IRAQ : THE WEAK LINK IN THE WAR AGAINST THE ISIS
war against the ISIS is being fought both in Syria and in Iraq. On the
Syrian side the army and its allies are causing great difficulty to Al
Baghdadi’s militias. The same isn’t true of the Iraqi side. Why? The
weakness of the Iraqi army, founded on a sectarian basis, is one
reason. But there are also other reasons, namely the problems between
Shiites and Sunnis, the separatist drive of the Kurds, corruption and
The rise of Haider al Abadi to the helm of the country, with the consequent expulsion of a sectarian figure like Nouri al Maliki still hasn’t produced the much-hoped-for national reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis; the only thing that could give some prestige to the central government.
Currently, the figures show that there is a creeping civil war in Iraq: 1320 casualties in January; 1090 in February and roughly 1200 in March.
In thirteen years of wars and intestine struggles - from the ousting of Saddam Hussein on – over 175 thousand people were killed. A huge amount of deaths that affects the social cohesion of the entire nation.
These casualties are not entirely ascribable to the fight against the ISIS, whose ruthlessness finds room nonetheless amid the social tension.
In 2015, out of 22 thousand casualties (and over 17 thousand wounded), the executions carried out by the ISIS amounted to 7000. The previous year, casualties and wounded totaled roughly 36 thousand.
There is, of course, a concentration of killings in the areas where the war is being fought (Anbar, Ninive, Diyala, Saleheddin) but what worries most is that roughly 23% of the victims have been killed in the area in and around Baghdad. This shows that Islamic terrorism is well rooted in the country and that it is supported by the code of silence of the Sunnis – not just the Baathist-sympathizing ones.
In the light of this and with an army that part of the population considers to be hostile (at least the Sunni 35-37% of the population); which is scarcely trained (despite the efforts by the US); which is surely less professional than Saddam Hussein’s army (where the majority were Sunnis); that is plagued by corruption (see the “ghost” soldiers – non-existent soldiers, each paid 600 dollars per month by the government; there were roughly 50 thousand of them), it is quite difficult to put up a fight against the ISIS. In addition to all this, the fighting is concentrated in areas where the population is mostly Sunni.
This is the state of affairs as the government prepares to launch a campaign to re-conquer the city of Mosul, with roughly two million inhabitants; where the Islamic militias are barricaded while awaiting the mother of all battles.
If Mosul falls, the defeat of the ISIS will be tangible. Of course the terrorist attacks will continue, as they have since 2003 with or without Al Baghdadi (as they did with Abu Musab al Zarqawi before him).
Baghdad, where the campaign is being planned, is locked in a political stalemate that prevents the Prime Minister from taking any decision. This affects both the mobilization and the conscription of the troops.
Prime Minister Abadi is presently facing dissidence within the Shiite political community. Such dissidence is instrumental in the rise of Moqtada al Sadr, a cleric known for his radical ideas and for using a private militia, the “Saraya al Salam” (the “Brigade of Peace”) to enforce them. The same al Sadr who, shortly after the war in 2003, was heading another militia, the “Army of Madhi” and whom the US have repeatedly tried to eliminate. For five years (from 2004 to 2009), al Sadr fought the Sunnis and the US, then he hid in the shadow for a few years, only to resurface in a new, “reformist”, version as the self-proclaimed paladin of the fight against corruption.
Yet it is not just the political objections of al Sadr (who joined forces with Al Maliki) which divides the alliance of Shiite parties that currently run Iraq. There is the disastrous economic situation that weights on the population: unemployment, corruption of State officials, crumbling social services, reforms that are promised but never delivered.
Iran has recently tried to mediate in order to ease the differences within the Shiite community by sending General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, on a “diplomatic” mission to Iraq, with little success.
But that’s not all. Abadi also has difficulties coping with the Kurdish political group within the Iraqi parliament and this could enlarge the differences between Kurdistan – and its separatist aims – and Baghdad. As a matter of fact, Kurdistan will be holding a referendum on their independence from Iraq in November this year.
Haider Al Abadi
Iraqi army can conquer Mosul only with the military support of the
Kurdish Peshmerga who would fight alongside the 30-35 thousand soldiers
(as esteemed by US generals) that Baghdad is struggling to recruit.
Also, if they are to conquer Mosul, the Iraqi army will have to strive
to respect the social sensibility of the city’s population, who is
mostly Sunni, and who will be alarmed by the presence of a Shiite army
supported by Shiite volunteer militias (the “forces for popular
mobilization” aka “al Hashd al shaabi” and the Iranian Pasdaran) and
the Kurd Peshmerga. Last but not least, the Peshmerga have failed so
far to strike an agreement with the army on how the operation should be
Various attempts by the US to train Sunni volunteer militias have so far produced scarce results (since 2003, the US have spent roughly 20 billion dollars to rebuild the Iraqi army and security forces). The underlying fear is that, by arming the Sunni militias, one would endanger the Shiite government in Baghdad. This has been true since 2004, when the reconstruction of the Iraqi army began. Back then, everyone feared that the army would become a sectarian tool in the hands of the Shiites. Since 2004, not only were the Sunnis not armed, but the Shiite army was also inadequately armed for the same reasons.
