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Violence in Iraq has fallen to its lowest level since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, as Isis loses its base areas and its bombing attacks are thwarted by informers and double agents. A senior Iraqi security official says that intelligence about potential Isis attacks has improved to the point that government forces can monitor a bomb from construction to detonation, allowing it to explode after evacuating civilians so Isis does not know that its bomb-making networks have been penetrated.

“We have people who work with Isis who agree to work with us,” said Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji in an interview with The Independent in Baghdad. “Isis does not know this and we make sure our informant is not exposed.” Sometimes security forces even pay for the car that transports a bomb to Baghdad and allow it blow up in a place which Isis has targeted. “We ask people to move and make an official statement with a false number of casualties,” he says.

Mr Araji, a long-time leader of the militant Shia Badr Organisation, got his job as Interior Minister last year when his predecessor resigned in the wake of an Isis car bomb that killed over 300 people in the Karada district in central Baghdad. He says that this could happen again, but is much less likely now because Isis no longer holds cities and districts where it can safely organise and equip bombers. “The main thing is that the caliphate has been broken,” he says. “There is only one town – Rawa – and the western desert where Isis still holds out.”

Isis shows signs of demoralisation and defeatism as it loses its last pockets of territory, though it leaders are likely to have recognised that it was going to be defeated in Mosul because of the military superiority of its enemies. It will therefore have prepared “sleeper cells” along with desert hideouts and arms, ammunition and food dumps to enable its remaining forces to survive and launch occasional attacks to show they are still in business. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of Isis, was able to recover from defeats by successfully lying low between 2007 and 2012, when it re-emerged as circumstances changed in its favour.

Isis will try to do the same again, but cannot succeed if its networks of militants are exposed and eliminated. Mr Araji, speaking in his office in the Green Zone in Baghdad, says, “We have cooperation from members of important Isis families to help our security units.” He said that the wife of an Isis leader was to make contact later in the day: “We give her money and keep her identity secret, but she does it because she wants to protect her sons and stay alive herself.”

Mr Araji says that there had been no successful Isis attacks during the Arbaeen commemoration when millions of Shia walk to their holy city of Kerbala from all over Iraq. The vast numbers are difficult to defend and they have traditionally been easy targets for Isis suicide bombers who mingle with the crowds. As evidence of greater security, he reads from a dossier prepared for the Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, showing that there had been just two attempted suicide bombings during Arbaeen and both the bombers had been killed without hurting anybody else.

In the past, Iraqi officials have privately blamed corruption for the ability of suicide bombers or trucks filled with gunmen to make their way unhindered through government checkpoints. In Mosul, local people say they are frightened when they see Isis fighters, whom they had informed against and had been arrested, back on the streets after – they assume – bribing their way to freedom. Mr Araji agreed that such things did happen and said an officer in the interior was “about to be charged for helping Isis families escape from Mosul to Baghdad”.

The overall mood of senior Iraqi government officials has been transformed over the past six months by the defeat of Isis at Mosul after a nine-month siege. This was the biggest military victory ever won by the Iraqi armed forces, though it had been expected. But the peaceful reoccupation of Kirkuk and territories disputed with the Kurdistan Regional Government was, by way of contrast, an unexpected success, coming after Kurdish President Masoud Barzani had unwisely overplayed his hand and isolated himself internationally by holding a referendum on independence. “If he had agreed to postpone the referendum, he would have made many gains,” says Mr Araji. “As a government we were lucky.”

Mr Araji revealed that Iraqi Kurdistan is not quite as isolated from the outside world as its people might have feared last month when Turkey and Iran were threatening to close land routes in and out of the land-locked Kurdish enclave, unless they were returned to Iraqi government control.

In the event, Turkey and Iran each worry that if they close their border crossings and the other does not, then the one that stays open will get a monopoly of trade. Almost everything is imported in Iraq, and most of these imports come across the Turkish and Iranian borders. Mr Araji says that Iraqi leaders had met President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “who supported the Iraqi central government, but did not talk about closing the border crossings”.

He explains that the northern border of Iraq, snaking through mountains and deep gorges, is highly permeable. particularly on the Iranian side. This has always been a paradise for smugglers. He says that “officially we have four border crossings, three with Iran and one with Turkey, but unofficially there are 17 border crossings”, of which 16 are with Iran. When the Iranian government speaks about shutting the border crossings it ignores these unofficial routes. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Kurdish negotiating position is now so weak that they will probably have to cede a measure of control over these frontiers to Baghdad.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Terrorism 
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About eight or nine years ago, I had an Afghan friend who previously worked for a large US aid agency funding projects in the Afghan provinces. He had been hired to monitor their progress once work had got underway, but he did not hold the job very long for reasons that he explained to me.

The problem for the Americans at the local agency headquarters in Kabul was that the risk of ambush by the Taliban was deemed too high for them personally to visit the projects that they were funding. Instead, they followed the construction from one step removed, by insisting that the Afghan company involved should transmit back to Kabul, at set intervals, detailed pictures of its activities, to show that they were fulfilling their contract to the letter.

Almost as an afterthought, the aid agency thought it might be useful to send along an Afghan in their employ to check that all was well. His first mission was to go to Kandahar province, where some plant – I seem to remember it was a vegetable packing facility – was believed to be rising somewhere in the dangerous hinterland. He went there, but, despite earnest inquiries, was unable to locate the project.

Back in Kandahar city, he asked around about the mystery of the missing vegetable plant, but found that his questions were answered evasively by those he contacted. Finally, he met somebody who, under a pledge of secrecy about the source of the information, explained to him what was happening. Businessmen in Kandahar receiving funds from the aid agency and knowing its reliance on photographs to monitor works in progress, had found it safer and more profitable to fake the whole process.

They engaged a small local company with experience of making TV advertisements and documentaries to rig up what was, in effect, a film studio – in which workers played by extras would be shown busily engaged in whatever activity the agency was paying for. In the case of the vegetable-packing facility, this must have been simple enough to fake by buying cabbages and cauliflowers in the market to be placed in boxes inside some shed by labourers hired by the day.

My friend returned to Kabul and hinted to his employers that this particular project in Kandahar was not doing as well as they imagined. He thought that it would be unhealthy for himself to go into detail, but he did not, at this stage, resign from his well-paying job. This only happened a few months later, when he was sent to Jalalabad to check on a chicken farm supposedly nearing completion outside the city.

Once again, he could not find the project in question and, when he met those in charge, put it to them that it did not exist. They admitted that this was indeed so, but – according to his report – they added menacingly that he should keep in mind that “it was a long road back to Kabul from Kandahar”. In other words, they would kill him if he exposed their scam: a threat that convinced him his long-term chances of survival were low unless he rapidly resigned and found new employment.

