23 September 2017
English Arabic

Iraqi authorities have moved a group of more than 1,300 foreign women and children — the family members of suspected ISIS fighters — and a refugee agency is raising the alarm about their precarious situation and the specter of retribution.

"The families had been held in a camp in Kurdish-controlled territory while Iraq figures out what to do with them," NPR's Jane Arraf reports.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said in a statement that the women and children were transferred Sunday from south of Mosul to an area north of the city that was freed from ISIS control three months ago. The council says that it has "grave fears" for the group's safety.

It's not clear where, precisely, the group is now located.

"These women and children are extremely vulnerable. Regardless of what their family members may be accused of, they have a right to protection and assistance," Julie Davidson of the NRC said in a statement.

Fighters from all over the world have joined ISIS's ranks, sometimes bringing their wives with them. There are also cases of women traveling to marry ISIS fighters. And as ISIS loses territory, these women and children face an uncertain fate.

Iraq's Ministry of Defense says "it moved 1,324 European, Asian, African and South American women and children to a camp with better facilities," Jane reports, adding that more than half of them are Turkish.

But the aid organization does not appear convinced that the new site offers "better facilities" and calls on Iraqi authorities to "move swiftly and clarify the status of these individuals, and offer effective guarantees of their fundamental rights."

The NRC requests that authorities allow aid organizations to have access to the displaced families. At the previous site, Jane reports, the council had been providing the women and children with tents, food and water.

"Iraq has asked other countries to take back citizens who married ISIS fighters but haven't committed any crimes here. It says those who committed crimes will be prosecuted," Jane adds.

According to news reports, the families surrendered to Kurdish fighters after the recent battle for the town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. Women who spoke to The Associated Press last week said they didn't know what happened to the ISIS fighters who are their husbands.

The AP reports that a Kurdish commander, Brig. Gen. Kamel Harki, "said some of the captured fighters were handed over to Iraqi authorities while others were killed after faking their surrender and then attacking their captors."

Source: NPR

Double attack in southern Iraq kills more than 80 Saturday, 16 September 2017 13:31

 A coordinated attack on a restaurant and a security checkpoint in southern Iraq killed more than 80 people Thursday, police and health officials said, in a rare spasm of violence targeting a route used by Shiite pilgrims to visit their holiest shrines.

Gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed into a restaurant in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles south of Baghdad, around lunchtime and opened fire, the head of the provincial health department said. Patrons in the eatery included Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims traveling north toward the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf.

Moments later, a car driven by a suicide bomber exploded at a police checkpoint near the restaurant, which sits along Highway 1, the road that connects Baghdad with Dhi Qar province, where the attack took place.

An additional 93 people were injured in the double attack, for which the Islamic State later claimed responsibility in a statement released online by its propaganda arm. The terrorist group has been steadily losing territory, most recently Mosul, its largest stronghold, and the smaller city of Tal Afar, but it has shown an ability to launch insurgent-style raids in areas it once held.

Iraqi officials have voiced fears that the group would step up its attacks on civilians as its grip on territory weakens.

Because the south is home to Iraq’s most revered Shiite shrines, it is among the best-secured areas of the country and has rarely been the target of large-scale attacks. At the same time, though, many security forces assigned to the south have been drawn into battles against the Islamic State in the north and west, leaving some holes that terrorists have exploited.

Jassim al-Khalidi, the director of the Dhi Qar Health Department, said that 83 people were killed Thursday, most of them inside the restaurant, Fadak, a popular pit stop for pilgrims.

“This restaurant is well-known for being crowded every day because anyone who goes to Najaf and Karbala from the south stops there for lunch,” he said in a telephone interview.

Khalidi said witnesses told him the gunmen came in three cars and began spraying the building with bullets from automatic weapons. The gunmen escaped, he said.

Videos posted on social media showed people frantically searching a hospital ward for their relatives.

One man spoke to the camera, saying he had dropped off his family at the restaurant, then was trying to fix something in his car when the shooting erupted. He said he saw the gunmen flee in black cars.

 “I went back to the restaurant and found my entire family dead,” he said.

U.S. officials said the Islamic State has been severely degraded since it lost 90 percent of the territory it seized in a 2014 blitz across Iraq. The cities and towns it once held contained factories for making car bombs and improvised explosive devices, and the loss of those facilities has reduced the group’s use of explosives in its attacks on security forces and civilians.

Attacks involving mainly automatic weapons remain a major challenge, however. Gunmen have been able to breach security lines in cities reclaimed by Iraqi forces, such as Tikrit and Fallujah, often by wearing military uniforms and taking advantage of lax protocols at checkpoints.

In Mosul, residents have complained that some of the militants who patrolled their neighborhoods have reappeared unarmed and are quietly living among them. Although Iraq has detained and is in the process of prosecuting many people suspected of joining the Islamic State, corruption in the police and judiciary has allowed some to avoid arrest.

Some analysts say losing territory has not significantly affected the Islamic State’s ability to wage terror on a smaller but still deadly scale.

The group is moving into a new, insurgent phase, said Michael Knights, a military analyst and Persian Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.

“ISIS is not a movement in disarray,” he said, using an acronym for the group. “It has undertaken a smooth transition into insurgency, and doesn’t seem greatly disrupted by the loss of terrain.”

Source: The Washington Post

The reality in Iraq today is that the defeat of ISIS has provided a vacuum in its politics, which will have significant impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections in the country next year.

In recent months, Iraqi people have witnessed new moves from political and religious groups who dominate the country’s politics. After 14 years of internal violent conflicts, part of the pro-Tehran Shi’ite alliance have finally realized that the unconditional dependence on the Iranian regime will further exacerbate the sectarian conflict.

However, it should not be forgotten that the changing US policy on Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East has influenced their decisions. In this regard, both influential and famed Shi’ite clerics Ammar Al Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr have changed their views about Iran and the role of its proxies and allies in Iraq.

According to reports, Mr Al Hakim has decided to step down as the leader of one of the Iraqi groups allied to Tehran. This move means that a significant number of Shi’ite voters in Iraq will not pursue and back the plans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the coming elections.

Sadrist movement

Similarly, the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, decided to visit Saudi Arabia and UAE in what one could describe as an unanticipated move even for the Sunni parties. Mr al-Sadr played a key role to end the political deadlock in Iraqi politics following the elections in both 2010 and 2014.

It is agreed that the former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki’s catastrophic and sectarian policies lead to a deep division among different ethnicities in Iraq. These policies, adopted in coordination with Tehran and its IRGC, were in part based on suppression of the Sunnis and disregarding of their rights.

The weakness of Iraqi army, the frequent use of armed forces to achieve political goals, the direct control of commander of IRGC’s Quds force Qasem Soleimani over Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and eventually, the seizure of nearly one third of Iraqi territory by ISIS, all lead to the recent decision by both of these clerics to distance themselves from the Iranian regime.

In this regard, Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late July brought most attention from the media as he met Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Jaddah. Apparently, the leader of Sadrist’s movement feels the wind of change in Iraq and is looking to improve his relations with major actors both inside and outside of the country.

Visit to Riyadh

If Sadr wishes to achieve his political ambitions, he will have to choose between the following two options – reducing tie with Tehran dramatically and changing his political views on Sunni parties. His meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, however, sends a positive signal to all Iraqi parties who oppose the IRGC and Tehran’s intervention in Iraq.

Importantly, distancing himself from Tehran does not mean that he is embracing or will embrace other regional countries. But this decision rather indicates that the main player in both Iraq's political and religious scene is taking steps to change the balance of power in the country.

This move clearly scared the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, because he immediately sent his special envoy to Iraq to meet Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in an attempt to realign the political order. Not only both Iraqi clerics refused to meet Khamenei's envoy but a spokesperson of the Sadrist movement harshly criticized Khamenei.

“Iran’s interference in political affairs is detrimental to Iraq’s national interest … Khamenei’s envoy carries a new sectarian project that Iran provided six months ago”, Amir al-Kanani said in an interview. These comments makes it clear that Sadr is now determined to restrict the Iranian regime’s role in Iraq.

If Sadr, al-Hakim and Sunni parties agree to restrict Iran’s destructive role in Iraq, the balance of power will shift significantly in favor of the Iraqi people and their representatives. Such agreement will require complicated political negotiations and a real willingness from all these parties to compromise in the interest of an independent Iraq.

Political decision-making

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has consistently pretended to not have any role in the political decision-making in Iraq. But in reality, in most cases, his silence empowered the pro-Tehran Shiite block or indirectly paved the way to crush the Iraqi opposition to the IRGC and its intervention in Iraq.

But contrary to the past, the refusal of Grand Ayatollah Sistani to meet Khamenei’s envoy sent a strong message to all Shiite groups and voters in Iraq that he disapproves of Tehran’s role in the country.

Considering that the actions and words of Grand Ayatollah Sistani has great influence over Iraq’s Shiite population, his decision to turn away Iran’s Supreme Leader could result in a political earthquake for Maliki’s Dawa party and other pro-Tehran parties, just one year before the parliamentary elections.

Although the Iranian Supreme Leader got Sistani’s message, it would be naive to believe that the IRGC under Khamenei’s control will give up to the new reality in Iraq and not try to bypass all likely restrictions.

The IRGC controls a powerful Shiite militia, known as People Mobilization Units, and it could use it to put pressure on its dissidents. Consequently, will Grand Ayatollah Sistani take real actions if Tehran uses the IRGC to eliminate its opponents in Iraq physically.

No one can say with certainty what will happen in the future as clerics in both countries are known to be unpredictable. Consequently, the Iraqi people will simply have to wait to see. Now it is Tehran’s move.

Source: Al Arabiya

 The collapse of the Islamic State in its most important Iraqi strongholds has brought a rare moment of hope for a country mired in war for most of the past four decades.

It is also a moment of peril, as Iraq emerges from the fight against the militants only to be confronted with the same problems that fueled their spectacular rise in 2014.

Old disputes between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds over territory, resources and power already are resurfacing as the victors of the battles compete to control liberated areas or jostle for political advantage in the post-Islamic State landscape.

These rivalries now are compounded by the mammoth task of rebuilding the towns and cities destroyed by the fighting, returning millions of displaced people to their homes, and reconciling the communities that once welcomed the Islamic State’s brutal rule as preferable to their own government’s neglect and abuse.

A failure to manage the post-conflict situation risks a repeat of the cycle of grievance and revolt that fueled the original Iraqi insurgency in 2003, and its reincarnation in the form of the Islamic State after 2011, Iraqis and other observers say.

 But it is a vast and potentially insurmountable challenge, laid bare in the traumatized communities of Mosul. In the city’s relatively unscathed east, life has bounced back. Traffic clogs the streets, music blares from markets and stores are piled high with consumer goods, such as cellphones, air conditioners and satellite dishes, that were banned or hard to find under Islamic State rule.

In the ravaged west, which bore the brunt of the fighting, entire neighborhoods have been leveled beyond repair. In the Old City alone, 230,000 people have been left without habitation, and “they are not going home soon; the whole district has to be rebuilt,” said Lise Grande, the deputy special representative of the U.N. mission in Iraq.

So far, there is no sign of any reconstruction effort on the scale that will be required, said Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign minister who is from Mosul and now works as an adviser with the Kurdish regional government.

“All the writing is on the wall that there will be another ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “The scale of frustration. The lack of hope. The lack of government stepping in. What can you expect?”

Meanwhile, distractions loom as Iraq’s focus shifts to the long-standing political rivalries that were put on hold by the imperative of confronting the Islamic State.

The Kurdish region is pressing ahead with a referendum on independence — over the strenuous objections of Iran, Turkey and the United States — that has the potential to ignite a new war before the present one is over. The vote is reopening the contentious question of where the borders of the Kurdistan region lie, and tensions are rising in areas where the Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been brought face-to-face by the war against the Islamic State.

Rifts are emerging within Iraq’s governing Shiite majority, which rallied behind the country’s security forces and militias — known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or the popular mobilization units — for the sake of fighting the Islamic State. There are sharp divergences, however, over the future identity of the country, over whether it should tilt further toward Iran or maintain an alliance with the United States, and over how far to go to reconcile minority Sunnis with the Shiites.

 These issues are expected to come to the fore in elections due in the spring that could become a focus for conflict as the political parties behind the Iranian-backed militias that played a big role in the fighting seek to capitalize on their victories by winning a bigger share in parliament.

The country’s Sunnis are in disarray, scattered among refugee camps or returning to wrecked homes in towns and cities that have been laid waste. Some 2 million of the 5 million people displaced by the fighting over the past three years have returned home. But 3.2 million still live as refugees, mainly in dismal camps, according to the United Nations. Many have no homes to which they can return, and others fear retribution from neighbors or the security forces, Grande said.

In Mosul, there is relief that the militants have gone but also trepidation about what the future holds. Multiple militias roam the streets, loyal to a variety of political masters, government ministers, tribal leaders and members of parliament. The government security forces are spread thin, and some have been withdrawn and deployed elsewhere for the other battles still to be fought before the final territorial defeat of the militants.

