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Baghdad

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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.

Iraq Ten Years Later

16 March 2013

Iraq Ten Years Later

By Gwynne Dyer

Why did George W. Bush choose 19 March, 2003 to invade Iraq, rather than some day in May, or July, or never? Because he was afraid that further delay would give United Nations arms inspectors time to refute the accusation (his sole pretext for making an unprovoked attack on an independent country) that Saddam Hussein’s regime was working on nuclear weapons.

The US president couldn’t say that, of course, and so instead his administration’s spokesmen mumbled about the need to get the war over and done with before the summer heat made fighting impossible. Yet American soldiers proved perfectly capable of operating in that summer heat during the ensuing seven years of fighting, in which over 4,000 of them were killed.

That was nothing compared to the number of Iraqi deaths. At least five times as many Iraqis have died violently in the decade since the US invasion as were killed by Saddam’s regime in the ten years before the invasion. The exact number is unknown, but Saddam’s secret police were probably killing less than 2,000 people a year in 1993-2003. An estimated 121,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the military and political struggles of the past ten years.

Iraq’s infrastructure has still not recovered to its prewar level. More than a million Iraqis still live in internal exile, unable to return to the homes from which they were “cleansed” during the Sunni-Shia sectarian war of 2006-2007. Another million have fled the country for good, including a large proportion of the country’s intellectual and professional elite.

Iraq ranks eighth from the bottom on Transparency International’s corruption index, ahead of Somalia and North Korea but below Haiti and Equatorial Guinea. The government in Baghdad, though dominated by sectarian Shia politicians, does little for the impoverished Shia majority. The Sunni minority fears and hates it. And the Kurdish ethnic minority in the north just ignores Baghdad and runs a state that is independent in all but name.

Iraq’s courts do the regime’s will, torture is endemic, and the swollen army and “security” forces (used almost exclusively for internal repression) eat up a huge share of the budget. And from the perspective of American grand strategy, the main result of the war has been to weaken the position of the US in the Gulf region and strengthen that of its perceived opponent, Iran.

The United States spent about $800 billion on the Iraq war, and will eventually spend at least another trillion dollars on military pensions, disability payments and debt service. Yet it achieved less than nothing. Why on earth did it invade in the first place?

Even the defenders of the invasion have stopped claiming that Saddam Hussein was cooperating with al-Qaeda terrorists who were plotting to attack the United States. They were also plotting to overthrow and kill Saddam, as everyone with any knowledge of the Middle East already knew.

The UN weapons inspectors never found the slightest evidence that Saddam had revived the nuclear weapons programme that had been dismantled under UN supervision in the early 1990s. The people in the White House who took the decision to invade must have known that there was no such programme: the way they carefully worded their propaganda in order to avoid explicit lying is ample evidence of that.

The strategist Edward Luttwak once suggested that the real reason was that the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 had been too easy. After 9/11 the American people really wanted to punish somebody, and Afghanistan had not provided enough catharsis. So another invasion was an emotional necessity, and (given the American public’s ignorance about the Middle East) almost any Arab country would do.

There was certainly a parallel desire among the neo-conservatives in the Bush White House to restore American power to unchallenged dominance after what they saw as the fecklessness of Bill Clinton’s administrations in the 1990s. That required a short and successful war that would put everyone else in awe and fear of American military might – but, once again, any weak and unpopular country would have done. Why Iraq?

The closest we can come to a rational answer is the argument, common in Washington a decade ago, that permanent military bases in Iraq would give America strategic control of the entire Gulf region.

The role of those bases would not be to ensure prompt delivery of the region’s oil to the United States at a low price: only 11 percent of US oil imports come from there. The bases would instead enable the United States to block Gulf exports of oil to China if the United States found itself in a confrontation with that country. (Geo-strategic arguments are often frivolous.)

None of these explanations can justify what was done, and we haven’t even gone into the damage done to international law by this blatantly criminal act. But can we at least conclude that the world, or even just the United Nations, has learned a lesson from all this?

Probably yes for the United States, at least until memories fade. (Give it ten more years.) Not so much for the rest of the world, but then most other countries are less prone to invade faraway places anyway.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 9. (“Iraq…name”; and “Even…that”)

 

 

Iraq: A Model Young Democracy

12 November 2010

Iraq: A Model Young Democracy

By Gwynne Dyer

“There are things we got wrong in Iraq, but the cause is eternally right,” wrote George W. Bush in his recent memoir. “The region is more hopeful with a young democracy setting an example for others to follow.”