I was thinking of the story of the Kandahar packing plant and the Jalalabad chicken farm, when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched his anti-corruption drive in Saudi Arabia last weekend. There may be a big difference in the amount of money to be made out of looting the Saudi state compared to US aid agencies in Afghanistan, but the psychology and processes at work have similarities.

In both cases, those making a lot of money out of corruption will put more effort into going on doing just that, than those who say they are determined to stop them. If a few wealthy individuals are scapegoated, then others will jostle to take their place.

It is important to take on board, when considering the case of Saudi Arabia, that many oil- or resource-rich states – be they monarchies or republics – have launched their own anti-corruption drives down the years. All have failed, and for roughly the same reasons.

Iraq, so different from Saudi Arabia in terms of history, religion and politics, is likewise entirely dependent on oil revenues. Its next biggest export used to be dates, though today even these are often imported from China. Corruption is chronic, particularly in giant infrastructure projects. Four years ago, I was in Baghdad early in the year, when there was heavier than usual rainfall, which led to a large part of the eastern side of the city disappearing under a foot of grey water mixed with sewage. This was despite $7bn (£5.3bn) supposedly spent on new sewers and drainage systems, but which, in the event, turned out not to function – or even to exist.

The problem in resource-rich states is that corruption is not marginal to political power, but central to acquiring it and keeping it. Corruption at the top is a form of patronage manipulated by those in charge, to create and reward a network of self-interested loyalists. It is the ruling family and its friends and allies who cherrypick what is profitable: this is as true of Saudi Arabia as it was true of Libya under Gaddafi, Iraq under Saddam Hussein and his successors, or Iraqi Kurdistan that was supposedly different from the rest of the country.

Corruption is a nebulous concept when it comes to states with arbitrary rulers, who can decide – unrestrained by law or democratic process – what is legal and what is illegal. What typifies the politics of oil states is that everybody is trying to plug into the oil revenues in order to get their share of the cake.

This is true at the top, but the same is the case of the rest of the population, or at least a large and favoured section of it. The Iraqi government pays $4bn a month to about seven million state employees and pensioners. These may or may not do productive work, but it would be politically risky to fire them because they are the base support of the regime in power.

Anti-corruption drives don’t work, because if they are at all serious, they soon begin to cut into the very roots of political power by touching the “untouchables”. At this point principled anti-corruption campaigners will find themselves in serious trouble and may have to flee the country, while the less-principled ones will become a feared weapon to be used against anybody whom the government wants to target.

A further consequence of the traditional anti-corruption drive is that it can paralyse government activities in general. This is because all officials, corrupt and incorrupt alike, know that they are vulnerable to investigation. “The safest course for them is to take no decision and sign no document which might be used or misused against them,” a frustrated American businessman told me in Baghdad some years ago. He added that it was only those so politically powerful that they did not have to fear legal sanctions who would take decisions – and such people were often the most corrupt of all.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia 
Millions stage world's greatest pilgrimage
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Millions of black-clad Shia pilgrims are converging on the holy city of Kerbala for the Arbaeen religious commemoration, the largest annual gathering of people anywhere on earth. Walking in long columns stretching back unbroken for as much as 50 miles, sleeping and eating in tents erected by supporters beside the road, the event has become an overwhelmingly powerful display of Shia belief and solidarity.

The Arbaeen coincides this year with the final defeat of Isis, the movement that slaughtered Shia in their tens of thousands and aimed to overthrow the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. The Syrian army announced today that it has captured the last Isis-held town in Syria, Albu Kamal, its victory coming a few days after Isis was driven from western Iraq.

Arbaeen is the living symbol of the rise of the Iraqi Shia, a highly significant development in the Middle East, but it has happened only recently. Karim, 48, a tribal leader from Najaf, who provides free food for the pilgrims, recalls that when he first took part in an illegal Arbaeen walk under Saddam Hussein, “we had to take a roundabout route by the river [Euphrates] and try to keep hidden because, if we were caught, we would put in prison or executed”.

The Arbaeen has provided many modern-day Shia martyrs, murdered by Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and Isis, but its purpose is to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the founding father of the Shia faith, killed in the battle for Kerbala in AD680. The long ritual walk to his golden-domed shrine in that city – some walkers spend 10 or 12 days on the road from Basra or Kirkuk, others two or three days from Najaf – comes on the 40th day of the mourning period as religious fervour reaches its peak among the faithful.

Shia cities, towns and villages all over Iraq empty out during a 20-day period as their people take to the roads in an elaborately organised and well protected mass movement not seen anywhere else in the world. Estimates vary of the total attending, from highs of 15-17 million to a low of 6-7 million, but it includes at least two million Iranians whose numbers are easier to calculate because they require documentation to enter Iraq. Mohammed al-Hilli, the author of a book entitled The Arbaeen: the Walk, says that “the city of Kerbala can only contain two or three million people at one time, but, since pilgrims are coming and going over a long time, the total attending will be much higher.”

The pilgrims carry black, green, red and white flags, with the black flag of mourning for Imam Hussein by far the most common. Vast numbers of them decorate permanent brick buildings and temporary tents which are used for praying, eating and sleeping along the three main routes leading to Kerbala. Once pilgrims were lucky if they got rice and bean stew – “there was nothing but muddy water to drink” recalls one early participant – but everything is now highly organised with copious supplies of food, small clinics and even dentists all working for free. The care of pilgrims is regarded as a religious duty.

This year there are more red, white and black Iraqi national flags evident than before, indicating a shift towards greater identification with the Iraqi state by the Shia, traditionally marginalised by the Sunni since Ottoman times and before. When the Shia-dominated government took power in Iraq in 2005 it was the first time the Shia had held power in any country in the Arab world since the Fatimids in Egypt were overthrown by Saladin in the 12th century. It is only now that they have started to look comfortable in their new role.

All religions have their martyrs, but for the Iraqi Shia they come from the present as well as the distant past. Lamp posts fifty yards apart along the 45-mile Najaf-Kerbala road each have a different picture of a soldier or civilian killed by Isis or al-Qaeda. The same is true of other routes to the holy city. Once pilgrims risked death from Isis ambushes, but the roads are more secure. Major General Qais Khalaf, military governor of Kerbala, Najaf and Diwaniyah provinces, says “there was just suicide bombing in this area 18 months ago, when three people were killed.” He believes Isis no longer has the base areas or the level of support it needs to launch big attacks.

The mood of the pilgrimage is one of intense piety and communal solidarity, though Shia clerics keep emphasising that the pilgrimage is dedicated to peace. Asked if the Iraqi security forces’ victory over Isis had an effect on the gathering, Shia clerics said there has been an improvement in morale and self-confidence. “Who does not want more security?” asked Kamil Kadar, a pilgrim taking part in the walk. After 40 years of wars and emergencies, Iraqis are wary of good news, always suspecting that developments will turn sour as they have done so often in the past.