Some of the armed men in ­Mosul are local Sunnis, trained as part of a U.S.-promoted initiative to include locals in the city’s future security arrangements. Others are members of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that were kept out of the battle for fear they would inflame sectarian tensions, but that have moved in to set up offices and recruit local allies.

The militias are needed because there are not enough police and other security forces personnel to keep the city safe, said Mohammed al-Sayyab, a businessman originally from the majority-Shiite city of Basra who heads a small Sunni fighting force controlled by the minister of education. “We cannot say it is 100 percent safe. It is 70 percent safe,” he said. “There are still ISIS sleeper cells. We are working to clear them, but we are up against a very clever enemy.”

Few think the Islamic State has gone away. Everyone, it seems, has a story about someone they know who was with the militants and has reappeared in their neighborhoods, sometimes after being detained and freed. Corruption within the security forces and judiciary contributes to the perception that Islamic State fighters have bought their way out of prison.

Omran Mohammed Bashir, 32, who runs a laundry in eastern Mosul, ticked off on his fingers the former Islamic State members he has seen around his area and elsewhere in the city. Among them are a relative who has not been detained, even though her father reported her to the security services, and a man who commanded the fighters in Bashir’s neighborhood; Bashir ran into the man while visiting a different part of Mosul.

“I don’t think there will be any support for another insurgency. The people of Mosul have learned a lesson,” he said. “But it’s unpredictable what will happen, especially if the situation continues like this, with no reconstruction and corruption inside the government.”

But Iraq has no budget for reconstruction, government officials say. Years of declining oil prices and the financial demands of the war against the Islamic State have left the country bankrupt, forced last year to take a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The absence of a discernible reconstruction plan in turn fuels perceptions among Sunnis that the Shiite-led government is neglecting them, said Hassan Alaf, the deputy governor of Nineveh, the province in which Mosul lies.

“It seems some of the politicians are not keen to bring life back to Mosul,” he said. “We still suffer from sectarian conflict, and its implications are reflected in the reconstruction.”

It will be left to the international community to come up with the money to repair the damage, much of it caused by the relentless airstrikes and artillery bombardments conducted under the auspices of the U.S.-led coalition formed to fight the Islamic State, according to Grande, the U.N. representative. The United Nations is planning a fundraising conference in Kuwait this month at which it will seek up to $100 billion in donations for Iraqi reconstruction.

But the countries that enthusiastically prosecuted the war are proving less willing to pay to fix the resulting damage, U.N. and aid agency officials say. The U.S. military has spent $14.3 billion on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria over the past three years, according to Pentagon figures, but just 10 percent of that — or $1.4 billion — on repairs.

The State Department has asked for $300 million to fund basic repairs such as fixing electricity and water systems in 2018, but the United States does not plan to contribute to the reconstruction effort. The U.S.-led military coalition “is not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier this year.

One glimmer of hope lies in a recent rapprochement between the Iraqi government and Saudi Arabia, which have been icily estranged since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion brought a Shiite-dominated government to power in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has visited the kingdom, and so has the Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has broken ranks with Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq to champion calls for reconciliation with Sunnis.

U.S. and U.N. officials hope the wealthy Arab states of the Persian Gulf will provide much of the funding. But they are embroiled in their own conflicts, disputes and budget shortfalls, and may not have the will or inclination to come up with the many billions of dollars required.

Source: The Washington Post

In recent times, there have been two interesting developments in the efforts of the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iraq and Lebanon. Both events fall within the scope of the bid to impose the model produced by the Iranian Revolution, of creating a parallel military structure alongside the regular army, whereas the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq operate in parallel with the Iraqi army, and Hezbollah in parallel with the Lebanese army, just like the IRGC operates in parallel with the army in Iran. This project has faced resistance and it is worth considering its implications, not just for those behind it, but also for the future of Iraq and Lebanon. In Iraq, there is Shia resistance to the effort to legitimize the Iranian model and the PMUs at the expense of the Iraqi army. In Lebanon, there is a governmental and popular resistance to Hezbollah’s insistence on imposing its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army, not just from Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri but also President Michel Aoun, who has emphasized the Lebanese army as the leading legitimate protector of Lebanon. Tehran in the meantime fears that Iraqi-Gulf rapprochement could undermine its project, while it sees Lebanon as a necessary bridge to rehabilitate Syria in the Arab world and then internationally.

In this regard, US-Russian partnership in Syria and Iraq is key. In Lebanon, there is an international decision to prevent a security collapse and to empower the army to play its conventional role without partnership with Hezbollah in any legitimacy. Instead, there is a bid to head off any attempt by Hezbollah to replicate the Iranian model in Lebanon.

In Iraq, there is US-Russian accord to resist the perpetuation of the IRGC model through the PMUs. The Gulf element in this accord has emerged in the rapprochement with Iraq’s Shia leaders, which has prompted Iran to dispatch high-level delegates to Baghdad on an urgent mission. It has also emerged in a recent Saudi decision to resume interest in Lebanon’s developments. Despite all the one-upmanship and rhetoric regarding who liberated Lebanese territory from ISIS in the barrens of Arsal, al-Qaa, and Ras Baalbeck, what happened was that the Lebanese army has gained unprecedented legitimacy, because for the first time it acted proactively rather than reactively. One senior Lebanese official said this legitimacy is now realistic not emotional. He said that Hezbollah, despite all its insistence, has not obtained legitimacy because “the president has a distinguished, profound, emotional, and practical relationship with the army.” “His face lights up when the army is mentioned, and nothing will dissuade him from giving priority to the army,” he added. “The army is strong and has national legitimacy as a result of the battle it fought in Ras Baalbeck and al-Qaa”.

Washington has a keen interest in the Lebanese army and wants it safeguarded without the kind of partnership Hezbollah is desperate to impose. Hezbollah has failed to get what it wants despite all its lobbying and media machinery going into overdrive. The army has never and will never say that Hezbollah shares its legitimacy. This denies Hezbollah from replicating the IRGC model in Lebanon, and from becoming the Lebanese IRGC.

The other key prong of Hezbollah’s strategy is facilitating a ‘reunion’ between the government of Syria and Lebanon, not just through secret visits like the ones its leaders have undertaken in the past years as fully fledged allies, but through an official and public ‘marriage’ that would rehabilitate Damascus’s Arab legitimacy through the Lebanese gateway.

Saudi Arabia reentered the Lebanese arena recently to prevent this, according to one well-informed official. Riyadh has judged that the prime minister in Lebanon is the necessary spearhead in preventing this sought-after union. For this reason, Saudi Arabia has decided to return minister Thamer al-Sabhan to Beirut, preceded by escalatory tweets against Hezbollah calling on Lebanon to make a choice, either to stand against or fall behind Hezbollah and cautioning of the implications for the Lebanese over this choice.

Some say that Riyadh is resolved to prevent the Beirut-Damascus reunion even if that took “sabotaging Lebanon”, though politically and not through security means, including by toppling the Lebanese government headed by Hariri in favor of a technocratic government, out of insistence on having a government with a more coherent position vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Others completely discount this scenario, saying removing Hariri’s government would bring an alternative that is not favorable to Saudi’s stance against Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon and political decision making in Beirut. The proponents of the first view say Thabhan’s remarks indicate Saudi Arabia is fed up of the “negative and weak performance of the Lebanese government,” and that the upcoming legislative elections in Lebanon will be an occasion for Saudi Arabia to seriously counter Hezbollah’s projects. If that requires “a shock for the government, then it will not hesitate,” they say.

The US and Saudi Arabia are in agreement over refusing Hezbollah’s bid to impose its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army. They make the distinction between a de-facto partnership with Hezbollah in the war against ISIS in Syria, and Hezbollah’s quest for legitimacy as a parallel IRGC-like entity. Washington is determined for the Lebanese state to deliver on its pledge that there would be no partnership between the army and Hezbollah. US envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley adopted a firm position regarding the mandate of the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon and the implementation to the letter of resolution 1701, affirming the total separation between the legitimacy of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah’s peculiar status.

The Trump administration has had a vague policy on Syria in terms of its silent consent to Iranian expansion in IS-held territory, part of the geography of its arc, corridor, or crescent linking Tehran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. This stance could be temporary tactics, imposed by the long-term grand strategy, or it could be a result of the US confusion that has long benefited Tehran. It is premature to determine this at this juncture.

Clearly, however, Iran remains part of the “continuation of unrest in the Middle East rather than stability in the region,” as one veteran political analyst put it. The proponents of this view say that the Americans will not allow Iran to gain a legitimate foothold on the Mediterranean. Therefore, Iran will remain a source of instability and Lebanon will remain forbidden ammunition. These voices say that US-Russian accord on removing militias from Syria will be executed within a year or two, after which Hezbollah will return to Lebanon with many question marks surrounding its role there. They say Iran does not intend to open the south Lebanese front with Israel, which has found itself relieved by the Syrian war with its border its hold on the Golan secured. Either this will be translated through some kind of truce that will spare Lebanon or it could lead Hezbollah to compensate for its resistance against Israel credentials by imposing its agenda on the Lebanese home front.

Things are different on many levels in Iraq. Iraq is more important in the Iranian-Gulf balance of power than Lebanon is in the Iranian-Israeli balance of power, which has been suspended with the consent of both sides as well as the US and Russia. Iraq today is in the eye of the storm of partition, which Washington and Moscow claim they oppose. Both agree on the priority of the regular army over the Iranian-sponsored PMUs. More importantly, however, is the decision of Iraq’s Shia Arabs who do not accept the idea of the Iranian model dominating their lives. This camp is behind a project for restoring Iraq’s central position in the Arab bloc and vice versa.

Tehran is concerned by this. This is why it has sought to contain the damage caused by the practices and projects of the IRGC, dispatching to Baghdad this week the head of the Chairman of Expediency Discernment Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi – an Iraqi by birth – and his deputy Mohsen Rezai to repair the Shia alliance in Baghdad. Iran is also equally concerned by the rapprochement between Iraqi Shia leaders such as Prime Minister Haider Abadi and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian side has often boasted of being a reliable partner and ally, unlike the inconsistent form of partnership and alliance between the US and the Gulf, as it sees it. Iran is betting on some kind of weakness afflicting the new Gulf push to open a new page with Iraq, and the recent enthusiasm shown for influencing Lebanon to contain Hezbollah. There is a history that supports Iran’s bets and boasts, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. If Gulf diplomacy decides to contain the damage resulting from the impression that it is impatient and late to act, it must invest in a strategy to counter Iran’s claims and thwart the bet that the Gulf push in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon will eventually cool down. Partnerships are difficult, but there is a dire need for new kinds of partnerships different from the ones that have given out the impression they were unbalanced and transient.

Preempting the attempts to create surrogates for conventional Arab armies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria is of paramount importance, because if successful, these attempts will mean the exportation of the Iranian Revolution and regime in Tehran to the Arab world.

Source: Huffpost

By: Raghida Dergham

The U.S. military is keeping a wary eye on Iran’s most violent proxy militia in Iraq, which has vowed to start killing Americans again once the Islamic State is expelled.

With the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq coming closer — the U.S. estimates that the once 25,000-strong terrorist group is down to a few thousand followers at most holding only pockets of resistance — the danger from the HezbollahBrigades is fast approaching.

A commander in the Shiiite battalion, also known as Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and the largest and most ruthless Iranian-trained militia fighting in Iraq and Syria, warned Americans on Sunday that they must leave Iraq or face a new war, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.

Said the Fars headline, “Iraqi Popular Forces Warn to Target US Forces after Defeating ISIL Terrorists.”

Spokesman Jafar al-Hosseini issued a similar threat in March. His scripted messages on Beirut’s al-Mayadeen Arab-language TV station suggest the militia is not bluffing and is preparing for that day.

A military official told The Washington Times that the U.S. has plans to counter KH if it begins attacking Americans.

“Regarding the sense of Iranian malign influence, we’re trying alert NATO, the coalition, the State Department, the U.N. and the Gulf countries,” the military official said. “It’s a really big question. We’re very aware of it. We’re watching the move to post-ISIS. What the Iranians are saying is of significant concern.”

The Hezbollah Brigades of 5,000 fighters already has American blood on its hands.

Tehran organized the group in 2007 via its Quds Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to target American troops in Iraq.

Quds operatives schooled the Shiites in building improvised explosive devices and rocket systems that ultimately killed about 500 U.S. personnel, the Pentagon reported.

Analysts say Iran’s broader goal is not just the defeat of the Salafist Sunni Islamic State in Iraq but also to spread a crescent of Shiite hegemony across IraqSyria and Lebanon. Tehran finances and equips the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah.

The 2015 nuclear deal with the Obama administration provided Tehran with billions of dollars to increase the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps budget and pay various militias, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Standing in the way is the U.S. military, which wants to maintain some force presence in Iraq and nurture a more independent Baghdad not controlled by Tehran.

