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Iraq: Endless War

“Suppose that…the Iraqis feel ambivalent about being invaded and real Iraqis, not (just) Saddam’s special guard, decide to offer resistance,” wrote British prime minister Tony Blair to US president George W. Bush in December 2001, two years before the US and the UK invaded Iraq. At least Blair had some doubts, but neither man could really imagine that the Iraqis would see them as conquerors, not liberators.

Another 13 years have now passed, and at last we have the Chilcot Report, an impartial official investigation into why Britain joined the United States in that invasion. (There is no equivalent American document.) It’s a 12-volume study that illustrates just how ill-informed and reckless the planners of that illegal war were, but it doesn’t tell us much we didn’t already know.

There are some juicy documents about the pre-war connivance between Bush and Blair, like Blair’s promise in 2001 that “We are with you, whatever.” But there is comparatively little on the scale of the disaster that the invasion inflicted on innocent Iraqis: thirteen years of war, up to 600,000 Iraqis killed and a country effectively destroyed. So this is a good time to recall the fate of the city of Fallujah.

Fallujah was a city of a third of a million people, less than an hour’s drive west of Baghdad, that was occupied by US troops in April 2003. It was the first place where American troops fired on Iraqi civilians (they were protesting against the takeover of a local high school by the US 82nd Airborne Division). It had fallen under the control of Iraqi resistance forces by the end of the year. That was the “First Battle of Fallujah”.

Fallujah was recaptured in November 2004 by US forces, at a cost of 95 American dead and 560 wounded. An estimated 1,350 insurgents were killed in this “Second Battle of Fallujah”. A large but uncounted number of civilians also died, as the American offensive involved massive artillery bombardments including white phosphorus shells. 9,000 of the city’s 39,000 homes were destroyed in that battle, and more than half were damaged.

The city was never properly rebuilt, but by 2006 about two-thirds of its residents had returned. Despite constant attacks on the occupation forces by the group that later turned into Islamic State, the United States returned Fallujah to Iraqi government control in 2008 – or perhaps we should say Iraqi government occupation, for by now the American-backed government in Baghdad was almost entirely Shia, and Fallujah is a Sunni city.

Sunni insurgents took back control of Fallujah in January 2014, six months before rest of western Iraq fell to the forces of Islamic State virtually without a fight. The pattern was the same: the new Iraqi army built up by the United States at a cost of $26 billion simply collapsed and ran away.

The “Third Battle of Fallujah” began in May of this year. Iraqi government forces (mosty Shia, of course), supported by Iranian troops and American air strikes, took almost six weeks to recapture the city, which by the end of the fighting contained only a few tens of thousands of civilians. More will return in due course, mainly because they have nowhere else to go, but most of the city is just ruins.

Other cities in Iraq are less comprehensively wrecked, but none of them are safe places to live in. The most recent bomb attack in Baghdad, on Saturday evening, killed at least 250 people. When the current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, visited the scene of the bombing on Sunday, he was chased away by a crowd hurling stones, shoes and insults. And there is no end in sight.

Thirteen years, half a million excess deaths or more, millions of refugees, general impoverishment and insecurity, and an astoundingly corrupt government that is strongly and successfully resisting Abadi’s attempt to reform it. It is no wonder that even most of those in Iraq who suffered under Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical rule now wish he had never been overthrown.

“Saddam has gone, and we have one thousand Saddams now,” said Kadhim al-Jabbouri in a recent interview with the BBC. Jabbouri, who became famous for taking a sledgehammer to a statue of the dictator as American forces entered Baghdad in 2003, added: “It wasn’t like this under Saddam…We didn’t like him, but he was better than those people…There was no corruption or looting. You could be safe.”

The cautious ruminations of the Chilcot Report underplay the most important fact about the invasion of Iraq, which is that all these appalling consequences were entirely predictable. People who had any real knowledge of the political, ethnic and sectarian politics in the region and especially in Iraq DID predict them, including the relevant experts in the US State Department and the British Foreign Ministry.

