Iraq’s forgotten human rights

The world should be more focused on human rights abuses in Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi
As the war rages on in Iraq nearly twelve years after the US-led invasion, there have been more reminders of the volume of human rights violations in this beleaguered nation which have now reached a massive scale. With a new US-led coalition being forged and targeting Iraq, this high level of abuse warrants the international community to pay special attention to the situation and to put the crisis on the world’s agenda.
Wide-ranging evidence suggests that the abuses are systematic violations rather than isolated incidents, but because of a culture of impunity for the perpetrators and a lack of proper documentation the true scale of the abuses remains unknown. As the sectarian violence and political turmoil continue in Iraq, the country remains at the bottom of the list of countries with poor human rights records worldwide.
The Baghdad government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, the terrorist Islamic State (IS) and the Shia militias all stand accused of gross human rights abuses, some amounting to war crimes, during the escalation of the violence in the country since the US-led invasion in 2003 and the sectarian conflict and political stalemate that followed.
Accountability for these crimes, however, has remained almost non-existent. Earlier this month, the United Nations announced that at least 9,347 civilians had been killed so far in 2014 and 17,386 wounded, well over half of them since the terrorist group the Islamic State began overrunning swathes of the north of the country in early June.


Estimates of the casualties from the conflict in Iraq since 2003 vary. Nearly half a million people have died from war-related causes since the US-led invasion, according to a study published in the United States last year. That toll is far higher than the nearly 200,000 civilian deaths reported by the British-based group the Iraq Body Count this month or the lesser statistics produced by Iraq’s government.


This deplorable situation stands as testimony to the devastation wrought by the US occupation, the atrocities carried out by the Sunni insurgents, especially the IS terror group, the unbridled reprisals of Shia militias and the horrific violations committed by the government authorities.


Serious human rights violations by the United States in Iraq are now well documented, including unlawful murder, rape, the torture of detainees and other war crimes. Three years after the US troop withdrawal, the Iraqi people are still paying a heavy price for Washington’s failure to fulfil its obligations to protect the Iraqi people’s rights, having devastating consequences for their lives and futures.


In post-invasion Iraq, successive central governments and the government of the self-ruled Kurdistan Region have not only failed to adhere to the standards required of them under international law, but have also themselves committed serious violations. With the country’s ethno-sectarian conflict deadlocked and violence triggered by the terrorist attacks continuing, these governments have sacrificed human rights for security.


Since 2003, various human rights groups have been detailing Iraq as among the world’s top nations responsible for major human rights abuses, ranging from death, torture and arbitrary arrest or detention to the denial of the basic freedoms of expression and assembly.


ALARMING FIGURES: The total number of individuals sentenced to death in Iraq since 2004 is believed to stand at more than 1,200. There are around 48 crimes for which the death penalty can be imposed in Iraq, including some, under certain circumstances, including damage to public property.


Among the systematic pattern of abuse at the hands of the Iraqi central government’s security forces is the practice of arrests without warrants based on religious sect or political affiliation and the mistreatment of prisoners. The systematic and illegal abuse of detainees, including torture and degrading treatment by interrogators and guards, is widespread.


Human rights organisations have been reporting that thousands of detainees languish in prison without charge. Detainees are routinely held incommunicado without access to family or legal counsel. Many of those brought to trial are sentenced to long prison terms or to death after grossly unfair proceedings in which convictions are based on “confessions” extracted under torture or other forms of coercion. Such “confessions” are often broadcast on national television before the trials.


Female inmates suffer from overcrowding and a lack of sufficient access to female-specific health care. Women are frequently detained with their young children, who are then deprived of access to education and adequate health care as well as light, fresh air, food and water. Women prisoners have been reporting that the security forces have detained, beaten, tortured, and in some instances, sexually abused them as a means of intimidating or punishing male family members suspected of terrorism.


Millions of Iraqis have fled their homes in recent years amid waves of sectarian violence that have sparked mass displacement internally and abroad. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees remain on the books of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Organisation for Migration seeking safe haven in foreign countries.


More than two million Iraqis remain displaced within their own country. Many of them continue to reside in squatter settlements without access to basic necessities such as clean water, electricity and sanitation, and the government has no plans for their return. As the political crisis continues in the country and the sectarian violence spirals, lasting solutions to the displacement appear as distant as ever.