“With the Iranians, clearly the goal is a pathway all the way to Lebanese Hezbollah,” the military official said.

This is why scholars such as Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute say that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “has a history of saying what it means, no matter how inconvenient that might be for the wishful thinking in which so many in Washington and Europe engage.”

He added, “Iranian leaders aren’t willing to let U.S. forces stick around. They see U.S. commitment as weak, especially on the homefront, and they believe that so long as they use proxies, they can enjoy plausible deniability. After three decades of not being held to account for their actions, the Revolutionary Guards has grown cocky.”

The military official said the U.S.-led coalition’s downing of an armed drone in Syria in June shows how closely it watches Iran’s proxies. U.S. Central Command described the drone’s operators as “pro-regime.”

“Our actions speak for ourselves,” the U.S. source said. “We’ve shown that if they come even close to threatening any position, we’re going to take action in self-defense. We absolutely take it seriously.”

The official said U.S. commanders talk to the Russians about the Shiite militia activities because Russian officials “talk to people we don’t talk to.”

There is a big difference in the Iraq battlefield from what it was in 2007 and 2008. At the peak of the troop surge, over 157,000 Americans fought in Iraq, primarily against a Sunni insurgency, al Qaeda in Iraq.

Today, only about 5,000 U.S. military personnel are inside Iraq. As trainers and advisers, they maintain an arm’s length from ground combat.

“We really changed our strategy,” the official said. “The good news is there is not a lot of force presence to be targeted for that sort of thing. That makes it a little less complicated for us.”

If the Hezbollah Brigades turns from being an odd U.S. ally against the Islamic State to a direct foe, then American troops will be facing an organization so dangerous that the Obama administration added it to the official list of terrorist groups.

“Kata’ib Hezbollah is one of the biggest and most vicious and dangerous Iraqi militia and terror groups,” said Shahin Gobadi, spokesman for the Iran opposition organization People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK).

“It was one of the main Iraqi militia groups that the Quds Force dispatched to Syria to assist the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in massacring the Syrian people,” he said. “At some points, up to 2,000 of Kata’ib Hezbollah forces were sent to Syria to help Assad.”

A report by the bipartisan Counter Extremism Project states, “KH earned a reputation for planting deadly roadside bombs and using improvised rocket-assisted mortars (IRAMs) to attack U.S. and coalition forces.

“According to U.S. diplomat Ali Khedery, KH is responsible for ‘some of the most lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces throughout [the war.] The group is suspected of involvement in extrajudicial killings and abductions in Iraq’s Anbar province, including the May 27, 2016, abduction of more than 70 Sunni boys and men from al-Sijir, and the murder of 49 men from Saqlawiyah,” the project’s report stated.

The State Department

In June 2009, the State Department put the Hezbollah Brigades on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, calling the group “an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, U.S. and coalition targets in Iraq.”

“KH has ideological ties to Lebanese [Hezbollah] and may have received support from that group. KH gained notoriety in 2007 with attacks on U.S. and coalition forces designed to undermine the establishment of a democratic, viable Iraqi state. KH has been responsible for numerous violent terrorist attacks since 2007, including improvised explosive device bombings, rocket propelled grenade attacks and sniper operations. In addition, KH has threatened the lives of Iraqi politicians and civilians that support the legitimate political process in Iraq,” the State Department wrote.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who commanded troops in Iraq, said American diplomacy post-Islamic State must persuade the Iraqi government to blunt KH’s anti-American messaging in the country and make U.S. troop security a top priority.

Part of KH’s propaganda war via Iranian media is to tell Shiites falsely that the U.S. created the Islamic State and is helping it on the battlefield.

Mr. Dubik, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, questioned whether the Trump administration is planning for a new Iraq.

“Reading between the public statements does not lead me to conclude we have a strategy beyond ‘eject ISIS,’” he said.

He said one important agreement would be to have U.S. intelligence and special operations forces working closely with Iraq’s counterterrorism squads to track Iran’s militias.

Washington must also issue a clear warning to Tehran, Mr. Dubik said, one that would “make clear our intent to expose their nefarious actions, something that at times we refused to do, and to protect our own forces.”

The Washington Times asked the joint Iraq task force if it had plans to deal with Iran-backed militias once the Islamic State is defeated, but the statement declined to specify.

“Force protection is a critical element of coalition operations. However, in order to ensure operational security, force protection and tactical surprise, we do not confirm or deny information about capabilities, force numbers, locations, or intent for future operations, in or out of Iraq and Syria. Forces are always prepared to act in self-defense and plan accordingly,” the command said.

Source: The Washington Times

Baghdad- Indicators show a fierce and early electoral struggle in Iraq’s Dawa Party, the ruling party since 2005. This struggle is mainly between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Vice President Nouri al-Maliki.

Suspending party membership of Baghdad’s former governor Salah Abdulrazeq and leaking the internal investigation document reveal the ongoing struggle between the two parties. Sources from Dawa party affirm that the pro-Abadi party deliberately leaked the document to media to defame Maliki due to his tight relation with the former governor.

Some sources see that the continuous US pressures on Abadi to tackle corruption and hold corrupts accountable might have pushed him to address the corruption file of one of his party members. The organizational office of Dawa Party carried out a discreet investigation, five days before this was intentionally leaked to the media.

“Given the information raising suspicion about Salah Abdulrazeq financial corruption and the defamation caused by that, it has been decided to suspend Salah’s party membership until the matter is fully cleared,” the party investigation reported.

Despite the former governor denial, considering these accusations as an early electoral campaign that targets him personally, several documents from Baghdad province and council showed administrative and financial breaches made by him.

Besides Salah, also his two sons residing in Europe are facing similar corruption accusations – videos and documents showed their enormous wealth, knowing that one of them manages a nightclub in Netherlands.

This event embarrassed the ruling party, but the step was welcomed by national and political circles given that it opens the door to increasing accountability in prime parties and blocs.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Iraq’s anti-corruption court has issued 26 jail sentences to high-ranking Iraqi officials in a push to eliminate corruption and fraud in the country.

Prime minister Haider Al Abadi announced on Wednesday that his government had taken crucial steps to stem corruption, which has crippled the economy.

“We have taken rapid steps to tackle corruption, we have arrested and charged a number of corrupt officials,” Mr Al Abadi said in a tweet.

The sentences ranged from six months to 15 years.

Among the prominent names were the director of transparency and corruption prevention in the Integrity Commission, Abdel Ilah Khadim Al Aboodi, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Former defence ministry secretary general Bruska Noori Aweys was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Mr Aweys is the brother of Rowsch Nuri Shaways, former deputy prime minister. 

The previous defence minister Hazim Al Shalan was sentenced to 13 years in jail as well as Mohsin Shlash, the previous minister of electricity for seven years.

Abdel Amir Baker Khathim, the general manager of the department of finance, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mr Khathim is also the brother of previous national security adviser, Mowaffak Al Rubaie who currently resides in London.

The previous minister of agriculture, Sawsan Al Sharifi was also convicted of graft charges and sentenced to five years in prison, while former transport director general Faisal Naji Malo was jailed for seven years.

The sentences ranged from six months to 15 years.

Among the prominent names were the director of transparency and corruption prevention in the Integrity Commission, Abdel Ilah Khadim Al Aboodi, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Former defence ministry secretary general Bruska Noori Aweys was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Mr Aweys is the brother of Rowsch Nuri Shaways, former deputy prime minister. 

The previous defence minister Hazim Al Shalan was sentenced to 13 years in jail as well as Mohsin Shlash, the previous minister of electricity for seven years.

Abdel Amir Baker Khathim, the general manager of the department of finance, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mr Khathim is also the brother of previous national security adviser, Mowaffak Al Rubaie who currently resides in London.

The previous minister of agriculture, Sawsan Al Sharifi was also convicted of graft charges and sentenced to five years in prison, while former transport director general Faisal Naji Malo was jailed for seven years.

Other sentences include former ministers of oil, trade, youth and sport.

These charges come as Baghdad is steeped in a series of high-profile investigations into alleged corruption by Iraqi officials, including the trade minister and the governor of Basra.

“Those that are corrupt have abused the country’s freedom to serve their own personal interests,” Mr Al Abadi said last week.

“Corruption is a scourge and we will work to combat it and to defend justice and prevent corruption from creeping in," Mr Abadi said. Despite the billions spent, “there has not been evidence of development… Inequality and injustice leads to the destruction of society".

Iraq is ranked 166 out of 176 nations in Transparency International's Corruption Index.

Source: The National

The military phase of the fight against ISIS is winding down after the liberation of Mosul, and the battle for the nearby town of Tal Afar is predicted to end soon. This has provided an opportunity for Iraq to begin distancing itself from the influence gained by Iran following the disastrous 2003 war, and returning to its true Arabic heritage.

Iraq was known as a melting pot where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens lived alongside and in mixed societies for centuries. Prior to Iran gaining its disastrous sway across Mesopotamia, this was a land where the majority of Shiites lived and prospered with their Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and all other religious minority brothers.

Has not the time arrived for Iraq to regain its true position as part of the Arab world, and rid its soil of the meddling of Iran’s clerics?

Long-awaited developments

Iraqi officials have embarked on a new campaign of visiting Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni states, signaling long-welcomed changes. The influential Sadrist leader Muqtada was seen in the final days of July meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

Only days later Sadr paid a visit to the United Arab Emirates, another critic of Iran’s policies, where he was welcomed as an Iraqi leader by a slate of leading politicians and clerics.

Sadr’s visit rendered a variety of measures by Riyadh, including launching a Saudi Consulate in Sadr’s hometown of Najaf, one of the two holiest Shiite cities in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, known as Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, his distance from Tehran’s viewpoints and calling for Iraq to practice openness in establishing relations, did not block such a proposition.

Iran, however, resorted to strong remarks against Sadr for his visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The visit was even described by a local wire as an act of betrayal to the Houthis in Yemen.

Iran’s support for the Shiite proxy militias, through arms, logistics and finances, parallel to advisors dispatched by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah, have resulted in the humanitarian catastrophe Yemen finds itself today.

Sadr is also planning a visit to Egypt, adding to the list of senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, oil and transportation who are set to visit Saudi Arabia. Despite investing in Iraq for the past 14 years, Iran has been deprived of visits of such high stature.

No future

Iran’s proxies, while taking the credit for much of the fight against ISIS on the ground, have been accused of law violations and refusing to obey the state of Iraq. Iraqi authorities affiliated to Iran have a very poor report card of being involved in corruption and sacrificing Iraqi national interest in Tehran’s favor.

This became a major issue during the second term of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who some have even described as Iran’s “puppet.” Maliki is known to have close relations with Tehran and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself.

To make matters even worse, the recent departure of Majid al-Nasrawi, governor of the oil-rich city of Basra located at the southern tip of Iraq, has recently left for Iran. His departure followed being accused of numerous corruption offences by a government transparency committee. Choosing Iran as a destination has left further impression of him fleeing to a safe haven, and Tehran having a hand in Iraqi corruption.

Rebuilding cities

As Sadr and other Iraqi officials continue their meetings with senior Arab officials of the region, there are also major talks under way between Baghdad and Riyadh to establish a new alliance that would provide Saudi Arabia a leading role in rebuilding war-torn cities across Iraq.

On August 14th the Cabinet of Saudi Arabia announced a coordination committee to spearhead a variety of health care and humanitarian projects, including building hospitals in Baghdad and Basra, and providing fellowships to Iraqi students in Saudi universities. Opening border crossings and establishing free trade areas between the two countries is also on the agenda.

Riyadh should lead the Arab world in tipping the balance of power against Tehran’s interests in Iraq. The truth is Iran has not carried out any major economic project in Iraq from 2003 onward, due to the fact that the mullahs do not seek the prosperity of their western neighbor.

Saudi Arabia and the Arab world should provide the support Iraq needs after suffering from Iran’s menacing influence that has brought nothing but death and destruction. Evicting Iran from Iraq must come parallel to efforts of ending its presence in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The main obstacle before the Arab world in establishing a coalition against Iran’s clerics is this regime’s meddling and the IRGC presence across the region. With Iran evicted from Iraq, the void should be filled by economic support by the Arab world for Iraq.

And with the US Congress adopting a bill against the IRGC, Riyadh must take the lead to have all IRGC members, proxies and Iran-related elements expelled from the region. Only such a policy will allow the Middle East to one day experience tranquility and peaceful coexistence.

Source: Al Arabiya

Can Anyone Stop Iran From Taking Over Iraq? Wednesday, 16 August 2017 13:29

BEIRUT — Mosul is back in the Iraqi government’s hands and the war against the Islamic State seems to finally be approaching its end. This is the good news. But one of the byproducts of the campaign is that Iran’s reach now extends even deeper throughout Iraq and seems unlikely to go away any time soon.