Sayyid Alaa al-Moussawi, a senior Shia cleric who is head of the Office of the Shia Endowment, says that Iraq seems to be entering a period “of greater harmony with its neighbours, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran”. Iraqis see this as crucial because it is the combination of domestic insurgency with financial and military support from foreign states that has kept Iraq in a permanent state of war and emergency.

Pilgrims from all over the world head for Najaf, Iranians being much the most numerous, but they also come from Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and places where the Shia community must be tiny. Many of the pilgrims are teenagers or in their twenties. Asked what the pilgrimage meant to him, one 19-year-old visitor from London said: “It means my whole life to me. It means one small step towards heaven.”

Shia identity is beginning to blend with Iraqi national identity as Iraq looks less like a failed state. There is strong sympathy for Shia struggles in countries like Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. Inside Iraq, there is strong popular backing for the Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Units as a sort of Shia national guard. Nationalism may be on the rise but it is still trumped by religion as a cause Iraqis will die for. Asked about the Hashd, one observer said: “I don’t think you could have defeated Isis without using ideologically-driven fighters like the Hashd.”

The first time I saw Arbaeen walkers was in April 2003 when US soldiers looked in perplexity and with suspicion at bands of young men, often carrying green palm fronds rather than flags, walking to Kerbala from all over Iraq. This was happening just after the US invasion and the pilgrims were walking unconcernedly past burned out Iraqi tanks and military vehicles. The incoming administrators of the US-led occupation paid the walkers no attention, though they were an early sign of the Shia piety and determination which was to shape the future of the country.

The US shows little sign of having learned much about the Iraqi Shia community in the 14 years since the invasion. It certainly still underestimates them. The Arbaeen was not a victory rally for the Shia as Isis is defeated, but they may well feel that, in Iraq, their day has come.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Shias and Sunnis 
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It is one of the most shocking of many sadistic videos shot and publicised by Isis in which its gunmen are seen executing their victims. It shows scenes from the Camp Speicher massacre on 12 June 2014 when Isis murdered 1,700 army recruits in a former palace compound of Saddam Hussein on the banks of the Tigris river near Tikrit.

Columns of terrified young men are filmed being driven at gunpoint by masked Isis gunmen dressed in black towards mass graves which the victims can see are already filled with bodies. Others are beaten as they stumble down stone steps onto a small dock under a bridge on the Tigris. As each one is dragged forward by a guard, he is shot in the head by a man with a pistol so he falls into the water. The ground where the killings are taking place is covered in blood.

It is worth forcing oneself to look at this disgusting video again as Isis is driven by Iraqi security forces out of its last strongholds in the deserts of western Iraq. The movement, now defeated and almost eliminated, revelled in its cruelty and boasted of its mass killings in order to terrorise its opponents. The Camp Speicher massacre was its worst single atrocity in Iraq or Syria.

The slaughter of the young recruits happened a few days after Isis had unexpectedly captured Mosul; its militarily units were racing south towards Baghdad against little opposition as the Iraqi army disintegrated. Its gunmen were greeted by many Sunni as liberators in places like Tikrit, the city near which Saddam Hussein was born and grew up. It was here that as many as 10,000 army recruits were being trained at an air force academy. They were told to go home by their commanders who themselves fled in circumstances that still cause controversy and anger. The young men, who were from all over Iraq, changed into civilian clothes and those carrying weapons were told to leave them behind at the camp.

Isis gunmen captured many of the recruits as they walked along the roads heading home and divided them into Shia and Sunni before loading the Shia into trucks. It is not known when they realised they were going to die because many were told at first that they would be let go where they could get transport to Baghdad. Instead, they were taken to an area where Saddam Hussein had built several palaces where he and his family could enjoy a fine view across the Tigris. Some of the palaces were in ruins, shattered by US bombing, and the rest were abandoned.

The site of the killings may have been chosen because of its associations with Saddam Hussein. Hayder al-Baldawi, a member of a committee commemorating the massacre, says: “It was an act of revenge for the execution of Saddam and the fall of his regime. Many of the killers were identified later as coming from Tikrit, Baath party members and people from Saddam’s Albu Nasr tribe and other pro-Saddam tribes, who joined up with Isis.”

There are many massacre sites: on the flat ground by the river large pits have been excavated where the recruits were killed and their bodies covered with earth and stones. At one place, they were shot on top of a low cliff so the bodies fell in a heap on ground below. Another site is some way away, high up on a bluff overlooking the river, near Saddam Hussein’s giant ruined Salahudin palace, where today there is a stretch of rough ground and a deep hole with a tree in the middle distance on the edge of a cliff. We compared this to a still from the Isis propaganda video that shows the same tree, but the foreground is carpeted in dead bodies so numerous that one cannot see the ground. Many of the dead have their hands tied behind their backs and there is a black Isis flag in one corner of the picture.

A watchman pointed to a rock where he had just found a bit of blood-matted hair stuck to the side of a rock which he believed must date from the massacre.

It is not clear how many died: Isis claimed that it had killed 1,700, though the number of bodies so far identified is lower. Mr Baldawi says that “the Ministry of Health does not have enough money to pay for DNA kits, so bodies can be identified for certain”. He puts the number of dead at 1,935, of which 994 bodies have been found and, of these, 527 have been identified and 467 are under medical examination. In addition, some 941 are still missing, though these figures are difficult to verify because the search for the bodies only began in March 2015, eight months after the killings, when government forces recaptured Tikrit.

The search for the perpetrators of the massacre has gone on ever since with 36 alleged killers executed in August 2016 amid allegations that they had not received a fair trial. Defence lawyers were not able to speak to the accused and walked out. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) issued a negative report on the conduct of the trial, saying that there had been a “failure to investigate allegations of torture”. Nevertheless, there have been no counter-massacres and the government and NGOs have made concerted efforts to get the Tikrit Sunni tribes to reconcile with the families of the victims.

Tribal leaders said that individuals from tribes had taken part in the massacre, but denied it was a communal Sunni attack on the Shia. They said that Sunni officials from Tikrit had also been targeted and killed by Isis. Some Sunni had helped Shia escape. Reconciliation is helped because Tikrit is wholly Sunni and members of the two sects are not intermingled as they are in other parts of Iraq, where neighbourhood revenge killings have been frequent. Tikrit, with a population of 160,000, looks relaxed and suffered only limited damage during its recapture compared to other Sunni cities like Ramadi and Mosul.

Identifying who on the government side was responsible for allowing so many unarmed Shia recruits to be captured remains a divisive political issue. Victims’ families want to know who were the senior officers who ran away, leaving their sons to be murdered by Isis. This is not just an issue between Shia and Sunni, but between Shia and Kurd, relations between the latter being particularly fraught in the wake of the government reoccupation in September of Kirkuk and the disputed territories.

Nouri al-Maliki, the Prime Minister at the time of the killings, said in an interview with The Independent that he has a simple explanation for what happened: “In fact, the Speicher massacre occurred because the commander there was a Kurd and he received orders from [then-Kurdish President] Masoud Barzani to withdraw with his [Kurdish] men and they left everything in chaos and disorder and the massacre happened.”