For years Iraq has faced persistent criticism for suppressing basic human rights of assembly and freedom of speech. The country’s security forces respond to peaceful protests with threats, violence and arrests. In many cases army and police forces have used lethal force on Sunni demonstrators gathering largely peacefully and killing and injuring many people.


The security forces have responded to protests against corruption and the lack of services in Baghdad and other cities with force, arresting, and in some instances beating, the protesters and then prosecuting them on charges of a failure to obey orders. The Iraqi Interior Ministry has invoked broad and restrictive regulations on protests to refuse permits for peaceful demonstrations, in contravention of Iraq’s constitutional guarantee of free assembly.


The Baghdad government and Kurdish authorities continue to use arbitrary power to impose curbs on the freedom of expression. More than 200 Iraqi employees of media networks have been killed since the invasion of March 2003, making Iraq the world’s most dangerous place for journalists. Iraq was named “worst nation” on the 2013 Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) for unsolved journalist murders.


TERRORIST GROUPS: The situation of human rights in Iraq has further deteriorated with IS terrorists taking over large chunks of land in June and committing savage crimes, including slaughter, carrying out mass executions, abducting women and girls as sex slaves, and using child soldiers.


In its 2 October report, produced jointly by its mission in Iraq (UNAMI) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United Nations talked of a “staggering array” of human rights abuses committed by IS militants and associated armed Sunni groups in Iraq.


Among the gross human rights violations and violence against religious minorities were forcing non-Muslims to convert to Islam. Those who refused have been forced to either pay a protection tax or leave their homes and towns.


Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as IS was formerly known, has been responsible for lethal suicide car bombings and other attacks, including the bombings of mosques, markets and residential areas. The attacks, directly targeting Shia soldiers and civilians and their neighbourhoods and worshiping places, have been largely responsible for the escalation in religious violence.


Al-Qaeda driven cycles of violence have also pushed the country’s Shias to retaliate. Shia militias, which began to remobilise earlier this year, have reportedly carried out retaliatory attacks, including on Sunni mosques. Government-backed Shia militias have also been kidnapping and killing Sunni civilians throughout Baghdad and in other mixed Sunni-Shia provinces.


Shia extremists have been accused of carrying out targeted or extrajudicial killings in some mixed districts and neighbourhoods. There have been reports that Shia armed groups have threatened Sunni residents with death if they did not leave the areas. The bodies of men, believed mostly to be Sunnis, who have been killed in execution-style killings are routinely found in Baghdad.


CORRUPTION AND LACK OF ACCOUNTABILITY: A cross-section of views from a wide range of regional and international rights organisations agree that 12 years after the collapse of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s repressive regime, many Iraqis today enjoy greater freedoms than they did under his rule. But the fundamental human rights gains that should have been achieved during the past decade have significantly failed to materialise.


Human rights groups have documented abuses in the Kurdish enclave that is under the jurisdiction of the autonomous Kurdistan Region. These abuses include the arbitrary arrests of critics of the government, torture and abuse in detention, and unsolved abductions and murders. Violations of freedom of expression and assembly have also been reported.


Widespread graft and corrupt governance reflect negatively on all human and civil rights.


Saddam’s Iraq was known for its shocking violations of human rights. Mass atrocities by the secret police, public executions, assassinations, disappearances and the detention of political opponents and destruction of their houses were just some of the methods the regime used to maintain control.


The post-Saddam governments’ response to the pervasive human rights violations in the country has been disappointing and marked by a lack of transparency and accountability and a disregard for human life and dignity. Both the Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights and the parliamentary Human Rights Committee have failed to put human rights at the forefront of their work. Iraq has set up a national human right commission which in theory should work to protect human rights and end abuses, but critics say it has been largely ineffective.


Next month will witness two major events which Iraqi rights activists hope will help focus world attention on the dilemma of human rights in Iraq. A group of Iraqi human rights activists will meet in Berlin to try to set up a national human rights organisation that will re-channel efforts by Iraqi groups to monitor abuses by the government and other non-state actors and pressure them to act according to human rights principles.


In Casablanca, Arab human rights advocates and groups will come together to work out a plan to advance the movement. The Iraqi participants are expected to urge delegates to the Casablanca conference, which will prepare for an international forum later in November, to put the human rights abuses in Iraq higher on the international agenda.


