Can Al-Sistani save Iraq?

Can Al-Sistani save Iraq?

Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani helped put the Iraqi Shia in power, but can he save Iraq from the scourge that has besmirched their leaders, asks Salah Nasrawi

It was Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani’s most scathing criticism of the Shia-led government in Baghdad since he helped the Shia to gain political power in Iraq after the US ousted the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Al-Sistani’s warning that the country faced dire consequences, including possible partition, if real reform was not carried out reflects Iraq’s top Shia cleric’s increasing frustration with the government’s efforts at fighting unbridled corruption.

The call also comes as the Iraqi security forces and Shia paramilitary units struggle to drive the Islamic State (IS) terror group from the large swathes of territory its militants captured during a major offensive in summer last year.

“If real reform by fighting corruption relentlessly and if social justice on all levels are not achieved, the situation could get even worse and might, God forbid, push [Iraq] to partition which no nation-loving Iraqi would like,” Al-Sistani said in a written response from his office to questions from the media posted on his website.

“Without rampant corruption in government institutions, in particular the security forces, and without the abuse of power by officials, the Daesh (IS) terrorist organisation would not have been able to control a large part of Iraq’s territory,” Al-Sistani said, using the Arabic acronym for the jihadist group.

Al-Sistani’s stern warning came as thousands continued to protest in Baghdad and in the Shia-dominated south of Iraq as they have done for several weeks, calling for reform and actions to be taken against corruption and the lack of services, especially poor electricity supplies.

Since the demonstrations started in late July, Al-Sistani, who has unmatched clout among the Iraqi Shia, has made several calls for reform that have played a major role in driving prime minister Haider Al-Abadi to launch a reform programme.

On 7 August, Al-Sistani gave an unexpected boost to the protesters’ demands through one of his senior aides by calling on Al-Abadi to take tougher measures against corruption, saying the “minor steps” he had announced the week before were insufficient.

The following week, Al-Sistani called, through another senior aide, for reform in the country’s judiciary which many Iraqis believe is deeply corrupt and has failed to fight graft and strengthen the rule of law and human rights.

Apart from the protests, Al-Sistani has been showing signs of concern about the incompetence and greed of the Shia-led government and has spoken out in a political perspective about the need for change.

He has repeatedly called on Shia politicians to think of Iraq’s interests, not their own. Last year, he urged the leaders to refrain from clinging to their posts after a government crisis triggered by former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki who was seeking a third term in office despite his failure to muster enough support in parliament.

Since the overthrow of Saddam, the Iranian-born Al-Sistani, who is revered by millions worldwide, has played a key role in the emergence of Shia power in Iraq. The Shia had always perceived themselves as excluded under Sunni-led governments since Iraq’s independence from Britain in 1921.

Al-Sistani was keen that Iraq’s Shia majority would not be marginalised in the new political system. Shortly after the US-led invasion, he declared that an elected assembly should convene to write a new constitution and prepare the country for general elections.

Thanks to a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by Al-Sistani for the Shia to cast their ballots in Iraq’s first post-Saddam elections, the Shia groups came well ahead of Sunni and Kurdish rivals and gained a majority of seats in the new 275-seat parliament.

Last year, Al-Sistani took the unprecedented step of issuing a call to arms after Sunni-led insurgents seized more towns in Iraq. In his fatwa, Al-Sistani said that all citizens who were able to bear arms should volunteer to join the security forces to fight the terrorists, defend their country, their people and their holy places.

Thousands joined the Shia militias which played a crucial role in the defence of Baghdad and the two Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf as well as in retaking Sunni-populated cities and towns from the militants.

Now many Iraqis believe that without Al-Sistani’s call for “minor” jihad, most of Iraq, and probably the capital Baghdad, would have been lost to the IS terror group.

Today, however, the Shia-led government that Al-Sistani has supported with vigour and near-religious zeal is showing signs of a total slump, bogged down in dysfunction and infighting. There are fears that the damage done by the government is irreparable and could threaten the entire country’s future.

The situation has reached the point that most of those who have been protesting against the government are Shia. In many demonstrations, protesters have been shouting slogans against the religious Shia groups and their leaders who have created Iraq’s post-Saddam ruling oligarchy.

