Showdown looming in Iraq

Showdown looming in Iraq

Baghdad seems to be bracing itself for an almighty bout of arm-wrestling, with its dysfunctional government on the one side and the Shia militias on the other, writes Salah Nasrawi
On 20 October, one of the commanders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, posted a letter to Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi on the Internet chastising the latter’s government for failing to support the Shia para-military force in the war against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

In the unprecedented letter, Al-Muhandis demanded that Al-Abadi reconsider the budget allotted to the PMF and provide it with more weapons, equipment and facilities, which he said the PMF needed in the war against IS.

“With each battle we go to plead and beg,” wrote Al-Muhandis in the letter, raging with bitterness at what he perceived as Al-Abadi’s passivity towards the force known in Arabic as Al-Hashed Al-Shaabi.

“Even if your intention is to dissolve Al-Hashed in the near or distant future, the least you should do now is to provide the means it needs to sustain the current battle,” he wrote.

He specifically asked Al-Abadi to supply Al-Hashed with armoured personnel carriers and bomb detectors. “Why are these volunteers, as you call them, left to face explosives, missiles and the enemy’s weapons with their bare bodies,” he asked.

Among other demands, Al-Muhandis made in his letter was putting Al-Hashed, largely composed of Shia militias, on a par with the army and security forces and creating a joint command system that would coordinate between Iraq’s three forces.

Whatever the implicit message, Al-Muhandis’s open letter to the Shia leader contains an element of symbolism that invokes the expression of a titanic power struggle in Iraq.

Al-Muhandis, whose real name is Jamal Jaafar Mohamed, is the leader of Kataib Hizbullah, an Iranian-sponsored Shia militia which has been active in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003. In addition to acting as the leader of the militia, Al-Muhandis also serves as deputy commander of Al-Hashed.

Al-Muhandis is orchestrating along with two other powerful leaders, Hadi Al-Amiri, commander of the Badr Organisation and Qais Al-Khazali, founder of the Asaib Ahl Al-Haq network, or the “League of the Righteous”, most of the activities of the PMF.

Al-Hashed was formed from Shia militias following the fall of Mosul in June 2014 to IS militants and their lightning advances into cities and towns in central Iraq. Backed by Iranian weapons and advisers, Al-Hashed led the Iraqi government’s counter-offensive to regain control of most of the land lost to IS.

According to many analysts, the militias are now eclipsing Iraq’s security forces in the fight against IS. Last week they recaptured Baiji, a strategic city north of Baghdad, from IS after several botched offensives by the Iraqi army.

Al-Hashed now commands some 120,000 fighters. In addition to the some $1 billion it receives from the state budget, the PMF gets additional funding from other Iranian religious clerics and donations from Shia businessmen and political groups.

Though the government says the PMF comes under the control of the prime minister’s office, most of the militias which compose the force, and in particular the main ones, function without any government supervision or control. 

Since they rose to prominence following last year’s IS onslaught, the militias have expanded their hold on towns and neighbourhoods in Iraq. International human right groups have accused the militias of using the weak rule of law in Iraq to commit abuses.

In September, a militia group claimed responsibility for the kidnapping of 18 Turkish construction workers in Baghdad and listed demands for their release that included Turkey to stop its interference in Iraq and to lift a siege on several Shia towns and villages in Syria. The workers were released four weeks later after an undisclosed deal with the government. 

The militias are becoming a growing risk for governance and stability in Iraq as they are increasingly functioning within the state apparatus and in particular in the security forces where sometimes they operate as replacement forces where the state is absent.  

The link between the Shia militias and the government security forces dates back to the period following the US-led invasion in 2003, when thousands of Shia militias who were fighting against the regime of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein were integrated into Iraq’s post-Saddam army and security forces.

After Al-Abadi was nominated as prime minister in July last year, he designated Mohamed Ghabban, a senior official in the Badr Organisation, as the new interior minister despite the Sunni rejection of Al-Amiri, the head of the group, to assume the post.

Since he assumed office, Ghabban has purged hundreds of officers and replaced them with others who are now loyal to Shia militias, in particular the Badr Organisation.

