Post-ISIS Iraq: (III) Reclaiming Territories, Reconstruction and Reconciliation

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.

ReconciliaationI spoke in one of my public presentation about three R’s of the post ISIS era in Iraq: Reclaiming the lost territories from ISIS, Reconstruction of the Iraqi State, and Reconciliation among Iraqis.  This article is based on that presentation, with some reflections on the events that took place in recent months.  Let me define each concept, while presenting my arguments concerning the Iraqi case.

By “reclaiming” lost territories, I do not only mean pushing ISIS out of the towns and villages it occupied in 2014.  Other measures are necessary to make this “reclaiming” a worthy accomplishment.  These measures must prevent the fall of these territories in the hands of the same terrorist group, or its future successors.  The Iraqi state needs to reclaim the land and the people.  It is also important to ensure that the administrative status of the reclaimed territories is finalized.  The ongoing procrastination on the status of disputed regions throughout Iraq has caused confusion among the population and gave incentive to the disputants to welcome crises that might further their narrow interests – like the initial “excitement” in Kurdistan when ISIS took Mosul and allowed the de facto annexation of disputed territories under the cover of the chaos, creating an inevitable future battle to be fought between the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Reclaiming the lost territories also needs to include a good measure of winning the population by good governance and a well-defined arrangement of power-sharing according to a faithful implementation of the Iraqi Constitution on matters related to federalism.  Continued arbitrary application of the constitution by the Federal Government has enabled subversive regional leaders to exploit local disenchantment and often frame it in a manner that facilitates seditious actions and causes civil unrest, leaving the government no recourse other than the heavy-handed use of force.

مساجد-ديالىReconstruction is another concept that needs to be fully explained.  I am not referring here to the rebuilding of houses, roads, and public facilities, which have been destroyed by the fighting and bombardment.  This will be the easier part.  The real challenge is the full reconstruction of the nation, and particularly the parts that have been affected by terrorism.  I am making a reference here to the era of Reconstruction in the American South after the Civil War (1861-1865).  I encourage all Iraqi leaders to learn the lessons of that painful experience to succeed in the project of reconstructing the Iraqi nation politically, socially, and economically.  There needs to be a full departure from all past mutual grievances, conditioned on a new contract.  Those who want to be part of the new contract must pledge to move forward in full faith and demonstrate their full commitment, and the ones who revert to the old subversive schemes will have no place at the table.  The Iraqi Constitution need to be amended to ensure social and political justice and the rule of law has to be paramount.  Iraq reconstruction must ensure the transition from the current arbitrary rule of corrupt men and parties to the organized rule of effective institutions and laws.

Finally, Reconciliation is another over-used in the discourse about Iraq, but often with the wrong ideas.  If we speak to the assortment of Iraqi politicians, they will tell us that all they do every day is reconciliation.  And this is true.  They even established a ministry for reconciliation.  But is it the reconciliation that Iraq desperately needs?  Of course not! All reconciliation efforts begin and end with politicians and their political parties, while their constituents are left out of the equation.  To believe that granting an extra ministry position or two to a political bloc will satisfy their grossly deprived constituents is to completely miss the true meaning of national reconciliation.  As long as there is a divided and disenfranchised population, there is always room for someone to exploit this division and undermine national unity.  What Iraqi politicians have not done, nor took interest in, until now was social reconciliation.  Case in point: when the public intellectuals of Najaf and Anbar took the initiative to start social reconciliation between their provinces, the Iraqi officials in charge of reconciliation refused to participate in the effort or lend it any support.  The reason is simple: the only capital at stake in such reconciliation is social good will, but the margin of political, administrative and financial corruption is nil.

Reconciliation in Iraq needs to benefit from international experience in countries that suffered from civil unrest and managed to move forward, such as South Africa, and it needs to be implemented by professionals rather than petty politicians: the project in Iraq is currently assigned to fourth-rate politicians who are not regarded as important enough for prominent positions.  They lack authority, creativity, and general experience.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Post-ISIS Iraq: (II) Which Iraqi Sunnis Can Liberate The ISIS controlled Cities?

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.
Sahwa2In the previous article I referred to the political idea which became the rationale for making the employment of Sunni fighters a prerequisite to the success of liberating Sunni towns from the self-proclaimed Islamic State (ISIS).  The argument goes as follows: “since ISIS is a Sunni fighting group, the only legitimate people to fight it must be the Sunnis.” Also, the proponents of this idea claim that the participation of the Popular Mobilization Unites (PMUs), which are predominantly Shia, will give the impression of a Shia forces attacking a Sunni community.  This article will not focus on the anti-PMUs arguments, as this will be revisited at another time.  Rather, our focus will be on the claims that Sunni troops are the only panacea for the ISIS problem.