Al-Abadi has ordered cuts in cabinet and government posts and in the number of personal guards for officials. He has also ordered the reallocation of the funds budgeted for the positions and proposed cutting vacancies.

Still, to many Iraqis, Al-Abadi’s reforms seem unsubstantial and even cosmetic. Some believe that they are too little, too late. Others say that a major gap remains between statements and implementation.

The increasing public frustration with Al-Abadi’s foot-dragging could transform the peaceful protests into a more broad-based social and political revolt that would pit the demonstrators against the Shia ruling oligarchy, probably in a violent battle.

On Monday, the government deployed the army to quell a large sit-in the mostly Shia-populated city of Hilla south of Baghdad after police failed to disperse protesters who wanted to storm the governor’s offices.

A day earlier, protesters demanding jobs closed roads in many southern cities, including by blocking access to Iraq’s main commodity port in Um Qasr. In Karbala, demonstrators stormed government buildings and clashed with security forces.

The escalation of the protests will put Al-Sistani in a frustrating dilemma: a reclusive religious leader who avoids being engaged in politics is finding himself publicly handling one of the most serious crises that has faced Iraq since the US-led invasion.

There are daunting challenges that Al-Sistani will have to face if the protests in Baghdad and in the southern Shia provinces develop into a large-scale protest movement, or even an uprising against the Shia-led government.

Many protesters are accusing Al-Abadi of being weak and scorning him as being incapable of resisting the Shia political groups, including his own Dawa Party, which benefit from corruption and even from prolonging the war against IS.

These protesters believe that even with Al-Sistani’s backing for reform, the entrenched and corrupt Shia political leadership will make changes extremely difficult.

This is even more daunting because it means that Al-Sistani will have to work hard to ensure that the Shia oligarchy and the religious groups do not continue to take advantage of his standing at the expense of the moderate and secular Shia who are behind the current wave of protests.

There are signs that the protests have been creating a new cross-sectarian secular culture and a dynamic of citizenship that the Shia Islamic-oriented political leaders who feed on the Shia-Sunni divide fear will put their power at risk.

It is not yet clear just how far Al-Sistani, who has been carefully shielding the hard-won Shia power in Iraq, is prepared to go in support of the protesters, especially if they escalate their demands and call for dissolving the government, the parliament and the constitution.

One thing is crystal clear: the gulf that has opened up between Iraq’s silent Shia majority and its rulers has been highlighted by the recent protests and any misstep in handling the crisis will perhaps create greater dangers.

Al-Sistani, however, can seize an opportunity from the crisis by taking bold steps, including by isolating the entrenched Shia oligarchy which has been emboldened by the support of religious groups and encouraging the role of the secular Shia and their civil organisations in power.

This will also help to ease the sectarian polarisation in the country and facilitate a national rapprochement by isolating radical Sunnis and building bridges with moderate Sunnis who feel excluded by the Shia predominance.

How Al-Sistani will handle the crisis will be crucial not only for the Shia but also for the future of Iraq.

No faith in Mosul inquiry

No faith in Mosul inquiry

An inquiry into the fall of Mosul to Islamic State forces has finally been concluded, but it is unlikely to satisfy the Iraqi public, writes Salah Nasrawi

A long-awaited parliamentary commission report about the fall of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul to the Islamic State (IS) terror group has been finalised in Iraq amid controversy over its findings and the competence and independence of the panel.

An ad hoc parliamentary commission to investigate the fall of Mosul said on Sunday it had sent its final report to the parliament for endorsement. But efforts to muster enough support in parliament to approve the report have become entangled in a row over its outcome.

A ferocious battle immediately started over the commission’s main recommendation to refer former Iraqi prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki to face trial over the fall of Mosul. The move came a week after the present Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, launched a sweeping reform campaign which led to the abolishment of Al-Maliki’s post as vice-president.

On Monday, Speaker of the Parliament Salim Al-Jibouri scrapped a debate on the report by lawmakers after noisy protests by Al-Maliki’s supporters and asked members to vote on sending the findings to the judiciary to decide if legal action was needed.

The move is likely to open the door to a prolonged legal battle over the political nature of the case and the jurisdiction of the criminal courts to try officials accused of crimes related to military or national security matters.