Three days after the publication of his letter, Al-Muhandis posted another note protesting against a raid by US special forces on IS targets in northern Iraq in cooperation with the Kurdish Peshmergas. It was the first time that American troops have been reportedly deployed in the fight against IS since the US started its airstrikes against the terror group in August last year.

The Pentagon said the raid was aimed at rescuing Kurdish fighters who were being held by IS. A Facebook page operated by Al-Hashed, however, disputed the US claim that the raid was a rescue mission and accused the US troops of “evicting” besieged IS commanders from the area.

“We are aware of your plans and who the politicians are who are collaborating with you. We fought them for ten years when our hands were empty. Now our hands are full, and we can reach you and unveil your plans and expose you if you do not stop,” it wrote.

Leaders of Al-Hashed have long denounced the US air support in the fight against IS and some have even threatened that they will “eject” US ground troops if they are sent to Iraq, a prospect the Obama administration has ruled out.

The US operation in Al-Hawija comes amid controversy on whether Al-Abadi should request Russian help in the war against IS. Since Russia started its airstrikes against opposition groups in Syria, Al-Hashed leaders have increased their pressure on Al-Abadi to seek Russian military support in the war against IS.

Such a request would put Al-Abadi in a delicate position with the United States, which has made it clear that it opposes Russian military intervention in Iraq.

Though Al-Abadi has agreed to set up a liaison group to coordinate intelligence and security cooperation with Russia, Iran and Syria to counter the threat from IS, he has been reluctant so far to ask Moscow to intervene.

Head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford said on a trip to Baghdad last week that the United States had won assurances from Iraq that it would not seek Russian airstrikes.

Another dispute that has worsened the mood among the increasingly disgruntled militia leaders has been the prime minister’s decision to appoint a controversial Iraqi-American who worked closely with the Pentagon during the early days of the US occupation of Iraq as his new chief of staff.

Last week, Al-Abadi named Emad Dhia (Al-Kharsan), who headed a group set up by the US occupation authority to assist the Bush administration in running Iraq after the invasion in 2003, as secretary-general of the Council of Ministers, a post which will put him in charge of running day-to-day government affairs.

The secretary-general of the council is a key post in Iraq, and since it was created under former prime minister Nuri Al-Maliki its holders have been considered to be the “power behind the throne.”

In his post Dhia will probably oversee some of the actions of the military and security forces and Al-Hashed whose commanders are answerable to Al-Abadi in his capacity as the commander-in-chief of Iraq’s armed forces.

Al-Abadi’s mysterious decision to give the post to Dhia, who has never served in the Iraqi government and has lived most of his life in the United States and has worked closely with the Pentagon, is expected to worsen his relations with Al-Hashed’s leaders who fear that Dhia serves an American agenda.

Whatever the reasons behind Al-Hashed’s mounting discontent, relations between Al-Abadi and the Shia militias have reached a crossroads. Many analysts have expected that the rise of Al-Hashed will shift more power from the government to the militia leaders, eventually leading to a power struggle within the Shia alliance.

That seems to be happening sooner than it expected, and Al-Muhandis’s rage against Al-Abadi is just the opening act to more dramatic developments to come in the on-going struggle over who controls Iraq.

If the recent history of Iran can serve as an example, the Revolutionary Guard, on whose model Al-Hashed in Iraq is being built, has ultimately displaced the clerical elite who were behind the Islamic Revolution and become the country’s centre of power.

Calls for reform in Iraq

Shia worshippers run between the holy shrines of Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein in Karbala

As parades marking the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein at the Battle of Taf in 680 CE continue across Iraq, protests against corruption are also gathering force, reports Nermeen Al-Mufti in Baghdad

The Islamic month of Muharram began two weeks ago and Iraqis, especially Shias, are mourning the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohamed, who was killed at the Battle of Taf in Muharram 61 AH, or October 680 CE.

Black banners have been put up across Iraq and millions of people are visiting the city of Karbala, 120 km south of Baghdad, where the Imam Hussein, his brother and 70 of his followers and relatives, are buried. The Battle of Taf took place near the city.