If the ethnic-religious issue is not handled with caution, the ISIS, backed by a good part of Mosul’s population, could succeed in resisting. Urban combat is an asymmetric form of war where it is easier to defend than to attack. Also, when the ISIS is in a corner, they tend to become more aggressive: in the first quarter of 2016, the attacks by the Caliph’s militias against Iraqi targets have increased by 40%.
Last year the US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, stated that the Iraqi army lacked the “will to fight”. This criticism was followed Abadi’s protests, that forced the US vice-President Biden, who was visiting Baghdad at the time, to deny the circumstance. It is nonetheless an unequivocal fact that, when the ISIS conquered Mosul and Ramadi, the Iraqi army fled without even trying to put up a fight.
In Iraq, the ISIS managed to spread thanks to the connivance of the Sunni population (especially the cadres of the dissolved Baath party) and to the military support of the former members of Saddam Hussein’s army. Logistically, the weapons taken from the fleeing enemy have made the ISIS stronger.
In Iraq, the contradictions of a mutating world are always present and the sides at war are ever changing. Today we see the US siding with Iraq, with the Iranian Pasdaran and with the Shiite militias that fight the ISIS; the airstrikes that destroy ISIS structures in Syria are coordinated with Russia.
There are currently 5 thousand US soldiers stationed in Iraq. These soldiers do not participate actively in the war (at least not directly, but they station in the front lines and suffer casualties nonetheless), they are supposed to provide training and technical support to the Iraqi army. In perspective, their presence is stronger than that of the 200/250 soldiers stationed with the Kurdish YPG in Syria.
Most of the Caliph’s troops - about two-thirds of the 30-35 thousand ISIS combatants - are currently stationed in Syria, especially around the “capital”, Raqqa. After all, the survival of Al Baghdadi’s organization is founded on the logistical support and manual labor that travels across the border with Turkey, within a corridor no wider than 70 kilometers. Once that corridor has been closed, the defeat of the ISIS will be just a matter of time. But the fate of Raqqa and Mosul are interdependent; the former represents the symbol of the newborn Caliphate, the latter is the most important city therein.
But behind the military fate of the ISIS in Syria and Iraq there is another, creeping, war being fought: a war between the US and Russia that will influence the future balance of powers in the Middle East. There is an ongoing competition between the two superpowers on who can acquire more negotiating power in the region. In this respect, Russia is facilitated by the fact that they are fighting the war together with Assad’s troops, and every victory is Syria enlarges their prestige. The same cannot be said of the US which, with the Obama administration, practiced a non-interventionist line. The US tried not to get directly involved, save for training, procurement of arms and aerial strikes. Whoever will manage to topple the Caliphate by conquering Raqqa or Mosul will surely benefit politically from the victory in the near future.
In the light of all this, the current difficulties encountered by the Iraqi army in their plan to recapture Mosul have negative repercussions on US political aims. And that’s why Baghdad has been visited so frequently by US government officials: first by the Secretary of State John Kerry, then by the Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and, finally, by vice-President Joe Biden.
Abadi’s biggest challenge is to form a new, technical, government that can enact the reforms demanded by country’s population in a series of demonstrations. And since Abadi is politically moderate and pro-Western, the demonstrations have been used by individuals like Moqtada al Sadr and by the former Prime Minister Maliki to gain consensus. Both of them would like to take the helm from Abadi’s hands: the former through the force of “dissuasion” of his private militia “Saraya al Salam”, while the latter though claim that he created and supported the “forces for popular mobilization”.
The demonstrations were so vigorous that the crowd managed to break into the green zone and to occupy parliament, with the consequent proclamation of a state of emergency by police forces.
Moqtada al Sadr
Political manipulations aside, the country is paying the price for 13 years of lacerating war and for the low price of oil, which is Iraq’s main staple. Public employees, a category that is rapidly increasing in number due to nepotism, have seen their salaries withheld and the public finances are plagued by the price of war and reconstruction. Even here, sectarianism generates discrimination and resentment.
Since that decisive March 20th, 2003, when the international coalition of the “willing” began the second Iraqi war that ousted Saddam Hussain, to June 29, 2014, when Al Baghdadi announced the creation of the Caliphate in a Mosul mosque and up to this very day, the population of Iraq has seen nothing but suffering, mourning, wars, feuds and violence. They have gone from one social disgrace to the next and there doesn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel. All of this death and oppression has been coupled with mass destruction and the creation of about a million refugees that have lost everything.
There has been much war but nobody has ever bothered to build a chance for peace. Saddam Hussein’s regime, although authoritarian and bloody, managed to ensure a sort of brutal social cohesion to the country. The disintegration of Saddam’s regime caused a civil war; sparked sectarian claims; fueled separatist aims; did away with security and left the field right open to abuses of power. All of this is quite visible and should have been clear enough to avoid – 8 years later - the same mistakes in Libya. Unfortunately, in the Middle East, history doesn’t teach any lessons.