A crucial fighting force in the battle for Mosul and other areas liberated from the Islamic State was provided by paramilitary groups that receive supplies and support from Iran, and cross the Iran-Iraq border at will. These were sanctioned by the Iraqi government in November 2016 and made part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of paramilitary groups, some of which have multiple loyalties.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a paramilitary commander who is considered one of Iran’s closest Iraqi allies, declared on July 4 that the Popular Mobilization Forces will not go away, even if the government orders them to dissolve. Mr. Muhandis’s statement essentially amounted to Iran saying that it plans to protect its interests in Iraq for years to come. These units, and the political forces that are associated to them, intend to prevent Iraq from establishing its own independent security policy, which could limit Iran’s ability to support its allies in Syria and elsewhere.

But many Iraqis are not happy to see Iran working in their country through local armed groups. This is not just a sectarian issue, either. Many Shiites want to see Iran’s influence limited. In addition to historical animosities and theological differences with Iran, most Iraqis — Sunni and Shiite alike — are exhausted by decades of conflict, and worry that Iran’s meddling will promote confrontation.

Ahead of next year’s general election, a large majority of Iraq’s political forces are seeking to reinforce their independence from Iran. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who can take credit for the recent victories against the Islamic State, has long had strained relations with Iran. Now he has become a critic of lawless behavior in some elements of the security forces, including Iranian-backed groups. His government’s position has been to strengthen state institutions and to reinforce the chain of command.

Meanwhile, Ammar al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s leading politicians and the scion of one of the country’s most prominent Shiite families, announced in late July that he would leave the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a political party that his family founded in Tehran with Iranian assistance in the 1980s. He has also formed his own party, from which he continues to establish his independence from Iran.

The Sadrist movement, which represents millions of poor Shiite Muslims in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq, has also openly aligned itself in the anti-Iranian camp. The grass-roots movement’s leader, Moktada al-Sadr, paid a visit this summer to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s biggest regional rival. He also visited the United Arab Emirates, another Sunni state that opposes Iran. These trips were intended to help develop bilateral relations and, thus, Iraq’s independence from Iran.

The only major political coalition to have formally adopted a pro-Iranian approach is led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since leaving office in 2014, Mr. Maliki has been tainted by the armed forces’ humiliating defeat by the Islamic State, for which he has rightly been blamed, and which has affected his popularity. He has since sought to reinvent himself as the patron saint of a pro-Iranian militant Iraq that is in confrontation with an ever-growing list of conspirators, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Kurds and the United States, among others.

With nearly all of Iraq’s political forces lined up against Iran in 2018, it looks likely that the pro-Iranians will be trounced at the ballot. And yet it looks just as likely that this will have little effect on Iran’s influence in Iraq.

In Iraq’s electoral system, it’s very difficult for any one alliance to take much more than 20 percent of the vote. This means the various alliances must engage in horse trading and coalition building to form a government. As parties try to secure lucrative ministries, they will lose sight of the goals that they campaigned on — like Iraqi independence. Like every government formed since the invasion in 2003, the next one will be made up of parties pulling the country in different directions. It is a recipe for inaction — and Iran will prey on this.

Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia nor any other country will be able to have a decisive influence. Outside countries have consistently failed to positively influence Iraqi politics. If these parties really want to prevent Iranian influence, they should provide assistance to security units, like the Counter Terrorism Service, which has been by far the most effective force against the Islamic State. The continued success of professional security services, rather than Iran-backed paramilitary groups, will allow for Iraq to guarantee its own security.

Against this backdrop, there remains one wild card that could present a real challenge to Iranian domination: intervention by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader.

In 2014, Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa that called for Iraqis to defend the country against the Islamic State. In response, tens of thousands of Shiites joined the army and other groups, including pro-Iranian paramilitary forces. The fatwa’s unintended effect was to give these groups some form of religious legitimacy. Many commentators have speculated that Ayatollah Sistani may now be on the cusp of rescinding his fatwa, which could, in turn, force the Popular Mobilization Forces to dissolve.

For now, that seems unlikely. The Popular Mobilization Forces enjoy broad legitimacy for their contribution to the war effort, and many Iraqis prefer that they be maintained as part of the official security forces. Even Mr. Abadi has opposed any such dissolution for many of these same reasons.

But a new fatwa from Ayatollah Sistani, following the total liberation of Iraqi territories from the Islamic State, could redefine the obligations of those Iraqis who volunteered in 2014 as being to support Iraq’s army and police — which prohibits Iraqis from engaging in any actions that would undermine Iraq’s national sovereignty. Mr. Abadi has already insisted that the Popular Mobilization Forces are prohibited from acting outside of Iraq. If the religious establishment supported the prime minister in this, it could nudge Iraq toward greater independence from Iran.

Since 2003, Ayatollah Sistani and the religious establishment have largely failed to control the worst tendencies in Iraqi politics. Now the stakes are so high that there is reason to hope for more decisive action. Iraq’s future is in their hands. The margin for error is worryingly small.

 Source: The New York Times

Iraqi authorities have moved a group of more than 1,300 foreign women and children — the family members of suspected ISIS fighters — and a refugee agency is raising the alarm about their precarious situation and the specter of retribution.

"The families had been held in a camp in Kurdish-controlled territory while Iraq figures out what to do with them," NPR's Jane Arraf reports.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said in a statement that the women and children were transferred Sunday from south of Mosul to an area north of the city that was freed from ISIS control three months ago. The council says that it has "grave fears" for the group's safety.

It's not clear where, precisely, the group is now located.

"These women and children are extremely vulnerable. Regardless of what their family members may be accused of, they have a right to protection and assistance," Julie Davidson of the NRC said in a statement.

Fighters from all over the world have joined ISIS's ranks, sometimes bringing their wives with them. There are also cases of women traveling to marry ISIS fighters. And as ISIS loses territory, these women and children face an uncertain fate.

Iraq's Ministry of Defense says "it moved 1,324 European, Asian, African and South American women and children to a camp with better facilities," Jane reports, adding that more than half of them are Turkish.

But the aid organization does not appear convinced that the new site offers "better facilities" and calls on Iraqi authorities to "move swiftly and clarify the status of these individuals, and offer effective guarantees of their fundamental rights."

The NRC requests that authorities allow aid organizations to have access to the displaced families. At the previous site, Jane reports, the council had been providing the women and children with tents, food and water.

"Iraq has asked other countries to take back citizens who married ISIS fighters but haven't committed any crimes here. It says those who committed crimes will be prosecuted," Jane adds.

According to news reports, the families surrendered to Kurdish fighters after the recent battle for the town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. Women who spoke to The Associated Press last week said they didn't know what happened to the ISIS fighters who are their husbands.

The AP reports that a Kurdish commander, Brig. Gen. Kamel Harki, "said some of the captured fighters were handed over to Iraqi authorities while others were killed after faking their surrender and then attacking their captors."

Source: NPR

Double attack in southern Iraq kills more than 80 Saturday, 16 September 2017 13:31

 A coordinated attack on a restaurant and a security checkpoint in southern Iraq killed more than 80 people Thursday, police and health officials said, in a rare spasm of violence targeting a route used by Shiite pilgrims to visit their holiest shrines.

Gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed into a restaurant in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles south of Baghdad, around lunchtime and opened fire, the head of the provincial health department said. Patrons in the eatery included Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims traveling north toward the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf.

Moments later, a car driven by a suicide bomber exploded at a police checkpoint near the restaurant, which sits along Highway 1, the road that connects Baghdad with Dhi Qar province, where the attack took place.

An additional 93 people were injured in the double attack, for which the Islamic State later claimed responsibility in a statement released online by its propaganda arm. The terrorist group has been steadily losing territory, most recently Mosul, its largest stronghold, and the smaller city of Tal Afar, but it has shown an ability to launch insurgent-style raids in areas it once held.

Iraqi officials have voiced fears that the group would step up its attacks on civilians as its grip on territory weakens.

Because the south is home to Iraq’s most revered Shiite shrines, it is among the best-secured areas of the country and has rarely been the target of large-scale attacks. At the same time, though, many security forces assigned to the south have been drawn into battles against the Islamic State in the north and west, leaving some holes that terrorists have exploited.

Jassim al-Khalidi, the director of the Dhi Qar Health Department, said that 83 people were killed Thursday, most of them inside the restaurant, Fadak, a popular pit stop for pilgrims.

“This restaurant is well-known for being crowded every day because anyone who goes to Najaf and Karbala from the south stops there for lunch,” he said in a telephone interview.

Khalidi said witnesses told him the gunmen came in three cars and began spraying the building with bullets from automatic weapons. The gunmen escaped, he said.

Videos posted on social media showed people frantically searching a hospital ward for their relatives.

One man spoke to the camera, saying he had dropped off his family at the restaurant, then was trying to fix something in his car when the shooting erupted. He said he saw the gunmen flee in black cars.

 “I went back to the restaurant and found my entire family dead,” he said.

U.S. officials said the Islamic State has been severely degraded since it lost 90 percent of the territory it seized in a 2014 blitz across Iraq. The cities and towns it once held contained factories for making car bombs and improvised explosive devices, and the loss of those facilities has reduced the group’s use of explosives in its attacks on security forces and civilians.

Attacks involving mainly automatic weapons remain a major challenge, however. Gunmen have been able to breach security lines in cities reclaimed by Iraqi forces, such as Tikrit and Fallujah, often by wearing military uniforms and taking advantage of lax protocols at checkpoints.

In Mosul, residents have complained that some of the militants who patrolled their neighborhoods have reappeared unarmed and are quietly living among them. Although Iraq has detained and is in the process of prosecuting many people suspected of joining the Islamic State, corruption in the police and judiciary has allowed some to avoid arrest.

Some analysts say losing territory has not significantly affected the Islamic State’s ability to wage terror on a smaller but still deadly scale.

The group is moving into a new, insurgent phase, said Michael Knights, a military analyst and Persian Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.

“ISIS is not a movement in disarray,” he said, using an acronym for the group. “It has undertaken a smooth transition into insurgency, and doesn’t seem greatly disrupted by the loss of terrain.”

Source: The Washington Post

The reality in Iraq today is that the defeat of ISIS has provided a vacuum in its politics, which will have significant impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections in the country next year.

In recent months, Iraqi people have witnessed new moves from political and religious groups who dominate the country’s politics. After 14 years of internal violent conflicts, part of the pro-Tehran Shi’ite alliance have finally realized that the unconditional dependence on the Iranian regime will further exacerbate the sectarian conflict.

However, it should not be forgotten that the changing US policy on Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East has influenced their decisions. In this regard, both influential and famed Shi’ite clerics Ammar Al Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr have changed their views about Iran and the role of its proxies and allies in Iraq.

According to reports, Mr Al Hakim has decided to step down as the leader of one of the Iraqi groups allied to Tehran. This move means that a significant number of Shi’ite voters in Iraq will not pursue and back the plans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the coming elections.

Sadrist movement

Similarly, the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, decided to visit Saudi Arabia and UAE in what one could describe as an unanticipated move even for the Sunni parties. Mr al-Sadr played a key role to end the political deadlock in Iraqi politics following the elections in both 2010 and 2014.

It is agreed that the former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki’s catastrophic and sectarian policies lead to a deep division among different ethnicities in Iraq. These policies, adopted in coordination with Tehran and its IRGC, were in part based on suppression of the Sunnis and disregarding of their rights.

The weakness of Iraqi army, the frequent use of armed forces to achieve political goals, the direct control of commander of IRGC’s Quds force Qasem Soleimani over Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and eventually, the seizure of nearly one third of Iraqi territory by ISIS, all lead to the recent decision by both of these clerics to distance themselves from the Iranian regime.

In this regard, Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late July brought most attention from the media as he met Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Jaddah. Apparently, the leader of Sadrist’s movement feels the wind of change in Iraq and is looking to improve his relations with major actors both inside and outside of the country.

Visit to Riyadh

If Sadr wishes to achieve his political ambitions, he will have to choose between the following two options – reducing tie with Tehran dramatically and changing his political views on Sunni parties. His meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, however, sends a positive signal to all Iraqi parties who oppose the IRGC and Tehran’s intervention in Iraq.

Importantly, distancing himself from Tehran does not mean that he is embracing or will embrace other regional countries. But this decision rather indicates that the main player in both Iraq's political and religious scene is taking steps to change the balance of power in the country.

This move clearly scared the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, because he immediately sent his special envoy to Iraq to meet Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in an attempt to realign the political order. Not only both Iraqi clerics refused to meet Khamenei's envoy but a spokesperson of the Sadrist movement harshly criticized Khamenei.

“Iran’s interference in political affairs is detrimental to Iraq’s national interest … Khamenei’s envoy carries a new sectarian project that Iran provided six months ago”, Amir al-Kanani said in an interview. These comments makes it clear that Sadr is now determined to restrict the Iranian regime’s role in Iraq.