TURNING A BLIND EYE: The international community has done little to stop human rights violations in Iraq and in some cases has turned a blind eye to them. As the US-led coalition embarks on what seems to be a prolonged war against IS, the allies are required to ensure the protection of the civilian population against incidents by their own forces or reprisals by the Iraqi parties.


The international coalition should make human rights part of its political approach in Iraq, integrating them into its strategy to resolve the country’s conflict.


Violence, inequality and injustice in Iraq present a threat to the country’s future and to regional and world peace. The international community should maintain pressure on the country to rectify its appalling human rights record. Reconciliation, lasting peace and a healthy future for all its citizens will be impossible if past and present abuses are not addressed.


One major step which the international community should take now is to prevent Iraq from becoming an island of impunity. Iraq perhaps more than many other places qualifies for a tribunal of its own to address suspected war crimes and crimes against humanity. The world should send out a clear message that those who commit gross human rights crimes in Iraq should be prosecuted and punished no matter how much time has elapsed since the crimes were committed.


The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad Al-Hussein, has also called on the government of Iraq to consider acceding to the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court. In a report published earlier this month, Al-Hussein said Iraq should take immediate steps and “accept the exercise of the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction with respect to the current horrendous situation facing the country”.


The tribunal will offer the chance to put the perpetrators of the abuses on trial and condemn atrocities committed by government authorities and belligerent groups, and it will also help in resolving Iraq’s lingering sectarian conflicts which are now threatening world peace.