Never mind whether or not the decision to invade Iraq was a war crime (though it was, under international law). Never mind whether the invaders’ motives were good or bad (they were the usual mixture of both, actually). What shines through is the sheer arrogance and ignorance of those who brought this calamity down on the Iraqis, who must now live out their lives in misery and terror. Thanks, guys.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“The city…city”; and “Saddam…safe”)

Iraq: Time for a Tranquiliser

It’s time for everybody in Iraq to take a tranquiliser. The media will go on fizzing with apocalyptic speculations for a week or so, because that kind of talk always sells, but the war of movement is over.

It never was much of a war: a third of Iraq was captured by ISIS and various Sunni militias in one week at a cost that probably didn’t exceed a thousand lives (plus however many were murdered by ISIS afterwards). The Islamist radicals have now reached approximately the limits of the territory in Iraq that has a Sunni Arab majority, and they’d be mad to throw away all their gains by trying to conquer Baghdad.

There are lots of young men fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (the Levant) who would love to be martyred in such an attack, but ISIS is run by grown-ups. They know that they can’t go any farther without running out of the popular support that let a few thousand fighters sweep through the Sunni lands so easily.

Baghdad is defended by Shia militias that already number in the tens of thousands and will probably soon pass the hundred thousand mark. Most of them know far less about fighting than the ISIS veterans, but they are just as keen on martyrdom and they would outnumber the ISIS fighters twenty-to-one, maybe fifty-to-one. Two or three days of street fighting in the huge, now mostly Shia city of Baghdad and ISIS would have no more troops.

So ISIS has advanced about as far as it is going to go. And, by the way, so has the Kurdistan Regional Government. The KRG’s Peshmerga troops now control not only the disputed oil city of Kirkuk but almost 100 percent of traditionally Kurdish territory in Iraq, compared to only about 70 percent two weeks ago.

During most of that time the Peshmerga and ISIS observed a de facto ceasefire while they concentrated on the territory that really mattered to them. There have been some exchanges of fire between ISIS and Peshmerga in the past few days along the ill-defined border between their new holdings, but nothing very serious.

There might have been a major clash around Tel Afar, where KRG President Masoud Barzani offered to commit Peshmerga to the city’s defence just before ISIS attacked, but President Nuri al-Maliki in Baghdad rejected his offer. The Kurdish troops withdrew, and the city fell to ISIS.

Almost certainly, the reason Maliki declined Barzani’s offer was that it came with major strings attached. Having grabbed the territory he wanted, Barzani was asking the government in Baghdad to recognise Kurdistan’s new borders. Maliki’s reason for  refusing, even though it meant losing Tel Afar, would have been that he still hopes for a third term and could not afford to be seen giving away “Arab” territory to the Kurds.

In ideological terms, ISIS would like to incorporate Kurdistan into its ever-expanding Islamic caliphate, which would erase all borders within the (Sunni) Muslim world, but in practical terms it knows that it cannot do that, at least for the moment. In ideological terms, ISIS would also like to convert or exterminate all the Shias in the world, starting with the 20 million in Iraq, but in practical terms it cannot do that either.

So the borders of the three successors to the current state of Iraq, Kurdish, Shia Arab and Sunni Arab, have already been drawn, with the important addition that the Sunni Arab successor extends across the old international frontier to include eastern Syria as well. These changes will not be reversed: the Shia-majority rump of the former Iraqi state that extends from Baghdad to Basra does not have the strength to restore the old centralised Iraq.

Is this really such a disaster? Not for the Kurds, obviously, and not really for the Shia Arabs either: they still have all of their own territory (i.e. Shia-majority territory) and most of the oil. Nor will the Baghdad government which still rules that territory need US air power to save it. (US President Obama has probably just been stalling until that became clear).

The problematic bit is the Sunni Arabs of Iraq. They are clearly delighted to have shaken off the corrupt and oppressive sectarian rule of President Nuri al-Maliki, but for the near future at least they will have to contend with the unappetising prospect of being ruled instead by the incorruptible but brutally intolerant leaders of ISIS.