Special parades have been mounted to mark this sad occasion, but this year the parades have turned into protests against corruption, creating new problems for the Iraqi government and parliament. The anti-corruption protests began three months ago across Iraq, except in the three northern Kurdish provinces, where the protests began two weeks ago.

“Corruption and terrorism are the two faces of the same coin,” said Ali Hussein, a university student and activist. “Those who are in the government are using the parades marking the death of the Imam Hussein to win the elections and close our eyes to the corruption in the country. But we will continue our protests until we see real and tangible reforms.”

On his way to Karbala, Ahmed Saif, who is unemployed, told Al-Ahram Weekly, “We do not want to see high-ranking officials and the heads of the political blocs participating in the mourning, like in previous years. If the Imam Hussein is their icon, they should be like him and fight corruption. Enough is enough: we are exhausted by the corruption in Iraq.”

Meanwhile, the Iraq Integrity Commission, the country’s corruption watchdog, has published the names of dozens of high-ranking officials accused of corruption, but no one has yet been put on trial.

Talal Zobaee, the head of the Integrity Committee in the Iraqi parliament, issued a press statement announcing that officials and investigators from the Integrity Commission, which has begun issuing arrest warrants for officials charged with corruption, have been targeted for assassination.

Zobaee said that in the midst of the political problems plaguing Iraq, integrity advocates have stood up and said to those who have exhausted the people, trading in Iraqi blood through gangs, crimes, terrorism and thieving, that they have violated the sanctities, values ​​and principles of religion.

In a press statement two weeks ago, he said that Integrity Commission officials will continue their relentless war against those suspected of embezzling public money and will continue the fight against “dens of corruption with an iron fist” and restore looted money to the state treasury.

Zobaee said the commission will continue its work despite the threats made against it. “As long as our positions are not in the interests of corruption and the corrupt, we face threats on a daily basis, including threats of intimidation and physical liquidation,” he said.

He added that two Integrity Commission investigators, Ibrahim Jihad (a Turkmen) and Mazin Abdel-Wahid (an Arab) were killed in the Kirkuk province, 248 km north of Baghdad, because of their “excellent work” chasing the corrupt and their strong belief in the demands of the protestors.

Zobaee called on “all Iraqi clerics, politicians and demonstrators to stand together to cleanse our country of the dens of corruption and terrorism, which is the only way for Iraq to enjoy peace, justice and freedom.”

This Muharram, protestors are demanding reforms like those demanded by the Imam Hussein when he made his way from Mecca to what is now Iraq in 680 CE.

Born liar: Blair and the Iraq inquiry
Still more evidence has emerged suggesting that Tony Blair gave a political blank cheque to the Bush administration, and purposely hoodwinked both the UK public and parliament, writes Felicity Arbuthnot in London

What the Mail on Sunday described as a “bombshell White House memo” alleges that Tony Blair did “a deal in blood” with Bush to support him, come what may, in an attack on Iraq — a full year before the invasion. The leaked classified correspondence was sent by then-Secretary of State General Colin Powell to President George W Bush on 28 March 2002.

At that time, Blair claimed that he was seeking a diplomatic solution to the Iraq crisis. “We’re not proposing military action,” he told the public, as he prepared “to act as spin doctor for Bush,” according to the Mail, which also reveals Powell’s affirmation: “The UK will follow our lead.”

Blair continued to claim to have made no decision regarding military action for most of 2002. A diplomatic solution was being pursued, he said. Since there was no US or UK embassy in Baghdad, and UK ministers and their US counterparts refused to travel there or engage with the Iraqi government, his assertions never rang even vaguely true.

Powell’s memo proves the lie. The memo was headed: “Memorandum to the President; Subject: Your Meeting with United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair, April 5-7, 2002, Crawford, Texas.”

In it, he writes: “Blair continues to stand by you and the US as we move forward on the war on terrorism and on Iraq. He will present to you the strategic, tactical and public affairs lines that he believes will strengthen global support for our common cause.”

The paragraph confirms Blair’s integral part in the planning and all-round strategy of the illegal invasion, even as he was telling both parliament and the public something quite else.