If Sadr, al-Hakim and Sunni parties agree to restrict Iran’s destructive role in Iraq, the balance of power will shift significantly in favor of the Iraqi people and their representatives. Such agreement will require complicated political negotiations and a real willingness from all these parties to compromise in the interest of an independent Iraq.

Political decision-making

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has consistently pretended to not have any role in the political decision-making in Iraq. But in reality, in most cases, his silence empowered the pro-Tehran Shiite block or indirectly paved the way to crush the Iraqi opposition to the IRGC and its intervention in Iraq.

But contrary to the past, the refusal of Grand Ayatollah Sistani to meet Khamenei’s envoy sent a strong message to all Shiite groups and voters in Iraq that he disapproves of Tehran’s role in the country.

Considering that the actions and words of Grand Ayatollah Sistani has great influence over Iraq’s Shiite population, his decision to turn away Iran’s Supreme Leader could result in a political earthquake for Maliki’s Dawa party and other pro-Tehran parties, just one year before the parliamentary elections.

Although the Iranian Supreme Leader got Sistani’s message, it would be naive to believe that the IRGC under Khamenei’s control will give up to the new reality in Iraq and not try to bypass all likely restrictions.

The IRGC controls a powerful Shiite militia, known as People Mobilization Units, and it could use it to put pressure on its dissidents. Consequently, will Grand Ayatollah Sistani take real actions if Tehran uses the IRGC to eliminate its opponents in Iraq physically.

No one can say with certainty what will happen in the future as clerics in both countries are known to be unpredictable. Consequently, the Iraqi people will simply have to wait to see. Now it is Tehran’s move.

Source: Al Arabiya

 The collapse of the Islamic State in its most important Iraqi strongholds has brought a rare moment of hope for a country mired in war for most of the past four decades.

It is also a moment of peril, as Iraq emerges from the fight against the militants only to be confronted with the same problems that fueled their spectacular rise in 2014.

Old disputes between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds over territory, resources and power already are resurfacing as the victors of the battles compete to control liberated areas or jostle for political advantage in the post-Islamic State landscape.

These rivalries now are compounded by the mammoth task of rebuilding the towns and cities destroyed by the fighting, returning millions of displaced people to their homes, and reconciling the communities that once welcomed the Islamic State’s brutal rule as preferable to their own government’s neglect and abuse.

A failure to manage the post-conflict situation risks a repeat of the cycle of grievance and revolt that fueled the original Iraqi insurgency in 2003, and its reincarnation in the form of the Islamic State after 2011, Iraqis and other observers say.

 But it is a vast and potentially insurmountable challenge, laid bare in the traumatized communities of Mosul. In the city’s relatively unscathed east, life has bounced back. Traffic clogs the streets, music blares from markets and stores are piled high with consumer goods, such as cellphones, air conditioners and satellite dishes, that were banned or hard to find under Islamic State rule.

In the ravaged west, which bore the brunt of the fighting, entire neighborhoods have been leveled beyond repair. In the Old City alone, 230,000 people have been left without habitation, and “they are not going home soon; the whole district has to be rebuilt,” said Lise Grande, the deputy special representative of the U.N. mission in Iraq.

So far, there is no sign of any reconstruction effort on the scale that will be required, said Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign minister who is from Mosul and now works as an adviser with the Kurdish regional government.

“All the writing is on the wall that there will be another ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “The scale of frustration. The lack of hope. The lack of government stepping in. What can you expect?”

Meanwhile, distractions loom as Iraq’s focus shifts to the long-standing political rivalries that were put on hold by the imperative of confronting the Islamic State.

The Kurdish region is pressing ahead with a referendum on independence — over the strenuous objections of Iran, Turkey and the United States — that has the potential to ignite a new war before the present one is over. The vote is reopening the contentious question of where the borders of the Kurdistan region lie, and tensions are rising in areas where the Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been brought face-to-face by the war against the Islamic State.

Rifts are emerging within Iraq’s governing Shiite majority, which rallied behind the country’s security forces and militias — known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or the popular mobilization units — for the sake of fighting the Islamic State. There are sharp divergences, however, over the future identity of the country, over whether it should tilt further toward Iran or maintain an alliance with the United States, and over how far to go to reconcile minority Sunnis with the Shiites.

 These issues are expected to come to the fore in elections due in the spring that could become a focus for conflict as the political parties behind the Iranian-backed militias that played a big role in the fighting seek to capitalize on their victories by winning a bigger share in parliament.

The country’s Sunnis are in disarray, scattered among refugee camps or returning to wrecked homes in towns and cities that have been laid waste. Some 2 million of the 5 million people displaced by the fighting over the past three years have returned home. But 3.2 million still live as refugees, mainly in dismal camps, according to the United Nations. Many have no homes to which they can return, and others fear retribution from neighbors or the security forces, Grande said.

In Mosul, there is relief that the militants have gone but also trepidation about what the future holds. Multiple militias roam the streets, loyal to a variety of political masters, government ministers, tribal leaders and members of parliament. The government security forces are spread thin, and some have been withdrawn and deployed elsewhere for the other battles still to be fought before the final territorial defeat of the militants.

Some of the armed men in ­Mosul are local Sunnis, trained as part of a U.S.-promoted initiative to include locals in the city’s future security arrangements. Others are members of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that were kept out of the battle for fear they would inflame sectarian tensions, but that have moved in to set up offices and recruit local allies.

The militias are needed because there are not enough police and other security forces personnel to keep the city safe, said Mohammed al-Sayyab, a businessman originally from the majority-Shiite city of Basra who heads a small Sunni fighting force controlled by the minister of education. “We cannot say it is 100 percent safe. It is 70 percent safe,” he said. “There are still ISIS sleeper cells. We are working to clear them, but we are up against a very clever enemy.”

Few think the Islamic State has gone away. Everyone, it seems, has a story about someone they know who was with the militants and has reappeared in their neighborhoods, sometimes after being detained and freed. Corruption within the security forces and judiciary contributes to the perception that Islamic State fighters have bought their way out of prison.

Omran Mohammed Bashir, 32, who runs a laundry in eastern Mosul, ticked off on his fingers the former Islamic State members he has seen around his area and elsewhere in the city. Among them are a relative who has not been detained, even though her father reported her to the security services, and a man who commanded the fighters in Bashir’s neighborhood; Bashir ran into the man while visiting a different part of Mosul.

“I don’t think there will be any support for another insurgency. The people of Mosul have learned a lesson,” he said. “But it’s unpredictable what will happen, especially if the situation continues like this, with no reconstruction and corruption inside the government.”

But Iraq has no budget for reconstruction, government officials say. Years of declining oil prices and the financial demands of the war against the Islamic State have left the country bankrupt, forced last year to take a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The absence of a discernible reconstruction plan in turn fuels perceptions among Sunnis that the Shiite-led government is neglecting them, said Hassan Alaf, the deputy governor of Nineveh, the province in which Mosul lies.

“It seems some of the politicians are not keen to bring life back to Mosul,” he said. “We still suffer from sectarian conflict, and its implications are reflected in the reconstruction.”

It will be left to the international community to come up with the money to repair the damage, much of it caused by the relentless airstrikes and artillery bombardments conducted under the auspices of the U.S.-led coalition formed to fight the Islamic State, according to Grande, the U.N. representative. The United Nations is planning a fundraising conference in Kuwait this month at which it will seek up to $100 billion in donations for Iraqi reconstruction.

But the countries that enthusiastically prosecuted the war are proving less willing to pay to fix the resulting damage, U.N. and aid agency officials say. The U.S. military has spent $14.3 billion on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria over the past three years, according to Pentagon figures, but just 10 percent of that — or $1.4 billion — on repairs.

The State Department has asked for $300 million to fund basic repairs such as fixing electricity and water systems in 2018, but the United States does not plan to contribute to the reconstruction effort. The U.S.-led military coalition “is not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier this year.

One glimmer of hope lies in a recent rapprochement between the Iraqi government and Saudi Arabia, which have been icily estranged since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion brought a Shiite-dominated government to power in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has visited the kingdom, and so has the Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has broken ranks with Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq to champion calls for reconciliation with Sunnis.

U.S. and U.N. officials hope the wealthy Arab states of the Persian Gulf will provide much of the funding. But they are embroiled in their own conflicts, disputes and budget shortfalls, and may not have the will or inclination to come up with the many billions of dollars required.

Source: The Washington Post

In recent times, there have been two interesting developments in the efforts of the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iraq and Lebanon. Both events fall within the scope of the bid to impose the model produced by the Iranian Revolution, of creating a parallel military structure alongside the regular army, whereas the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq operate in parallel with the Iraqi army, and Hezbollah in parallel with the Lebanese army, just like the IRGC operates in parallel with the army in Iran. This project has faced resistance and it is worth considering its implications, not just for those behind it, but also for the future of Iraq and Lebanon. In Iraq, there is Shia resistance to the effort to legitimize the Iranian model and the PMUs at the expense of the Iraqi army. In Lebanon, there is a governmental and popular resistance to Hezbollah’s insistence on imposing its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army, not just from Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri but also President Michel Aoun, who has emphasized the Lebanese army as the leading legitimate protector of Lebanon. Tehran in the meantime fears that Iraqi-Gulf rapprochement could undermine its project, while it sees Lebanon as a necessary bridge to rehabilitate Syria in the Arab world and then internationally.

In this regard, US-Russian partnership in Syria and Iraq is key. In Lebanon, there is an international decision to prevent a security collapse and to empower the army to play its conventional role without partnership with Hezbollah in any legitimacy. Instead, there is a bid to head off any attempt by Hezbollah to replicate the Iranian model in Lebanon.

In Iraq, there is US-Russian accord to resist the perpetuation of the IRGC model through the PMUs. The Gulf element in this accord has emerged in the rapprochement with Iraq’s Shia leaders, which has prompted Iran to dispatch high-level delegates to Baghdad on an urgent mission. It has also emerged in a recent Saudi decision to resume interest in Lebanon’s developments. Despite all the one-upmanship and rhetoric regarding who liberated Lebanese territory from ISIS in the barrens of Arsal, al-Qaa, and Ras Baalbeck, what happened was that the Lebanese army has gained unprecedented legitimacy, because for the first time it acted proactively rather than reactively. One senior Lebanese official said this legitimacy is now realistic not emotional. He said that Hezbollah, despite all its insistence, has not obtained legitimacy because “the president has a distinguished, profound, emotional, and practical relationship with the army.” “His face lights up when the army is mentioned, and nothing will dissuade him from giving priority to the army,” he added. “The army is strong and has national legitimacy as a result of the battle it fought in Ras Baalbeck and al-Qaa”.

Washington has a keen interest in the Lebanese army and wants it safeguarded without the kind of partnership Hezbollah is desperate to impose. Hezbollah has failed to get what it wants despite all its lobbying and media machinery going into overdrive. The army has never and will never say that Hezbollah shares its legitimacy. This denies Hezbollah from replicating the IRGC model in Lebanon, and from becoming the Lebanese IRGC.

The other key prong of Hezbollah’s strategy is facilitating a ‘reunion’ between the government of Syria and Lebanon, not just through secret visits like the ones its leaders have undertaken in the past years as fully fledged allies, but through an official and public ‘marriage’ that would rehabilitate Damascus’s Arab legitimacy through the Lebanese gateway.

Saudi Arabia reentered the Lebanese arena recently to prevent this, according to one well-informed official. Riyadh has judged that the prime minister in Lebanon is the necessary spearhead in preventing this sought-after union. For this reason, Saudi Arabia has decided to return minister Thamer al-Sabhan to Beirut, preceded by escalatory tweets against Hezbollah calling on Lebanon to make a choice, either to stand against or fall behind Hezbollah and cautioning of the implications for the Lebanese over this choice.

Some say that Riyadh is resolved to prevent the Beirut-Damascus reunion even if that took “sabotaging Lebanon”, though politically and not through security means, including by toppling the Lebanese government headed by Hariri in favor of a technocratic government, out of insistence on having a government with a more coherent position vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Others completely discount this scenario, saying removing Hariri’s government would bring an alternative that is not favorable to Saudi’s stance against Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon and political decision making in Beirut. The proponents of the first view say Thabhan’s remarks indicate Saudi Arabia is fed up of the “negative and weak performance of the Lebanese government,” and that the upcoming legislative elections in Lebanon will be an occasion for Saudi Arabia to seriously counter Hezbollah’s projects. If that requires “a shock for the government, then it will not hesitate,” they say.

The US and Saudi Arabia are in agreement over refusing Hezbollah’s bid to impose its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army. They make the distinction between a de-facto partnership with Hezbollah in the war against ISIS in Syria, and Hezbollah’s quest for legitimacy as a parallel IRGC-like entity. Washington is determined for the Lebanese state to deliver on its pledge that there would be no partnership between the army and Hezbollah. US envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley adopted a firm position regarding the mandate of the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon and the implementation to the letter of resolution 1701, affirming the total separation between the legitimacy of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah’s peculiar status.