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Gen. Petraeus and Shaykh Abu Risha, leader of Sahwa.

The proponents of this argument cite the success that was accomplished against Al-Qaeda during the late 2007 “Surge”, a plan that was suggested by General Davis Petraeus and approved by the George W. Bush Administration.  It involved a modest number of additional U.S. troops to be sent to Iraq, combined with creating a Sunni tribal force (the Sahwa) to fight Al-Qaeda.  The supporters of this project, many of whom were involved in the Iraq operation at the time and now are wearing the hats of “Iraq experts”, further argue that the Sahwa was a great success until it was abandoned by former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, whom they conveniently blame for almost everything that went wrong in Iraq.  Let us call it like it is once and for all.  Like everything the U.S. had done in Iraq, the Sahwa was a temporary superficial fix for a very deep problem.  The US Embassy in Baghdad and the military commanders, with the help of Iraqi mediators, identified a number of tribal Shaykhs who were willing, for a generous financial payments, to lead their followers in the fight against Al-Qaeda.  The fighters were promised salaries and future employment in the Iraqi Security Forces or other government jobs.  They were armed, equipped, and trained by the US forces and they performed adequately against their former partners in Al-Qaeda.

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The four military medics murdered by Albu Farraj Tribe in 2014.

When the US withdrew from Iraq in late 2011, the Iraqi government employed a number of the Sahwa fighters, but not all, and eventually stopped the salaries of those who were not employed.  The latter grew angry and turned against the government, staged public protests, and later declared that the Iraqi government and military are not welcome in their towns.  Soldiers who were caught near protest sites were killed in cold blood.  In one case, the Albu Farraj tribe in Anbar asked for the help of medics from the nearby military unit, claiming that they have a woman having child-birth complications and need medical help.  The soldiers went to the Shaykhs guesthouse, but only to be filmed and beheaded by the Shaykh’s associates.

In Hawija, north of Baghdad, where another protest camp was staged, the protesters shot at the nearby Iraqi military unit, injuring and killing a few soldiers, which led to the sacking of the protest camp and killing of many protesters.  From that point forward, the relations between the Sunni tribes and PM Maliki’s government deteriorated beyond repair until the capture of Mosul by ISIS on 10 June 2014, which was positively greeted by many Iraqi ordinary Sunnis and a number of Sunni politicians in the Parliament and the local city councils, the same people who are now selling themselves as the Sunni partners in the war against ISIS.

Time and again, the Sunni tribes essentially gave the government a choice between paying them or they joined the terrorist organizations.  The Sahwa, which was induced by generous payments and the promise of political gains, was not a prelude of a restored sense of patriotism, but just another black mail job.  In the words of General Petraeus, “savings in vehicles not lost because of reduced violence, not to mention the priceless lives saved, have far outweighed the cost of their monthly contracts.”  This opinion was echoed by Gen. (Ret.) Barry McCaffrey, who said, “We can pay them that for 10 years if we had to…Better we provide an infusion of cash where we’re keeping a local night watchman for us on duty than we conduct combat operation. Money isn’t even a factor we ought to take into account.”

A little history lesson may be in order here.  Just as the Sahwa was not a brilliant permanent solution for Sunni terrorism in Iraq, it was not new.  Indeed, a cursory review of the British occupation era in Iraq will reveal that bribing Sunni tribal Shaykhs to avoid their treacherous betrayal was the core of Gertrude Bell’s daily business.  Two examples not only suffice, but speak volumes in illustrating this point, considering the way the past is reincarnated in the present.

The 1920 Revolution, which ultimately forced the British to grant Iraq its independence remained limited to the Shia Middle Euphrates region of Iraq and never reached the Anbar region because, as one Iraqi historian put it, “Shaykh Ali Al-Sulayman, the head of Dulaym tribes managed to prevent the expansion of the revolution in the [Dulaym] province and helped the British a great deal in fighting the revolution…  He was helped in this effort by Shaykh Fahd Al-Hadhdhal, the chief of ʽAniza tribe and Shaykh Muhsin, one of the Dulaym chiefs.  The British government appreciated the great services of these three Shaykhs and acknowledged their favors.”

