Friday, August 30, 2019

The Return of the Da'ish and What Must Be Done to Stop It


The liberation of Mosul from the Dacish, July 2017


The world rejoiced when Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Services defeated Dacish forces in Mosul and subsequently forced them from their last holdout, al-Baghuz Fawqani, along the Euphrates River in March 2019.  Donald Trump was quick to declare that the Islamic State had been “totally destroyed.”  Vice President Mike Pence and other administration figures repeated the mantra that the “Caliphate has been defeated.
Military and political analysts on the ground knew these statements were premature.  All reacted with concern when Trump declared that the 2,000 US troops stationed in north eastern Syria could now be withdrawn and brought home because they were no longer needed to fight the Dacish.  Thinking about the struggle against the Islamic State in conventional military terms, and trying to score political points domestically, Trump, Pence and Pompeo have set the stage for yet another American foreign policy disaster in the Middle East.
The battle of al-Baghuz Fawqani, March 2019
What threat does the Dacish pose to Iraq, Syria and other parts of the MENA region?  What can and should be done to meet that threat? What role should Iraq, the US and the international community play in this process? 

A US Department of Defense Inspector General’s report in April 2019 noted that the Islamic State was far from defeated. With its sleeper cells, and financial assets estimated to reach as much as $400 million, it still poses a serious threat to Iraq and eastern Syria, and other parts of the MENA region such as Libya and the Sinai Peninsula Inspector General Department of Defense Operation Inherent Resolve - Quarterly Report April-June, 2019

The Report notes that IS has between 11,000 and 14,000 fighters and continues to carry out targeted assassinations, kidnappings, destruction of infrastructure and the burning of crops.  It has established safe houses in rural Sunni majority populated areas in western and north eastern Iraq and continues its recruitment efforts.
Paradise Square, Raqq, where beheadings occurred on a daily basis
A recent visit by Voice of America journalists to Raqqa, the former capital of Dacish so-called Caliphate, demonstrates the threat which western Syria and north central Iraq still face from the terrorist organization. Few Raqqans were willing to discuss their experiences under Dacish rule. In his fortified municipal The mayor of Raqqa indicated that many Raqqan residents still sympathize with the Dacish and that his offices have been subject to multiple attacks.  Syria's Raqqa Struggles to Recover, 2 Years After ISIS' ouster

Equally disturbing are conditions at the al-Hawl prisoner camp in north eastern Syria at the Iraqi border where thousands of Dacish fighters and their families are being held.  Guarded by members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which was instrumental in defeating the terrorist organization in Syria, the camp has become a huge incubator for a new generation of terrorists as children in the camp are indoctrinated with  Dacish ideology. though Raqqa is no longer under control of the terrorists, the constraints fear has imposed on the city has effectively prevented rebuilding the city and the local economy.  What the Trump administration refuses to acknowledge is that the drivers of support for terrorist organizations like the IS must be addressed.  Otherwise the notion of “defeat” is meaningless.

The United States and most other Western countries have refused to help the SDF and the Democratic Federation of North Syria autonomous region find a solution for the terrorists held in the al-Hawl prison camp.  They have neither accepted to bring the terrorists to their countries or help facilitate the return of prisoners to their home countries.  SDF guard are overwhelmed and won't even venture in certain parts of the camp. To date, one guard has been killed and several others wounded by prisoners. Inside al-Hawl Camp: the Incubator for Islamic State's Resurgence
Growth of al-Hawl prison camp from 2018-2019
How can the Dacish's resurgence be stopped? Three conditions - military, political and material - must be met if the terrorist threat facing eastern Syria and Iraq is to be seriously addressed.  First, the Iraqi Army must be reconstituted to be able to eliminate the Dacish's military capacity. Second, the local populaces who still support the Dacish must be weaned away from that support. Finally, reconstruction must take place so that the residents of the areas formerly controlled by the Dacish can feel that there is hope for the future.

The importance of the military is evident from the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul by Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) and in eastern Syria by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  In both cases, US troops were critical in training both military forces. 

The ignominious defeat of the Iraq Army in Mosul in June 2014 stands in sharp contrast to the victory of the CTS in Mosul in in November 2017.  Prior to the fall of Mosul in 2014, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had converted the army units in the city and its environs into sectarian force which focused on extracting rents from the local populace rather than acting as national defense force.  

