Tag Archives: Iraq

What is Turkey up to in Iraq?

What is Turkey up to in Iraq?

Turkey is stepping up its confrontational rhetoric against Iraq. It is time to recognise its threat to regional geopolitics, writes Salah Nasrawi

The heated diplomatic bickering between Iraq and Turkey over the liberation of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) terror group prompts two questions. Is the worst of the tug of war between the two neighbouring countries now coming, and what impact will the conflict have on the regional order?

The latest row started when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that once Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was taken back from IS, it should be for Sunni Muslims only, excluding Shia Muslims and other religious minorities from the city.

“I want to make it clear that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Western coalition will not allow sectarian domination [in Mosul]. But there is a key question: Who will then control the city? Of course, Sunni Arabs, Sunni Turkmens and Sunni Kurds,” Erdogan told a Saudi-owned television network on 2 October.

Iraq’s Shia-dominated “Popular Mobilisation Force PMF should not be allowed to enter Mosul,” Erdogan said through an interpreter.

Earlier, Erdogan said that the Turkish army would play a role in the looming battle to liberate Mosul from IS and that no party could prevent this from happening. “We will play a role in the Mosul liberation operation and no one can prevent us from participating,” Erdogan told the Turkish parliament.

Turkey has an estimated 2,000 troops in Bashiqa some 12km east of Mosul. Ankara maintains that the troops are necessary to protect the Turkish military mission at a camp for training Iraqi fighters who hope to participate in the battle to recapture Mosul.

The Turkish parliament last week extended a government mandate by one year that allows Turkish troops to remain on Iraqi and Syrian soil. Turkey launched a major military operation in northern Syria in August to clear Kurdish insurgents from the frontier region, and the onslaught raised concerns of further escalation in increasingly fraught regional conflicts.

Erdogan’s escalation over Mosul immediately provoked reactions from Iraq. The Iraqi parliament labelled the Turkish troops an ‘occupying force,’ while the government requested an emergency session of the UN Security Council “to discuss the Turkish encroachment onto Iraqi territory and intervention in its internal affairs.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi raised fears that Turkey’s move could lead to regional war, and the leaders of Iran-backed Shia militias threatened to fight the Turkish troops and expel them from Iraq by force.

Ankara has, meanwhile, lambasted the Iraqi reaction and insisted that it will not withdraw its troops from Iraq. The Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned the Iraqi ambassador in Ankara to protest against the Iraqi parliament’s unacceptable resolution.

Baghdad then summoned the Turkish envoy in Iraq in a tit-for-tat move.

In examining the Turkish argument over the crisis, five claims emerge that underline Ankara’s policy towards post-IS Iraq.

First, Turkish troops have been invited into the country by Iraq and their presence there is upon agreement with the Baghdad government. Some Turkish officials say the troop presence was arranged through president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani.

Iraqi officials categorically deny that the Turkish troops are in the country with Baghdad’s permission or knowledge, however. They also say that Barzani has no legal authority to invite foreign forces into Iraq.

Second, Turkey maintains that troops from 63 foreign countries have been sent into Iraq without Iraq objecting. Baghdad says that only foreign military experts have been invited in by the Iraqi government and they are not combat troops.

Third, Turkey claims Iraq is fragmented and has no right to object to the Turkish military presence. Turkish officials say that the Iraqi authorities are weak and cannot control events on the ground. Iraqi officials insist, however, that their country is a sovereign state and that Iraqi security forces are capable of stabilising Mosul after its liberation.

Fourth, Turkish officials say their troops were sent in to protect Sunni Turkmen in Mosul and to ensure that the demographic structure of the region will not be changed following the city’s recapture from IS.

Fifth, Turkey maintains that the troops are there to fight IS militants alongside the US-led international coalition. Both Baghdad and Washington say the Turkish army is on its own in Iraq and is not part of the alliance.

Sixth, Turkey claims that Iran’s influence in Iraq has increased since the sudden advances by IS in the summer of 2014, with the leaders of the Tehran-backed PMF showing the determination of their Shia fighters to participate in the Mosul offensive. Iraqi officials, meanwhile, reject Mosul’s being turned into a battleground for proxy regional conflicts.

On this score, Turkey’s narrative about Mosul effectively illustrates its desire to assert a direct military and strategic role in Iraq. Turkish officials say their troops will remain in Iraq despite Baghdad’s growing anger ahead of the planned operation to retake Mosul from IS.

As the launch of the operation to liberate Mosul approaches, tensions between the two sides have escalated.