Many Iraqis believe their judiciary is far from being truly independent. In the past, the judiciary has come under fire for being influenced by Al-Maliki himself, and last week Iraq’s top Shia Muslim cleric grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani called for reforms to the judiciary.

The row started immediately after the head of the commission, Hakim Al-Zamili, said the report had been endorsed by a majority of the panel’s members. Al-Maliki dismissed the findings as “worthless” and his supporters challenged the assertion as politically motivated.

Al-Zamili did not disclose details about the findings, but media reports quoting the report have said that some 35 military and government officials have been indicted by the panel for their role in the fall of Mosul.

The capture of Mosul shocked Iraqis who have sought to learn the truth about the seizure of the city and demanded that the perpetrators be brought to justice.

In addition to Al-Maliki, who also served as commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces at the time, the panel named acting Defence Minister Sadoun Al-Duliami, Deputy Minister of Interior Adnan Al-Assadi and governor of Nineveh Atheel Al-Nujaifi.

The list also includes chief of staff Babakr Zebari and two of his deputies. Other top brass named are the head of Al-Maliki’s military office Farouk Al-Aaraji and several army and police commanders. Several provincial government officials were also implicated.

Al-Maliki had refused to be quizzed by the commission and instead sent written testimony. Sunni Iraqi Vice-President Osama Al-Nuajaifi and Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani also sent written answers, but the two were cleared by the findings.

In June last year IS jihadists seized control of Mosul, routing the Iraqi army in the city of more than one million people. Later they advanced to consolidate their hold over dozens of cities and towns in western and northern Iraq and formally declared the establishment of an Islamic “caliphate” with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi as caliph, or its head.

The advances and the declaration of the “Islamic State” sent shockwaves around the world and pushed the United States to form an international coalition to fight the group, which has also extended its control to vast areas in neighbouring Syria.

For many Iraqis and foreign observers, the reasons behind the fall of Mosul have remained dubious, especially since a large contingent of army and police force was policing the city and its surroundings before the IS onslaught.

The investigation started in December after months of wrangling about its jurisdiction and the competence of its members. The panel was originally composed of a few members of the parliament’s defence and security committee but was later expanded to include some 26 lawmakers to reflect political, ethnic and sectarian diversity.

Al-Zamili said the commission had relied on testimonies, evidence, witnesses and documents related to the fall of Mosul to reach its conclusions. At his Sunday press conference Al-Zamili referred to an unspecified foreign role in the capture of Mosul, and in a television interview later he indicated that the Turkish consulate in Mosul had been involved.

Information emerging shortly after the fall of Mosul and details given to the media by some officers, including some of those who were named by the panel, indicated enormous corruption, incompetence, recklessness, negligence and dereliction of duty by top commanders and politicians.

The events ran from 10 June last year, when dozens of IS militants overpowered a tens-of-thousands strong garrison in Mosul, a sprawling city of mostly Sunni Arabs mixed with small ethnic minorities of Kurds, Turkmen and Christians.

According to various accounts, IS militants had taken over many neighbourhoods in the city days beforehand, exploiting the lack of resistance by the security forces and in some cases in collaboration with the local police.

In the hours before the militants took overall control of the city, tens of thousands of army and police personnel vanished from their camps and posts, leaving behind huge quantities of weapons, vehicles and equipment.

The commanders who had fled their posts and abandoned their soldiers exchanged blame about the state of disarray which they had left behind, forcing units to retreat or surrender.

The commission findings showed that “responsibility for the fall of Mosul to the criminal gangs of IS lies in the political and security leadership,” the report said, using the Arabic acronym of the terror group.

It said that “the commander of the Armed Forces and former prime minister [Al-Maliki] did not have a clear idea about the security situation in Nineveh because he was relying in his assessment on misleading information sent by military and security commanders without double-checking it.”

Among the wrongdoings attributed to Al-Maliki is his “appointment of incompetent and corrupt commanders” without “subjecting them to vetting and accountability.”

The report highlighted Al-Maliki’s failure “to build the army and provide it with appropriate weaponry and training.” It said he had promoted loyal officers without consideration for the army’s command system and power structure.