It should be borne in mind, however, that even now the great majority of the armed men who have created this new Sunni proto-state are not ISIS fanatics. Most of them are either tribal militiamen or former members of the Baathist-era army that was dissolved by the invaders after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. They belong to organisations that have real political power, and they vastly outnumber the ISIS fanatics.

Those same organisations broke the hold of “Al Qaeda in Iraq”, the ancestor to ISIS, in western Iraq in 2007-09, and it’s entirely possible that in a few years’s time they will end up doing it again to ISIS. But the borders of the new Sunni Arab state, stretching from western and northern Iraq into eastern Syria, may survive. There’s no particular harm in that.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 7 and 8. (“There are…easily”; and “There might…Kurds”)

Kurdistan’s Big Chance

Every disaster creates opportunities for somebody. If the Kurds of Iraq play their cards right, they could finally end up with the borders they want, fully recognised by a government in Baghdad that has been saved by Kurdish troops.

The Kurds have this opportunity because the large but totally demoralised Iraqi army has fallen apart over the past week. The Sunni Islamist fanatics of ISIS are now less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, and Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is the only military force left in Iraq that could take the offensive against them.

It is very unlikely that the ISIS fighters can take Baghdad. There are probably no more than 5,000 of them in Iraq, and their stunning recent victories were achieved more by frightening the Iraqi army to death than by actual fighting. Most of those ISIS troops are needed to hold down their recent conquests, including the large cities of Mosul and Tikrit.

ISIS couldn’t spare more than a thousand or so of its fighters for a push into Baghdad, which has seven million people, most of them Shias. The Shia militias, which are taking in tens of thousands of volunteers a day, don’t have much in the way of military skills, but they would fight – and street fighting in a big city eats up soldiers’s lives.

Either ISIS will not attack Baghdad, or it will try and fail. However, what remains of the Iraqi army will certainly not be able to take the offensive and drive ISIS out of all the territory that has already been lost. Short of direct Iranian or American military intervention on the ground, the only force that might be able to do that is Peshmerga.

Peshmerga has advanced to take control of territories abandoned by the Iraqi army that were historically part of Kurdistan, most notably the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields, but so far it has not tried to stop the ISIS fighters moving south. “There is no need for Peshmerga forces to move into these areas,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Pesh Merga Affairs.

But Peshmerga forces are close enough to the roads leading south from Mosul to Baghdad to cut the ISIS line of communications and stop the advance on Baghdad if they were ordered to. The ISIS fighters have significant support from the Sunni population in the area they have overrun, so trying to drive them out of Mosul and Tikrit would cost Peshmerga many casualties, but it’s the only force in Iraq that is even in a position to try.

So the Kurdistan Regional Government must now be considering what price it could charge Baghdad for that service. As an adviser to the KRG told the Washington Post, “The Iraqi government has been holding the Kurds hostage, and it’s not reasonable for them to expect the Kurds to give them any help in this situation without compromising to Kurdish demands.”

What would the Kurds demand in return? What they want most is to recover the territories that were taken from them by the Baathist regime in Baghdad between the 1960s and the later 1980s. Under Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and hundred of thousands driven from their lands. He then changed the provincial boundaries, and the stolen lands were repopulated with Arab settlers whom he brought in from the south.

Peshmerga troops have taken back control of much of this land in the past week, but nothing will be settled unless Baghdad formally restores the old provincial boundaries. It would also have to accept that a lot of those Arab settlers will be removed to make way for returning Kurdish families.

Such a concession would be politically impossible in normal times, but if Baghdad wants Peshmerga to fight for it, that’s the price it will probably have to pay. And it should bear in mind that the Kurds also have another option. They could just hold those territories by force, and declare independence.

The Baghdad government could do little about it: the advance of the ISIS forces means that it no longer has a common frontier with Kurdistan. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds were deterred from declaring independence because Turkey threatened to invade them if they did – Ankara worried about the impact of Kurdistan’s independence on the large Kurdish minority in Turkey – but things have changed there too.

Turkey is now the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, and regards the KRG as a reliable partner. In any case, the Turkish government will have its hands full dealing with the sudden emergence of a hostile Islamic caliphate along its southern border. Kurdish independence would still be a gamble, but the odds are that it could succeed.