Baghdad insists that there is no role for Turkish forces in the liberation of Mosul. Al-Abadi has warned Turkey that the “presence of its troops in Iraq won’t be a picnic.” The leaders of the PMF have also threatened possible attacks against Turkish troops when the Mosul offensive starts.

For many analysts, the shrill rhetoric and sabre-rattling emanating from Iraq and Turkey in recent days threatens to turn the battle for Mosul into another regional conflict, with attempts by competing powers to gain advantage by changing the facts on the ground.

Turkey is playing a risky game in the Iraqi conflict that could even lead to a wider war. The presence of the Turkish forces in the vicinity of the war zone with IS could spark a direct military confrontation between the Turkish troops and the advancing Iraqi forces.

With the participation of the PMF fighters who regard Turkey as an expansionist power trying to create a de facto presence in northern Iraq, the stakes are high that the standoff will turn into a broader, and more dangerous confrontation.

Turkey has taken to arguing that it has no territorial ambitions in Iraq and that it is only in the country to defend its interests and fight Kurdish insurgents who threaten Turkey’s national unity.

Yet, there is a broad consensus that the assertive Turkish approach in Iraq entails far-reaching geopolitical interests that are more than what they appear to be in Turkey’s claiming to help to defeat IS.

To understand the direction of Turkey’s foreign policy in post-IS Mosul, it is necessary to ask why Turkey is extending its security interests to northern Iraq as the country prepares to retake Mosul from the militants.

Turkey’s long-term strategy is based on attempts to scuttle efforts by the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria to establish an independent Kurdish state on its southern borders.

In order to benefit from what is expected to be a prolonged period of instability in northern Iraq following the liberation of Mosul, Turkey wants the strategic city to be a cornerstone in its plans to create a pocket of territory separating Iraqi Kurdistan from Kurdish-held territories in neighbouring Syria.

Together with dozens of outposts inside Iraqi Kurdistan and the security zone Turkey is building in northern Syria, Turkish strategists hope to erect barriers that will make the Kurdish dream of a state on its southern borders a mere ‘Swiss cheese’ under its control.

The real problem with this approach, however, is that building military settlements with cooperation from local (Sunni) populations might be impossible to achieve without plunging the region into a broader ethno-sectarian conflict.

On Saturday, five major parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region blasted the presence of Turkish troops in Mosul as ‘illegal’ and demanded that Turkey immediately withdraw its troops from Iraq.

They said they were “committed to preserving the sovereignty of the land of Kurdistan”. Some of the groups, such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, have been working closely with Turkish separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas who have exploited the chaos in Mosul to build up bases in the area.

Ankara’s other concern is that the possible power shifts and geopolitical changes that will take place after the liberation of Mosul could give Iran advantages over Turkey. Turkey fears that the presence of PMF forces, which it believes are an umbrella for Tehran-backed Shia militias, will shift the balance and strengthen Iran’s position in the region.

On Tuesday Erdogan escalated his barbs and insult against al-Abadi.

“Know your limits. You are not in my quality. Even you are not in my level,”   Erdogan told al-Abadi in an address in Istanbul.

“The Turkish military will enter Mosul,” he added.

Nevertheless, by insisting that its troops will stay in Iraq despite its government’s rejection and widespread public opposition, Turkey is fundamentally challenging not only the established borders of Iraq but also the established regional order.

The sad reality is that the two countries have lacked diplomatic traffic or reasonable interlocutors to try to defuse the tensions and deter a flare-up. Hopes of a breakthrough are being undermined by Ankara’s insistence that it is not belligerent and by Baghdad’s rhetoric.

As things stand, northern Iraq may be heading towards a more dangerous confrontation after the collapse of IS in Mosul, and the entire region could face a greater threat than at any other point during the Iraqi and Syrian crises.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on October 13, 2016

Sleeping with the enemy

Salah EB

Sleeping with the enemy

Washington’s way of doing business with Iraq’s Shia militias will test US strategy in the Middle East as never before, writes Salah Nasrawi

When Iraq’s Shia militias began rising to prominence following advances made by the Islamic State (IS) terror group in 2014, the United States put Baghdad on notice that it could lose military support if Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi did not reign in militiamen accused of stocking sectarianism.

Official US policy towards the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), the umbrella organisation of scores of Shia militias, was negative.

On many occasions the Obama administration threatened that the US-led coalition fighting IS would withhold support for the Iraqi security forces if the Iran-backed militias were deployed in battle, claiming that their involvement could help the militants rally Sunni residents to their cause.

