Robert Tollast sits down with Joel Wing, author of the excellent Musings on Iraq blog, to discuss the coming year in Iraq. Joel has made his blog an expansive online resource for Iraq analysis and it is now one of the main on-line forums for academic discussion of Iraq, recently hosting a 24 expert review of the country following the June ISIL offensive.
Below they discuss Iraq’s efforts to tackle some of the challenges that have arisen in 2014, the year the self proclaimed “Islamic State” grabbed headlines across the world.
The end of Iraq?
RT: Is 2015 going to see the end of Iraq, and if not, why not?
JW: No, far from it. The Iraqi state and its borders are going to be maintained into the next year. The insurgency appears to be in disarray and reorganizing right now, which is shown in a dramatic drop in attacks and casualties since November 2014. There is still heavy fighting going on in Anbar and Salahaddin, but in many other areas the militants are losing ground. This poses a large threat to the Islamic State, which has thus far been able to gain more fighters due to its major victories in Syria and Iraq.
When it faces a major reversal like it is doing now it will likely lose the loyalties of many of these new recruits. That’s already been appearing in the press with reports of a special police force set up in Mosul to track down fighters that are not on duty, foreign fighters leaving, etc. It also appears to be running into major problems governing areas under its control such as Raqqa and Mosul with reports of limited supplies of drinking water and electricity, rising prices, etc.
What’s more important for the future of Iraq in the long term is whether Iraqi identity will last past this current crisis. The fighting has increased ethnosectarianism in the country and is putting a major strain on the idea of what it means to be an Iraqi. There is major distrust between Arabs and Kurds and Shiites and Sunnis, more so than even during the last civil war from 2005-2008. Iraqis may find themselves having turned back the insurgent threat, but still not believing in their neighbor. That might take a lot longer to repair than the damage caused by the current fighting.
End of the Malikiyoun?
RT: Haider al-Abadi, the new premier, has fired a lot of the “Malikiyoun” (Maliki loyalists) commanders in the MoD (Ministry of Defence) and MoI (Ministry of the Interior). Men who were deeply unpopular in Sunni areas such as Rashid Flayih and Mahdi al Ghawari have gone. These men have been removed for incompetence and corruption or simply because their main claim to authority was loyalty to Maliki, as in the case of the incompetent Aboud Qanbar. In the MOI, Maliki loyalist Adnan al Asadi is also gone. But institutionalized corruption in the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will no doubt remain entrenched for some time to come.
Nationally, it is hard to see a grand military strategy taking shape. For example, if Abadi orders the recapture of Mosul (ISIL presence variously reported at between several hundred and 5000) it would leave long, exposed ISF supply lines vulnerable to ambush and IED. It would expose more ISF logistical and planning weaknesses. It will involve the overwhelming application of force necessary for a bloody, draining urban battle.
Shi’a militias augmenting such a force would need ample supplies, and many of them have not even been paid. Their controversial involvement, plus the destruction caused by such a battle, could simply lead to a prolonged insurgency in Ninewa—unless perhaps Atheel al Nujaifi can bring a force of locals into the fight and get them some post combat control.
We have seen an example of tribe/ISF cooperation like this in Abu Ghraib, where locally unpopular Shi’a militias were moved to the town outskirts. But most observers would be doubtful about seeing a victorious Nujaifi riding back into Mosul with the ISF, and the chance of renewed insurgency as militias encounter locals in the province is high.
Further south, pro-government forces rally around the holy city of Samarah. This is all happening at a time when Iraqi government control is actually weakening in most of Anbar, Baghdad’s critical western flank. Abadi’s plans there for a Sunni national guard are facing many hurdles, even as remnants of the Sahwa (Sunni tribal anti-terrorist force) are hounded out of their towns. Locally in Anbar, there has been some notable ISF/Sahwa cooperation, but it is looking increasingly weak and Sunni divisions persist over the presence of Shi’a militiamen in the province. This is Baghdad’s vital western flank; are we going to see it lost forever in 2015, and can Abadi really fix the dysfunction Maliki brought to the ISF?