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the “young democracy” has finally got a new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. He’s the same one who led the last government, although every party (including much of his own) wanted to get rid of him after the election last March. Iraq’s ethnic and religious rivalries have become so fierce that no new and more inclusive coalition of parties could be agreed on.

It’s taken eight months of tortuous negotiations to get this far, a world record for the length of time taken after an election to create a new government. And the job’s not actually done yet. Maliki now has a month to form a cabinet, which means fierce rivalry between and within the parties for control of the ministries that are the main source of wealth and power in Iraq. Even now, the deal could still fall apart.

And what about the al-Qaeda terrorists whose supposed links with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein were one of Mr Bush’s pretexts for the US invasion of the country in 2003? (The other pretext was Saddam’s alleged “weapons of mass destruction”, but the less said about that the better.)

Osama bin Laden’s Islamist extremists actually had no links at all with Saddam Hussein, nor any presence in Iraq until 2003; it was the invasion that gave them a role there. And although al-Qaeda’s fanatical desire to kill Shia Muslims and Christians, rather than concentrate on the American occupation forces, eventually alienated even the Sunni minority from them during the “surge” period in 2007-08, that has changed too.

“Now they’re back,” said General Hussein Kamal, the head of the intelligence division at Iraq’s interior ministry, in an interview with The Guardian. “It’s like 2004 again….They are pure al-Qaeda, not a mixture of groups like before.”

2004 was the year when Iraq began its descent into hell. The invasion killed a lot of people, but the resistance really only got underway in the following year, when the Sunni Muslims started attacking US troops – and the al-Qaeda volunteers among them also began murdering Shia Muslims in industrial quantities.

That triggered the Sunni-Shia civil war of 2005-2007, which the Sunnis decisively lost. So the Sunni community turned against the al-Qaeda fighters who had brought this disaster upon them, and that in turn enabled the US “surge” to succeed for a while. But the subsequent years have seen the Sunnis systematically excluded from any meaningful share of power, and the clock is turning back to 2004.

At no time in the past few years has the killing stopped in Iraq, but now it is ramping up again fast. On 31 October, al-Qaeda gunmen stormed a Christian church in Baghdad, killing 58 worshippers and security officers. On 2 November there were fifteen almost simultaneous bombs in Shia districts of the capital that killed scores of people and injured hundreds.

On 10 November there were eleven more bombs, this time targeting Christians in their homes. Half of Iraq’s million-strong Christian minority has already fled the country, and the rest are thinking seriously about following suit. And Iyad al-Allawi, whose party got most of the Sunni vote in the election and actually won the largest number of seats, has effectively been frozen out of power by a Shia-Kurdish alliance. Just like after the previous election.

Under huge US pressure, Allawi has been persuaded to become “chairman of the National Council for Strategic Policy,” a new body that has been created precisely to give him a job. But it is a pretty poor consolation prize, and may turn out to mean nothing at all. The United States has lost almost all influence in Baghdad (although there are still 50,000 American troops in the country), and Iran rules the roost.

From the moment that George W Bush decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein, it was certain that Iran would be the big winner. Almost two-thirds of the Iraqi population, although Arab, belongs to the Shia sect of Islam, and Iran is the one great Shia power. When the post-invasion scramble for power began in Iraq, it was perfectly natural for Iraqi Shias to turn to Tehran for support against Sunnis in their own country.

During the eight months of haggling and stonewalling that preceded the deal on 11 November, both Maliki and Allawi spent more time seeking support in Tehran and the capitals of Iraq’s Sunni neighbours to the south than negotiating with their rivals in Baghdad itself. The country has become a pawn in the confrontation between Iran and the Arab countries, but Iran has emerged as the clear winner.

Meanwhile, Iraq may be sliding into another mini-civil war, and there is no reason to think that the quite astonishing level of corruption in the ministries is going to decline. There are not many countries in the region that want to follow the example set by this “young democracy.” They are just hoping that the bloodshed and the hatred do not spread.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 11. (“It’s taken…apart”; and “Under…roost”)

Iraq: Good-Bye and Good Luck

5 July 2010

Iraq: Good-Bye and Good Luck

By Gwynne Dyer

As the American withdrawal gains speed, there are fewer American troops in Iraq than in Afghanistan for the first time since 2003. By the end of August there will be no US combat troops left in Iraq, though some tens of thousands of support troops will remain until next year. And still there is no new Iraqi government, although it is now four months since the election on 7 March.