This account was corroborated by General Haldane’s report about that critical moment –  General Haldaine was the Commander of British forces in 1920.  He credited the security of the Dulaym region to the mutual understanding between the British administration and the local Shaykhs:

“Fortunately at this juncture an arrangement was come to with the Dulaym tribe, whereby their head, Shaykh Ali Sulayman, in return for a subsidy, undertook to garrison Hit until such time as it could be reoccupied.  Both he and Fahad Beg ibn Hadhdhal, Shaykh of ʽAniza, as well as his son Mahrut, stood loyal to the Government throughout the insurrection, and later on received rewards for their good services at so critical a time.”

Another acknowledgment of such services was expressed in a letter by Gertrude Bell to her father dated 23 August 1920.  She wrote: “We have also had the staunchest adherence from Fahad Beg of the ʽAnizah – the donor of my dogs. He wrote to AT [Wilson] and me last week saying that nothing would make him budge from his firm allegiance. From first to last he has never wavered and has given us all the help he can. He is now near Fallujah. All the Dulaym in that part of the world have stood firm also.”

It should not come as a surprise, then, that Ali Hatem Al-Sulayman, one of the chief agitators today, is the grandson of Shaykh Ali Al-Sulayman upon whom the British relied in 1920.

Another case was the 1920 killing of Lt. Colonel Leachman, outranked only by the Acting British High Commissioner Arnold T. Wilson, by Shaykh Dhari of Zoba’ tribe near Abu Ghraib (west of Baghdad).  Dhari was on British payroll, mainly to avoid his tribe’s raids against British military and civilian convoys.  While Leachman was on his way to Ramadi, he decided to stop by and greet his “friend” Shaykh Dhari.  As the two were enjoying a friendly conversation, Leachman got the news that Dhari’s tribe attacked and looted a British convoy.  He abused Dhari and spat in his face and in retaliation, the men around Dhari shot him dead and fled the scene.  Dhari was captured seven years later and sentenced to death, then his sentence was commuted to life in prison, of which he served only one day and died.

Harith Dhari
Harith Al-Dhari.

Again, it should not come as a surprise that two of the main post-2003 agitators was Harith Al-Dhari, grandson of Shaykh Dhari, and his son, Muthanna.  Both men worked hand-in-hand with various terrorist groups. Harith Al-Dhari infamously said: “We are from Al-Qaeda and Al-Qaeda is from us.” He spent his time between Jordan and Turkey, where he died in March 2015. He was buried in Jordan.

By counting on these Sunni tribes to help combat terror, history does not repeat itself, but is deliberately repeated by people incapable of learning from the past.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim

Post-ISIS Iraq: (I) The Misguided Idea of Imposing Foreign Sunni Troops

Abbas Kadhim, Ph.D.Saudi-ground-troops

Iraq has become the battlefield of combating terrorism since the 2003 US invasion.  Authoritarian Sunni Arab countries, several of whom provided passage for US troops, regretted their initial approval of removing Saddam Hussein – which was the only good accomplishment of the invasion – and felt threatened by the possible consequences of democratizing Iraq.  They simply feared for their own future.  But that was not the only reason for their hostility toward the new Iraqi polity.  Centuries of Sunni rule in Iraq were reversed and the historically excluded Shia majority came to share power for the first time.  This change was not welcome in sectarian Sunni Arab countries whose Shia populations are treated as second-class citizens, or worse, as in the case of Saudi Arabia where even the Shia life is a mere privilege.  The latter led a relentless effort to make the American project in Iraq so costly and so injurious that no other regional population would aspire to democracy.  America’s promised model of freedom in the Middle East, Iraq, was turned into a model of death and destruction, a nightmare none of the most pessimist would have imagined.  Other elements of failure in Iraq, such as widespread corruption, incompetence, and bad governance, were the work of the US administration in Iraq and its hand-picked Iraqi cronies of all sects and ethnic groups.

Setting aside all contrary statements by former and current US officials, the undisputed fact is that Iraq was left in 2011 without adequate military capabilities to defend its borders against any external threat.  Iraq had no air force, no logistical capacity, and most units were ill-equipped and poorly trained.  The Iraqi military was corrupt to the core, and too many of its officers were either loyalists of the former regime of Saddam Hussein, who were re-instated by political deals, or cronies of the new political elite, with only a few professional and patriotic officers in the mix.  Many high-ranking officers were given ranks on the basis of their political opposition in the pre-2003 era.  Even the Chief of Staff for the Iraqi Armed Forces, who served in the position for a decade, was not a true general.  Many units were just empty shells with thousands of ghost soldiers whose salaries and per diem were received by their units to be distributed among the commanding officers.