Chained to Al-Maliki’s legacy

The tragic legacy of former Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki continues to haunt the country, writes Salah Nasrawi
Shortly before he stepped down as prime minister under growing threats from the Islamic State (IS) terror group and increasing political instability, Iraq’s former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki appointed several of his operatives to key government posts.
Among the last minute reshuffles was naming his chief of staff as the new governor of the country’s Central Bank and his secretary as the new head of the cabinet office. Al-Maliki, who had staffed government and security forces posts with cronies during his tenure, also reportedly named another partisan as the new head of the state-owned Iraqi Media Network.
Moreover, Al-Maliki, who ended his term without a budget approved by parliament for the years 2014 and 2015, allegedly left his successor, Haidar Al-Abadi, taking over the reins with empty coffers due to unchecked overspending and rampant corruption.
Though Al-Maliki was appointed vice-president in the political deal that made him step aside, he has refused to give up his prime ministerial offices in one of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s former presidential palaces in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.
The Iraqi media has also reported that he has insisted on keeping the large army units tasked to protect the prime minister for his guard.
The message could not be clearer for Al-Abadi: Al-Maliki has been bidding to make life tough for the new prime minister by making him face enormous challenges. Yet, Al-Maliki, who reluctantly gave up his post to Al-Abadi, has not only added insult to injury as far as the new prime minister is concerned, but he has also raised tensions in Iraq’s already messy political process.
Now Al-Abadi must work with an entrenched bureaucracy in which most of those on the higher echelons are Al-Maliki loyalists and with a system created to serve the former strongman’s policies. The negative impact of Al-Maliki’s political appointees on the actions of the new prime minister and his staff is expected to be daunting.
In addition to the appointees that may get in the way of Al-Abadi, Al-Maliki has also been forcing himself into the political debate. Though his vice-presidential post is ceremonial, the former prime minister has not hesitated to intervene in controversial political issues.
He has been using his position as head of the State of Law bloc and secretary-general of Al-Abadi’s own Dawa Party to organise political meetings and discuss crucial government matters, such as its relations with the US-led international coalition to fight the Islamic State terror group.
Last week Al-Maliki told a gathering of Dawa Party supporters in Kut south of Baghdad that “all of you should stand with the government when [it moves] in the right direction and warn it against any wrong doing.” This was a veiled threat that Al-Maliki is still a heavyweight to be reckoned with and is still playing a role behind the scenes in Iraqi politics.
No one had expected Al-Maliki to disappear from public life after his forced resignation, but his comeback onto the Iraqi political scene has been surprisingly quick and aggressively bullying.
Since he came to power Al-Abadi has been subject to outbursts in social media dubbed by Iraqis as “Al-Maliki’s electronic army”. Nearly a dozen media outlets are said to be operated by Al-Maliki-hired spin doctors to spread anti-government misinformation.
Some of Al-Maliki’s cronies have been deriding Al-Abadi publicly. In an interview with the New York Times last week Hanan Al-Fatlawi, an outspoken Al-Maliki crony, described Al-Abadi as having a “weak personality” and “no courage to decide important things”.
Having promised a different governmental approach, Al-Abadi was expected to make changes to improve security and provide essential public services such as electricity, healthcare and housing.
Al-Abadi has been trying to dump Al-Maliki’s legacy by reaching out to other political forces. He has promised that his government will be all-inclusive and that his partners will share in decision-making.
Al-Abadi has also pledged to clean up the government and the security forces of corrupt and inefficient officials. One of his first steps in government was to abolish the office of the general command that was set up by Al-Maliki to run the day-to-day affairs of the security forces.
He had reportedly dismissed dozens of Al-Maliki-appointed top officers who are suspected of corruption, malpractice and incompetence. Others have been investigated, including on how they were promoted and assigned high commands despite weak performances.
On Saturday, Al-Abadi succeeded in convincing the parliament to endorse his candidates for the key posts of the defence and the interior ministers nearly one month after he formed his unity government.
The breakthrough is expected to consolidate Al-Abadi’s government as the country prepares to mount an effective military response to the IS onslaught.
Al-Maliki had previously vetoed the new Sunni Defence Minister Khalid Al-Obeid and insisted on his ally and leader of the Badr Corps Shia militia Hadi Al-Ameri for the interior minister portfolio.
There is speculation regarding Al-Maliki’s intentions in defying Al-Abadi, particularly since the new prime minister is a junior member of his own Dawa Party. There are also concerns that Al-Maliki may be trying to set up a second set of institutions or a double government, his strategy being to portray Al-Abadi as weak, ineffective and unable to face responsibility.
One theory is that Al-Maliki wants to establish himself as a Shia hero who can crack down on IS militants and other Sunni insurgent groups and ensure the future of a Shia government in Iraq.
Another theory is that Al-Maliki may be afraid that his political opponents will press the Iraqi and foreign judiciaries to bring him to account on charges such as mismanagement, negligence, corruption and even war crimes during his years in power.
Over the past eight years, Al-Maliki has been accused of power grabs and committing gross constitutional violations and overlooking or sidestepping the law. Despite damming evidence he has escaped prosecution because of the influence he has been able to exercise over the country’s judiciary.
In terms of human rights, the security forces under his command and other government agencies have been accused of all kinds of abuses and violations of freedoms, including the freedom of expression, publication, assembly and peaceful demonstration.
Under Al-Maliki’s government Iraq became a nation of corruption. Grafts, kickbacks, commissions and bribery became common practices, and while in office Al-Maliki fired three anti-corruption heads when they tried to probe his cronies.
Allegations about the corruption of his son Ahmed and other siblings abound.
Al-Maliki has also been accused of mishandling state funds, interfering in the operations of the Central Bank, and misusing assets in the Iraqi Development Fund. But perhaps the most serious charge against him is his responsibility for the disaster unfolding in Iraq today.
Al-Maliki failed to resolve the disputes with the autonomous Kurdish Region over oil-revenue sharing and disputed territories when he was in office. The Kurds finally succeeded in extracting oil themselves and selling it independently, also seizing territory as large as their original enclave.
For eight years Al-Maliki ran Iraq in a sectarian and authoritarian way which alienated the country’s minority Sunni Arabs, a policy which is primarily responsible for the unabated Sunni insurgency today.
Al-Maliki’s marginalisation and exclusion of the Sunnis and their repression by his security forces were largely responsible for the bloody insurgency and the violence that has ensued across Iraq.
Al-Maliki’s incompetence and negligence remain main factors underlying last summer’s spectacular collapse of the Iraqi security forces and the quick sweep of Sunni militants through Mosul and other Sunni-dominated provinces.
Even the country’s Shias suffered under his authoritarian rule.
In a scathing attack against him, a spokesman for the Iraqi Supreme Islamic Council Baligh Abu Galal was quoted on Sunday by Iraqi media outlets as describing Al-Maliki as an “enemy of Iraq, Islam and the Shias”.
On Monday, Shia grand ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who has shunned Al-Maliki for years, received Al-Abadi in an audience in a clear message of support for the latter and disdain for the former.
The quagmire in Iraq is America’s enduring folly, and the Al-Qaeda group, the forerunner to the murderous IS, also has had its own role to play in the on-going bloodbath. Iraq’s neighbours cannot be exempted either from the tragedy.
But the country’s post-Saddam leaders are primarily responsible for the catastrophe that has befallen Iraq and now threatens to obliterate it from the political map of the Middle East.
Among these leaders, Al-Maliki remains Iraq’s chief destroyer. Many Iraqis are dismayed by his legacy and are deeply concerned at the prospect that he will now continue meddling in Iraq’s chaotic politics.