The Trump administration has had a vague policy on Syria in terms of its silent consent to Iranian expansion in IS-held territory, part of the geography of its arc, corridor, or crescent linking Tehran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. This stance could be temporary tactics, imposed by the long-term grand strategy, or it could be a result of the US confusion that has long benefited Tehran. It is premature to determine this at this juncture.

Clearly, however, Iran remains part of the “continuation of unrest in the Middle East rather than stability in the region,” as one veteran political analyst put it. The proponents of this view say that the Americans will not allow Iran to gain a legitimate foothold on the Mediterranean. Therefore, Iran will remain a source of instability and Lebanon will remain forbidden ammunition. These voices say that US-Russian accord on removing militias from Syria will be executed within a year or two, after which Hezbollah will return to Lebanon with many question marks surrounding its role there. They say Iran does not intend to open the south Lebanese front with Israel, which has found itself relieved by the Syrian war with its border its hold on the Golan secured. Either this will be translated through some kind of truce that will spare Lebanon or it could lead Hezbollah to compensate for its resistance against Israel credentials by imposing its agenda on the Lebanese home front.

Things are different on many levels in Iraq. Iraq is more important in the Iranian-Gulf balance of power than Lebanon is in the Iranian-Israeli balance of power, which has been suspended with the consent of both sides as well as the US and Russia. Iraq today is in the eye of the storm of partition, which Washington and Moscow claim they oppose. Both agree on the priority of the regular army over the Iranian-sponsored PMUs. More importantly, however, is the decision of Iraq’s Shia Arabs who do not accept the idea of the Iranian model dominating their lives. This camp is behind a project for restoring Iraq’s central position in the Arab bloc and vice versa.

Tehran is concerned by this. This is why it has sought to contain the damage caused by the practices and projects of the IRGC, dispatching to Baghdad this week the head of the Chairman of Expediency Discernment Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi – an Iraqi by birth – and his deputy Mohsen Rezai to repair the Shia alliance in Baghdad. Iran is also equally concerned by the rapprochement between Iraqi Shia leaders such as Prime Minister Haider Abadi and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian side has often boasted of being a reliable partner and ally, unlike the inconsistent form of partnership and alliance between the US and the Gulf, as it sees it. Iran is betting on some kind of weakness afflicting the new Gulf push to open a new page with Iraq, and the recent enthusiasm shown for influencing Lebanon to contain Hezbollah. There is a history that supports Iran’s bets and boasts, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. If Gulf diplomacy decides to contain the damage resulting from the impression that it is impatient and late to act, it must invest in a strategy to counter Iran’s claims and thwart the bet that the Gulf push in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon will eventually cool down. Partnerships are difficult, but there is a dire need for new kinds of partnerships different from the ones that have given out the impression they were unbalanced and transient.

Preempting the attempts to create surrogates for conventional Arab armies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria is of paramount importance, because if successful, these attempts will mean the exportation of the Iranian Revolution and regime in Tehran to the Arab world.

Source: Huffpost

By: Raghida Dergham

The U.S. military is keeping a wary eye on Iran’s most violent proxy militia in Iraq, which has vowed to start killing Americans again once the Islamic State is expelled.

With the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq coming closer — the U.S. estimates that the once 25,000-strong terrorist group is down to a few thousand followers at most holding only pockets of resistance — the danger from the HezbollahBrigades is fast approaching.

A commander in the Shiiite battalion, also known as Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and the largest and most ruthless Iranian-trained militia fighting in Iraq and Syria, warned Americans on Sunday that they must leave Iraq or face a new war, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.

Said the Fars headline, “Iraqi Popular Forces Warn to Target US Forces after Defeating ISIL Terrorists.”

Spokesman Jafar al-Hosseini issued a similar threat in March. His scripted messages on Beirut’s al-Mayadeen Arab-language TV station suggest the militia is not bluffing and is preparing for that day.

A military official told The Washington Times that the U.S. has plans to counter KH if it begins attacking Americans.

“Regarding the sense of Iranian malign influence, we’re trying alert NATO, the coalition, the State Department, the U.N. and the Gulf countries,” the military official said. “It’s a really big question. We’re very aware of it. We’re watching the move to post-ISIS. What the Iranians are saying is of significant concern.”

The Hezbollah Brigades of 5,000 fighters already has American blood on its hands.

Tehran organized the group in 2007 via its Quds Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to target American troops in Iraq.

Quds operatives schooled the Shiites in building improvised explosive devices and rocket systems that ultimately killed about 500 U.S. personnel, the Pentagon reported.

Analysts say Iran’s broader goal is not just the defeat of the Salafist Sunni Islamic State in Iraq but also to spread a crescent of Shiite hegemony across IraqSyria and Lebanon. Tehran finances and equips the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah.

The 2015 nuclear deal with the Obama administration provided Tehran with billions of dollars to increase the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps budget and pay various militias, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Standing in the way is the U.S. military, which wants to maintain some force presence in Iraq and nurture a more independent Baghdad not controlled by Tehran.

“With the Iranians, clearly the goal is a pathway all the way to Lebanese Hezbollah,” the military official said.

This is why scholars such as Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute say that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “has a history of saying what it means, no matter how inconvenient that might be for the wishful thinking in which so many in Washington and Europe engage.”

He added, “Iranian leaders aren’t willing to let U.S. forces stick around. They see U.S. commitment as weak, especially on the homefront, and they believe that so long as they use proxies, they can enjoy plausible deniability. After three decades of not being held to account for their actions, the Revolutionary Guards has grown cocky.”

The military official said the U.S.-led coalition’s downing of an armed drone in Syria in June shows how closely it watches Iran’s proxies. U.S. Central Command described the drone’s operators as “pro-regime.”

“Our actions speak for ourselves,” the U.S. source said. “We’ve shown that if they come even close to threatening any position, we’re going to take action in self-defense. We absolutely take it seriously.”

The official said U.S. commanders talk to the Russians about the Shiite militia activities because Russian officials “talk to people we don’t talk to.”

There is a big difference in the Iraq battlefield from what it was in 2007 and 2008. At the peak of the troop surge, over 157,000 Americans fought in Iraq, primarily against a Sunni insurgency, al Qaeda in Iraq.

Today, only about 5,000 U.S. military personnel are inside Iraq. As trainers and advisers, they maintain an arm’s length from ground combat.

“We really changed our strategy,” the official said. “The good news is there is not a lot of force presence to be targeted for that sort of thing. That makes it a little less complicated for us.”

If the Hezbollah Brigades turns from being an odd U.S. ally against the Islamic State to a direct foe, then American troops will be facing an organization so dangerous that the Obama administration added it to the official list of terrorist groups.

“Kata’ib Hezbollah is one of the biggest and most vicious and dangerous Iraqi militia and terror groups,” said Shahin Gobadi, spokesman for the Iran opposition organization People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK).

“It was one of the main Iraqi militia groups that the Quds Force dispatched to Syria to assist the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in massacring the Syrian people,” he said. “At some points, up to 2,000 of Kata’ib Hezbollah forces were sent to Syria to help Assad.”

A report by the bipartisan Counter Extremism Project states, “KH earned a reputation for planting deadly roadside bombs and using improvised rocket-assisted mortars (IRAMs) to attack U.S. and coalition forces.

“According to U.S. diplomat Ali Khedery, KH is responsible for ‘some of the most lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces throughout [the war.] The group is suspected of involvement in extrajudicial killings and abductions in Iraq’s Anbar province, including the May 27, 2016, abduction of more than 70 Sunni boys and men from al-Sijir, and the murder of 49 men from Saqlawiyah,” the project’s report stated.

The State Department

In June 2009, the State Department put the Hezbollah Brigades on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, calling the group “an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, U.S. and coalition targets in Iraq.”

“KH has ideological ties to Lebanese [Hezbollah] and may have received support from that group. KH gained notoriety in 2007 with attacks on U.S. and coalition forces designed to undermine the establishment of a democratic, viable Iraqi state. KH has been responsible for numerous violent terrorist attacks since 2007, including improvised explosive device bombings, rocket propelled grenade attacks and sniper operations. In addition, KH has threatened the lives of Iraqi politicians and civilians that support the legitimate political process in Iraq,” the State Department wrote.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who commanded troops in Iraq, said American diplomacy post-Islamic State must persuade the Iraqi government to blunt KH’s anti-American messaging in the country and make U.S. troop security a top priority.

Part of KH’s propaganda war via Iranian media is to tell Shiites falsely that the U.S. created the Islamic State and is helping it on the battlefield.

Mr. Dubik, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, questioned whether the Trump administration is planning for a new Iraq.

“Reading between the public statements does not lead me to conclude we have a strategy beyond ‘eject ISIS,’” he said.

He said one important agreement would be to have U.S. intelligence and special operations forces working closely with Iraq’s counterterrorism squads to track Iran’s militias.

Washington must also issue a clear warning to Tehran, Mr. Dubik said, one that would “make clear our intent to expose their nefarious actions, something that at times we refused to do, and to protect our own forces.”

The Washington Times asked the joint Iraq task force if it had plans to deal with Iran-backed militias once the Islamic State is defeated, but the statement declined to specify.

“Force protection is a critical element of coalition operations. However, in order to ensure operational security, force protection and tactical surprise, we do not confirm or deny information about capabilities, force numbers, locations, or intent for future operations, in or out of Iraq and Syria. Forces are always prepared to act in self-defense and plan accordingly,” the command said.

Source: The Washington Times

Baghdad- Indicators show a fierce and early electoral struggle in Iraq’s Dawa Party, the ruling party since 2005. This struggle is mainly between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Vice President Nouri al-Maliki.

Suspending party membership of Baghdad’s former governor Salah Abdulrazeq and leaking the internal investigation document reveal the ongoing struggle between the two parties. Sources from Dawa party affirm that the pro-Abadi party deliberately leaked the document to media to defame Maliki due to his tight relation with the former governor.

Some sources see that the continuous US pressures on Abadi to tackle corruption and hold corrupts accountable might have pushed him to address the corruption file of one of his party members. The organizational office of Dawa Party carried out a discreet investigation, five days before this was intentionally leaked to the media.

“Given the information raising suspicion about Salah Abdulrazeq financial corruption and the defamation caused by that, it has been decided to suspend Salah’s party membership until the matter is fully cleared,” the party investigation reported.

Despite the former governor denial, considering these accusations as an early electoral campaign that targets him personally, several documents from Baghdad province and council showed administrative and financial breaches made by him.

Besides Salah, also his two sons residing in Europe are facing similar corruption accusations – videos and documents showed their enormous wealth, knowing that one of them manages a nightclub in Netherlands.

This event embarrassed the ruling party, but the step was welcomed by national and political circles given that it opens the door to increasing accountability in prime parties and blocs.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Iraq’s anti-corruption court has issued 26 jail sentences to high-ranking Iraqi officials in a push to eliminate corruption and fraud in the country.

Prime minister Haider Al Abadi announced on Wednesday that his government had taken crucial steps to stem corruption, which has crippled the economy.

“We have taken rapid steps to tackle corruption, we have arrested and charged a number of corrupt officials,” Mr Al Abadi said in a tweet.

The sentences ranged from six months to 15 years.

Among the prominent names were the director of transparency and corruption prevention in the Integrity Commission, Abdel Ilah Khadim Al Aboodi, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Former defence ministry secretary general Bruska Noori Aweys was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Mr Aweys is the brother of Rowsch Nuri Shaways, former deputy prime minister. 

The previous defence minister Hazim Al Shalan was sentenced to 13 years in jail as well as Mohsin Shlash, the previous minister of electricity for seven years.

Abdel Amir Baker Khathim, the general manager of the department of finance, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mr Khathim is also the brother of previous national security adviser, Mowaffak Al Rubaie who currently resides in London.

The previous minister of agriculture, Sawsan Al Sharifi was also convicted of graft charges and sentenced to five years in prison, while former transport director general Faisal Naji Malo was jailed for seven years.

The sentences ranged from six months to 15 years.

Among the prominent names were the director of transparency and corruption prevention in the Integrity Commission, Abdel Ilah Khadim Al Aboodi, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Former defence ministry secretary general Bruska Noori Aweys was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Mr Aweys is the brother of Rowsch Nuri Shaways, former deputy prime minister. 

The previous defence minister Hazim Al Shalan was sentenced to 13 years in jail as well as Mohsin Shlash, the previous minister of electricity for seven years.

Abdel Amir Baker Khathim, the general manager of the department of finance, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mr Khathim is also the brother of previous national security adviser, Mowaffak Al Rubaie who currently resides in London.

The previous minister of agriculture, Sawsan Al Sharifi was also convicted of graft charges and sentenced to five years in prison, while former transport director general Faisal Naji Malo was jailed for seven years.

Other sentences include former ministers of oil, trade, youth and sport.