One of the serious accusations against Al-Maliki made by the report is that he failed to deal with the aftermath of the fall of Mosul, costing Iraq more territory.

The Nineveh governor is also charged with “creating an atmosphere hostile to the security forces in the province,” a reference to his repeated claims that the largely Shia-dominated security forces were mistreating the local population.

Several military commanders, including the Iraqi chief of staff and other senior officers, were blamed for negligence and corruption and held responsible for the capture of the city.

While some Iraqis welcomed the report as a positive step towards revealing the truth about what happened in Mosul, many fear the exercise needed to be more open and transparent. Others have warned of a whitewash, citing the secrecy of the deliberations and the dilution of the findings.

Now all Iraqis’ eyes are on Al-Abadi, many people waiting with bated breath to see how he will react to the deadlock over the Mosul findings as he continues his drive to bring change to the government, including getting rid of Al-Maliki’s legacy.

Hours before the disclosure of the report Al-Abadi approved a decision by an investigative council to refer military commanders to a court martial for abandoning their positions in the battle against IS militants in Ramadi in May.

There are increasing fears that Al-Maliki, who leads a parliamentary bloc of some 80 lawmakers and enjoys the support of his Dawa Party and some Iran-backed militias, will try to tip the panel’s recommendations away from what they are supposed to be.

Many members of his State of Law bloc have threatened to boycott the parliament if Al-Maliki is put on trial.

“Why should Al-Maliki be held responsible,” asked Amir Al-Khuzaei, one of his key supporters, during an interview.

“The Prophet Mohamed wasn’t responsible for [the defeat] at the Battle of Uhud. The archers were,” he told the Iranian-owned Al-Itijah television channel.

He was referring to the 7th-century battle that the Prophet Mohamed lost to infidels in Mecca.

This article appeared first in Al-Ahram Weekly on August 20, 2015

Why Iraq’s protests matter

Why Iraq’s protests matter

The protests in Iraq may not produce change immediately, but they will affect the country’s ailing system of government in the long run, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraqis are taking to the streets. Thousands gathered in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square on 7 August to protest against corruption and the centralisation of power. Similar protests took place in other cities, including Basra and the two Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Hundreds of Iraqis also gathered in front of several Iraqi embassies abroad in support of the protests.

Friday’s demonstrations, organised by young activists and joined by the disenchanted, were the second in a week in Baghdad and across Iraq, with participants initially calling on the government to address the country’s chronic energy shortages and lack of basic public services.

Temperatures above 50 degrees and power cuts that leave Iraqis with only a few hours of electricity per day coupled with severe shortages in running water and an unhealthy environment have exacerbated the effects of the current heat wave in the country.

The protesters blame the lack of essential services on poor government and rampant corruption. They say the crisis has stalled Iraq’s once-promising economy and contributed to the country’s instability. Many protesters blame corruption for wrecking living conditions and the country’s economic and political turmoil together with the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Twelve years after the ouster of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s regime in the US-led invasion, Iraq’s ruling class has failed to rebuild the war-torn country despite receiving nearly one trillion dollars in oil revenues, leaving behind a deeply divided country steeped in ruin.

Leaving Iraq’s fragile political system unfettered, corruption has become deeply entrenched in Iraq’s state bureaucracy, and few Iraqis believe their political leaders are capable or willing to tackle the endemic graft problem.

In its 2014 corruption index, the international NGO Transparency International said Iraq was the fifth-most corrupt country in the world out of the 175 countries surveyed. Over more than a decade Iraq has remained among the top ten worse countries for corruption.

Most of Iraq’s political elite is believed to be involved in one type of corruption or another, plundering the country’s wealth in order to create rents that can be used to secure control of the government and build political and sectarian fiefdoms.

Corruption and the misuse of public office in Iraq is widespread and systematic. It includes bribery, extortion, embezzlement, fraud, legal plunder, money-trafficking and laundering, patronage, cronyism, nepotism and plutocracy.

Iraqis began unprecedented mass protests against corruption and government mismanagement in January 2011, influenced by the Arab Spring uprisings which broke out in several Arab countries to bring down their autocratic regimes.

Though former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki ruthlessly cracked down on the opposition, anti-corruption and pro-reform demonstrators continued to hold small protests every now and then but with no efforts made by the government to accede to the protesters’ demands.