JW: Rooting out the institutional problems within the Iraqi security forces will be a long term project. PM Abadi has already started that process by firing some high-level commanders and bringing up the problem of ghost soldiers, those that don’t show up to duty or are non-existent men to begin with. These are only surface moves, however, as the problems run much deeper. What the premier needs to do is prosecute officers involved in corruption, which is said to be massive. Commanders are in charge of providing supplies to their troops for example, and often keep some of those funds for themselves.
If these officers are put on trial it will send the message that these types of activities are no longer acceptable and they will be punished for it. If those types of changes aren’t made then just removing the top commanders will not trickle down to the rank and file. Making that move right now in the midst of a war however could undermine the army and police, so the prime minister has to be tactful if he wants to take more far reaching reforms, but I think it’s important that he has brought it up and actually taken action. The previous prime ministers all talked about confronting corruption, but did nothing about it.
As far as Anbar goes it has been largely written off by Baghdad as it believes Salahaddin is much more important. The local government and tribes have constantly talked about not receiving the weapons and supplies they have asked for over the last several months. There are reports of reinforcements being sent to specific cities in the province, but it doesn’t appear to be enough to change the security situation. It’s said that militants now control up to 85% of Anbar, and they may gain more in the future. What’s been a deciding factor in the last few weeks are coalition air strikes, which have blunted some major attacks on cities like Ramadi.
I think the view within the Iraqi government is that fighting has been going on in Anbar since the end of December and hasn’t had much of an effect on the rest of the country outside of Babil. Salahaddin however is home to Samarra and the Askari shrine. It is also a staging and transit point for armed groups moving between Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala so it has a much bigger impact in the fighting right now than Anbar.
RT: Last year we discussed the possibility of a slowing Chinese economy leading to a fall in the price of oil, therefore exposing Iraq’s bloated public sector to the shock of having a wages shortfall and the subsequent prospect of widening unemployment. What has happened is in fact worse: the ISIL offensive has led to soaring Iraqi defence expenditure even beyond the previous high rates, while the Chinese economy has slowed, US shale gas has continued to expand (although is now being affected by the price drop) and Saudi Arabia is using oil as a weapon to hurt Iran and Russia, leading to an astonishing collapse in oil prices.
Interestingly, the IMF revised its forecast for the Iraqi economy’s expected contraction down to just 0.5%, but this is surely no cause for celebration. At the start of Abadi’s tenure, Iraq had already spent oil revenues for 2014 and gaping holes in Iraq’s finances were supposedly being found from the Maliki era.
But we also see something quite different in Baghdad, again regarding the Abadi team. Previously, Maliki would make promises to solve problems like electricity within “months”. Iraq’s budget was repeatedly based on the assumption of a high oil price. Now we have a finance minister who says that the budget will this time reflect the fact that prices are forecast to stay low. We have an oil minister who says the fall in prices could even present an opportunity for reform of the ministries. And we have a prime minister with extensive business experience in the UK who promises to root out corruption, and he has already demonstrated some political will to do this in the MOD.
But these are of course immense challenges. As an example of the size of the public sector, there are more employees in Iraq’s Ministry of Electricity than there are in the British army. Ministries, many of which have historically been run as political fiefdoms, will be hard to reform as every party wants their cut of a reduced budget; and in the background, Maliki still has a strong say in Iraq’s civilian institutions, a point repeatedly emphasized by Inside Iraqi Politics’ Kirk Sowell. What hope now for Abadi’s plan for the Iraqi economy?
JW: Again, Abadi is talking about the right things like the decline in oil prices providing an opportunity to diversify the economy and develop the country’s private sector. He has not made any real moves in that direction however. The draft 2015 budget calls for increased oil exports and has what might be an unrealistic oil price as well at $60 per barrel for Iraqi crude that could lead to a larger deficit than is already projected.
The real problem is that moving a country away from oil dependency is a huge endeavor that very few countries have successfully done, especially in the developing world. The government for example, would need to find new sources of revenue besides profits from oil such as taxes, which reportedly most Iraqis don’t pay. That would require a sea change in Iraqi culture to get them to pay new fees. Developing a vibrant business sector would also take decades, far longer than Abadi will be in office with no guarantee that any of his successors would continue on with his policies. Until more specifics are presented it’s impossible to tell what the premier’s plans really are and whether they’re realistic or not.