These charges come as Baghdad is steeped in a series of high-profile investigations into alleged corruption by Iraqi officials, including the trade minister and the governor of Basra.

“Those that are corrupt have abused the country’s freedom to serve their own personal interests,” Mr Al Abadi said last week.

“Corruption is a scourge and we will work to combat it and to defend justice and prevent corruption from creeping in," Mr Abadi said. Despite the billions spent, “there has not been evidence of development… Inequality and injustice leads to the destruction of society".

Iraq is ranked 166 out of 176 nations in Transparency International's Corruption Index.

Source: The National

The military phase of the fight against ISIS is winding down after the liberation of Mosul, and the battle for the nearby town of Tal Afar is predicted to end soon. This has provided an opportunity for Iraq to begin distancing itself from the influence gained by Iran following the disastrous 2003 war, and returning to its true Arabic heritage.

Iraq was known as a melting pot where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens lived alongside and in mixed societies for centuries. Prior to Iran gaining its disastrous sway across Mesopotamia, this was a land where the majority of Shiites lived and prospered with their Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and all other religious minority brothers.

Has not the time arrived for Iraq to regain its true position as part of the Arab world, and rid its soil of the meddling of Iran’s clerics?

Long-awaited developments

Iraqi officials have embarked on a new campaign of visiting Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni states, signaling long-welcomed changes. The influential Sadrist leader Muqtada was seen in the final days of July meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

Only days later Sadr paid a visit to the United Arab Emirates, another critic of Iran’s policies, where he was welcomed as an Iraqi leader by a slate of leading politicians and clerics.

Sadr’s visit rendered a variety of measures by Riyadh, including launching a Saudi Consulate in Sadr’s hometown of Najaf, one of the two holiest Shiite cities in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, known as Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, his distance from Tehran’s viewpoints and calling for Iraq to practice openness in establishing relations, did not block such a proposition.

Iran, however, resorted to strong remarks against Sadr for his visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The visit was even described by a local wire as an act of betrayal to the Houthis in Yemen.

Iran’s support for the Shiite proxy militias, through arms, logistics and finances, parallel to advisors dispatched by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah, have resulted in the humanitarian catastrophe Yemen finds itself today.

Sadr is also planning a visit to Egypt, adding to the list of senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, oil and transportation who are set to visit Saudi Arabia. Despite investing in Iraq for the past 14 years, Iran has been deprived of visits of such high stature.

No future

Iran’s proxies, while taking the credit for much of the fight against ISIS on the ground, have been accused of law violations and refusing to obey the state of Iraq. Iraqi authorities affiliated to Iran have a very poor report card of being involved in corruption and sacrificing Iraqi national interest in Tehran’s favor.

This became a major issue during the second term of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who some have even described as Iran’s “puppet.” Maliki is known to have close relations with Tehran and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself.

To make matters even worse, the recent departure of Majid al-Nasrawi, governor of the oil-rich city of Basra located at the southern tip of Iraq, has recently left for Iran. His departure followed being accused of numerous corruption offences by a government transparency committee. Choosing Iran as a destination has left further impression of him fleeing to a safe haven, and Tehran having a hand in Iraqi corruption.

Rebuilding cities

As Sadr and other Iraqi officials continue their meetings with senior Arab officials of the region, there are also major talks under way between Baghdad and Riyadh to establish a new alliance that would provide Saudi Arabia a leading role in rebuilding war-torn cities across Iraq.

On August 14th the Cabinet of Saudi Arabia announced a coordination committee to spearhead a variety of health care and humanitarian projects, including building hospitals in Baghdad and Basra, and providing fellowships to Iraqi students in Saudi universities. Opening border crossings and establishing free trade areas between the two countries is also on the agenda.

Riyadh should lead the Arab world in tipping the balance of power against Tehran’s interests in Iraq. The truth is Iran has not carried out any major economic project in Iraq from 2003 onward, due to the fact that the mullahs do not seek the prosperity of their western neighbor.

Saudi Arabia and the Arab world should provide the support Iraq needs after suffering from Iran’s menacing influence that has brought nothing but death and destruction. Evicting Iran from Iraq must come parallel to efforts of ending its presence in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The main obstacle before the Arab world in establishing a coalition against Iran’s clerics is this regime’s meddling and the IRGC presence across the region. With Iran evicted from Iraq, the void should be filled by economic support by the Arab world for Iraq.

And with the US Congress adopting a bill against the IRGC, Riyadh must take the lead to have all IRGC members, proxies and Iran-related elements expelled from the region. Only such a policy will allow the Middle East to one day experience tranquility and peaceful coexistence.

Source: Al Arabiya

Can Anyone Stop Iran From Taking Over Iraq? Wednesday, 16 August 2017 13:29

BEIRUT — Mosul is back in the Iraqi government’s hands and the war against the Islamic State seems to finally be approaching its end. This is the good news. But one of the byproducts of the campaign is that Iran’s reach now extends even deeper throughout Iraq and seems unlikely to go away any time soon.

A crucial fighting force in the battle for Mosul and other areas liberated from the Islamic State was provided by paramilitary groups that receive supplies and support from Iran, and cross the Iran-Iraq border at will. These were sanctioned by the Iraqi government in November 2016 and made part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of paramilitary groups, some of which have multiple loyalties.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a paramilitary commander who is considered one of Iran’s closest Iraqi allies, declared on July 4 that the Popular Mobilization Forces will not go away, even if the government orders them to dissolve. Mr. Muhandis’s statement essentially amounted to Iran saying that it plans to protect its interests in Iraq for years to come. These units, and the political forces that are associated to them, intend to prevent Iraq from establishing its own independent security policy, which could limit Iran’s ability to support its allies in Syria and elsewhere.

But many Iraqis are not happy to see Iran working in their country through local armed groups. This is not just a sectarian issue, either. Many Shiites want to see Iran’s influence limited. In addition to historical animosities and theological differences with Iran, most Iraqis — Sunni and Shiite alike — are exhausted by decades of conflict, and worry that Iran’s meddling will promote confrontation.

Ahead of next year’s general election, a large majority of Iraq’s political forces are seeking to reinforce their independence from Iran. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who can take credit for the recent victories against the Islamic State, has long had strained relations with Iran. Now he has become a critic of lawless behavior in some elements of the security forces, including Iranian-backed groups. His government’s position has been to strengthen state institutions and to reinforce the chain of command.

Meanwhile, Ammar al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s leading politicians and the scion of one of the country’s most prominent Shiite families, announced in late July that he would leave the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a political party that his family founded in Tehran with Iranian assistance in the 1980s. He has also formed his own party, from which he continues to establish his independence from Iran.

The Sadrist movement, which represents millions of poor Shiite Muslims in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq, has also openly aligned itself in the anti-Iranian camp. The grass-roots movement’s leader, Moktada al-Sadr, paid a visit this summer to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s biggest regional rival. He also visited the United Arab Emirates, another Sunni state that opposes Iran. These trips were intended to help develop bilateral relations and, thus, Iraq’s independence from Iran.

The only major political coalition to have formally adopted a pro-Iranian approach is led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since leaving office in 2014, Mr. Maliki has been tainted by the armed forces’ humiliating defeat by the Islamic State, for which he has rightly been blamed, and which has affected his popularity. He has since sought to reinvent himself as the patron saint of a pro-Iranian militant Iraq that is in confrontation with an ever-growing list of conspirators, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Kurds and the United States, among others.

With nearly all of Iraq’s political forces lined up against Iran in 2018, it looks likely that the pro-Iranians will be trounced at the ballot. And yet it looks just as likely that this will have little effect on Iran’s influence in Iraq.

In Iraq’s electoral system, it’s very difficult for any one alliance to take much more than 20 percent of the vote. This means the various alliances must engage in horse trading and coalition building to form a government. As parties try to secure lucrative ministries, they will lose sight of the goals that they campaigned on — like Iraqi independence. Like every government formed since the invasion in 2003, the next one will be made up of parties pulling the country in different directions. It is a recipe for inaction — and Iran will prey on this.

Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia nor any other country will be able to have a decisive influence. Outside countries have consistently failed to positively influence Iraqi politics. If these parties really want to prevent Iranian influence, they should provide assistance to security units, like the Counter Terrorism Service, which has been by far the most effective force against the Islamic State. The continued success of professional security services, rather than Iran-backed paramilitary groups, will allow for Iraq to guarantee its own security.

Against this backdrop, there remains one wild card that could present a real challenge to Iranian domination: intervention by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader.

In 2014, Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa that called for Iraqis to defend the country against the Islamic State. In response, tens of thousands of Shiites joined the army and other groups, including pro-Iranian paramilitary forces. The fatwa’s unintended effect was to give these groups some form of religious legitimacy. Many commentators have speculated that Ayatollah Sistani may now be on the cusp of rescinding his fatwa, which could, in turn, force the Popular Mobilization Forces to dissolve.

For now, that seems unlikely. The Popular Mobilization Forces enjoy broad legitimacy for their contribution to the war effort, and many Iraqis prefer that they be maintained as part of the official security forces. Even Mr. Abadi has opposed any such dissolution for many of these same reasons.

But a new fatwa from Ayatollah Sistani, following the total liberation of Iraqi territories from the Islamic State, could redefine the obligations of those Iraqis who volunteered in 2014 as being to support Iraq’s army and police — which prohibits Iraqis from engaging in any actions that would undermine Iraq’s national sovereignty. Mr. Abadi has already insisted that the Popular Mobilization Forces are prohibited from acting outside of Iraq. If the religious establishment supported the prime minister in this, it could nudge Iraq toward greater independence from Iran.

Since 2003, Ayatollah Sistani and the religious establishment have largely failed to control the worst tendencies in Iraqi politics. Now the stakes are so high that there is reason to hope for more decisive action. Iraq’s future is in their hands. The margin for error is worryingly small.

 Source: The New York Times

Iraqi authorities have moved a group of more than 1,300 foreign women and children — the family members of suspected ISIS fighters — and a refugee agency is raising the alarm about their precarious situation and the specter of retribution.

"The families had been held in a camp in Kurdish-controlled territory while Iraq figures out what to do with them," NPR's Jane Arraf reports.

The Norwegian Refugee Council said in a statement that the women and children were transferred Sunday from south of Mosul to an area north of the city that was freed from ISIS control three months ago. The council says that it has "grave fears" for the group's safety.

It's not clear where, precisely, the group is now located.

"These women and children are extremely vulnerable. Regardless of what their family members may be accused of, they have a right to protection and assistance," Julie Davidson of the NRC said in a statement.

Fighters from all over the world have joined ISIS's ranks, sometimes bringing their wives with them. There are also cases of women traveling to marry ISIS fighters. And as ISIS loses territory, these women and children face an uncertain fate.

Iraq's Ministry of Defense says "it moved 1,324 European, Asian, African and South American women and children to a camp with better facilities," Jane reports, adding that more than half of them are Turkish.

But the aid organization does not appear convinced that the new site offers "better facilities" and calls on Iraqi authorities to "move swiftly and clarify the status of these individuals, and offer effective guarantees of their fundamental rights."

The NRC requests that authorities allow aid organizations to have access to the displaced families. At the previous site, Jane reports, the council had been providing the women and children with tents, food and water.

"Iraq has asked other countries to take back citizens who married ISIS fighters but haven't committed any crimes here. It says those who committed crimes will be prosecuted," Jane adds.

According to news reports, the families surrendered to Kurdish fighters after the recent battle for the town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. Women who spoke to The Associated Press last week said they didn't know what happened to the ISIS fighters who are their husbands.

The AP reports that a Kurdish commander, Brig. Gen. Kamel Harki, "said some of the captured fighters were handed over to Iraqi authorities while others were killed after faking their surrender and then attacking their captors."

Source: NPR

Double attack in southern Iraq kills more than 80 Saturday, 16 September 2017 13:31

 A coordinated attack on a restaurant and a security checkpoint in southern Iraq killed more than 80 people Thursday, police and health officials said, in a rare spasm of violence targeting a route used by Shiite pilgrims to visit their holiest shrines.

Gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed into a restaurant in Nasiriyah, about 200 miles south of Baghdad, around lunchtime and opened fire, the head of the provincial health department said. Patrons in the eatery included Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims traveling north toward the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf.

Moments later, a car driven by a suicide bomber exploded at a police checkpoint near the restaurant, which sits along Highway 1, the road that connects Baghdad with Dhi Qar province, where the attack took place.

An additional 93 people were injured in the double attack, for which the Islamic State later claimed responsibility in a statement released online by its propaganda arm. The terrorist group has been steadily losing territory, most recently Mosul, its largest stronghold, and the smaller city of Tal Afar, but it has shown an ability to launch insurgent-style raids in areas it once held.

Iraqi officials have voiced fears that the group would step up its attacks on civilians as its grip on territory weakens.