Ostensibly consisting of 30,00 troops, at least on paper, and possessing some of the latest US military hardware, including  MRAPs, the Iraq Army was routed by a lightly armed Dacish force of 800-1000 fighters on Toyota pickup trucks armed with machine guns. (For a description of Mosul's seizure by the Dacish, see my A Tale of Two States: Iraq and the IS)

In 2017, CTS forces attacked Mosul and, after intense combat, were able to defeat the  Dacish. One key difference between the Iraqi Army units in Mosul in 2014 was the training of the new CTS units by US forces and the appointment of an Iraqi commander, Lt. General Abd al-Wahhab al-Sacdi, who make it clear that his policy was “zero tolerance” for sectarianism among his troops.

Indeed, Iraqi students at Rutgers who had relatives in Mosul at the time of the assault indicated that their families were terrified at the prospect of the city being attacked by the Iraqi Army, not because they sympathized with the Dacish, but because they feared a sectarian blood bath.  Since most of the Iraqi forces were Shica, they feared the army would see Moslawis as collaborators with the Dacish, remembering the brutal killing of 1500 Iraqi troops in June 2014 who were selected to be shot simply based on their religious sect as Shica.

CTS tent city near Mosul 2017
To these Moslawi families' great surprise, the CTS not only acted in a professional manner but fought methodically, street to street, to minimize civilian casualties, taking very high casualties of their own. Residents of liberated areas were given food and medicine, treated with respect and offered the option to move to a new tent city outside Mosul while the battle continued.  Understandably, the attitudes of Mosul’s resident turned from fear of the invading forces to great joy that they had been liberated from the hated Dacish and had not experienced any sectarian backlash in the process.

The political dimension in defeating terrorism is just as important as military proficiency. This is evident by comparing the defeat of the Dacish in Mosul to its defeat in eastern Syria.  The lion’s share of that effort was borne by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).  Although the SDG, like the CTS, benefited from US training, but despite including Arab fighters, the SDF was controlled by the Rojava Kurds in the autonomous region they created in north eastern Syria, the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria.

The residents of Raqqa don't identify with the Rojava Kurds who have been politically and socially marginalized by the al-Asad regime, deprived of Syrian citizenship and had their lands seized by the state.  Thus, it has been much harder for the SDF to develop ties to Arabs liberated from the Dacish  in Syria than it has for the Iraqi Army to develop good relations with the residents of Mosul. It is noticeable that there have few examples of the resurgence of the Dacish in Mosul compared to Raqqa.

Nevertheless, the Rojava Kurds, unlike the Iraqi government which has not offered captured IS fighters meaningful due process, has refused to execute captured IS fighters and instead has handed down short 2-3 year jail sentences to those convicted of crimes. Subsequently they have attempted to create an environment of reconciliation with the former terrorists.  This process stands in sharp contrast to the Iraqi court system where trials, often lasting only a few minutes and with defendants not having met with their attorneys prior to appearing in court, have resulted in numerous execution verdicts. Captured ISIS fighters get short sentences and art therapy in Syria

The United Nations, with the support of the US and EU, needs to encourage the Iraqi government to convene behind the scenes meetings involving Sunni and Shica clerics and tribal leaders.  Using a “bottom up” approach, which involves listening to and valorizing the concerns of residents living in areas which have experienced extensive destruction, such meetings could be used to establish informal working groups to confront the needs of displaced persons and to give residents of former Dacish controlled areas, who are predominantly Sunni, from feeling that they have no role to play in Iraq's political system.

Meanwhile, rather than contributing to solving the problem, the Trump administration is only increasing the power of Iraq’s sectarian entrepreneurs, especially those who have political and financial ties to the Iranian government.  Allowing Israel to bomb ammunition dumps of Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) in Iraq was extremely foolish because it has provided fuel for those members of Iraq’s political class who have been pushing for the removal of US troops and a reduction of American influence in the country. The Popular Mobilization Units: A Threat to the Development of Political Stability and Democracy in Iraq?

Finally, material resources will be critical to the final elimination of the Dacish. Iraq has estimated that it needs between $88-$100 billion to rebuild Mosul and those sections of north central Iraq which were destroyed during the war with the Dacish. A conference in Kuwait in February 2019 failed to raise anywhere near the funds needed for post-Dacish reconstruction.