US Vice-President Joe Biden was in Baghdad at the week-end urging Iraqi politicians to end the political deadlock, but America’s influence over events in Iraq has been falling as fast as its troop numbers. In the end, the same broad coalition of Shia Arabs and Kurds that ran the country before will probably rule again, excluding the Sunni Arabs, but it’s unclear who will lead the new coalition.

The last election made Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic rivalries even sharper, if that is possible. The corruption is universal and shameless. Dozens of people are still being killed by suicide bombers every week. But the country cannot really fail, because there is just so much oil.

After three decades of foreign wars, UN sanctions and American occupation, Iraq’s oil exports bottomed out at 1.8 million barrels per day in 2008, but they are already back up to 2.5 million b/d – and Baghdad plans to be producing 9.9 million b/d only ten years from now. That would make it the world’s first, second or third-largest exporter (depending on what happens to Saudi Arabian and Russian production), and drown it in a tidal wave of cash.

The target is plausible, because this is not speculation about production from new oilfields; it is just enhanced production from existing fields. Contracts to build the infrastructure to pump that extra oil have already been signed with two dozen foreign oil companies. Since the foreigners are only paid a fee per barrel, Iraq gets most of the profits.

On the reasonable assumption that the price of oil will not drop below $50 per barrel in the next decade, that means that the Iraqi government will have an oil income of at least $150 billion a year by 2020. Two-thirds of the current government’s income is stolen by the political elite and there is no reason to think that this will change, but that would still allow some $50 billion a year to trickle through and serve the needs of ordinary Iraqis.

That is probably enough to buy the grudging loyalty of most Shia Arabs to the Iraqi state. The Kurds are a different case, but the hostility of all their neighbours to full Kurdish independence will probably persuade them to maintain their current semi-detached relationship with Baghdad. And the Sunni Arab minority can be either bought off or repressed.

In the old days, there might have been a popular revolution to sweep away the emigre elite that came back from the US, Europe and Iran to feed off the long-suffering Iraqi people, but those days are gone. After Abdulkarim Qasim, the Baathists, Saddam Hussein, and the Americans – fifty years of disappointment – the Iraqis don’t believe in saviours any more. “Won’t Get Fooled Again” could be the national anthem.

All the Iraqis can reasonably hope for, in the aftermath of the US occupation, is corrupt governments riven by sectarian and ethnic divisions, but that is probably a stable outcome provided there is enough money. And to be fair to the Americans, no other post-Saddam, post-occupation outcome was ever likely.

So what happens in the next few months? The union last month between outgoing prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s secular but overwhelmingly Shia State of Law Party and the two religious Shia parties in the Iraqi National Alliance creates a bloc that is within striking distance of a parliamentary majority. Recreate the alliance with the Kurds that Maliki had in the last coalition, and the deal is done.

That coalition has not yet happened because Maliki would almost certainly not be the prime minister in it: one of the Shia religious parties, led by Moqtada al-Sadr, hates him too much. The coalition talks may continue at a stately pace down to September as Maliki seeks to stay in power, but he will probably fail.

His only hope is to make a deal instead with Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiyya party, which got most Sunni Arabs’ votes across the west and north of the country, but also significant support from secular Shias in and around Baghdad. But the Kurds would probably not join such a coalition, because Iraqiyyah ran on an anti-Kurdish platform across northern Iraq – and besides, Allawi and Maliki cannot stand each other.

Some sort of deal will be done in the end, because the spoils of power are just too tempting – and meanwhile, the Americans are leaving as quietly as possible. As quietly, that is, as you can move 1,900 heavy tanks and fighting vehicles, 43,000 trucks, 600 helicopters, and 34,000 tonnes of ammunition.

Some of this stuff will go straight back to the United States, but quite a lot of it will be repaired in Kuwait and then sent on to Afghanistan. The “dumb war”, as President Obama called it, is over. The almost-as-dumb war continues.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“In the old…anthem”; and “His only…other”)