Things have changed a lot since then. Another script is now running, as Washington seems to be looking favourably on a long-term enemy whom the United States and its regional Sunni allies have accused of being Iran’s proxy in the conflicts in Iraq.

The first glaring sign that Washington had found a new friend in Iraq’s Shia militias came from Brett McGurk, the Obama administration’s point man to Iraq officially known as the US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter IS.

On 21 October last year, McGurk tweeted that “the US commends progress by Iraqi security forces & popular mobilisation forces against #ISIL terrorist in Baiji.”

In another tweet he wrote “these units performed heroically over months of fighting, and we now look forward to strengthening our partnership in coming offensives.” Soon Washington dropped its former resolve, and policy began moving in an affirmative direction towards the old adversary.

Now the United States is no longer objecting to PMF participation in battles against IS, and in many operations US warplanes have provided aerial support to PMF units.

On 12 March, US consul-general in Basra Steve Walker visited the Al-Sadr Teaching Hospital in the city to pay his respects to wounded members of the PMF. The visit marked the first time a top US official had publicly met members of the Shia militias.

In June, a declaration by a state department-sponsored coalition conference in Washington officially endorsed the PMF as a partner in the war against IS.

But the most dramatic shift in the US strategy in Iraq came nearly two weeks ago when Western diplomats working closely with Washington met secretly with PMF leaders outside Iraq.

The Monitor, a US-based media outlet specialising in Middle Eastern affairs, reported on 19 August that the Lebanese capital Beirut had been the scene of a series of secret meetings between Western diplomats and UN officials and PMF leaders.

It said the meetings, arranged by “one of the UN organisations operating in Iraq,” had been held in a Beirut hotel from 8 to 11 August. A PMF delegate told the media outlet that the meetings had been requested by Western governments and insisted that they were closely coordinating the move with Washington.

A spokesperson for the PMF in Baghdad gave a slightly different version of the discussions, however. Moein Al-Kadhumi said the meetings had been sponsored by the Helsinki-based International Dialogue on Peace Building and State Building to discuss the future role of the PMF in the war against IS.

The Monitor, however, quoted the militia leader as saying the discussions with the Western diplomats “covered almost everything”.

Among the key issues the diplomats wanted to clarify was whether the tens of thousands-strong paramilitary force would be “fully merged with the Iraqi army,” as Al-Abadi has decreed.

“Our answer was clear. We will be a military force that is part of the Iraqi state, but not part of the Iraqi army,” the leader told Al-Monitor. He said the PMF delegation had made it clear that “we will be an alternative army subordinated to the state, just like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

The PMF leader said the Western diplomats also wanted to know if the militias were considering plans to take part in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018 and if they would join any political alliance or participate in the government.

“In terms of our relations with the various components of the Iraqi people, we stressed that the PMF had emerged from all of the Iraqi people,” Al-Monitor quoted him as telling the Western delegates.

“Because they insisted on meeting us alone and discussing the same issues, we deduced that the Germans were actually representing the United States in the meetings, and that this meeting was a preliminary step that would pave the way for subsequent direct or indirect contacts [with the United States],” he said.

“If liberating Fallujah brought us to Beirut, what will the liberation of Mosul bring,” asked the PMF leader, referring to last month’s recapturing of the IS stronghold in Anbar Province from the militants and their intention to participate in the battle for Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul.

By and large, the Beirut rendezvous, which must have the blessing if not the support of Washington, was nothing less than a strategic shift in US policy towards the Iraqi Shia militias. But the exchange also underscores the militias’ cool pragmatism.

Militia leaders have often threatened that they will attack US forces in Iraq, rejecting any attempt to send more American troops to the country or to set up US military bases. Muqtada Al-Sadr, head of the Peace Brigades militia, blasted Walker’s visit to the country and those Shia officials who had welcomed the gesture.

According to US officials, there are up to 100,000 Iran-backed fighters now on the ground in Iraq. Last week Chris Garver, a Baghdad-based US military spokesman, confirmed to the US TV outlet Fox News that the fighters were mostly Iraqis, adding that the Iranian-backed Shia militia “are usually identified at around 80,000”.

At least one group, Kataib Hizbullah, is designated as a terrorist organisation by the United States.

There are thousands of Iranian-backed forces in Syria fighting in support of the Alawite-controlled regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. In addition to fighters from the Lebanese group Hizbullah and Shia militias, some of these Iranian-backed forces come from as far afield as Afghanistan, and hundreds have died fighting against Sunni rebels.