With the estimated number of displaced persons by the war with the Dacish in excess of 4.5 million Iraqis, many of whom have no permanent residences, much less access to education, health care and other social services, the situation for these Iraqis is dire. The Trump administration which, with a minimal amount of effort, could jawbone the Arab Gulf states to contribute $40 billion to the reconstruction fund.

Saudi Arabia has a sovereign wealth fund of $320 billion (ARAMCO's 2018 profit alone was $49 billion, the largest of any company in the world), the UAE's fund is $792 billion, Kuwait's fund is $592 billion, and Qatar's fund is $320 billion. None of theses states want to see a revived Dacish arise from the ashes of defeat.

Other sources of funds could include Norway, which has the world's largest sovereign wealth fund, valued in excess of $1 trillion. Singapore's fund is $390 billion. If the European Union were to contribute $10 billion, together with an matching amount from the United States, and small amounts from Bahrain and the Sultanate of Brunei, the fund would reach close to the $88 billion minimum required for Iraq's reconstruction.

Unfortunately, in this area of confronting the multiple needs caused by the Dacish's defeat, the Trump administration has been severely wanting. There has been little if no public discussion of Iraq’s reconstruction needs. Unless the US and the international community steps up to assist Iraq in the reconstruction process, the displaced Iraqis in the north central provinces will provide fertile soil not just for the Dacish, but the growth of myriad criminal and extremist organizations, especially those who appeal to displaced Iraqi and Syrian youth.



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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Popular Mobilization Units: A Threat to the Development of Political Stability and Democracy in Iraq?

The flag of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashad al-Sha'bi
Max Weber famously defined the state as that "human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory."  Many states have not been afforded this luxury.  An example is Italy where what began as social movements to provide services and protection for local constituencies, such as La Cosa Nostra (Mafia), Camorra and ‘Ndrangheta, later morphed into organizations specializing in protecting powerful and wealthy clients, becoming a nationally powerful crime syndicates in the process.

Iraq has likewise seen the rise of powerful militias, the Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) or 
al-Hashad al-Shacbi since they were established following a fatwa (religious decree) from Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in 2014.  For a discussion of the Islamic State’s rise, see my A Comprehensive Plan to Defeat the Islamic State



The PMUs, which number 60 odd militias at the moment, are mostly Shi a but include some Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and Turkmen units as well. The key concern is that the PMUs are designated by the Iraqi government as “state affiliated organizations.” This means in effect that they are largely independent of central government control.

What are the implications for the Iraqi state being unable to control these armed militias, some of which are transforming themselves into economic actors.  To what extent is a state within a state being built in Iraq?  Can the PMUs be brought under control or are they now a permanent fixture of Iraq’s political system?

On July 1, 2019, Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi announced that all PMUs would be brought under control of the central government.  Many Iraqi and non-Iraqi analysts were skeptical that cAbd al-Mahdi proclamation would have any serious impact on the PMUs. This is especially true in light of the criticism of cAbd al-Mahdi’s cabinet which, to date, has failed to implement the reforms it promised when it took office.

Recently, Falih al-Fayyad, National Security Advisor, indicated that all PMU “offices” in Iraqi cities and towns must close their offices and their members must remove themselves from urban areas to designated bases.  What seems of greatest concern underlying this decision is that the PMUs have become actively involved in Iraq’s economic and financial affairs.  While they were originally formed as defensive units, they now are trying to translate that legitimacy into economic gain.  Reflecting a growing concern, Ayatollah cAli al-Sistani issued a statement in April 2019 warning the PMUs to “stay away from economics.”

In the process of policing Iraq’s cities, such as Mosul which was recaptured from the Dacish in 2017,  the PMUs have established “committees” (lijan) or “offices” (maktabib). This unofficial organizations have acting engaged in raising funds. To cover the high costs of sustaining the militias as well as providing the PMU leaders with lucrative salaries.  PMUs engage in trade, auctions, and real estate transactions.  Thus, the Iraqi governments efforts to close these offices in urban areas is to prevent the PMUs from entrenching its economic power.

Mosul offers the PMUs lucrative business opportunities. With massive reconstruction underway, the PMUs have pushed their way into the process using force and blackmail to control the flow of funds coming into the city.  Business owners in Mosul complain that the PMUs subject them to extortion and often force them to take on a militia as a commercial partner.

