Fragmenting Iraq is the US strategy

By John Moore

Iraq faces fragmentation based on sectarian divisions The recapture of Mosul from IS represents a major victory for the Iraqi government, but major challenges stand in the way of achieving a unitary Iraq. In many ways, the challenges facing the Iraqi government echo those faced by the Syrians – the same western strategy of violent occupation stoking sectarian tensions, with the result of a fragmented nation

The victory in Mosul came at a huge cost in lives. 40,000 people were killed in the 9-month siege of Iraq’s second-largest city, according to Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, citing figures from Iraqi Kurdish intelligence.

UK-based monitoring group Airwars estimate 5,805 civilians killed in airstrikes by the US-led coalition between February 19 and June 19 alone.

Russian foreign minister Lavrov said that “no conditions were created to allow civilians to leave in an organized way.” An Amnesty International report also criticized the failure to protect civilians and described the indiscriminate air strikes and artillery bombardment as “violations of international law, some of which may amount to war crimes.”

The media outcry over Aleppo was not matched when it came to Mosul – part of a concerted cover-up. Only now is the scale of the destruction becoming clear. Lise Grande, UN Humanitarian Co-ordinator for Iraq, estimates emergency reconstruction costs of over $1 billion. 

The pressures on Iraq to fragment are many. Small Wars journal, with links to the US marines but with a maverick reputation, believes that the victory in Mosul will lead to state failure on the scale of Libya. There are reasons to take the analysis seriously.

First, IS still holds large pockets of territory, in spite of the loss of its ‘capital’ Mosul. Many IS fighters were allowed by the US to leave Mosul before the siege, with the aim of reinforcing IS strongholds on the border with Syria in al Anbar province, close to Syrian IS centres – in Raqqa and around Deir ez Zor.

By holding these strongholds, IS is preventing Syrian government forces from retaking Syrian territory up to the Iraqi border. This could explain the US rejection of an Iraqi army plan – backed by the pro-government Iraqi shi’ite militias, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) – to attack IS in this area before liberating Mosul.

IS also remains strong in a string of towns along the Tigris river south of Mosul, and it also controls the city of Hawija, which is ruled by the new IS ‘caliph’, al Obadi. Another IS stronghold remains Tal Afar, to the west of Mosul, with about 1000 fighters. 

Though IS has clearly been weakened, with a fall in new recruits, it will defend the areas it holds fiercely, while turning increasingly to guerilla tactics.

A second, and greater, danger to Iraqi territorial integrity is the US presence itself.  The US plans to keep at least 5,200 officially acknowledged soldiers in Iraq, as part of Operation Inherent Resolve which co-ordinated the battle for Mosul. The US presence will seek to disrupt the influence of Iran – through those Iraqi shi’ite militias which it arms and trains – and the growing co-operation between the Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian governments, as well as feeding sectarianism across Iraq. Its presence in Iraq will also feed into its Syria campaign, where its strategy is changing due to Syrian army advances.

To this end it is moving troops towards al Anbar province on the Syria border, close to its proxy terrorist groups and to IS – to block any future land-bridge between Syria and Iraq.

A third danger to Iraqi unity is Kurdish secession. The referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan this September is likely to result in a Yes vote, though it is unclear whether the Kurdish leadership will use the result to declare independence immediately.

A similar referendum in 2005 delivered a near unanimous Yes vote, and the results were then used to force a change in the Iraqi constitution to enshrine federalism.

The Baghdad government is not raising objections to the referendum, though prime minister Abadi criticized its timing and method. 

Anxious to dispel rumours of an Iraqi attack on the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) should it secede, defence minister al Hayali praised the KRG’s Peshmerga for co-operating with the Iraqis at the start of the attack on Mosul.

On the other hand, hardliners in Baghdad have threatened the expulsion of Kurds from Baghdad should Iraqi Kurdistan vote to separate. 

The Kurdish side has made various concessions, hinting that they may exclude Kirkuk from the referendum – a city within the Kurdish region but with a mainly Turkmen population which objects to Kurdish domination. 

Other concessions are a declaration that a future Kurdistan would not be defined by ethnicity following the Israeli model. 

Nevertheless, the dangers of a violent rupture remain.  And an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could destabilize the wider region. Turkey, in spite of its co-operation with the KRG over oil production, has raised concerns. Iran, too, with a Kurdish minority could object, though so far it has refrained.

A fourth threat to unity is the scale of sectarian divisions in the rest of Iraq.

After the US killed Saddam Hussein, the Sunni minority suffered discrimination during the sectarian de-Baathification process conducted by then prime minister al Maliki, in favour of the Shi’ite majority. Many Sunni Baathists turned to rebel groups, including IS, hence the ease with which IS established its ‘caliphate’ in 2014. 

Because minorities are still being marginalized, Small Wars believes that “different groups will eventually seek military solutions to secure their perceived interests… mobiliz[ing] on sectarian grounds within highly fragmented patronage networks.” 

The danger is of warlords ruling their own fiefdoms.

Integrating the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), which now number over 120,000 men, will also prove hard. The PMU are mainly Shi’ite but also contain Sunni and Christian militias.  

Prime minister Abadi has declared support for the PMU, which saved the Iraqi capital from being overrun by IS in 2014, and which will be needed against future IS insurgency. But Abadi’s desire for US support puts him at odds with some PMU leaders, who “consider themselves an important part of the Iran-led Axis of Resistance alongside… Hezbollah and the Syrian regime,” according to Al-Monitor.

Meanwhile, Iraqi Shia leaders, such as nationalist clerics like al Sadr and al Bidayri have called on the PMU to disband, fearing Iranian influence in Iraq.

But some PMU leaders such as al Muhandis and al Ameri are resisting such calls and will seek political office in next year’s national elections. 

But rumours of sectarian killings by some PMU militias mean that they will have to ensure a clear non-sectarian approach, if they hope to gain wider political purchase.

The root cause of Iraq’s fragility is the US strategy, outlined by Joe Biden a decade ago, to give “each ethno-religious group – Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab – room to run its affairs.” A weak central government in Baghdad would then be easily controlled by the US, and western companies would more easily exploit Iraq’s energy resources – with fewer checks from central government.

Trump appears to be pushing towards such an outcome. Meanwhile, low oil prices and water scarcity are both making it easier for him and more difficult for the Iraqi government to provide essential goods and services to its population. 


November 2016 - Mosel