The new US approach towards the Shia militia in Iraq, however, raises three key questions far beyond the usual selective and situational relationships that have seemed to define Washington’s approach in the war against IS.

First, is the United States prepared to overcome its twitchiness and do business with the Shia militias, which have long been considered as a US enemy?

Second, is the United States readying itself for a new strategy in Iraq after the defeat of IS in which the Shias may expand, consolidate and institutionalise their power at the expense of both the Arab Muslim Sunnis and ethnics Kurds?

Third, does this mean that the United States will recognise Iraq as a playground for Iran and accept the Islamic Republic not only as the main actor in Iraq but also as a key regional superpower?

Of course, the answers to these questions will largely depend on the outcome of the war against IS and the new political landscape in Iraq and Syria that is expected to emerge. This will have broader implications for a region strewn with local conflicts that have been exacerbated by the interventions of regional and international powers.

Pragmatism, to say the least, has been the norm in the US way of doing business in the Middle East, including recasting policy to engage actors other than its traditional friends and allies.

With the Obama administration keen to snatch victory over IS before the end of the president’s term in January, Washington may think its new-found tough love approach to the Iraqi Shia militias could make that victory easier.

Yet, it remains to be seen if the next administration will embrace the new approach towards what has long been considered one of America’s most dangerous adversaries in the Middle East.

If that happens, it will represent a tectonic shift from the past, with dramatic consequences for both the region’s conflicts and US Middle East policy.

This article appeared first in Al Ahram Weekly on August, 25, 2016

Iraq’s post-IS stabilisation fiction

Salah EBIraq’s post-IS stabilisation fiction

A UN-led relief and stabilisation programme could hinder the state-rebuilding process in post-IS Iraq, writes Salah Nasrawi

On 18 July, 18 Iraqi media outlets disclosed that members of the provincial Anbar Council had allotted millions of dollars to themselves as what they considered to be compensation for the damage caused to their houses during the fight to drive Islamic State (IS) group militants from cities in the province.

Some 38 members of the council will receive lucrative pay-offs, with at least one of the councillors netting approximately $1 million in compensation, according to documents obtained by the media. Millions of dollars will also go to councillors’ relatives, friends and cronies.

The revelation of the Anbar Council corruption scandal soon led to arguments, as international donors last month launched a vast UN-led assistance plan after the liberation of Iraqi cities and towns from IS militants.

There are growing fears that the appropriations may be badly run because of endemic corruption and backsliding in the Iraqi government on both the national and local levels, amid concerns that the UN bureaucracy, widely criticised as being beset by inefficiency and misconceived programmes, cannot be an effective tool in reducing graft on such a large-scale reconstruction and development programme.

Previous Iraqi governments’ humanitarian programmes were rife with corruption and money snaffling, which had corrosive effects on relief and reconstruction efforts. In November 2014, the country’s parliament voted to abolish a government committee tasked with providing emergency aid to displaced people from the cities taken by IS after accusations of rampant corruption.

Head of the committee Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Al-Mutlaq was accused of squandering some $500 million in unaccounted for purchases and expenses. Al-Mutlaq denied any embezzlement, but was later fired from his post. No proper investigation into the allegations was conducted.

Now the donor nations, working under the umbrella of the US-led International Coalition against IS, say they want to take responsibility for a new relief and rehabilitation programme that will be put in place once the Iraqi cities are retaken from IS militants.

The militants’ defences have been crumbling fast across Iraq, and an offensive to liberate Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and last IS stronghold, is already under way. The aid programme is mainly designed to help pacify the mostly Sunni populated provinces affected by the war against IS in order to prevent the group from returning to the areas or a recurrence of the Sunni insurgency.

Most worrying, however, is the fact that the plan will put the international community in charge of post-IS Iraq’s reconstruction, without the active participation of Iraqis in planning and execution and without a mandate, or well-designed roadmap, for ending Iraq’s lingering conflicts.

Under the so-called stabilisation programme, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) will take responsibility for supervising a multi-billion dollar effort to support the Iraqi government in its efforts to stabilise the newly liberated areas.

The UNDP’s main goals, as outlined in a post on its Website, are to restore the delivery of basic services in the retaken areas, jumpstart the local economy, implement the emergency restoration of priority infrastructure in these areas, and stimulate the local economy to generate income and employment opportunities.