It should also be noted that while the line to parliament and the public sought to tie Saddam’s government to the events of 11 September 2001, in the Powell-Bush-Blair correspondence they seem to be viewed as entirely separate (note: “the war on terrorism and on Iraq”). There was no mention of the numerous state-promoted allegations of Iraq and international terrorism being interlinked.

Powell confirms: “On Iraq, Blair will be with us should military actions be necessary.” Pointing out that Blair was not quite unfettered in his entirely illegal plans, Powell writes: “Aside from his foreign and defence secretaries . . . Blair’s Cabinet shows signs of division, and the Labour Party and the British public are unconvinced that military action is warranted now.”

Nonetheless, Powell writes: “Blair may suggest ideas on how to make a credible public case on current Iraqi threats to international peace” and how to handle demands for “any action to be sanctioned by the UN Security Council.”

Thus, there was full awareness by Bush and Blair of the illegality of attacking a sovereign nation that posed no threat to their countries, and whose “sovereignty and territorial integrity” was guaranteed by the UN Charter.

Also notable is that Tony Blair was so keen to ally with George W Bush in the plot to invade Iraq that he left the UK during the ten-day period of national mourning for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

The oldest member of the royal family died on 30 March 2002. Queues lined to pay their last respects as she lay in state in Westminster Abbey. The monarchy grieved and Her Majesty’s prime minister, Blair, boarded a plane to the US.

In September that year, Blair claimed that Saddam Hussein’s government could release weapons of mass destruction on the West “within 45 minutes” — a claim that Powell used in his Iraq war speech to the UN Security Council the following February.

The communication also says that Blair would “demonstrate that we have thought through ‘the day after’.” Not only had “the day after” not been “thought through”, but the weeks, months, and years that Iraq has continued to implode, killing uncounted thousands of Iraqis.

Even Iraq Body Count, whose estimates of Iraqi deaths are so understated that they are used by the US and UK governments, released a report early this year stating that Iraqi deaths from violence are doubling year on year.

As Powell wrote, “[Blair] is sharply criticised by the media for being too pro-US, too arrogant and ‘presidential’ (not a compliment in the British context) and too inattentive on issues of concern to voters.”

He continued: “Blair knows he may have to pay a political price for supporting us on Iraq and wants to minimise it. Nonetheless, he will stick with us on the big issues. His voters will look for signs that Britain and America are truly equal partners in the special relationship.”

But Powell was not paying attention. The majority of British voters wanted no “equal partnership” and nothing to do with the Iraq assault or general US global belligerence.

After George W Bush left office and Barack Obama was elected with such (now dashed) hopes, many Americans living in the UK interviewed by the media referred to their discomfort at a time when anti-American sentiment in the UK was high. Some said they had tried to keep silent on public transport and in public places, not wanting their American accents to be heard, so strong was the anti-American feeling over the treatment of and further threats to Iraq.

Today’s revelations have not come at a good time for Blair. Scrutiny of his role in Iraq’s tragedy has only grown over the years. A petition to Britain’s parliament demanding Blair’s impeachment is currently being circulated. A recent poll asked: “Should Tony Blair Stand Trial for War Crimes?” Between 95 and 96 per cent of those asked said “yes”.

Further, it seems Blair also was not entirely truthful with the £10 million, six-year-long Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq invasion, whose report is still awaited. Sir John Chilcot has given various reasons for the delay, including 2002 correspondence between Bush and Blair that was withheld from the inquiry. The report will not be published for another year. He surely now has all the material he needs.

Also according the Mail: “During his appearance before the Chilcot inquiry in January 2010, Blair denied that he had struck a secret deal with Bush at Crawford to overthrow Saddam. Blair said the two men had agreed on the need to confront the Iraqi dictator, but insisted they did not get into ‘specifics’.”

British MP David Davis, a former shadow home secretary, is stunned at the memo, writing: “This is one of the most astonishing documents I have ever read. It proves in explicit terms what many of us have believed all along: Tony Blair effectively agreed to act as a front man for American foreign policy in advance of any decision by the House of Commons or the British Cabinet.

“He was happy to launder George Bush’s policy on Iraq and subcontract British foreign policy to another country without having the remotest ability to have any real influence over it.”