Rocky start for Iraqi Guard

The Sunni-dominated Iraqi National Guard, promoted by the US to fight IS forces, may not in fact get off the ground, writes Salah Nasrawi
When Iraq’s speaker of parliament Salim Al-Joubouri invited Sunni dignitaries for discussions on proposed US plans to forge a local National Guard to fight the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group last week, the meeting soon descended into chaos after a spat broke out between rival politicians over who should be included in the new force.
Many Sunni tribal leaders stormed out of the meeting which was held at Al-Joubouri’s residence in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone in protest over the presence of several delegates whom the clan leaders accused of either being supportive or of having ties with the terrorist group.
“We walked out when we saw IS faces were sitting in the front seats. That was a provocation,” Wissam Al-Hardan, a leader of a pro-government Sunni group known as the Sahwas, or Awakening, and a tribal chieftain in the rebellious Anbar province, told reporters.
The row underscores the sharp divisions among Sunni tribes and political groups over the US project to integrate mainly Iraqi Sunni tribal militias into a local force to counter the growing IS threat.
It also highlights the contradictory approaches of the United States in dealing with the IS crisis as the terror group makes further advances threatening Anbar’s provincial capital of  Ramadi, the Iraqi Sunnis’ second-largest city, and edging closer to Baghdad.
Contrary to their enthusiasm to support and arm the Sunni armed groups fighting President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, the US’s Arab allies and Iraq’s neighbours have been reluctant to show similar support to the National Guard project in Iraq.
The Obama administration has floated the idea as one of various steps to push the Iraqis to unite to better confront the threat of the extremist group. In his rhetoric to sell his new Iraq strategy, US President Barack Obama has declared that the National Guard units would help Iraq’s Sunni communities to “secure their own freedom”.
The efforts come as US-led coalition warplanes have intensified bombing raids intended to push back the terrorist group, which is intent on seizing more land in Iraq after its major onslaught in June when it seized several key Sunni cities.
Washington, which has rejected the idea of sending combat troops to Iraq to fight IS, hopes that the National Guard will be a way of involving Iraqi Sunnis to provide troops to fight the IS extremists and to secure land and ensure security and stability later on.
Iraq’s new Shia Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, who has vehemently opposed plans to send foreign troops to Iraq, has reluctantly accepted the idea of the National Guard, but remains at loggerheads with the Obama administration over the details of its composition and its tasks and affiliation.
A law has yet to be drafted on the formation of the new force. But Al-Abadi’s government has so far been reluctant to table a bill for debate in the Iraqi parliament, or to allocate a budget and work out logistics, apparently because of sharp disagreements inside the coalition government.
Iraqi Shia leaders, meanwhile, have warned that if the Sunni force was established outside the Baghdad government’s control, any chances for peace would be derailed. They have demanded the Shia-led government’s strict supervision over the new force and the integration of their own militias into the National Guard.
The Kurds, who maintain their own Peshmerga forces, are also openly hostile to any plan to allow Arab troops to share the policing of provinces under their control, especially the oil-rich Kirkuk province and other disputed areas captured amidst the IS-triggered chaos.
For the Guard project to be a success, Washington will need to enlist the support of various Sunni groups. The Obama administration has named retired general John Allen to coordinate the international effort against IS and tasked him with efforts to help set up the Guard.
A vital piece of Allen’s strategy includes a plan to bolster the guard units under the authority of the provincial governors.
Allen, who served in Iraq during the 2003-2010 occupation and is said to have built relationships with the Sunni tribes who joined the “Awakening” movement in Anbar, has been tasked with helping to get a working deal with the Sunni tribes to institutionalise a version of the force.
Launching his efforts last week, Allen has met with a number of Sunni politicians and tribal chieftains in the Kurdish provincial capital of Erbil and neighbouring Jordan to tell them that fighting IS is the Sunnis’ duty. US diplomats have also worked hard to convince the leaders of the Sunni insurgency to abandon IS and join the new force.