For example, Ikhlas al-Dulaymi, a parliamentarian from Ninawa province, accused Qais al-Khazali, 
leader of  the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq militia, of forcing a Mosul business man of accepting it as a partner 
with a 30% stake in the contract. al-Dulaymi also implied that the sinking of a ferry in the Tigris  
River in March, 2019, which caused 103 deaths, was not due to navigational negligence but the 
security problems created by the PMUs in the city.

Also disturbing to Iraqis and their governments is the control over territories by the PMUs which 
are off limits to the Iraqi Army or government officials. The most well know is the city of Jarf al-Sakhr, in the northern part of Babil Province, which the PMUs have controlled since 2014.  The city’s 100,000 residents have yet to be able to return to their homes.
 On several occasions, Iraqi Army units, parliamentarians and other government officials have been 
prevented from entering the city.  This has made many Iraqi politicians and analysts believe that the 
city has prisons, and makes weapons and explosives in workshops with material supplied by Iran. 
Indeed, Jarf al-Sakhr is an example of a “mini” state within a state. 
 
 


Sunday, June 30, 2019

What's wrong with Basra? How a toxic brew of global warming, corruption and sectarian politics threatens Iraq


Protests against sub-standard social services, Basra, June 29, 2019
Recently, I attended a panel discussion on Iraq’s port city of Basra held at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC.  While well aware of the problems facing Basra, I was unprepared to learn how bad conditions in the city have become.  The questions raised by current economic, environmental and health threats are not only highly problematic for the city, but suggest what could be the fate of MENA region and other port cities situated in hot climates throughout the world. 


Not only are residents deprived of essential services, often a threat to their health and even lives, but they inhabit areas prone to ongoing conflict and civil strife.  Basra has become the “perfect storm,” reflecting a problem which not only adversely affects Iraq, but many other countries and one which will spread as global warming and drought begin to take hold in many hot areas of the world.  Given these conditions, the danger is obviously the spread of civil strife. What the can we learn from Basra?

First, Basra has been the epicenter of wars and civil conflict since the 1980s.  Having visited the city during the spring of 1980, just prior to Saddam Husayn’s invasion of Iran, the city still lived up to its reputation as the “Venice of the Middle East,” given its many canals and economic dependence on the. Shatt al-cArab (the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers before they enter the Persian Gulf). 

All this changed after the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 in which the Basra region was severely damaged by the attacks by each side on the oil facilities located at the northern tip of the Persian Gulf.  Basra was almost cut off from the rest of Iraq during the Iranian invasion of 1984 when Iranian forces sought to seize the Fao Peninsula.  During the war, the Shatt al-cArab was blocked due to the sinking of many ships located in the port of Basra.

Basra is Iraq’s only major port and key access point for exporting oil. The devastation wrought on the Basra region by the Iran-Iraq War, which destroyed much of the oil industry’s infrastructure, was only made worse by the UN coalition's bombing during the Gulf War of January 1991.   Matters came to a head when Iraq’s conscript army, retreating through Basra from Kuwait after the US led coalition’s victory, spurred a large uprising - the  March 1991 Intifada) - which almost toppled Saddam Husayn and resulted in even more destruction, especially in the south of Iraq.

The US invasion of 2003 could have helped Basra rebuild if the large amount of reconstruction funds authorized by the US Congress had been spent on projects to improve the city’s water, electricity and health infrastructure.  We know in retrospect that the contracts awarded to US corporations by the Bush administration lacked a bidding process. Of the funds allocated, much were designed to improve the bottom line of the corporations receiving the award, and not Iraq’s needs.  Often projects weren’t even completed.  In short, the US invasion of Iraq failed to help Basra recover from the devastation of the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War and the March 1991 Intifada.

After the toppling of Saddam in 2003, Basra became locked in multiple political struggles.  One pitted the US occupying authority against Iran which quickly became a major player in post-invasion Iraqi politics.  Another pitted  local tribal leaders against one another as they tried to gain control of reconstruction funds and the local economy, and became involved in widespread smuggling. Yet another conflict, more traditional in nature, pitted the Basra region against Baghdad, much like the conflict between Bagdad and Erbil, the seat of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Traditionally, Basra region has felt marginalized by Baghdad.  Finally, a political struggle developed between Shi'a political parties and militias to control the city’s lucrative economy.