RT: This last year has seen a roller coaster ride for Baghdad–Erbil relations, with standing threats of legal action against buyers of Iraqi Kurdish oil and threats to oil companies in the south who are eyeing the Kurdish region. These threats are now being reviewed. Maliki has caused devastation in the Iraqi Kurdish economy by cutting off their share of the budget, forcing the KRG to borrow funds while Kurdish businessmen made donations to cover salaries (in fact, this crisis has exposed the need for reform in the KRG public sector).
Former Iraqi energy ministers Abdul Kareem al Luaibi and Hussein al Shahrestani were known for more centralist lines in support of Maliki, but now we have Abdel adel Mahdi, a man whose party has historically had cordial relations with the Kurds and has in the past pursued a decentralisation agenda. In a relatively short time, we have now seen the most compromising (but still vulnerable) interim agreement regarding Kurdish regional oil production and exports. But it is not the first agreement and it may well not last.
However, it has been hailed by key figures such as PM Nechirvan Barzani and Deputy PM Rowsh Shaways who have expressed hope about Abadi’s approach, with Kurdish Minister for Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami recently referring to “our colleagues in Baghdad”. Arguably the new status quo sees Maliki’s biggest challengers from the last few years in the seat of power. But they face widespread centralist opposition.
Mahdi has been highly critical of the Maliki government, being quoted in Dexter Filkins’ What We Left Behind essay in reference to thousands of projects that had gone unfinished due to what one CIA officer described as “Olympian corruption”. Interestingly, ISCI (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) politician and Basra governor Majid al-Nasrawi has recently joined Mahdi in oil revenue distribution talks, and if Basra can get a better deal—perhaps something akin to the $5 per barrel produced that it is entitled to under the 2009 revision of Law 21, (the Provincial Powers Act) we may see the beginning of a confederated Iraq. Dhi Qar for example, could soon be producing 250,000 BPD of oil. A number of observers suggested this may be the way forward in your recent 24 expert review of this topic on Musings on Iraq. Are we at the dawn of a confederated, stronger Iraq, or do you think the centralists will win, perhaps paving the way for a genuine (violent) break up?
JW: I think the question of federalism in Iraq is still a disputed one. It appears that Abadi understands the need to decentralize power, and that’s obviously supported by the Kurds and several provinces. On the other hand, most of the Shiite parties are centralists, and that includes elements within Abadi’s own State of Law list such as Maliki, but also the Supreme Council (ISCI). ISCI parliamentarians for example have been arguing against Abadi’s National Guard plan arguing that it could lead to the break up of the country. Until that opposition within the majority Shiite parties is overcome very little will likely be done on this front.
Ironically, the Sunni politicians that were calling for federalism have now largely dropped those calls. While they might support the National Guard idea where local forces would be recruited and organized and be under the governor’s control, they are otherwise pleading for the central government to come to their aid such as in Anbar to fight the insurgency.
The threat of militia competition
RT: On July 2nd, at least 14 people were killed in Karbala as militiamen loyal to Mahmoud al Sarkhi clashed with government security forces, even as ISIL continued their blitzkrieg further north and northwest. Sarkhi is often dismissed as a bizzarre eccentric and Iraqis I spoke to said that this was a one off incident. However, on August 28th 2007, 50 people were killed and 250 injured, again in Karbala, when Jaish al Mahdi clashed with security forces, allegedly the Badr Organisation. At the time, al Qaeda were still able to launch multiple VBIED attacks, but this did not seem to heighten the unity of some Shi’a groups. Clashes spread to Baghdad with 5 killed and 20 injured. That year saw two ISCI governors assassinated, allegedly by JAM militiamen and since the formation of Asa’ib al Ahl Haq, the group has clashed on many occasions with supporters of Moqtada al Sadr, most recently with two incidents in June, which saw AAH and Sadrist leaders killed.