Yet, too many Sunnis seem to be unconvinced, echoing the deep distrust in both the Americans and the Shia-led government. Some even seem to prefer to lend their support to IS, which they eye as vital in countering what they perceive as Shia domination.
The Sunni divide over the guard proposal is deep-rooted and could prove to be hard to fix. Some Sunni tribal leaders such as Al-Hardan, the Anbar Sahwa leader, dismiss the US-backed plan as an invitation to separatism. They prefer to work jointly with the government to deal with IS, but they demand weapons and funding.
Others support the US idea but suggest that priority in recruiting should be given to officers of the army of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and the force should be disassociated from Iraq’s army or federal police. They also suggest that Shia militias should not be included in the National Guard and have even pressed to dismantle them entirely.
There are still Sunni leaders who are pushing for foreign intervention by boots on the ground instead of creating the guard. They also want the US to help equip and train any Sunni force and sustain it.
On the other side of the divide, there are also Sunni extremists who are part of the insurgency and support IS and want to restore Sunni supremacy in Iraq. These Sunnis consider IS to be a lesser evil and an ally in the drive to topple the Baghdad Shia-led government.
It is quite evident, therefore, that the Iraqi Sunnis have divergent views and interests that could make the American plan unworkable.
Meanwhile, the country’s Shias have been resisting the purely Sunni National Guard as envisioned by the US plan. Shia leaders, including the cleric grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, have warned that such a force would be sectarian and would include Saddam-era army and security officers whom the Shias’ fear want to reverse post-Saddam Shia empowerment.
In general, most Shias, including those in the government, have strong doubts about the possibility that the American plan will defeat IS, and they are not certain that the strategy will allow Sunni moderates to triumph in the war. Moreover, the Shias fear that the new force will embolden Sunnis and weaken their own hard-won role in Iraqi politics.
Given these conundrums, the plans for creating the National Guard force remain a long shot, and creating a purely Sunni security architecture will be far from easy as it adds further complications to an already messy situation in Iraq.
Indeed, together with the coalition air strikes, this approach seems to have reduced Obama’s “degrade and destroy” IS strategy to tatters.
It is generally agreed, even by top US generals, that strikes by jets and drones alone cannot effectively address the problem. Only combat troops on the ground in Iraq can stop the advances of the IS terrorist organisation and ensure its defeat, observers say.
For Washington, which seems unwilling to shoulder its full security, political and moral responsibility in the war-devastated country, the proposal seems to be an attempt to seek a way out of its dilemmas and leave it to the Iraqis to pick up the pieces.
In addition to Iraqi Shia and Sunni scepticism, there are also regional problems which make the US plan unlikely to succeed. Among the fundamental flaws in the US approach is the fact that the Obama administration does not see eye-to-eye with key regional powers about who in fact is the enemy in Iraq.
With their conflicting agendas and endless disputes, Iraq’s neighbours and members of the US-led international coalition in Iraq have had difficulties in defining the enemy. Their disagreements will likely further complicate the US efforts and discredit the process of fighting IS.
While Iran will resist any arrangements in Iraq that will come at the expense of its Iraqi Shia allies, key Middle Eastern Sunni powerhouses, such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, will try to scuttle the war against IS if they feel it will grant Iran and its Iraqi Shia allies an opportunity to consolidate their regional gains.
On Monday, Iranian-Saudi disputes came into focus once again, underscoring the fact that regional understanding on Iraq and the IS crisis is unlikely to be possible.
While Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed the United States and its allies in the international coalition for creating the Islamic State terror group, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal has charged Shia-dominated Iran with being “part of the problem, not the solution”.
“If Iran wants to be part of the solution, it has to pull its forces out from Syria. The same applies elsewhere, whether in Yemen or Iraq,” the Saudi minister said.
In this case, the US effort, which has been trumpeted as akin to the US-sponsored “Awakening” councils that together with the “surge” myth was accredited with degrading Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006-2007, may turn out to fuel the on-going civil war and thus eventually contribute to the breaking up of Iraq.