The new wave of demonstrations against the electricity shortages started last month in the southern port city of Basra and was triggered by the killing of a demonstrator protesting against electricity cuts. Angry protesters then called on the local governor and council members to step down.

Late last week, train drivers for the Iraqi Railways Company protested in an unprecedented way at the delay in their monthly salaries when they blocked the main roads in Baghdad with trains. The staff of several state-owned industrial companies held similar demonstrations and cut roads in Baghdad for the same reason.

On 7 August, the security forces were out in strength to discourage protesters from reaching Tahrir Square in the heart of Baghdad, which had been chosen by organisers as the venue for their rally. Intimidation and harassment by the security forces and supporters of the ruling parties were reported to have forced thousands of people to join the demonstrations.

Public frustration has been building after the government announced austerity measures this year because of the severe budget deficit following a sharp fall in oil prices. However, it maintained the huge salaries and allowances received by senior officials.

Although the protesters have focused most of their anger on deteriorating living conditions and an almost total abandonment by the state of its responsibilities to society, the demonstrations have also highlighted Iraq’s deeper governance problems.

This wave of protests has revealed new forms of political mobilisation in response to ever-increasing grievances against the monopoly of power, political hegemony, cronyism and mismanagement.

Significantly, the protests have been held mostly in Shia-populated cities and towns, marking increasing dissatisfaction by the Iraqi Shia with the political class, mostly Islamic-oriented groups.

In a rare show of disdain for the Shia political oligarchy, protesters slammed what they called its “manipulation” of religion to maintain a grip on power and plunder the state’s resources.

Such sharp public salvos must have rung alarm bells with Shia religious and political leaders who are keen to defend the hard-won Shia rule in Iraq after the US-led invasion, especially at a time when they are being challenged by IS militants who control large swaths of land in Iraq.

The remarks must also have sounded a warning signal to elements of the Shia political groups who support the rule of clerics in state affairs based on Iranian ayatollah Khamenei’s concept of velayat faqih, or the rule of the jurist.

Sensing the danger to the Shia gains he has carefully nurtured, Iraq’s top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani was quick to intervene and directed Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi to take tougher measures against corruption and name politicians standing in the way of reform.

But criticisms of rising theocracy by the protesters have evoked strong reactions from Shia clerics and religious groups, who have attacked the organisers for being secular.

Sadr Al-Din Qubanchi, a Friday prayer imam in Najaf and a senior member of the Iraqi Supreme Council led by Amar Al-Hakim, called on Iraqis to boycott the demonstrations. Qais Al-Khazali, leader of the radical Assab Ahl Al-Haq, or “League of the Righteous,” militia, warned that the protesters “will be crossing a red line” if they criticise “religious elements.”

The protests have invested new energy in long-stagnating Iraqi politics, however. In an attempt to appease the protesters, Al-Abadi approved a wide-ranging reform plan that would abolish the three vice-presidential posts in the government as well as the office of deputy prime minister in order to slash spending and improve the government’s performance in the face of the mass protests.

Al-Abadi’s seven-point plan which promises anti-corruption reforms, a number of government posts be filled with political independents and drastic cuts in government jobs and some ministries has received parliamentary approval.

Doubts have also arisen about whether Al-Abadi’s package of reforms will be able to assuage the protesters, as many of them have voiced concerns that their demands for real change have gone unanswered.

To many analysts, the crisis would exacerbate if young activists will be able to forge across-nation alliance that will organize a bigger protest movement in case the reform programme falls short of their expectations.

Meanwhile, the protests and the power struggles they have led to have fully exposed the dysfunctional political system in Iraq forged following the US-led invasion and based on a quota system that distributes power among Iraq’s main ethnic and sectarian groups.

The system, in theory forged to build a consensual democracy through power-sharing, has turned into the rule of an oligarchy where power resides with a political class controlled by a few religious families or groups.

The question now is whether the new crisis will change all that and allow a new and more viable and functional political system to emerge. This will largely depend on how the protest movement evolves and on whether it can provide a creative leadership and shape a strategic programme with realistic goals.

