Fort Russ - 20th January, 2016
Edited by Ollie Richardson
The split within the “Shia house” is coming out into the public domain in Iraq, adding to dissatisfaction from Sunnis towards the central government’s performance. Moreover, the Marjaiya in Najaf is also frustrated with the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi due to the lack of economical and social reforms. For the Kurds, the will for an independent state is overwhelming. Oil is exported to several countries and a natural gas deal was signed off with Turkey without asking Baghdad’s opinion. Last but not least, the Turkish “occupation” troops are still north of Mosul, while Baghdad threatens. “We shall force a pull out, if all diplomatic means are exhausted“, the Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said to me.
Amid all these facts, the influence of the “Islamic State” (ISIS/ISIL/Daesh) group on the ground is in decline, as well as the Iranian impact among the Iraqi decision-makers in Baghdad for the benefit of the United States of America. The Russian influence in Syria has been acknowledged by the USA. While in Iraq, the Americans made it clear to everyone that their influence will expand and remain (Baqiya wa tatamaddad) and they won’t tolerate competitors. Experts on Iraq expressed their views on what is happening in Iraq and the possibility of a split in Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, the main question remains: Did Iran say its last word and turn a page on Iraq, accepting to give up on Iraq, and, like Russia, is content with its influence in Syria?
The United States came back to Mesopotamia from the same wide door that was asked to withdraw from by the Vice-President and former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who favoured the Iranian influence. ISIS occupation of part of the country and the slow American reaction after July 2014 allowed Iran to increase and expand its influence through arming directly secondary Iraqi groups, and extend its support to Baghdad and Erbil. But the support was not enough to stop the expansion of ISIS. Iran soon realised its inability to reach a Shia – Shia, Shia – Sunni and Shia – Kurdish unity or reconciliation. It has failed to stop the tiresome requests for an American intervention in Iraq by the Iraqi administration. Iran took advantage of the formation of al-Hashd al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilisation Units – PMUs). Iran turned to Russia and asked the Kremlin to intervene in Iraq similar to its intervention in Syria, to balance the US intervention or slow the reaction to ISIS' advance.
“A common intelligence operational room that includes Iraq, Iran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah is operational in Baghdad but limited in involvement and action. It is offering intelligence information, which is a key to defeat ISIS”, said the Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
A source in the office of the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said, “The United States' delay of its support to Baghdad was not a coincidence or an unintentional lazy reaction. It was a strategic decision to: teach Iraq a lesson for rejecting U.S military bases; To observe the Iranian military capability and inability of Tehran to use air power and intelligence gathering to defeat ISIS; To submit Baghdad to its will and dictate conditions to it”.
What embarrassed Baghdad further was the Turkish forces breaking into the North of Mosul, in Ba’shiqa, imposing a new de-facto, threatening the unity of the Iraqi territory. At the moment, as priority is given to fight ISIS, it is obvious that no one but the United States could force Turkey to pull out of Iraq. The U.S has the power to attain the withdrawal of the Turkish forces without the use of force. Moreover, it has the power to close an eye or reject a Kurdish state and a partition of Iraq in three provinces (Sunni – Shia – Kurds).
The USA may turn a blind eye on Syria but Iraq is a red line. “Prominent members of the political administration and military commanders were quick to intimidate us if Russia were to be allowed to play a role in Iraq similar to the one in Syria ”, said the source.
“The United States retained Kurdistan’s possible independency declaration, as well as the Turkish presence in Iraq, as cards to play if Washington doesn’t see Iran and its fingers far away from the Iraqi administration. A request to change high-ranking officers and key figures within the Iraqi administration has been clearly formulated to us. We were also asked to keep the PMUs away from Anbar and Mosul. Moreover, in order to reduce any military presence of independent groups, all PMU will be proposed to join the regular security forces otherwise they will be considered outlaws”, according to the source.