Iraq’s leadership quandary

Will new Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi be able to turn around the fortunes of his country, asks Salah Nasrawi
When Haidar Al-Abadi was named Iraq’s new prime minister in August, Western powers, Iraq’s neighbours and the United Nations lauded his appointment as a promissing step forward in efforts to form a unity government that would work to salvage Iraq from a looming civil war.
US President Barack Obama praised Al-Abadi’s “political vision” and “inclusive nature” and hailed him as the right person to lead Iraq as the country faced an enormous threat from the Islamic State (IS) group that has seized nearly one-third of Iraq’s territory and has been edging towards Baghdad.
Many self-proclaimed Iraq experts in the Western media joined the chorus, drumming up the excitement at Al-Abadi’s appointment. They saw him as the man who would be able to turn around the failing policies of his predecessor Nuri Al-Maliki whose deeply authoritarian and sectarian model of rule has been largely blamed for the crisis in Iraq.
Many Iraqis also hoped that the British-educated Al-Abadi, the holder of a PhD in electronic engineering, would be able to bring about an improvement in Iraq’s fortunes.
In his government programme, Al-Abadi pledged to make the necessary changes, but the question is whether he will be able to deliver on them.
Al-Abadi made a political blunder last week in his first turn on the international stage, telling reporters during a visit to New York to attend the UN General Assembly that he had “accurate reports” about IS plans to attack the subway systems in the United States and Paris.
He claimed that the militants were American and French nationals and that they were in Iraqi custody.
US and French officials who would have expected to receive such important information beforehand through official channels said they had no evidence to back up Al-Abadi’s claims. To his further embarrassment, the international media were quick to mock him as being either out of touch or needlessly alarmist.
In other cases, the statement would have been considered as merely a breach of etiquette by a politician who had just taken office and was trying to seize global attention during a major world event. Yet, Al-Abadi’s diplomatic gaffe also revealed a lack of professionalism at a critical time and in a special place.
The blunder has put Al-Abadi’s sense of judgement and leadership qualities under the spotlight at a time when the international community is investing its hopes in him as demonstrating the leadership necessary to resolve Iraq’s lingering ethno-sectarian and power crisis.
Less than a month is hardly enough time to come to a full assessment of Al-Abadi’s governance, but it can certainly function as a diagnostic, especially when framed against the new prime minister’s minimal political experience.
Al-Abadi is an inexperienced leader who lacks the political stamina to deal effectively with complicated issues convincingly and for multiple audiences with their manifold interests and points of view.
With Iraq at a crucial turning point, the key question now is whether Al-Abadi can rise to expectations and provide the needed leadership. If not, he must shoulder responsibility for the failure of his government and eventually the breakup of Iraq.
Al-Abadi has daunting tasks ahead of him, principally to meet at least part of the expectations of ridding Iraq of Al-Maliki’s legacy of sectarianism, authoritarianism, inefficiency, rampant graft and a sclerotic political system.
One of Al-Abadi’s biggest challenges is the war against IS. The air strikes campaign launched by the US-led international coalition may have the potential to disrupt the terror group and limit its ability to make further advances, but it will not destroy the organisation.
The air strikes constitute asymmetric warfare, and the US top brass are not expected to venture into a war that could reveal weakness and vulnerability to adversaries eager to use such attacks.
Therefore, the coalition’s military strategy aims at tasking the Iraqi security forces with defeating the IS by fighting it on the ground. That is something Al-Abadi must undertake in his capacity as commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.
The group seems to have enlarged its membership since the stunning advances it carried out in June to tens of thousands of men, and it has reorganised itself and changed its strategy and tactics significantly. One of the notable tactics it has adopted is to offset its weakness against Iraq’s powerful air force by redeployment in residential areas.
In sum, while the coalition bombardment may have slowed down the advances of the group, it has not so far diminished its ability to operate on multiple fronts in Iraq. To the contrary, IS, which is backed by local Sunni groups and former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein loyalists, has been on the offensive in many parts of central Iraq, primarily on the periphery of Baghdad.
A closer look at the Iraq crisis shows pockets held by the group in the Baghdad belt that have been used to break the lines of the Iraqi security forces and threaten the capital.