According to a mechanism called the Funding Facility for Immediate Stabilisation (FFIS), the UNDP is to work in several development fields, including public works, infrastructure rehabilitation, improving livelihoods and capacity support.

But this is an endeavour that Iraq’s coffers cannot afford. The country faces a huge budget deficit of up to $20 billion this year alone, as it grapples with low oil revenues and the heavy cost of the war with IS militants.

In May, the government announced that the World Bank would provide Iraq with a $1.2 billion loan to help Baghdad manage its finances and fund emergency reconstruction in towns recaptured from IS.

Last month, donor countries raised some $2.1 billion for Iraq, which organisers said will go towards alleviating the suffering, deprivation and devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by IS.

But the United States made it clear that the money would not be going to the Iraqi government, but instead would go to the United Nations and its agencies for humanitarian assistance.

“These donations, and our contribution among them, will go to the UN to distribute. They do a remarkable job figuring out who needs to get it, where they are and how much they need to get. And we have complete trust and confidence in their ability to keep doing that,” said US State Department Spokesman John Kirby.

Whatever the reasons behind such a move, the UN-led programme will put Iraq’s future in the hands of an international agency, and the stakes are high that Iraqis will once again miss an opportunity to engage directly in an interactive process to rebuild their battered nation.

A constructive role by the United Nations in Iraq’s rebuilding remains crucial, but it is expected to include the process of nation-building, transformation and state-building at the same time.

Any such programme should shift in approach from merely providing funding for post-conflict pacification to a comprehensive strategy of rebuilding a failed nation.

The UNDP says the mechanism will be used to promote community reconciliation and alleviate concerns relating to human rights and inclusion through a set of guidelines and a steering committee to supervise the programme.

But this is not enough to resolve Iraq’s 13-year internecine conflict and bring peace to the war-battered country. In order for such an effort to be effective and bear fruit, the international community should allow the Iraqis themselves to drive the entire process until it reaches its ultimate outcome.

While the world can provide financial, technical and political assistance, Iraq’s rebuilding remains the duty of Iraqis. One of the imperatives of working together in such a national endeavour is to initiate a learning process that can promote both the healing of old wounds and reconciliation.

For this approach to succeed in launching an effective state- and nation-building process, Iraq’s different communities, political groups and civil society should come up with a new deal for post-IS Iraq.

The first step should be for these communities to reach a new social and political contract for a functioning national political structure to replace the current dysfunctional system.

In order for this process to move forward, a transitional period should start the day after the Iraqi security forces have won the war against IS, alongside an effective, well-defined and sustainable stabilisation programme.

This will require a new transitional period that will include writing a new constitution and electing a new parliament that will choose a government that will take responsibility for implementing the new national contract.

While managing a successful transitional process remains the duty of Iraqis, the world can still assist by providing expertise and support in building institutional capacity and encouraging a new generation of Iraqis to take responsibility for reconstructing their country’s entire system.

The world should understand that stabilisation and reconstruction in Iraq following the defeat of IS needs more than short-term funding programmes, such as the FFIS adopted by the UNDP. Iraq’s troubles run so wide that the country needs a long-term sustainable programme that can overcome the political crises that breed trouble.

The main weakness of the current programme is that it deals with problems in areas affected by the war against IS with relief and development projects, while the biggest strategic concern should be dealing with the whole country, which is in ruins.

One major concern is that funding will mostly go to the administrative and operational costs of the UN agencies and foreign NGOs rather than to actual relief work, humanitarian needs and assistance.

While corruption such as in the Anbar Council compensation scandal remains a major concern, Iraqi NGOs and relief agencies such as the Red Crescent should be encouraged to take an active part in the programme. The participation of cross-sectarian NGOs in the rebuilding programmes should be part of the transformation of Iraq.

Iraq needs a pan-Iraqi reconstruction and development programme and a concrete nation- and-state-rebuilding scheme that replaces the current failed state with a new and functional system that gives Iraqis hope for the future.

The success of any stabilisation programme in post-IS Iraq will depend on whether the transitional period can produce a transformative leadership.

Such a leadership can only come into being through moulding a new Iraqi national identity, and it cannot be just about putting Shia, Sunnis and Kurds or other ethnicities in positions of power.

This artcile appeared first in Al-Ahram Weekly on August 18, 2016


Beyond Fallujah

Salah EB

Beyond Fallujah

The world is rightly worrying about the prospect of missteps in Fallujah, but anything less than a victory uprooting the Islamic State group and pacifying Iraq could be just as troubling, writes Salah Nasrawi

As Iraqi soldiers continued their battle to drive the Islamic State (IS) terror group out of the city of Fallujah, a great deal of media attention is being focused on the war’s sectarian implications, human cost and side effects.