Meanwhile, conditions for residents of Basra have continued to deteriorate.  Between August and November 2018, 100,000 Basra area residents were treated for water poisoning (Reuters 2018). No one can explain why 13 water treatment plants completed in 2006 are still not functioning.  Ministry of Health data show Basra’s tap water’s chemical contamination level is 100% while its bacterial content stands at 50%. Film: Iraq's Poisoned Rivers

The main problem is the dependence of Basra and the surrounding region on the Shatt al-cArab for its fresh water supply.  However, with the drought which has plagued Iraq since 2007 and the damming of the Euphrates River in Turkey, the Shatt al-cArab has shrunken in size enabling saline water to enter from the Persian Gulf.  Not only has this process irreparable damaged the date industry along the river, but is has decreased the availability of fresh water.  Iraq's Ministry of Water Resources indicated in 2018 that Iraq's river had lost 40% of their water during the past 20 years.  Iraq's farmland is shrinking by 5% each year. Iraq's water crisis is intensifying

As noted by the panelists at the Middle East Institute forum, many farmers in the Basra region suffer not only from water shortages but from toxic chemicals which have entered their cropland.  Iraq's fishermen, both those who formerly fished in Iraq's famed marshlands (al-ahwar), and in the Shatt al-cArab and Persian Gulf have abandoned fishing because it no longer provides a livelihood for their families. As many have tried to become farmers, that has created conflict with farmers who already own land.

After Saddam’s ouster, a new patronage system was established in Basra.  Local residents became dependent on political parties and later militias for jobs and social services. Thus, when conditions began to seriously worsen, many Basrawis were initially reluctant to join demonstrations protesting the lack of electricity during the brutally hot summer.  Because parties and militias often threatened protestors, the prospect of being attacked for joining a demonstration was a deterrent.

However, that has all changed this year.  With temperatures recently reaching 120 degrees (49 degrees Celsius), demonstration have been ongoing with security forces using live ammunition to contain them.  The intensify and size of the demonstrations threatens the government of Prime Minister  'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi. Two parties, the Sadrist Trend, led by Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Hikma Party, led by 'Ammar al-Hakim have been highly critical of the government in Baghdad and its inability to address Basra’s problems.

What then do conditions in Basra tell us about Iraqi politics and what are its implications for urban areas in similar climate zones elsewhere?  First, it shows the limits of sectarian “divide and conquer” politics.  With conditions in Basra having reached a tipping point which now makes them intolerable to all inhabitants, trying to set different groups against one another politically, whether by sect, ethnicity or tribal affiliation, seems to have run its course and no longer be effective. 

Second, the Basra crisis demonstrates the extent to which global warming has profound implications for the politics of nation-states in zones where such warming threatens local residents' ability to remain in their places of residence.  With water supplies increasingly limited, and food contaminated with toxins also a problem, a national effort will need to be made in such conditions to prevent economic and social dislocation from creating civil strife and political instability.

Third, many LDCs will soon discover that they cannot afford to sustain a highly corrupt and nepotistic form of politics which undermines the central state’s ability to address problems created by climate change.  The threats caused by global warming have yet to be frontally addressed by political analysts.  However, as the deteriorating living conditions in Basra clearly indicate, central states ignore problems caused by climate change at their own peril.  Indeed, the government of Prime Minister 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi faces a threat of collapse, in large measure, due to its inability to solve the Basra crisis.

Finally, Iraq may find that its key source of revenues, namely its ex[rot of oil, is disrupted if social and economic conditions in basra continue to deteriorate.  Already, oil companies, such as Exxon Mobil, have withdrawn from efforts to drill in the Basra region. With Iraq dependent for more than 95% of its foreign revenues on sales of oil in the world market, such a development would pose extremely serious problems.

As it is, the demonstrations in Basra have weakened the Federal Government in Baghdad.  Prime Minister 'Adil 'Abd al-Mahdi will find it more difficult to arrive at an accommodation with the KRG about the status of Kurdish oil production and the distribution of revenues from its sale. He will also find it more difficult to fend off efforts by Iran and the United States to influence his policy decisions