One way or the other, Kurdistan is probably going to be a big winner out of this. But it will probably take the lower-risk course of trying to make a deal with Baghdad first.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“ISIS…lives”; and “So…demands”)

ISIS rises in Iraq

THE IRAQI ARMY will have to destroy Mosul in order to save it—and it’s not clear whether it can do the job even then. It isn’t so much an army as a vast system of patronage providing employment of a sort for 900,000 people.

When fewer than a thousand ISIS jihadis fought their way into Mosul, Iraq’s second city, over the past few days, most of the government’s soldiers just shed their uniforms and fled.

The government troops never felt comfortable in Mosul anyway, for they are mostly Shia Muslims and the vast majority of Mosul’s 1.8 million residents are Sunni. (Or maybe it’s only 1.3 million people now, for up to 500,000 of the city’s residents are reported to be fleeing the triumphant jihadis: Shias, non-Muslim minorities, and even Kurdish Sunnis have faced execution in other areas that have fallen under the control of ISIS.)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (an Arabic word that can mean the entire Levant, including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine) began as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” during the American occupation, but it’s the Syrian civil war that turned it into a regional threat.

ISIS actually spent more time fighting other rebel forces in Syria than the Assad regime, but it gained recruits from all the Sunni Arab countries just by being on the right side.

It also got access to the money and arms that were flowing into Syria for the anti-government forces. In the past two years it has established effective control over most of sparsely populated eastern Syria, and it started moving back into western Iraq in force late last year.

In January, it seized the city of Fallujah in Anbar province, only 100 kilometres west of Baghdad, and the Iraqi army was unable to retake the city although it had suffered about 5,000 casualties, including 1,000 killed, by the end of April. But at least it stood and fought in Anbar. In Mosul on Monday, it just ran.

It ran although it outnumbered the ISIS fighters who attacked the city by at least 15-to-one, and it may not be willing to fight very hard to take it back.

The entire Iraqi government is an “institutionalised kleptocracy”, as one of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s own ministers said, and the army is no exception. Soldiers who go unpaid because their officers stole their wages are rarely willing to die for them.

The only real fighting force left in Iraq is the Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government. It is a tough, well-armed force, but it serves what is a separate state in all but name. It apparently still holds the part of Mosul east of the river Tigris, which has a large Kurdish population, but it may not be willing to take the large number of casualties that would be involved in street-fighting to recover the main part of the city.

At a minimum the KRG would want the Baghdad government to make major concessions on the revenue and oil-exporting disputes that have poisoned its relations with the federal government before it commits its forces to a major offensive against ISIS. Or it may just decide to stand on the defensive in the Kurdish-majority territory it now holds, and use the crisis to move even closer to its ultimate goal of an independent Kurdistan.

ISIS has sent the occasional suicide-bomber into Kurdistan, but it realizes that its main fight is not with the Kurds. Having taken most of Mosul, its forces are advancing not east into Kurdistan, but south through Tikrit (which fell on Juine 11) towards Baghdad. It will not try to take Baghdad itself, most of whose seven million people are Shia, but by the end of this month it could end up in control of most of western and northern Iraq.

At this point the old Iraq-Syria border would disappear and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham would become a reality, extending 400 kilometres from Mosul and Fallujah in Iraq to Deir-es-Zor, Raqqa, and near Aleppo in Syria. It would be mostly desert and it would control only about five million people and almost no oil, but it would be ruled by an Islamist organisation so extreme that it has even been disowned by al-Qaeda.

The remaining bits of the new regional map would be the western half of Syria, still largely under the control of the Assad regime; the semi-independent state of Kurdistan; and the densely populated, Shia-majority core of Iraq between Baghdad and Basra, hard up against the border with Shia Iran. None of this is yet inevitable yet, of course. It’s a war, and wars can take unexpected turns. But it’s certainly a possibility.

It’s also a possibility that the war could get wider, as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey all consider whether they need to intervene militarily to protect their own interests.

But that’s unlikely to happen this month. Later is anybody’s guess.