Last month, the group launched two major attacks north and west of Baghdad and clashed with the security forces and Shia militias in many positions. Reports suggested that the group had deployed chlorine gas in some areas near Baghdad, adding a new dynamic to the war with the Iraqi forces.
The group has been on the offensive in many parts of the Baghdad zone. Last week, militants besieged Iraqi troops stationed west of Baghdad for four days before they overran their barricades and killed some 300 of them. They also seized equipment, weapons and military vehicles including tanks.
Car bombs and road blasts have continued in Baghdad in recent weeks. On 18 September, IS militants attacked a prison run by army intelligence, demonstrating their ability to breach heavy security systems. The explosions in Shia neighbourhoods were designed to show defiance to the Shia militias taking part in the fight against the group.
All in all, Iraq does not seem to have a military approach capable of defeating IS on the ground, and there are doubts of the ability of Al-Abadi to come up with a viable strategy until he starts the general rehabilitation of the Iraqi security forces.
Analysts agree that Iraq’s army is in a shambles, and aggressively combatting IS will need a better-trained and skilled army.
This will also require a leader of high calibre aided by advisors and professional staff chosen primarily for their competence and experience and not sectarian backgrounds and personal loyalties.
Al-Abadi has yet to show that he can make a significant difference to the way the security forces in Iraq were run by his predecessor, who turned them into corrupt and demoralised institutions.
On the political front, confusion also persists. Al-Abadi was expected to form a national unity government that would be tasked with reconciliation, particularly in order to win over Sunni communal leaders alienated by the sectarian approach of the former Al-Maliki government.
Al-Abadi’s government was also expected to end disagreements with the Kurds over sharing power and national resources.
Yet, the new government is far from being inclusive. In many respects it is still too much like the governments that were formed after the 2003 US-led invasion which brought together ethno-sectarian oligarchies from the three main communities, Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, while excluding the broader secular nationalist elites.
Washington has promoted the idea of including Sunnis in policing their areas by creating provincial National Guards as one of the conditions for an increase in US military assistance.
However, thus far Al-Abadi has not taken concrete steps to form the units, and Shia politicians have floated the idea of recruiting Shia militias as counterparts. Al-Abadi also still has no defence or interior minister due to wrangling between Shia and Sunni lawmakers.
Meanwhile, Kurdish ministers have not joined the cabinet pending the resolution of disputes over the state budget, oil revenues, the status of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the future of territories seized by the Kurds during the standoff with IS.
Al-Abadi also has problems with his fellow Shias. Over the past few days many Shias have declared themselves to be baffled by Al-Abadi’s commitment to the fight against IS, including his decision to stop air strikes against insurgent strongholds inside cities.
These Shias believe that the prime minister’s security agenda remains subservient to US preconditions.
One of the main problems that Iraqis expect Al-Abadi to handle is corruption. He has promised not to remain silent about this, but there is very little confidence that what needs to be done to curb graft in Iraq will in fact take place.
Al-Abadi’s cabinet includes some heavyweight Shia members who are expected to press for participation in decision-making. It is unlikely that he will be able to show the fortitude to stand up to them without displaying better leadership skills and quality.
Iraq’s post-Saddam leaders have been the targets of criticism for squandering opportunities to rebuild Iraq into a stable and democratic state. They have shown themselves to be incapable of taking bold and innovative policies in the past. Unfortunately, the same corrupt and greedy elites that were empowered by the US-led invasion are now in the seats of power in Baghdad and are bound to make the same mistakes as their predecessors.
Al-Abadi is not an exception. The way the Americans and other allies have been boosting his ego has been a form of insurance to excuse themselves from the responsibility of the anticipated failure of the campaign against IS, allowing them to blame this on Al-Abadi.
Given this, Iraq needs transformational leaders with strategic vision, courage, integrity and consensus-building abilities to introduce a new set of political initiatives that will transform the way the country is run and make it less like a conglomerate of fiefdoms.
Without such measures, Iraq will not survive the failures of its leaders. Instead, it will suffer regression and end its life as a unitary state all because the leaders who recognise the challenges before them are unwilling or incapable of doing what is needed to surmount them.