Things like the role played by Shia paramilitaries, Iran’s rising influence, the pace of the advance, and warnings of a possible humanitarian catastrophe have been stealing the headlines since the operation began more than two weeks ago.

Certainly, these are essential elements of how to analyse the failures and successes of the campaign against IS. Yet, the broader policy of the impact of the Fallujah battle on Iraq’s long-term stability and regional geopolitics and the future of the world’s war on terrorism is not being given careful reflection.

The offensive in Fallujah will almost certainly bring the city back under the control of the Baghdad government, but a fundamental question remains: should that be the only prize Iraq has been desperate to win, or should it be part of one final blow to eliminate IS in order to make both Iraq and the world safer?

Iraqi troops started the offensive to recapture Fallujah on 22 May, with Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi promising that the city, under IS control since January 2014, would be taken back soon.

Since then Iraqi forces  a combination of the army, police, local tribesmen and the Shia-led Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF)   have been making some headway in pushing forward. The US-led international coalition has also been supporting the operation with air-strikes, intelligence, weapons and training.

However, more than two weeks into the start of the offensive the city’s centre remains under IS control.

Sceptical reports in American and some Arab media say that the Iraqi military operation in Fallujah has been stalling largely because of poor military and political strategies, key shortcomings that could undermine the campaign against the radical group.

While some have said Iraq’s forces remained bogged down on the southern edge of Fallujah amid fierce fighting with IS militants, others suggest that the delay has come amid controversy over the role of the Shia forces and their Iranian backers.

The negative feedback has even gone as far as speculating about the widely expected operation to retake the IS stronghold of Mosul in northern Iraq.

On Saturday, the New York Times quoted American and allied officials as saying that an exhausted and ill-equipped Iraqi army faced daunting obstacles on the battlefield that would most likely delay for months a long-planned major offensive against Iraq’s second-largest city.

Iraqi officials, however, have denied any delay in the Fallujah operations, and Al-Abadi has said that there has been steady progress in the fight and that commanders have focused on minimising casualties both among their forces and civilians.

He said the media suggesting otherwise was only serving IS purposes.

But just beyond worries about the prospects of a humanitarian crisis and fear of risks of atrocities by the Shia militias in Fallujah or concerns of growing Iranian influence in Iraq lies one key question: how to prevent abuses and the regional manipulation of the sectarian card while at the same time denying IS the opportunity to win the propaganda war and recruit new followers?

Unfortunately, the battle for Fallujah has become entrenched outside the city itself. While part of this battle is over hearts and minds in Iraq and in neighbouring countries, much of the bickering over the Fallujah battle conceals sectarian and geopolitical agendas.

One of the arguments being widely used is that Iraq risks losing the war against the IS jihadists if it lets the Shia paramilitaries into Fallujah. Some in the media have expressed concerns at possible atrocities being carried out in vengeance should the PMF forces storm the city.

Pundits and sometimes self-proclaimed analysts who probably rely on feedback from PR firms working on behalf of stakeholders have been hyping fears that the Shia militias are building sectarian tensions and could ignite a communal mess.

According to the proponents of this theory, defeating IS will solve nothing if the politics are not got right, which means finding a political solution that will put the minority Sunnis on equal footing with the majority Shia.

Furthermore, the Shia-led Iraqi government is being warned that its campaign to “conquer” Fallujah could lead to a further rise in IS. Advocates of this scenario say that as happened with Al-Qaeda in Iraq IS will merely resurface after the campaign, perhaps in an even more vigorous form.

One major problem with the argument that the Fallujah offensive, even if Iraqi forces win, will not translate into lasting stability is that its upholders have not provided a viable alternative strategy or one that ensures uprooting the vicious terror group.

In general, these recipes for ending Iraq’s chaos have become mere clichés, precisely because they are oversimplified formulas that are inadequate when dealing with a much more complicated conflict.

It is only a matter of common sense that Iraq needs a political solution for its admittedly civil war, but this approach makes a cult of simplicity if it is taken out of context.

Since the sectarian bloodbaths of 2006-2007, Iraq has descended into an acute sectarian struggle, and the offensives to take cities back from IS are only a renewed cycle in that civil war.

It is generally agreed that most civil wars end in decisive military victories, not negotiated settlements. Iraq, therefore, may not be the exception to this rule, and its civil war will not end in a political settlement but will rather end on the battlefield.