So far, the biggest weakness in the protest movement has been its fragmentation and lack of leadership. This makes it prone to manipulation by politicians who try to use the protests as a revolving door to go back to dirty politics.

There have already been signs that politicians and media figures with agendas are trying to use the protests to serve their own agendas. Leaders of groups that have been excluded from the government and militia chieftains aspiring for power are also taking advantage of the protests by adopting their slogans.

On the other hand, much will also depend on Al-Abadi and on whether he can deliver on pledges he has made in his reform programme. One of his biggest challenges will be how to deal with the country’s entrenched oligarchy, including vice-president and former prime minister Al-Maliki.

Al-Maliki who is Al-Abadi’s boss in the Dawa Party, is at the top of the protesters’ list of those they want to see stand trial on corruption and mismanagement charges, including by losing some one-third of Iraqi territory to IS jihadists.

While it is too early to judge the pros and cons of Iraq’s nascent protest movement, one of the most complex experiences in the country’s modern history, the effort is certainly being made, and it is worth supporting if it sets in motion a process that will help Iraq change and hopefully for the better.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Aug, 13, 2015

The dilemma of arming Iraq

The dilemma of arming Iraq

Iraq depends on imported arms for its defence and in the fight against Islamic State, but its purchasing plans have been in trouble, writes Salah Nasrawi

The celebrations at the Balad Airbase in north Baghdad on 13 July to mark the arrival of four F-16 jets that Iraq had bought from the United States spoke volumes about Iraq’s arms acquisition programme, as the country remains gridlocked in the war against Islamic State (IS) militants, communal tensions and growing regional turmoil.

While the Iraqi security forces are in dire need of advanced weapons to fight the IS terror group and face up to increasing threats from neighbours, the government has been apparently helplessly caught in a trap of arms sales’ restrictions, foreign policy restraints, local sectarian struggles, and severe budget shortages.

Corruption and inefficiency in the security forces are well-known additional problems for Iraq’s arms supplies. When IS militants seized large swathes of the country last year, the army abandoned huge amounts of military vehicles and weapons. Large quantities of equipment were also lost to IS when the jihadists captured Ramadi in May.

The dilemma of arming Iraq is expected to undermine plans to drive back IS and in the long run to block efforts to restore stability to the war-torn nation and stop its neighbours from interfering in the country’s internal affairs.

The case of the F-16 jets is just one example of how Iraq has been unable to build a defence procurement programme appropriate to its security needs some 12 years after Washington dissolved the Iraqi army after the US-led invasion of the country.

Baghdad ordered 36 of the $65 million Lockheed Martin planes in 2011, but deliveries were delayed several times despite Iraq’s repeated requests to speed up the transfer to boost its ability to defend its airspace and borders.

The decision to send four F-16 warplanes was made only after Iraq threatened to cancel the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) it signed with the United States in 2008 which obliges Washington to help Iraq enhance its ability “to deter all threats against its sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.”

More crippling hurdles surfaced shortly after the Iraqi air force showed off the first delivery at the Balad Airbase, when Kurdish officials revealed that the deal had come with strings attached and that it did not give the Baghdad government free rein to operate the planes.

A media outlet close to Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s ruling party said this week that the Kurds should have a say on how the planes would be operated. It claimed that the US had made it clear to Baghdad that it could not operate the jets in combat missions over Iraqi towns and cities.

“The jets are ready to use, but they will not be used against IS for the time being,” Rudaw quoted a Kurdish MP as saying. He said that “no Iraqi F-16 combat missions are allowed without Kurdish pilots.”

Rudaw quoted another Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) official as raising concerns that the newly acquired jets could be used to attack the Kurds in the event of a Baghdad-Kurdish conflict. Neither Baghdad nor Washington has reacted to these reports.

Like the Kurds, Israel and Iraq’s Arab neighbours have put pressure on Washington not to deliver the planes. As a result, the jets were downgraded to the F-16IQ Block 52 type that have lesser capabilities than the more advanced F-16C/D Block 52 base systems which many other Middle Eastern nations have.

For example, the jets to be shipped to Iraq will not have sophisticated air-to-ground weapons like GPS-guided JDAMs, or advanced air-to-air missiles, and this has been designed to alleviate Israel’s and the country’s Arab neighbours’ fears.