Davis adds, “Judging from this memorandum, Blair signed up for the Iraq War even before the Americans themselves did. It beggars belief.” He continues, “Blair was telling MPs and voters back home that he was still pursuing a diplomatic solution while Colin Powell was telling President Bush: ‘Don’t worry, George, Tony is signed up for the war come what may — he’ll handle the PR for you, just make him look big in return.’”

Further: “What is truly shocking is the casualness of it all, such as the reference in the memo to ‘the day after’ — meaning the day after Saddam would be toppled.”

Davis concludes by linking the terrorism scourging Iraq and the Middle East directly to the actions in which Blair played such an integral part: “We saw the catastrophic so-called ‘de-Baathification’ of Iraq, with the country’s entire civil and military structure dismantled, leading to years of bloodshed and chaos.

“It has infected surrounding countries to this day and created the vacuum into which Islamic State has stepped. This may well be the Iraq ‘smoking gun’ we have all been looking for.”

Anthony Charles Lynton Blair’s final untruths before the invasion were an address to parliament on 18 March 2003. They included: “And now the world has to learn the lesson all over again that weakness in the face of a threat from a tyrant is the surest way not to peace but to war.”

And: “The real problem is that, underneath, people dispute that Iraq is a threat; dispute the link between terrorism and WMD; dispute the whole basis of our assertion that the two together constitute a fundamental assault on our way of life.”

Should the UK not enjoin the attack: “And then, when the threat returns from Iraq or elsewhere, who will believe us? What price our credibility? . . . To retreat now, I believe, would put at hazard all that we hold dearest . . . stifle the first steps of progress in the Middle East . . .

“This is the time for not just this government or indeed this prime minister, but for this house to give a lead, to show that we will stand up for what we know to be right, to show that we will confront the tyrannies and dictatorships and terrorists who put our way of life at risk, to show at the moment of decision that we have the courage to do the right thing.”

How wrong, devious and duplicitous can one man be?

Perhaps the answer is linked to another question: For how long can he evade justice?

The writer is a veteran journalist who was senior researcher on John Pilger’s award-winning documentary, Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq.

Turkey votes — again

Days away from the repeat elections that Erdogan engineered, the ruling party in Turkey is ramping up efforts to win the president a clear majority, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid in Ankara

It has been a race against time. The pressure is on and now they are desperate. Their behaviour has been fierce and often shady. They have engaged in practices that have fallen into that grey area between right and wrong, and have even occasionally overstepped the bounds of the law.

So it came as no surprise to observers to see them turning to religious fatwas and mobilising pious followers to carry their views to the remotest villages of the country. This is their “religious” backing, which sometimes includes ad hoc militias armed with sticks and cudgels.

Such is the current state of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) in Turkey as it gears up for early elections, to be held three days from now (Sunday). The elections were decreed by the JDP founder, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

When the 7 June general elections failed to deliver an absolute majority to enable his party to form a government on its own, he resolved to use every means to engineer another go. He pursued this aim with relentless tenacity.

He twisted arms and bullied behind the scenes, met with close advisors and wielded powers acquired through his personal interpretations of the constitution, a prerogative he apparently earned by obtaining 51.7 per cent of the vote in Turkey’s first direct presidential elections on 10 August 2014.

His aides and cohorts, of course, helped lay the groundwork, and soon he had his way. Snap elections would be held on 1 November, it was announced, regardless of the strains on the national budget.

Such trivialities would not deter him, so certain was he that another round of parliamentary elections would deliver the key to his ultimate dream. After all, he knows his people better than they know themselves. So he is sure to succeed where presidents Turgut Özal and Süleyman Demirel failed.

But opinion polls conducted by respected polling firms, including a couple owned by close associates and JDP supporters, have proven equally stubborn. They absolutely refuse to bear out his predictions. They all agree that the JDP will win a majority again, but not the supermajority Erdogan is seeking.

In fact, the surveys all predict that the results of the 1 November polls will be pretty much the same as those of 7 June. This presents a problem, one that compelled top JDP officers to put their heads together to analyse, formulate scenarios and search for solutions. Among those on hand in a secret meeting, the minutes of which were leaked last week, was Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş.