This account has the advantage of excusing Mr Maliki and his government for any responsibility for the collapse of the Iraqi armed forces in the area which enabled Isis to slaughter so many young men.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 
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President Trump’s stance on conflict in the Middle East is a mixture of bellicose threats and demonisation of opponents combined with rather more cautious and carefully calculated action or inaction on the ground. Leaders in Baghdad, Damascus, Riyadh and Tehran face the same problem as those in Tokyo and London, uncertain where the rhetoric ends and the reality begins and unsure if Trump himself distinguishes much between the two.

The debate about Trump in the Middle East does differ from that in the rest of the world in one important respect: the need for an answer here is more urgent because of the greater likelihood of a crisis, which Trump might provoke or exacerbate.

When he was first elected, the urgency seemed very great but there has been no major new crisis that put him to the test. For all his denunciations of President Obama for his supposedly feeble defence of American interests, US strategy in Iraq and Syria has remained very much the same. The priority has continued to be the destruction of the caliphate and the elimination of Isis.

The continuity is because the strategy has been successful and surviving Isis fighters are being hunted down or are taking refuge in hideouts in the deserts of western Iraq and eastern Syria. But victory over Isis brings with it the prospect of a new US set of priorities in the Middle East with a more confrontational approach to Iran topping the list.

In his jeremiad against Iran on 13 October, Trump justified his refusal to certify the Iran nuclear deal with gobbets of propaganda, one-sided history and straight lies. He proposed a new US policy towards Iran based “on a clear-eyed assessment of the Iranian dictatorship, its sponsorship of terrorism, and its continuing aggression in the Middle East and all around the world”. The speech sounded like the opening volley in a new campaign against Iran, to be fought out on multiple fronts.

Some sort of collision between the US and Iran looks possible or even likely, a battle which will probably be carried out by proxies and will not be fought to a finish. This is because Trump’s approach to the outside world is a blend of American nationalism and isolationism. The former produces belligerent threats and the latter a wish to avoid getting entangled in any new Middle East war.

This could be bad news for the US because, if it cannot use its massive military superiority, it will become bogged down in the sort of part military, part political struggle in which the Iranians are past masters. “They have a PhD in this sort of warfare,” said an Iraqi friend with long experience of dealing with them.

It may not come to that: such is the intensity of political strife in the US that new foreign policy ventures do not look very feasible. But any sensible leader in the Middle East always looks at the worst case scenario first. The wars in Syria and Iraq are either coming to an end or their present phase is ending, but in both cases the situation is fragile. People in Baghdad are wary of good news after forty years of wars and emergencies and would not be too surprised if things turned sour again.

It would be a pity if this happened, because just for once the professional pessimists in Iraq are not having it all their own way. The central government is far stronger than it was three years ago when Isis was rampaging across the country. Its army, with great help from American airpower, defeated Isis in the nine-month siege of Mosul. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi faced down the Kurdish leadership and won an almost bloodless success regaining Kirkuk.

It is doubtful if either the US or Iran would come out the winner in any new confrontation, but Iraqis would certainly come out the losers.

The best policy for the US in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is to do nothing very new. But this may be difficult for Trump. It is not just him who has wrong-headed ideas about the Middle East. There has recently been a stronger than usual surge of apocalyptic commentary about how Iran is winning victory after victory over the US in the region.

Washington think-tankers, retired generals and journalists warn of Iran opening up “a land corridor” to the Mediterranean, as if the Iranians travel only by chariot and could spread their influence by no other means.

It could be that Trump’s menaces really are serious, in which case the Iranians are understandably going to react. But even if they are largely rhetorical, they might trigger an Iranian over-reaction.

“The Iranians are under the impression that others want to topple their regime,” an Iraqi politician told me. “The Iranians are very smart. They do not send their armies abroad. Once you do that you are lost. They fight by proxy on many fronts outside their borders, but this destabilises everybody else.” Once again Iraq would find itself in the front line.

Curiously, Iran owes much of its expanded influence not to its own machinations but to the US itself. It has been the collateral beneficiary of US-led regime change in two of its neighbours, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, both which had been viscerally anti-Iranian.

The sheer ignorance of Trump and his administration about the Middle East is dangerous. It is usual, particularly in liberal circles, to see people in the Middle East as passive victims of foreign intervention. This is largely true, but it masks the fact that at any one time there are several governments and opposition movements trying to lure the US into a war with its enemies by demonising them as a threat to the world.

The Iraqi opposition spent a long time in the 1990s trying to manipulate the US into going to war to overthrow Saddam Hussein and, thanks to 9/11, got its wish in 2003. The Syrian opposition backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey were hoping to do the same thing in Syria in 2011-13 and were much frustrated that Obama did not play along.

Trump may speak of confronting Iran, but there is no sign that he has a coherent plan to do so. Much of what is happening in the region is beyond his control and US influence is going down, but for reasons that have nothing to do with him. The US has never quite recovered from its failure to achieve its ends in Iraq after the invasion. The return of Russia to the region as a great power has also limited US influence. The US public does not want another war in the Middle East.

Obama accepted these limitations and Trump will probably have to do the same. But his sheer unpredictability already makes the region feel a more dangerous place, even when he is doing nothing.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Iran, Middle East 
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“Fake facts!” exclaimed a senior Iraqi official in exasperation as he pointed to photographs online allegedly showing the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani in Kirkuk, orchestrating the Iraqi government retaking of the city last month. He said that in reality the picture, tweeted by a Kurdish leader as evidence of Iranian hegemony, dates from 2014.

The greatest threat to the growing stability of Iraq is the differences between the US and Iran being fought out politically – and even militarily – in Iraq. The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in an interview with the Independent earlier this week that his greatest concern is a US-Iran crisis. He added that “it is not my job to solve their differences, but it is my job to prevent their confrontation inside Iraq.” He hoped that mutual denunciations by Washington and Tehran would turn out to be rhetorical.

Given US hostility to Iran, the Baghdad government is alarmed by what it sees as an attempt to portray it as an Iranian proxy manipulated by General Soleimani and reliant on the Shia paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs). “Today’s offensive by Iraq, PMU Shia militia commanded by Iranian IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] on Kirkuk have sadly started a new war in Iraq & Kurdistan,” reads a tweet from Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader and former Iraqi foreign minister last month.

The senior Iraqi official said that Gen Soleimani never meets the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi or anybody else of real importance in Baghdad and has also failed to get an audience with the Shia supreme religious authority, Ali Sistani, in the holy city of Najaf. He said: “In fact, Iranian influence over the Hashd has been going down over the last two years because they are no longer paying most of the groups, aside from Ketaeb Hezbollah.”