Such revelations have increased doubts that the jets can provide Iraq with an air-defence force that can deal with threats from its neighbours having more advanced air forces, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, or have at least some of the equipment required to handle serious threats.

Iraq is now believed to have some 137 military aircraft, down from the some 950 planes shortly before the 1991 Gulf War that dislodged former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. Iraq’s current fleet consists mostly of transport and training planes, with only about 15 Russian-made Su-24 Sukhoi bombers in its arsenal.

On 6 July, a Sukhoi dropped a bomb accidently on a Baghdad neighbourhood, killing at least eight people and wounding others. The Iraqi air force said the jet, returning from a bombing raid against IS militants, had experienced a “technical problem” that had caused the bomb to fall.

Iraq has been relying heavily on US-led coalition warplanes to carry out airstrikes against IS targets. There have also been reports of Iran’s air force attacking IS targets in Iraq after the jihadi group captured the Iraqi city of Mosul in summer 2014.

Nevertheless, the current dilemma is not only about planes. Iraq has also complained of receiving downgraded or overused weapons coming from US army stockpiles. Other complaints include severe political conditions attached to the deals and overpricing.

The US newspaper US News & World Report reported last week that Baghdad had accepted only 300 of the some 3,000 pieces of the mine-resistant, ambush-protected combat trucks, or MRAPs, that the US had offered to provide it with.

The MRAPs were part of a delivery of vehicles that was made up largely of equipment withdrawn from Afghanistan and stockpiled in Kuwait. It is not clear why the US has been reluctant to provide Iraq with new types of trucks.

To show how serious the problem is, Iraq has signed some US$15 billion worth of arms orders with the United States, but many of them still need to receive the green light from government agencies and be approved by Congress.

In response to these hurdles, Iraq has sought to diversify the sources of its imports of weapons and technology and reduce its dependence on the United States. By inviting more players, such as Russia, China and the Czech Republic, to the table, Iraq hopes to dissuade Washington from exercising a monopoly over Iraq or of trying to blackmail it.

Last week, Iraqi defence minister Khalid Obaidi travelled to Moscow to sign a new deal with the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSMTC), the country’s biggest arms supplier.

Neither Baghdad nor Moscow revealed details about the deal, but FSMTC head Alexander Fomin told Russian media that Moscow was committed to helping Iraq strengthen its military capabilities in the light of current terror threats.

Moscow and Baghdad have also been expanding their military cooperation. In 2012, the Baghdad government signed a deal with Russia’s Rosoboronexport that has been variously estimated at US$4.2 to US$5 billion to provide Iraq with Mi-35 and Mi-28NE attack helicopters plus mobile SA-22 Pantsir low-level air-defence systems.

Russian officials, including president Vladimir Putin, have said that Moscow is ready to supply weapons to Iraq to aid the fight against the militants. The Russian-made helicopters have been extensively used to fight, seize and defend land retaken from IS.

Since IS advances last year, there have been reports that many other countries have sent weapons, ammunition and equipment to tackle the militants’ push, but the claims of the arms shipments appear to have been exaggerated.

The situation, however, remains dire, with evident serious weaknesses in the Iraqi security forces and a lack of the necessary equipment to defeat IS or to defend Iraq against regional threats.

Undoubtedly, the Iraqi government and military command bear primary responsibility for the mismanagement of the country’s armaments programme, largely due to their failure to rebuild an efficient Iraqi army.

Incompetence and corruption have played a large part in worsening this problem despite an annual military expenditure of some 25 per cent of the country’s gross national product (GNP) since post-Saddam Iraq had its first elected government in 2006.

The country’s economic crisis due to the sharp fall in oil prices and the subsequent shortage of funding is expected to hit the armaments programme hard and with it the Iraqi security forces’ performance in the war against IS.

However, by relinquishing their responsibility to arm the Iraqi security forces the world, and in particular the United States, is walking away from Iraq, allowing the war against IS to drag on and putting time on the IS side.

Until they rethink their overall strategy in fighting IS, including a review of their modest weapons supplies to Baghdad, the world powers will stand accused of failing to defeat the terrorist group and of preventing Iraq’s collapse.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on Aug, 6, 2015