That’s not all what is happening in Iraq: There is a sharp division between the Shiite parties that represent the majority in the country, The Majlis al-A’la leader Sayyed Ammar al-Hakim has asked most pioneers members to step down and allow the youth to guide the Majlis leadership, creating a backfire and the serious possibility of a split. The Da’wa Party, led by Nuri al-Maliki, is internally struggling between those who support him and others within the same the party who support the PM Abadi. Muqtada al-Sadr has appointed Walid Zamili for ten years as an administrator of the highest political offices giving him full powers but dismissed him after 10 days and accused the inner circle of his movement of theft and split. Mr. al-Abadi is criticised by both the Marjaiya in Najaf and the Sunni for lack of reforms and improvement of the socio-economic situation. He is also failing to fulfil his financial commitments to Kurdistan.
On the military side, there is a slow advance inside the city of Ramadi, in Anbar province, against the ISIS group. The Iraqi Counter Terrorist units recovered al-Soufiyah, north of the city and are engaged in Sajariya. It is far from being over in Anbar province. Still there is the bordering area west of Ramadi, Fallujah in the East and north toward Hiit to Hawijah before reaching Mosul. Military sources in Baghdad have serious doubt that the northern city of Mosul will be freed soon or even this year.
But the main question remains: Will Iraq be divided?
Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari told me “Iraq worries about its relationship with the neighbouring countries, but won’t accept the infringement on its sovereignty. If Turkey does not order a total withdraw of its troops, all options will be available. The Iraqi people will defend the country if and when all diplomatic means are exhausted. If Iraqi sovereignty will be at risk, the liberation of Iraq becomes a national and legitimate duty. The Iraqi government did not give any permission or exception to Turkey to break into our territory and violate our sovereignty. As of today, all the rumours about a withdrawal of Turkish forces from Ba’shiqah are untrue. Even the information regarding ISIS bombing Ba’shiqa camp is unfounded and the claim is coordinated with ISIS. All what the Turkish President (Recep T.) Erdogan said is not true“.
Source in the office of the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi told me “Iraq is going through a critical phase that the country has not seen in a hundred years. Multiple risks are facing the nation. The risk of Da’esh (ISIS), the internal unity is at stake and the economic burden is heavy on everybody. The Turkish presence is also an important factor and Kurds are enthusiastic about a separation. The United States is not far from what is happening and has enough power to exert on both the Kurds and the Turks, willingly”.
Facts on the ground are showing more than a Kurdish enthusiasm to create a distance from Baghdad. Kurdistan is already building a Kurdish – Turkish natural gas pipeline. Gas will be extracted from the Bay Hassan gas fields in Dibis. It is expected to be constructed in 3 years and 20 billion cubic meters of gas are expected to be delivered into the Turkish market, without Baghdad’s approval.
Joel Wing, an expert on Iraqi affairs said, ” Kurdistan is following its own independent energy policy because it no longer trusts Baghdad to follow through on its promises about the budget and exports. It’s common knowledge that the Kurds want independence and President Masoud Barzani talks about a referendum on the issue all the time. I think the split is still far off but this is another step for the Kurds to build up their own economic base”.
Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a journalist in Erbil following closely the Kurdish development in Iraq and Syria said “the Kurds are trying to become financially independent from Baghdad by exporting oil and gas independently to Turkey and even to Iran (and other countries). This is one of the main reasons why Baghdad opposes this Kurdish-Turkish natural gas deal.
Kurdistan (KRG) is also building a 440km trench all along its territory, from Zummar to Rabi’a, including contested but also non-contested areas, like Sinjar.