The propaganda war is intense and unscrupulous with Kurdish leaders in Irbil and much of the Arab media claiming that Iran pulls the strings in Baghdad, though the US is the government’s main military ally. The PMUs are portrayed as sectarian death squads which are leading the offensive into Iraqi Kurdistan. One video posted online purports to show the Kurds blowing up a bridge over the Lesser Zaab river at Altun Kupri, where Kurdish and Iraqi forces confront each other, to block the PMUs advancing into the Kurdish heartlands. In reality, the bridge is still standing and the much-watched video is of an entirely different bridge in Topeka, Kansas being destroyed in a controlled explosion to make way for new construction.

The US has always been paranoid about Iranian influence in Iraq and tends to conflate Iraqi Shia fighting for their community and variant of Islam with proxies under the control of Iran. The US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on a visit to Baghdad last month said the Hashd should “go home”, apparently believing that its members were IRGC fighters from Iran. Mr Abadi speaks out vigorously in defence of the Hashd, but says he is determined that they must be under strict government control.

The power of the Hashd has become more limited today than when they were created as a mass movement three years ago by a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Sistani – though several paramilitary organisations like the Badr Organisation, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Ketaeb Hezbollah have a much longer history. This was in June 2014 when the Iraqi army had lost Mosul to Isis and looked as if it would be unable to defend Baghdad.

The Hashd was central in defending the capital and in early counter-offensives against Isis, but has increasingly had a secondary role in military operations which are now led by the highly trained and experienced Counter-Terrorism Force. In the nine-month siege of Mosul, the Hashd occupied territory outside the city, but the assault was led by the CTF, Federal Police and Emergency Response Division. There were no Hashd units in Kirkuk city earlier this week, though they do have joint checkpoints with the army along the road back to Baghdad.

The Hashd, who are part of the Iraqi security forces and paid for by the state, are becoming less independent and less influenced by Iran because the Iraqi government is much more powerful than it used to be. But there is no doubt that Sunni and Kurds are frightened of them and they have a nasty reputation for sectarianism and criminality. For all their claims to be obedient to the state, there is an Iraqi saying that there are four givers of the law in Iraq: the government, the religious authorities, the tribes – and the Hashd.

Qais al-Khazali, 43, the leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shia paramilitary group, denies that it is under the control of Iran or is sectarian. Dressed in white turban and black robes, he answers questions swiftly and articulately, showing a moderation that feels out of keeping with his violent past. Once a lieutenant of the nationalist populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, from whom he split in 2004, he set up Asaib Ahl al-Haq which rapidly gained a reputation for ferocity and close links to Iran. Arrested by the British in 2007, he was released in exchange for a British hostage in 2010. Speaking in his office in Najaf in an interview with The Independent, he was keen to emphasise that his group were neither sectarian nor pawns of Iran. “It is one of their lies,” he says in response to the charge of sectarian killings. “There has been no sectarian cleansing. I am adamant – we did not bring in any Shia families to a Sunni area.”

He says that American forces should leave Iraq because they are no longer needed. “They don’t want to leave, but we can force them to,” he says. “We have experience in resistance. If there is a mandate from the Iraqi parliament and the Iraqi people, then we will stand up to them.” This would be the sort of nightmare envisaged by Mr Abadi, in which Iraqi Hashd – which the US believes are under Iranian direction – start killing American soldiers.

As for the role of Iran and Soleimani in the taking of Kirkuk, Mr Khazali says that they were supportive to Mr Abadi and Iraqi government forces. “The reason the Prime Minister gets the credit is because he galvanised a great force to show he was serious.” He says that what Soleimani did was to pass on to the Kurds that Mr Abadi really meant business and they would not be able to resist.

As for the future of the Hashd, he says that “in future it should be completely amalgamated with the Iraqi military and should not be involved in politics.” Much here will depend on whether or not there is a prolonged confrontation with the Kurds in northern Iraq, in which case Baghdad will continue to need large military forces, including the Hashd. As of Thursday, Baghdad is threatening to end a truce and take military action after the failure of talks about the central government taking control of the borders of Kurdistan.

Speaking of more general developments in Iraq, Mr Khazali made an interesting point. He said that after the US invasion of 2003, it was the Shia and the Kurdish communities, long opposed to and oppressed by Saddam Hussein, who held power. But this Kurdish-Shia bloc was dissolved when the Kurds voted for independence in the referendum on 25 September and cannot be rebuilt. He says it might be time for the Shia community to look to the Sunni rather than the Kurds as their new partners in running Iraq. Asked if he thought the era of wars in Iraq was over, Mr Khazali, replied: “Iraq is similar to Alice in Wonderland – you cannot predict what is going to happen next.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Iran, Iraq, Kurds 
'They had tanks and planes, we had no chance'
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The defeat of the Kurds in Kirkuk is devastatingly complete. “We used to be in control here and now we are not,” says Aso Mamand, the Kurdish leader in the city, summing up the situation in a helpless and embittered tone as he describes the fall of Kirkuk and the nearby oilfields to the Iraqi government forces. He would like some new power-sharing arrangements and warns of dire consequences if this does not happen, but he does not sound very hopeful.

Kirkuk used to be described as “the powder keg” of Iraq because of furiously contested rival claims to it by Kurdish nationalists and the Baghdad government. It was potentially even more explosive because its Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen communities make it a deeply divided place. But, despite these rancorous disputes and differences, when the final crisis came on 16 October, the switch from Kurdish to federal government control was surprisingly swift and peaceful.

Mr Mamand says that there was no battle because the Kurds simply did not have the military strength to hold the city and he is dismissive of conspiracy theories about its betrayal. Asked if the advance of the Iraqi forces could have been resisted if the two main Kurdish parties – his own Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by president Masoud Barzani – had been united, he says: “Of course not. The Iraqi forces had tanks and planes and we had no chance. Maybe we would have lasted a day if we had fought, but the only result would have been bloodshed.”

Many Kurds fled at the time and not all have returned, but there is no sign of damage from the fighting and shops and markets are open. A thunderstorm briefly emptied the streets when we were there, but otherwise traffic was heavy and there are few soldiers or checkpoints. “Do you see anything out of the ordinary?” asks the acting governor, Rakan Saeed Ali al-Jubouri, the Arab former deputy governor, whose office looks little changed from when it was occupied by the Kurdish governor Najmaldin Karim who was forced to flee to Irbil. Mr Jubouri says that “the local police are the same and there are just two battalions of the counterterrorism forces in Kirkuk”. Iraqi battalions are small so this probably means only a few hundred soldiers.

Mr Mamand insists that things aren’t quite what they look like. He says that “the government needs to do something to calm down the Kurdish street”. He suggests the appointment of a Kurdish governor or some arrangement to share power. Asked if there had been any significant security incidents, he cited only some shots fired by a former KDP security police officer at an army checkpoint. But, around about the time he was speaking, there was in fact a savage murder in a town called Duquq just south of Kirkuk city, which might give substance to Mr Mamand’s fear that the potential for violence is just below the surface.