In October, 4 police officers were injured in Baghdad in an apparently fierce firefight with AAH following the alleged kidnap of a relative of Rowsch Shaways. When we consider what Lebanon’s Daily Star describe as a “galaxy” of Shi’a militias, many of them with serious ideological divisions over key issues such as Vilayat e faquih verses Vilayat e Ummah, it does not bode well. Now some of these groups are increasingly in altercations with Kurdish forces. Even if Abadi wants to reign these groups in, his own party now has a militia. How do you see this unfolding—I fear that south Iraq may face it’s own “brakuji”— the “killing of the brothers” or the 1990s Kurdish civil war, which raged on despite the threat of Saddam and neighbouring countries who persecuted the Kurds. Failing that, a multiplicity of armed groups appears to have already led to a crime wave, not to mention pushing sectarian tension to boiling point.
JW: The rise of the militias is one of the more troubling, yet predictable consequences of the current crisis. Militias were mobilizing in 2013 against the insurgency and those with men in Syria began pulling them back to fight in Iraq that year as well. These were groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade, and the Badr Organization, which also happened to be the Iranian aligned groups. Then after the fall of Mosul the Supreme Council and the Sadrists also called out their men if for nothing else to save face since it appeared that Samarra was going to be taken with its Shiite shrine, and Baghdad would be next.
With regards to the first group there don’t appear to be any real tensions between them for now. They are being organized and funded by Iran. The real problem is between Sadr and those militias. He has continuously attacked them for being aligned with Tehran and has even called them “foreign entities” questioning their loyalties to Iraq. For now though with the threat of the insurgency there’s unlikely to be any real problems between these parties. When this period has passed however it’s likely that Sadr and the others will go back to arguing and perhaps an occasional shoot out. Maliki allowed that to happen in the past because he was aligned with Asaib Ahl Al-Haq to cut into Sadr’s base, and then with the other groups to fight the insurgents.
It doesn’t appear that Abadi has that same type of agenda and is worried about the post-war period and what will happen to these armed groups. They will have to either be disarmed or integrated into the security forces. The prime minister’s ability to do that is severely limited since the Interior Minister is a member of the Badr Organization, and Iran as the major power in Iraq, backs many of these militias, and will want to use them now and in the future as levers of influence within Baghdad. That points to a troubling future.
Avoiding another quagmire
RT: Finally, a number of commentators have mentioned that coalition air power is simply going to advance the goal of these militias. I am not so sure. Historically, surging Shi’a militia sectarian violence is a response to a weak state and growing AQI/ISIS power. Kidnappings and killings are revenge for bombings and often follow VBIED waves. So if you want militias to take over, do nothing. Let the ISF continue to atrophy and allow ISIL use of the main arterial roads in large groups, in daylight. I think if Amerli had been wiped out, or if Abu Ghraib had been overrun, we’d see even more militia activity. What’s your take on coalition policy—is it better to do nothing?
JW: The U.S. came in too late and with too little, but it was still a very important development. When Mosul fell in June Baghdad immediately called on the Americans to intervene, but the Obama administration was more concerned about Maliki’s divisive politics and held off any assistance until he was out of office. That caused a large amount of resentment amongst Iraqis against Washington. That allowed Iran to move into Iraq in a big way with advisers, military assistance and equipment such as Su-25 bombers, and mobilizing its militia allies. That move was inevitable, but Tehran and its Iraqi friends might not have gained such a dominant place within the security apparatus if the U.S. had acted earlier.
At the same time, coalition air strikes have proved decisive when used in coordination with Iraqi forces. They helped break the siege of Amerli as you mentioned, aided Kurdish advances in Ninewa, and have also stopped mass attacks in Anbar recently. At the same time the U.S. hasn’t committed anything near as many assets as it could to really change the security situation across the breadth of the country. The Islamic State has still been able to mass forces and carry out large-scale attacks including the use of tanks and other vehicles in assaults without being harassed. Doing nothing was unthinkable given the threat facing Baghdad during the summer, but how the U.S. went about it left much to be desired.