Joel Wing commented, “This is a strengthening of the Kurdish defenses that already exists in northern Iraq which consists of a series of trenches and set battle lines with the Islamic State. It also creates facts on the ground for the Kurds to further establish their control over the disputed areas of Iraq, which they claim as historically belonging to them. When the Kurds do declare independence it will probably involve long negotiations with Baghdad over who gets what and this trench will help the KRG with its case that the territory is theirs. The Kurds are thinking about Iraq after IS and have taken the opportunity to take many of the disputed areas that they wish to annex. They have even taken areas that they probably don’t want in the long term, but can be used as bargaining chips with Baghdad in the future. Mosul would be an example of the latter. The Kurds want to be involved in the liberation of the city so that they can use it in future deals with the central government. Kirkuk is a special case because the governor there does not want the KRG to step in and take over and is much more conciliatory towards the different communities in the province”.
Wladimir Van Willgenburg believes “This is probably an attempt to demarcate the territories of a possible future independent Kurdistan, or to further entrench the Kurdish positions in the disputed territories for the future. These trenches are also being created in PUK-frontlines in Kirkuk. Baghdad refused to implement article 140 of the constitution, that’s why the KRG moved towards de-facto establishing facts on the ground in June 2014. The alternative? ISIS controlling oil-rich disputed territories weren’t good either, since Baghdad was busy defending Baghdad in 2014 and most of its forces fled from the disputed territories (both Iraqi army and police). The Kurds worked with Baghdad and Shia militias to expel ISIS from large parts of Diyala. It's unlikely that Baghdad will regain some of its influence back in the disputed territories, but it must be said that even before ISIS, the Kurds dominated most of the disputed areas. Iraq was already sort of ‘divided’, when the Kurds gained control of the three Kurdish provinces in 1991, and established the KRG. However, the KRG is still part of Iraq”.
In regards to the Turkish presence in Mosul and ISIS in Iraq, Wing said “The Turks see Ninewa as being in their sphere of influence and want to be involved in the liberation of Mosul as an outgrowth of that world view. The sending of extra troops to the Ba’shiqa camp was meant to increase their influence in the area and with ex-Governor Atheer al-Nujafi who ran the camp and who is under their patronage. That blew up on Ankara as many of the leading Shiite parties and some Sunni leaders see the Turkish influence as unwanted. The Turks had to pull out the extra troops from the camp but there are still trainers there and Ankara is still focused upon playing a role in Mosul and Ninewa in general despite this setback. The defeat of ISIS is still a very long way off especially with the civil war in Syria not close to any resolution. It’s also important to remember that even when IS loses territory, it is not defeated as it has networks throughout Iraq that allow it to carry out insurgent and terrorist attacks every day”.
Van Wilgenburg said, “Historically, in 1923, Mosul was part of Turkey. Since 2004, Turkey worked hard to gain influence among Sunni Arabs, who used Turkey as a counterbalance to the Shia-dominated Baghdad government. When ISIS occupied Mosul in July 2014, Ankara lost its influence. Powerful Sunni Arab politicians – among these the former governor of Mosul Nujaifi – were expelled from the province by ISIS. Moreover, the Turkish options in Syria are now limited due to the Russian intervention backing the Syrian government and hitting its proxies. Therefore, Turkey still considers Mosul as part of its sphere of influence and wants to play a role in the liberation of the city from ISIS. On the other hand, ISIS is not yet defeated. The battle of Ramadi is not over and still many territories to conquer. Yet, there is a possibility that ISIS could be defeated within a year or more. But still, the Iraqi army lacks manpower and forces, and Shia militias play a major role”.
But has Iran said the last word and left Iraq to the United States of America?
The highest Iranian official in charge of the Iraqi dossier told me “America’s role is currently dominant, politically and militarily over the Iraqi administration and in Kurdistan. The Iranian influence is in decline at the moment, true. The weaker ISIS becomes, the stronger the American influence in the country. President Barack Obama will end his mandate victorious in Iraq with no losses, conducting a very clean war. But Iran has a lot of patience and the ground in Iraq does not belong to the Americans, neither do they have a society that can protect them in the future. The priority is to finish off ISIS in the first place. After that, like the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid said, when he saw the cloud outside his palace (indicating the vast lands under his control): “Go and rain wherever you wish. Your water will always fall on my land.”