Never before in his 18-year career with the party had he been so worried. The JDP was facing an existential battle. The 1 November election campaign had to be planned as professionally as a war strategy.

As those present at that meeting mulled over what had brought the JDP to this juncture, their remarks hit upon the intense polarisation that has gripped Turkey as a consequence of JDP policies during its 13 years in power.

A close advisor to Erdogan who was on hand that day said: “We’ve made our struggle a religious battle. When the opposition attacked us, we responded as though they were not just attacking us but also attacking our religion and sanctities.”

He continued, “In codifying the nature of the relationship this way we were mistaken. We were casting our relationship with the opposition as though it was that between the [first] Muslims and the polytheists of Mecca. Such tension is unsustainable.”

In a variation on the theme, another participant — Faruk Çelik, former minister of labour — observed that the JDP has a serious problem with its style and its public image. “Be certain that if previous presidents had used against us the type of language that we, today, are using against those who differ with our opinions, our party would have come to power in 1992, not 2002. The language we use against the PDP [People’s Democratic Party] is causing us to lose stock [with the public].”

Hatem Ete, often referred to as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s right-hand man, was franker and more to the point. Abbreviating the party’s policies to one person (Erdogan) is what brought it to its current plight. The president refuses to remain neutral and non-partisan, and he has made politics revolve around himself. This is the source of constant problems.

The people are concerned with the rise in the rate of the dollar, the foreign policy setbacks, and the deterioration of freedoms. “But how can we broach such issues without offending the president or his prime minister? We’re wracking our brains,” he said.

Ete put his finger on something quite concrete. Turks are watching prices soar and feeling the strains on their pocketbook. The Turkish lira has suffered an almost 30 per cent decline in its value since the beginning of the year. The upshot is that yet another JDP promise has been broken.

Four years ago, Erdogan, then prime minister, pledged that he would raise per capita income to $14,000. The trend now is in the opposite direction: the figure declined to $9,000 in 2015.

Selin Sayek-Böke, parliamentary deputy from the opposition Republican People’s Party (RPP) and the party’s economic policies officer, attributes the deterioration to a range of causes, prime among which are gaps in the rule of law and the rise in threats to democracy.

Major government institutions have lost their autonomy, she said, referring to the Central Bank and the constant interventions by the presidential palace that insisted on a hike in interest rates. Other reasons she cited were technological deficiencies and the lack of educational reform.

Sadly, there are those in power who rely on the power of their imagination rather than on facts and, therefore, lack the ability to solve these problems, she said. She described the government’s sudden announcement last week that per capita income had risen to $19,000 as an attempt to delude the public.

It appears that Erdogan has fallen into a trap that he laid for himself. He is staring not only at the vanishing bubble of his dream of a presidential system, but also at the possible end of his political future, regardless of the many “achievements” he has inaugurated.

He is therefore desperately impatient for the polls to open and for the preliminary results to appear and inform him of his and his party’s fate. Will the JDP be able to rule alone again, or will it be forced to look for a coalition partner, again? The latter would mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan and his imperial project.

It is little wonder, therefore, that in these final hours before the polls, Erdogan makes daily appearances on pro-JDP television networks and on state-owned stations, which have become a JDP monopoly. Nor should one be surprised that his prime minister, Davutoglu, has taken on board the very policies for which he had previously criticised the RPP.

Where are the RPP going to get the money to fulfil their pledge to raise the minimum wage, he recently scoffed. But suddenly, as Erdogan’s chief advisor Taha Özhan admitted, the JDP has co-opted this and other RPP pledges.

Still, such last-ditch efforts to improve the party’s image are likely to prove too late. As former President Abdullah Gül pointed out a few days ago, it is not easy to clean out the dirt.

Former deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç, who was recently sidelined by the ruling party and claims to be “embargoed” by the pro-government media, also lashed out at the JDP and Erdogan whom, he said, has “lost my affection.” Both Gül and Arınç were cofounders of the JDP.

They, along with the rest of the Turkish public, anxiously await the outcome of the 1 November polls.

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