The victim was Arkan Sharifi, 50, a Kurdish cameraman working for Kurdistan TV, who was knifed to death by four or five men who broke into his house and locked his wife and children in a separate room. When they got out five hours later, they found him lying in a pool of blood, his body mutilated and with a knife stuck in his mouth, evidence that he been killed because of something he had said or reported. His family says that the killers spoke the Turkmen language, suggesting that what happened may be the outcome of the ongoing feud between the Kurds and the Shia Turkmen that is particularly fierce south of Kirkuk.

I drove through the area where the murder took place earlier in the day and there was no sign of violence there or anywhere else on the closely guarded road from Baghdad. But the murder is a reminder that at all times Iraq is a very violent country. I spoke to a Turkmen member of the Hashd al-Shaabi pro-government paramilitaries called Jawdat Assaf who explained that he came from a village called Tisin Khadim which had been destroyed by Saddam Hussein in 1980. “I survived because I was under 15, but they killed 353 people – everybody over that age including my father and two brothers,” he recalled. “They accused us of supporting the [Shia revolutionary] Dawa Party, though we had hardly heard of it.”

The murder of Arkan Sharifi is striking in its brutality, but no fewer than 465 Iraqi journalists have been killed in the last 14 years. Otherwise the takeover of Kirkuk was unexpectedly pacific. Though the KDP accuses the PUK, always the dominant Kurdish party in the city, of a treacherous Iranian-orchestrated deal with Baghdad, both parties simultaneously withdrew their Peshmerga without fighting. If the Iraqi forces had to fight their way into Kirkuk city they would have inevitably won, but it could have detonated a wider ethnic and sectarian conflict in the disputed territories.

This long-predicted confrontation never took place, but the loss of Kirkuk is more than a crippling blow to Kurdish hopes of independence. With a divided leadership, no allies abroad and without a military option, the Kurds are losing the semi-independent status they had built up since Saddam Hussein was defeated in the Gulf War in 1991 and Iraqi government forces withdrew from the three Kurdish provinces.

This process is now going sharply into reverse. Iraqi government troops on Tuesday set up a checkpoint at the most important border crossing at Ibrahim Khalil between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Vehicles crossing the border must now be checked three times – by Turks, Iraqi forces and the Kurds. “Habur border gate has been handed over to the central government as of this morning,” said Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim. With Turkey and Iran cooperating with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurdish authorities are in no position to resist the central government’s takeover of their main powers. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made clear in an interview with The Independent that he expects the Iraqi state to control the main Peshmerga forces, oil production and exports as well as international flights and the issuing of visas.

Yet the quiet takeover of Kirkuk could be a little deceptive. Weak though the Kurds may now be, political circumstances may not always be so wholly against them or in favour of the Iraqi state. The Kurds looked utterly defeated in 1975 when Saddam Hussein signed the Algiers Agreement with the Shah who abandoned his previous alliance with the Kurds. But the start of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 forced the withdrawal of much of the Iraqi army from Iraqi Kurdistan, which was then taken over by Kurdish nationalist forces. Defeated again through savage repression, Saddam’s overthrow by the US-led coalition in 1991 enabled the Kurds to start building a statelet, which became a powerful player when the US invaded in 2003.

If the central government in Baghdad exploits its present superiority over the Kurds too greedily, then it could provoke a powerful communal counter-reaction by the Kurdish population. This approach is likely to be opposed by Mr Abadi, but approved by his predecessor as Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, in the run-up to the parliamentary elections next May. In Iraqi politics, almost everybody ends up by overplaying their hand.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, Kurds 
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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is triumphant as he describes his country’s security forces driving out Isis from its last strongholds in western Iraq. “Our advances have been fantastic,” he said in an interview with The Independent in Baghdad. “We are clearing the deserts of them right up to the border with Syria.” Isis is being eradicated in Iraq three years after its columns were threatening to capture Baghdad.

Once criticised as vacillating and weak, Mr Abadi – who became Prime Minister in August 2014 – is now lauded in Baghdad for leading the Iraqi state to two great successes in the past four months: one was the recapture of Mosul from Isis in July after a nine-month siege; the other was the retaking of Kirkuk in the space of a few hours on 16 October without any resistance from Kurdish Peshmerga.

The son of a neurosurgeon in Baghdad, Mr Abadi, 65, spent more than 20 years of his life in exile in Britain before the fall of Saddam Hussein. Trained as an electrical engineer, he gained a PhD from the University of Manchester, before working in different branches of industry. A member of the Shia opposition Dawa party from a young age, two of his brothers were killed by Saddam Hussein’s regime and a third imprisoned. He returned to Iraq in 2003 where he became an MP and a leading figure in the ruling Dawa party.

As the man with the strongest claim to be the architect of the two biggest victories ever won by the Iraqi state, Mr Abadi’s reputation has soared at home and abroad. He is particularly pleased that there were so few casualties when Iraqi forces retook the great swath of territory disputed with the Kurds, which stretches from Syria in the west to Iran in the east. “I gave orders to our security forces that there should be no bloodshed,” he says, explaining that fighting the Peshmerga would make reconciliation difficult between the Kurds and the government.

Soft-spoken and conciliatory, Mr Abadi is determined to end the quasi-independence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that dates back to Saddam Hussein’s defeat after his invasion of Kuwait in 1991. He says: “All border crossings in and out of Iraq must be under the exclusive control of the federal state.” This includes the Kurdish oil pipeline to Turkey at Faysh Khabour, by which they once hoped would assure their economic independence, as well as the main Turkish-Iraqi land route at Ibrahim Khalil in the north west KRG. This crossing has been Iraqi Kurdistan’s lifeline to the rest of the world for a quarter of a century. Iraqi officials will likewise take over the international side of the airports in the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah.

These administrative changes do not sound dramatic, but they effectively end the semi-independence of the Iraqi Kurds which they had built up over the past 26 years. Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, who is to give up his post on 1 November, put these gains at risk when he held a referendum on Kurdish independence on 25 September.

Mr Abadi is in a strong position because the KRG’s two biggest neighbours, Turkey and Iran, agree with him on re-establishing federal control of the border and Kurdish oil exports. Mr Abadi says the Turks admit that “they made a mistake” in the past in dealing directly with the KRG and not with the central government in Baghdad. He emphasises that he will not be satisfied with Iraq government officials having a symbolic “spot” at different crossing points on the border, but they must have exclusive control of borders and international flights. Asked if this would include visas, Mr Abadi says: “This is a must.”

He wants the Peshmerga either to become part of the Iraqi government security forces or a small local force. He is curious to know how many Peshmerga there really are, expressing scepticism that there are really 300,000 men under arms as claimed by the Kurdish authorities. He says: “I have been told by many leaders in Kurdistan that there is a small fighting force and the rest stay at home.”