Whether that is Baghdad’s plan or not, the amount of political, moral and human resources invested in the war and the momentum in the campaign against IS suggests that it is Baghdad’s only option to sustain and prevail in any long-term strategy.

Given the strategic importance of Fallujah, recapturing the city could also be more than a victory for Baghdad. It would be a complete game-changer in the Iraqi conflict that would affect not only the country’s wobbly internal political dynamics but also the fragile regional order.

Although the government and PMF leaders have been sending conciliatory messages of reassurance to the population of Fallujah, the general mood among Iraqi Shia and Sunnis is one of mutual distrust.

While most Shia believe that the majority of Arab Sunnis will remain opposed to their empowerment and will continue to provide support for the extremists, most Sunnis think that the Shia will never let them share power and wealth with them on an equal footing.

If a drastic shift in the balance of power between the two main communities in the country is not achieved, a political settlement will do little to allay each other’s concerns and end their mutual mistrust.

That is the context in which the Baghdad Shia-led government has launched its assault on Fallujah, which is the insurgency’s last major bastion close to Baghdad and a jumping-off point for IS attacks on the capital.

In many ways, the taking of Fallujah will underscore the very real political realities of Iraq that the Shia and their allies in Iran want to see materialise after the defeat of IS.

It will pull the Sunni-populated city back into the sphere of Baghdad through the cooperative relationship of a portion of the population and Sunni politicians who have been working closely with the Shia-led government.

It will also be a strategic advantage that will put the government and the Iran-backed Shia-led PMF in control of Anbar Province, which sits astride the Iraqi border with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Having the whole of Anbar Province in hand will not only protect western approaches to Baghdad, but will also establish “strategic depth” for the Iranian-backed regime of Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad.

It will also reopen the vast desert border areas to Saudi Arabia and Jordan, two Sunni-dominated neighbouring countries that have never hidden their anxiety at the rising power of the Shia and Iranian clout in Iraq.

For many Shia political and militia leaders, there is now a momentum which cannot be reversed. They are already speaking of the huge sacrifices and the blood that have been invested in the fight against IS which they hope will make post-Fallujah Iraq different from the country it was before and be paid back fully in victory.

That will probably inflict a heavy blow on IS,  which the international community is eager to see, but whether it will also be the Iraqi Shia’s road to a final and lasting victory receiving regional consent remains in doubt.

This article first appeared in Al Ahram Weekly on June 9, 2016

What is behind Sistani’s silence?

What is behind Sistani’s silence?

Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani has always been a leader of few words, but his current decision to be silent carries a message for Iraq’s Shias, writes Salah Nasrawi

Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, has always been considered the main force behind the Iraqi Shias’ rise to power following the collapse of the Sunni-dominated regime of former president Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003.

It was Al-Sistani’s insistence on direct elections for an Iraqi legislature in 2005 that undercut the US occupation authority’s attempts to delay the elections and led to Iraq’s first legitimately elected Shia-controlled government.

The empowerment of Iraq’s majority Shias, however, has been met with mounting resistance by the country’s minority Sunnis, who had ruled over Iraq since it became an independent state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918.

Over more than ten years, the Iranian-born cleric has remained a powerful force for millions of dedicated Iraqi Shias. His picture hangs on walls, shops, police checkpoints, and cars throughout Iraq, a constant reminder that he is Iraq’s most influential religious leader.

Yet the octogenarian Al-Sistani has stayed out of the limelight and shied away from interfering in government affairs. Al-Sistani’s political messages have largely been written and disseminated by aides during Friday prayers.

In this regard, Al-Sistani’s role has remained crucial in arbitrating Iraq’s future. But despite being a Shia spiritual leader, Al-Sistani has also thus far been a moderating power in Iraqi politics. He has blamed the sectarian violence in the country on foreign forces and urged reconciliation between Iraq’s communities.

After Sunni militants bombed one of Shia’s most holy sites in Samarra in 2006 in an act that precipitated the country’s civil war, Al-Sistani swiftly urged Iraq’s Shias to refrain from responding in kind to attacks from Sunni extremists.

As the highest-ranking Shia cleric in Iraq, Al-Sistani has remained the “legitimate defender of the sect,” which leaves him in the position of being a wildcard in Iraq’s politics.

In the summer of 2014, Al-Sistani issued a decree to “all able-bodied Iraqis” to defend the country, days after the Islamic State (IS) terror group had captured the city of Mosul and advanced south towards Baghdad.

