US industry officials have notified Congress that they are expecting additional requests from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar for thousands of new US-made weapons, including missiles and bombs, to rebuild depleted arms stockpiles.

To many analysts, the fact that the United States is backing the Saudi campaign in Yemen despite the collateral damage and a general consensus about the campaign’s futility means that Washington has become an accomplice in the war in Yemen.

As for Saudi Arabia, failure in Yemen is certainly not an option. Saudi columnists and experts who usually reflect the opinions of the royal family have been toiling to convey Riyadh’s message that the kingdom is bent on confronting Iran not only in Yemen but also in places such as Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Yet, the key questions being asked these days are what Riyadh’s other options are and if it has any way out of what could become its Vietnam. Few outside Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners believe the kingdom’s justification for the war and wonder if Riyadh is waiting for a ladder to get it down from the position it now finds itself in.

Many observers find the Saudi war in Yemen mystifying. What is Saudi Arabia seeking in Yemen? Why does Saudi Arabia feel it knows what is best for the Yemenis? Why is it fighting so hard when most Yemeni factions agree that talks can resolve the conflict?

Is it part of a short-sighted plan that has chosen Yemen as an arena to confront Iran and the Shia in the region? Is the incursion into Yemen part of an assertive Saudi foreign policy that uses the military to carry out its agenda?

Answering these questions and understanding the war in Yemen requires the meaningful evaluation of the potential outcomes that could ensue and in turn the complex implications of these outcomes and their broader ramifications in the region.

As doubts increase about the effectiveness of the Saudi air campaign, attention is being turned to a possible Saudi-led land incursion into Yemen. Though most analysts believe that talk about a Saudi invasion is just a bluff, Riyadh could resort to it as an act of desperation if it fails to achieve its goal of compelling the Houthis into submission.

But several unintended consequences could emerge either way which would undoubtedly impact the Saudi domestic front and alter Riyadh’s position in the regional order.

Domestically, ending the war without succeeding in subduing the Houthis would have dire consequences for the royal family and could trigger the power struggle that was thought to have subsided after king Salman moved quickly following his succession in January to put the House of Al-Saud in order.

Two of the most powerful members of the royal family, second-in-line to the throne, Minister of Interior and King Salman’s son prince Mohamed bin Nayef and Minister of Defence prince Mohamed bin Salman lead the war on Yemen and they could take the blame for its failure.

An unsuccessful Saudi military intervention would bolster the Houthis and would give them even more power in Yemen at the expense of Saudi Arabia’s allies. It would also give Iran more leverage and increase its regional status.

The implications of the failure to achieve the goals of the war on Saudi Arabia’s leadership role in the Gulf and in the Arab and Muslim world will be enormous. And the Yemen crisis and its outcome threaten to change the trajectory of the Shia-Sunni polarisation in the region for the worse.

One of its unintended consequences will be fertile land for radical organisations such as IS and Al-Qaeda to grow still further.

This article appeared frist in Al-Aharm Weekly on April, 30 2015