He recalls that when he became Prime Minister in 2014 after Isis unexpectedly captured Mosul, he made inquiries as to why five Iraq divisions had collapsed. He found that the main reason was corruption and in many units half the soldiers were drawing their salaries but were not there. He suspects the Peshmerga operate the same corrupt system, which he says would explain “why they failed to defend the borders of KRG [against Isis] in 2014 and had to seek the help of the US and Iran”.

The number of the Peshmerga may be in dispute, but Mr Abadi is adamant that “I am prepared to pay those Peshmerga under the control of the federal state. If they want to have their local small force – it must not be that large – then they must pay for it.” He says that the KRG must not become “a bottomless well” for federal payments. He would also expect Kurdish government expenditure to be audited in the same way as spending in Baghdad.

If all these changes are implemented then Kurdish autonomy will be much diminished. It is easy to see why Mr Barzani is stepping down to avoid the humiliation of giving up so much of his authority. Resistance by the Kurdish leadership will be difficult since they are divided and discredited by the Kirkuk debacle. But Mr Abadi’s strength is that for the first time since 1980, the Kurds do not have any backers in neighbouring states and the US has done little during the crisis except wring its hands at the sight of its Kurdish and Iraqi government allies falling out. When Mr Barzani unwisely forced Washington to choose between Baghdad and Irbil, the Americans were always going to choose the Iraqi state.

Queried about Iranian influence on the Iraqi government. Mr Abadi is exasperated and derisive by turns, particularly about Qasem Soleimani, the director of foreign operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) whose negotiations with the Kurdish leadership have been reported as playing a decisive role in the retreat of the Peshmerga from Kirkuk.

“He definitely didn’t have any military role on the ground in the crisis [over Kirkuk],” says Mr Abadi. “I can assure you that he had zero impact on what happened in Kirkuk.” Mr Abadi says that it was he himself who called the Kurdish leadership and persuaded them not to fight and to withdraw the Peshmerga from the disputed territories.

A more substantive allegation is that the Hashd al-Shaabi, the powerful Shia paramilitary units which have fought alongside the Iraqi regular forces, are sectarian and under Iranian influence or control. Asked about his recent meeting with Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, who said the Hashd should “go home” or be dismantled, Mr Abadi said that there was either “a misquotation or misinformation” and Mr Tillerson seemed to be under the impression that the IRGC was fighting in Iraq and did not know that the Hashd were all Iraqis.

He said that Iraq had plenty of foreign advisers from the US, UK, France and elsewhere, including Iran, but the number of Iranian advisers was only 30, well down from 110 a few years ago. As for the Hashd, he said they had to be under government control, well-disciplined and to have no political role, particularly not in the Iraqi general election on 12 May 2018 which he pledged not to postpone.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, Kurds 
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There is a growing mood of self-confidence in Baghdad which I have not seen here since I first visited Iraq in 1977. The country seemed then to be heading for a peaceful and prosperous future thanks to rising oil revenues. It only became clear several years later that Saddam Hussein was a monster of cruelty with a disastrous tendency to start unwinnable wars. At the time, I was able to drive safely all around Iraq, visiting cities from Mosul to Basra which became lethally dangerous over the next 40 years.

The streets of the capital are packed with people shopping and eating in restaurants far into the night. Looking out my hotel window, I can see people for the first time in many years building things which are not military fortifications. There are no sinister smudges of black smoke on the horizon marking where bombs have gone off. Most importantly, there is a popular feeling that the twin victories of the Iraqi security forces in recapturing Mosul in July and Kirkuk on 16 October have permanently shifted the balance of power back towards stability. The Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, once criticised as weak and vacillating, is today almost universally praised for being calm, determined and successful in battling Isis and confronting the Kurds.

“I detect a certain jauntiness in Baghdad that I have not seen before,” says the Iraqi historian and former minister Ali Allawi. “Al-Abadi has hardly put a foot wrong since the start of the crisis over Kirkuk.” A recently retired senior Iraqi security official adds that “it was bit of luck for all Iraqis, that [Kurdish President Masoud] Barzani brought on a confrontation when he did”. People in the capital are beginning to sound more like victors rather than victims.

Life in Baghdad is abnormal by the standard of any other city: it remains full of blast walls made out of concrete slabs that always remind me of giant grave stones. Numerous checkpoints exacerbate appalling traffic jams. Bombings by Isis are far less frequent than they used to be, but there are memories of past atrocities, such as the truck bomb in Karada district on 3 July 2016 that killed 323 people and injured hundreds more. “Many of them were burned to death in buildings with plastic cladding on the outside that caught fire like Grenfell Tower,” observed an Iraqi observer as we drove past the site of the blast.

Violence will not entirely end: the Shia majority are about to celebrate the Arbaeen festival on 10 November when millions of pilgrims walk on foot to the shrine city of Kerbala to mourn the death of Imam Hussein in a battle in 680 AD. The road between Kerbala and the shrine city of Najaf, is already decorated with thousands of black mourning flags, interspersed with occasional green and red, ones, and there are thousands of improvised tents where the pilgrims can rest and eat.

The vast numbers involved makes it impossible to protect them all, so Isis may well bomb the vast multitude of pilgrims in a bid to show that it has not been totally eliminated. Despite this the long-expected defeat of Isis is very real, but the greatest boost to public morale comes from the unexpected crumbling, with little resistance and in a short space of time, of the Kurdish quasi-state in northern Iraq that had ruled a quarter of the country.

Iraqi history over the last 40 years has been full of what were misleadingly billed as “turning points” for the better, but which turned out to be only ushering in a new phase in Iraq’s multi-phase civil wars that have been going on since the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003. All sides have become, at different periods, the proxies of foreign backers, but this period may now be coming to an end primarily because the wars have produced winners and losers.

Communal politics are not the only determining feature in the Iraqi political landscape, but the Shia, Sunni and Kurdish communities are its main building blocks. The Sunni, a fifth of the population, have lost comprehensively because Isis became their main vehicle for opposition to the central government. Justly or unjustly, they share in its defeat. Their great cities like Mosul and Ramadi are in ruins. Sunni villages that line the main roads have often been levelled because they were seen as the home bases of local guerrillas planting IEDS. IDP camps are full of displaced Sunnis.

Shia-Kurdish cooperation was born in opposition to Saddam Hussein and was the basis for the post-Saddam power-sharing governments. But both sides felt that they were being short-changed by the other and Baghdad and Erbil came to see each other as the hostile capitals of separate states.

Great though their differences were, they might not have over-boiled for a few years had Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) not had the astonishingly bad idea of holding a Kurdish referendum on independence on 25 September. It was one of the great miscalculates of Iraqi, if not Middle East, history: the KDP now complains that it was the victim of Iranian machinations, but its real mistake was to confront the Iraqi government when it was politically and militarily much stronger than it had been after recapturing Mosul from Isis. Regardless of which Kurdish leader did or did not betray the cause, their Peshmerga would have lost the war.