Across Iraq, young men from Shia communities began to mobilise in response to his call, galvanising a remarkable movement from within Iraq’s Shia population. Critics, however, say that his fatwa, or religious edict, may have exacerbated the sectarian tensions that have plagued the country since the 2003 US-led invasion.

But Al-Sistani has not always thought that all was going well in Iraq. When it turned out that the Shia-led government did not work well after all and that the country was becoming dysfunctional, Al-Sistani did not hesitate to show his dismay and anger.

Last week, Al-Sistani decided to stop delivering regular weekly sermons about political affairs that for years have been a source of guidance for his followers. Al-Sistani’s aide, Ahmed Al-Safi, who delivered the message, did not give a reason for suspending the sermons, which have lately focussed on the government’s battle against IS militants and anti-corruption efforts.

“It has been decided not to continue them on a weekly basis at the present time, but only as demanded by events,” Al-Safi said in a televised speech from the southern shrine city of Kerbela. He said Al-Sistani’s opinions “will be publicised whenever there are new developments and if it is necessitated.”

In recent months, Al-Sistani has been showing increasing signs of frustration with the Shia political class over rampant corruption in the country and the government’s incompetence. He has blamed the government for depriving Iraqis of basic services while undermining government forces in the battle against IS insurgents.

After a wave of protests swept across Iraq last summer, Al-Sistani demanded that Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi become serious about tackling corruption and urged the parliament to support the reform measures.

Al-Sistani even pushed Al-Abadi into “striking with an iron fist” against corruption and scrap sectarian and party quotas for state positions and reopen graft investigations. He also called on the Iraqi parliament to focus its anti-corruption campaign on improving the judiciary and security forces. He called judicial and police reform “one of the most important aspects of the reform process”.

 In an unprecedented warning to the government, Al-Sistani said last month that the country was facing dire consequences, including possible partition. Al-Sistani has also showed his dissatisfaction with malpractices and abuses by the country’s Shia militias.

When some 26 Qatari hunters were abducted by what were believed to be Shia militias from their camp in the desert near the Saudi border in December, Al-Sistani was quick to denounce the kidnappings and call for the release of the group.

Last month, Al-Sistani condemned the bombings of Sunni mosques in the town of Al-Muqdadiya in Diyala Province, placing full responsibility for the protection of the mosques and the prevention of further attacks on the government security forces.

He reminded his followers of his fatwas to the effect that volunteers should refrain from indulging “in acts of extremism” and “be attentive to the sanctity of the lives of those who do not fight”.

Al-Sistani also warned his followers against condemning “others for heresy” or accusing them of “blasphemy, which could lead to their deaths.” He also warned against committing abuses such as “stealing,” “disrespect for the corpses of the enemy” and violating “the sanctity of their women and houses”.

So, what lies behind Al-Sistani’s new decision to be silent?

Historically, a Shia marja, or “religious reference,” the highest level of religious authority in Shia Islam, has resorted to silence or seclusion as a means of expressing his disenchantment or to protest against both the government and the public.

In certain circumstances, silence has a power that no other action has, and it can be used by a moral authority to address certain issues, provoke responses, and get the people to think and to act. In this tradition, it is as if the congregation, or even the entire nation, is duty bound to guess the spiritual leader’s thoughts and to heed his instructions.

In Al-Sistani’s case, however, the cleric seems to be using the power of silence to distance himself from the Baghdad government’s failure to deliver on its promises to carry out badly needed reforms.

In recent weeks, the reclusive religious leader has been under fire by many Iraqis who blame his vigorous support for the government for the dismal performance of the Shia political class and their government’s dysfunction.

These Iraqis believe that by not being vocal about the government’s shortcomings, Al-Sistani has provided cover for unscrupulous Shia politicians and for their poor leadership in resolving the country’s conflicts.

For the time being, Al-Sistani’s silence may serve as a stern warning to the same Shia politicians whom he had earlier helped with vigour and religious zeal to bring to power.

It might also create a new awareness within the broader Iraqi Shia community about the dangers they face due to the folly of their rulers and the dire need to bring in a new leadership.

With the situation in Iraq reaching a tipping point that threatens the country’s future, it is not sure that Al-Sistani will remain silent for long.

Al-Sistani has promised that he will make public pronouncements on his political views whenever he deems it necessary. If the country’s Shia politicians fail to interpret the message behind Al-Sistani’s tactical silence, it may well not be too long before the Shia leader goes public and begins to name names.