When a grave security disaster hit Iraq on June 10, 2014, and three provinces were lost to the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the country’s vulnerability was exposed and no credible domestic force or foreign ally seemed to be in place to save Baghdad and the remaining parts ruled by its government from collapse.  Even when Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the highest religious authority in Iraq, issued his historic fatwa to save the country and Shia volunteers by the tens of thousands showed up in training camps to join the fight against the terrorist invasion, the government of Iraq and its military forces had no capacity or basic competence to put the volunteers to good use.  Someone had to fill the vacuum, and the Shia armed organizations, that dropped their weapons before or after the departure of US forces, returned to the theater, recruited tens of thousands, and took them to the front-lines in the Baghdad Belt, Samarra, and Dyala, among other locations.  The collectivity of these organizations were called the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or Al-Hashd Al-Sha’bi, in the Iraqi parlance.  As the fight progressed and the PMUs accomplished great success in saving the country from complete collapse and gained popularity, many new organizations were formed, and non-Shia Iraqis joined by the thousands.  There is even a Christian unit fighting ISIS.

Saudi in Yemen
Destruction of Yemen by the Saudi Air Bombing.

The idea of soliciting the help of non-Iraqi regional troops is not new.  It was proposed more than once and was rejected by the Iraqi government all along, as it was rejected all the time since 2003.  The only exception is made for a number of US military advisors and another number of Iranian advisers.  When Turkey sent troops to Mosul, a diplomatic crisis ensued and the government of Iraq threatened to take the matter to the UN Security Council.  The issue was resolved with the help of US mediation and Turkey declared it withdrew its troops.  In addition to the official Iraqi position against foreign troops, the majority of Iraqis reject any foreign troops in Iraq and the PMUs would treat them as enemies, even if the Iraqi government is forced to accept them.  If you want to have a preview of what a Saudi involvement in Iraq will be, take a good look at Yemen.  The truth of the matter is that Saudi Arabia is being named and shamed in the West for the first time for its role as a generator and supporter of extremist religious ideology that fuels terrorism, and it is desperately trying to present itself as a fighter of terrorism.  If the Saudis are truly trying to combat terrorism, they must start by cleaning their own house: end teaching the ideology of terrorism in their textbooks, prayer sermons, and religious media.

Is it irrational for the Iraqi government and people to reject Sunni troops from the region?  Not really!  It is a documented fact that all Iraqi neighbors are seen as enemies by certain segments of Iraqis.  In the case of Sunni Arab countries, their anti-Shia policies and attitudes are documented.  Saudi Arabia, which is the most sanguine supporter of sending Sunni troops to Iraq is the arch-enemy of the Shia worldwide, and its state religion, Wahhabism, calls openly for murdering the Shia.  The terrorism and calls for genocide against the Shia make the mainstream discourse in Saudi mosque sermons and the dehumanization of the Shia is hardly missing from any sermon, like this one:

The official Saudi position is not different.  Only a few days ago, the Saudi king sat happily as a poet — a military officer — recited a poem in his presence calling the Shia politicians in Iraq “pimps”, and the Ambassador of Saudi Arabia in Iraq has made disturbing anti-Shia statements on Iraqi media.  The same goes for the rest of Sunni Arab countries in the Persian Gulf, whose support of terrorism in Iraq is known to all, and once admitted in a rare moment of truth by the US Vice President.  Even Jordan, whose King is meant to be the poster boy of tolerance and progressive thinking, is no different.  Jordan hosts the worst supporters of terrorism in Iraq and its king, Abdullah II, could not stop himself from disturbingly making anti-Shia references more than once.  In light of all this, who can tell the Iraqis to welcome Sunni troops?  As one seasoned Arab journalist said, when the idea came up: “If Saudi Arabia sends troops to Syria or Iraq, most of them will join the Islamic State (ISIS)”.

Finally, there is the inconvenient truth about the idea of sending Sunni troops to Iraq: it is not based on military assessments, because Iraq does not need troops, but effective weapons and air support.  It is a clumsy political doctrine that proposes the following argument: “since ISIS is a Sunni fighting group, the only legitimate people to fight it must be the Sunnis.”  So if ISIS finds a way to operate in a Western country, what does this country do?  Run to Saudi Arabia for a “legitimate” Sunni fighting force, or would it bring Sunni free-lance fighters?  Suggesting the Shia of Iraq are “illegitimate” defenders of their own country and Sunni foreigners are legitimate is a dangerously inappropriate proposition.

Copyright © 2016 Dr. Abbas Kadhim