Ironically, the Iraqi Kurds are now likely to lose a large measure of the independence they enjoyed before the referendum. They have lost not only the oil province of Kirkuk, but may also lose control of the borders of their three core provinces. Iraqi regular forces are pressing towards the crucial border town of Fishkhabour between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey. Al-Abadi last week turned down a Kurdish offer “to freeze” the referendum result, demanding its complete negation, though it now has only a symbolic value.

Iraqis in Baghdad are rightly wary of predictions of a return to normal life after 40 years of permanent crisis. There have been false dawns before, but this time round the prospects for peace are much better than before. The biggest risk is a collision between the US and Iran in which Iraq would be the political – and possibly the military – battlefield. Barzani and the KDP are promoting the idea of Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi Shia paramilitaries being at the forefront of every battle, though in fact Kirkuk was taken by two regiments from Baghdad’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service and the 9th Armoured Division.

The success of the Iraqi regular forces is such that one danger is that they and the Baghdad government will become overconfident and overplay their hand, not making sure that all communities in Iraq get a reasonable cut of the national cake in terms of power, money and jobs. A golden rule of Iraqi politics is that none of the three main communities can be permanently marginalised or crushed, as Saddam Hussein discovered to his cost. The end of the era of wars in Iraq would not just be good news for Iraqis, but the rest of the world as well.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
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Two cities – Kirkuk and Raqqa – fall in two days and the political landscape of the Middle East is transformed. One of these events, the capture of Raqqa, the last urban stronghold of Isis, by the Syrian Kurds backed by US airpower, had been expected, but was no less important for that. The “caliphate” declared three years ago has been destroyed, though Isis will persist as a guerrilla and terrorist movement.

The capture of Kirkuk, the oil city which Kurds and Arabs have battled to control for 50 years, came last Monday and was completely unexpected. It not only changed the politics of Iraq, but of the region as a whole. Put briefly, the central government of Iraq is back in business as a power to a degree not seen since 1991 when Saddam Hussein was calamitously defeated by the US and its allies after he invaded Kuwait.

Kurdish dreams of establishing an independent state drawing on the oil wealth of Kirkuk have been extinguished, probably forever. The semi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which might have been a beacon to the 25 million Kurds in Turkey, Iran and Syria, will see its powers squeezed by the government in Baghdad. Its leaders have a lot to answer for: their divisions, miscalculations and greed have capsized the heroic Kurdish struggle for self-determination stretching back over a century.

The final debacle for the Iraqi Kurdish leaders was farcical and tragic in equal measure: Isis held Mosul for nine months and Raqqa for four months; the Syrian Kurdish YPC held Kobani for four months against ferocious Isis assault; but the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga held Kirkuk, the city they claimed was central to their future, for just four hours when the Iraqi security forces occupied it on 16 October in the face of negligible resistance.

How this happened is a shameful story of arrogance and poor judgement on the part of all the KRG leaders. It is doubtful if they have learned anything useful from the disaster since they are today denouncing each other as traitors and claiming to be the victims of a deep-laid Iranian plot to stab them in the back or on an inexplicable American failure to rescue them in their hour of need.

The Iraqi Kurdish leaders have always been good at publicising their cause, but their weakness is that they themselves believe rather more of their own propaganda than is good for them. In future, the story of how President Masoud Barzani tried to secure his political fortunes by holding a referendum on Kurdish independence – thereby provoking a wave of Kurdish nationalism he could not control – will be the subject of PhDs on political ineptitude. Many political leaders suffer defeat because they fall victim to superior forces or unforeseen circumstances, but in the Iraqi Kurdish case, the result of their actions was predictable and avoidable.

Most of the story of what happened in northern Iraq last week is now well known, though there remains one important mystery. Masoud Barzani, who should have stood down as KRG president two years ago at the end of his term, stayed on and stopped the Kurdish parliament meeting. To re-establish his position as a Kurdish national leader and to wrong foot the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Party (PUK), he announced a referendum on Kurdish independence to be held on 25 September.

The plan was always a risky gamble: a small nation like the Kurds depends on keeping good relations with larger ones. In this case, the referendum alienated all its allies, including the US, Turkey and Iran. The central government in Baghdad faced a threat and an opportunity at the same time: by holding the referendum in territory disputed between Kurds and Arabs, Barzani was staking permanent claim to a large chunk of Iraq. The government in Baghdad, having just won its largest military victory ever by retaking Mosul, was not going to buckle and accept this, nor did it have any need to do so because the KRG had just spurned American and Turkish protection by holding the referendum. America promised an attractive compromise deal two days before the poll, but by then nationalist intoxication had reached a peak and Barzani felt he had no choice but to reject the US initiative.

Barzani’s KDP movement is now trying to blame the final disaster on the PUK, saying that it reached a treacherous side deal with Baghdad orchestrated by Iran. But this misses the point: the KDP could already see that it had no military option and could not fight successfully the reinvigorated Iraqi armed forces. In the event, neither the KDP nor the PUK put up significant resistance to the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga of both the Kurdish parties disappearing from the frontline at equal speed.

There are lessons here not just for the Kurds, but for nationalist movements everywhere in the world, including Europe. They will probably not be learned because a self-destructive aspect of nationalism is the belief by nationalists in each country that their own experiences and sense of victimhood are unique and do not have analogies anywhere else. Nationalists in former imperial countries like England and France are loath to see parallels between their own demand for self-determination with that of what used to be referred to as “Third World” countries.

The analogies are there all the same: Kurdish mental attitudes that led them to try to secede from Iraq are not so wholly different to those of the British trying to leave the EU. It should be hurriedly said that there is nothing wrong and everything right about any national community opting for self-determination and liberty. But, justifiable though such an aim may be, national independence comes accompanied by an over-strong sense of righteousness and superiority that blurs political realism: the British and Kurdish governments both started a major political adventure with a divided country behind them while their action angered and united their neighbours.

A further weakness of nationalist movements seeking independence from larger groupings is that that they promise far more than they can deliver. Self-determination is presented as a panacea which will cure all social and economic ills, though how this might happen is seldom spelled out. Again, Kurdish leaders before the referendum and Brexiteers before the vote in 2016 could paint their critics as unpatriotic. Even more damaging, compromise becomes impossible even when the alternative is to disappear over a cliff edge.

Britain is an immeasurably greater power than Kurdistan was ever likely to be, but the same miscalculation about the balance of power between them and their neighbours comes into play in both cases. It is telling how many conflicts and wars in European history have been started by those who were never likely to win them and had everything to lose from failing to do so. Appeals to national solidarity in pursuit of a common cause build up their own momentum and are difficult to put into reverse, making ultimate disaster inevitable.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, Kurds 
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Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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