Because the south is home to Iraq’s most revered Shiite shrines, it is among the best-secured areas of the country and has rarely been the target of large-scale attacks. At the same time, though, many security forces assigned to the south have been drawn into battles against the Islamic State in the north and west, leaving some holes that terrorists have exploited.

Jassim al-Khalidi, the director of the Dhi Qar Health Department, said that 83 people were killed Thursday, most of them inside the restaurant, Fadak, a popular pit stop for pilgrims.

“This restaurant is well-known for being crowded every day because anyone who goes to Najaf and Karbala from the south stops there for lunch,” he said in a telephone interview.

Khalidi said witnesses told him the gunmen came in three cars and began spraying the building with bullets from automatic weapons. The gunmen escaped, he said.

Videos posted on social media showed people frantically searching a hospital ward for their relatives.

One man spoke to the camera, saying he had dropped off his family at the restaurant, then was trying to fix something in his car when the shooting erupted. He said he saw the gunmen flee in black cars.

 “I went back to the restaurant and found my entire family dead,” he said.

U.S. officials said the Islamic State has been severely degraded since it lost 90 percent of the territory it seized in a 2014 blitz across Iraq. The cities and towns it once held contained factories for making car bombs and improvised explosive devices, and the loss of those facilities has reduced the group’s use of explosives in its attacks on security forces and civilians.

Attacks involving mainly automatic weapons remain a major challenge, however. Gunmen have been able to breach security lines in cities reclaimed by Iraqi forces, such as Tikrit and Fallujah, often by wearing military uniforms and taking advantage of lax protocols at checkpoints.

In Mosul, residents have complained that some of the militants who patrolled their neighborhoods have reappeared unarmed and are quietly living among them. Although Iraq has detained and is in the process of prosecuting many people suspected of joining the Islamic State, corruption in the police and judiciary has allowed some to avoid arrest.

Some analysts say losing territory has not significantly affected the Islamic State’s ability to wage terror on a smaller but still deadly scale.

The group is moving into a new, insurgent phase, said Michael Knights, a military analyst and Persian Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonpartisan think tank.

“ISIS is not a movement in disarray,” he said, using an acronym for the group. “It has undertaken a smooth transition into insurgency, and doesn’t seem greatly disrupted by the loss of terrain.”

Source: The Washington Post

The reality in Iraq today is that the defeat of ISIS has provided a vacuum in its politics, which will have significant impact on the upcoming parliamentary elections in the country next year.

In recent months, Iraqi people have witnessed new moves from political and religious groups who dominate the country’s politics. After 14 years of internal violent conflicts, part of the pro-Tehran Shi’ite alliance have finally realized that the unconditional dependence on the Iranian regime will further exacerbate the sectarian conflict.

However, it should not be forgotten that the changing US policy on Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East has influenced their decisions. In this regard, both influential and famed Shi’ite clerics Ammar Al Hakim and Muqtada al-Sadr have changed their views about Iran and the role of its proxies and allies in Iraq.

According to reports, Mr Al Hakim has decided to step down as the leader of one of the Iraqi groups allied to Tehran. This move means that a significant number of Shi’ite voters in Iraq will not pursue and back the plans of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the coming elections.

Sadrist movement

Similarly, the leader of the Sadrist movement, Muqtada al-Sadr, decided to visit Saudi Arabia and UAE in what one could describe as an unanticipated move even for the Sunni parties. Mr al-Sadr played a key role to end the political deadlock in Iraqi politics following the elections in both 2010 and 2014.

It is agreed that the former Iraqi prime minister, Nouri Al-Maliki’s catastrophic and sectarian policies lead to a deep division among different ethnicities in Iraq. These policies, adopted in coordination with Tehran and its IRGC, were in part based on suppression of the Sunnis and disregarding of their rights.

The weakness of Iraqi army, the frequent use of armed forces to achieve political goals, the direct control of commander of IRGC’s Quds force Qasem Soleimani over Iraqi Shi’ite militias, and eventually, the seizure of nearly one third of Iraqi territory by ISIS, all lead to the recent decision by both of these clerics to distance themselves from the Iranian regime.

In this regard, Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia in late July brought most attention from the media as he met Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in Jaddah. Apparently, the leader of Sadrist’s movement feels the wind of change in Iraq and is looking to improve his relations with major actors both inside and outside of the country.

Visit to Riyadh

If Sadr wishes to achieve his political ambitions, he will have to choose between the following two options – reducing tie with Tehran dramatically and changing his political views on Sunni parties. His meeting with Mohammed bin Salman, however, sends a positive signal to all Iraqi parties who oppose the IRGC and Tehran’s intervention in Iraq.

Importantly, distancing himself from Tehran does not mean that he is embracing or will embrace other regional countries. But this decision rather indicates that the main player in both Iraq's political and religious scene is taking steps to change the balance of power in the country.

This move clearly scared the Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, because he immediately sent his special envoy to Iraq to meet Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, in an attempt to realign the political order. Not only both Iraqi clerics refused to meet Khamenei's envoy but a spokesperson of the Sadrist movement harshly criticized Khamenei.

“Iran’s interference in political affairs is detrimental to Iraq’s national interest … Khamenei’s envoy carries a new sectarian project that Iran provided six months ago”, Amir al-Kanani said in an interview. These comments makes it clear that Sadr is now determined to restrict the Iranian regime’s role in Iraq.

If Sadr, al-Hakim and Sunni parties agree to restrict Iran’s destructive role in Iraq, the balance of power will shift significantly in favor of the Iraqi people and their representatives. Such agreement will require complicated political negotiations and a real willingness from all these parties to compromise in the interest of an independent Iraq.

Political decision-making

Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has consistently pretended to not have any role in the political decision-making in Iraq. But in reality, in most cases, his silence empowered the pro-Tehran Shiite block or indirectly paved the way to crush the Iraqi opposition to the IRGC and its intervention in Iraq.

But contrary to the past, the refusal of Grand Ayatollah Sistani to meet Khamenei’s envoy sent a strong message to all Shiite groups and voters in Iraq that he disapproves of Tehran’s role in the country.

Considering that the actions and words of Grand Ayatollah Sistani has great influence over Iraq’s Shiite population, his decision to turn away Iran’s Supreme Leader could result in a political earthquake for Maliki’s Dawa party and other pro-Tehran parties, just one year before the parliamentary elections.

Although the Iranian Supreme Leader got Sistani’s message, it would be naive to believe that the IRGC under Khamenei’s control will give up to the new reality in Iraq and not try to bypass all likely restrictions.

The IRGC controls a powerful Shiite militia, known as People Mobilization Units, and it could use it to put pressure on its dissidents. Consequently, will Grand Ayatollah Sistani take real actions if Tehran uses the IRGC to eliminate its opponents in Iraq physically.

No one can say with certainty what will happen in the future as clerics in both countries are known to be unpredictable. Consequently, the Iraqi people will simply have to wait to see. Now it is Tehran’s move.

Source: Al Arabiya

 The collapse of the Islamic State in its most important Iraqi strongholds has brought a rare moment of hope for a country mired in war for most of the past four decades.

It is also a moment of peril, as Iraq emerges from the fight against the militants only to be confronted with the same problems that fueled their spectacular rise in 2014.

Old disputes between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds over territory, resources and power already are resurfacing as the victors of the battles compete to control liberated areas or jostle for political advantage in the post-Islamic State landscape.

These rivalries now are compounded by the mammoth task of rebuilding the towns and cities destroyed by the fighting, returning millions of displaced people to their homes, and reconciling the communities that once welcomed the Islamic State’s brutal rule as preferable to their own government’s neglect and abuse.

A failure to manage the post-conflict situation risks a repeat of the cycle of grievance and revolt that fueled the original Iraqi insurgency in 2003, and its reincarnation in the form of the Islamic State after 2011, Iraqis and other observers say.

 But it is a vast and potentially insurmountable challenge, laid bare in the traumatized communities of Mosul. In the city’s relatively unscathed east, life has bounced back. Traffic clogs the streets, music blares from markets and stores are piled high with consumer goods, such as cellphones, air conditioners and satellite dishes, that were banned or hard to find under Islamic State rule.

In the ravaged west, which bore the brunt of the fighting, entire neighborhoods have been leveled beyond repair. In the Old City alone, 230,000 people have been left without habitation, and “they are not going home soon; the whole district has to be rebuilt,” said Lise Grande, the deputy special representative of the U.N. mission in Iraq.

So far, there is no sign of any reconstruction effort on the scale that will be required, said Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign minister who is from Mosul and now works as an adviser with the Kurdish regional government.

“All the writing is on the wall that there will be another ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “The scale of frustration. The lack of hope. The lack of government stepping in. What can you expect?”

Meanwhile, distractions loom as Iraq’s focus shifts to the long-standing political rivalries that were put on hold by the imperative of confronting the Islamic State.

The Kurdish region is pressing ahead with a referendum on independence — over the strenuous objections of Iran, Turkey and the United States — that has the potential to ignite a new war before the present one is over. The vote is reopening the contentious question of where the borders of the Kurdistan region lie, and tensions are rising in areas where the Kurdish peshmerga forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have been brought face-to-face by the war against the Islamic State.

Rifts are emerging within Iraq’s governing Shiite majority, which rallied behind the country’s security forces and militias — known as al-Hashd al-Shaabi, or the popular mobilization units — for the sake of fighting the Islamic State. There are sharp divergences, however, over the future identity of the country, over whether it should tilt further toward Iran or maintain an alliance with the United States, and over how far to go to reconcile minority Sunnis with the Shiites.

 These issues are expected to come to the fore in elections due in the spring that could become a focus for conflict as the political parties behind the Iranian-backed militias that played a big role in the fighting seek to capitalize on their victories by winning a bigger share in parliament.

The country’s Sunnis are in disarray, scattered among refugee camps or returning to wrecked homes in towns and cities that have been laid waste. Some 2 million of the 5 million people displaced by the fighting over the past three years have returned home. But 3.2 million still live as refugees, mainly in dismal camps, according to the United Nations. Many have no homes to which they can return, and others fear retribution from neighbors or the security forces, Grande said.

In Mosul, there is relief that the militants have gone but also trepidation about what the future holds. Multiple militias roam the streets, loyal to a variety of political masters, government ministers, tribal leaders and members of parliament. The government security forces are spread thin, and some have been withdrawn and deployed elsewhere for the other battles still to be fought before the final territorial defeat of the militants.

Some of the armed men in ­Mosul are local Sunnis, trained as part of a U.S.-promoted initiative to include locals in the city’s future security arrangements. Others are members of the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that were kept out of the battle for fear they would inflame sectarian tensions, but that have moved in to set up offices and recruit local allies.

The militias are needed because there are not enough police and other security forces personnel to keep the city safe, said Mohammed al-Sayyab, a businessman originally from the majority-Shiite city of Basra who heads a small Sunni fighting force controlled by the minister of education. “We cannot say it is 100 percent safe. It is 70 percent safe,” he said. “There are still ISIS sleeper cells. We are working to clear them, but we are up against a very clever enemy.”

Few think the Islamic State has gone away. Everyone, it seems, has a story about someone they know who was with the militants and has reappeared in their neighborhoods, sometimes after being detained and freed. Corruption within the security forces and judiciary contributes to the perception that Islamic State fighters have bought their way out of prison.

Omran Mohammed Bashir, 32, who runs a laundry in eastern Mosul, ticked off on his fingers the former Islamic State members he has seen around his area and elsewhere in the city. Among them are a relative who has not been detained, even though her father reported her to the security services, and a man who commanded the fighters in Bashir’s neighborhood; Bashir ran into the man while visiting a different part of Mosul.

“I don’t think there will be any support for another insurgency. The people of Mosul have learned a lesson,” he said. “But it’s unpredictable what will happen, especially if the situation continues like this, with no reconstruction and corruption inside the government.”

But Iraq has no budget for reconstruction, government officials say. Years of declining oil prices and the financial demands of the war against the Islamic State have left the country bankrupt, forced last year to take a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

The absence of a discernible reconstruction plan in turn fuels perceptions among Sunnis that the Shiite-led government is neglecting them, said Hassan Alaf, the deputy governor of Nineveh, the province in which Mosul lies.

“It seems some of the politicians are not keen to bring life back to Mosul,” he said. “We still suffer from sectarian conflict, and its implications are reflected in the reconstruction.”

It will be left to the international community to come up with the money to repair the damage, much of it caused by the relentless airstrikes and artillery bombardments conducted under the auspices of the U.S.-led coalition formed to fight the Islamic State, according to Grande, the U.N. representative. The United Nations is planning a fundraising conference in Kuwait this month at which it will seek up to $100 billion in donations for Iraqi reconstruction.

But the countries that enthusiastically prosecuted the war are proving less willing to pay to fix the resulting damage, U.N. and aid agency officials say. The U.S. military has spent $14.3 billion on fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria over the past three years, according to Pentagon figures, but just 10 percent of that — or $1.4 billion — on repairs.

The State Department has asked for $300 million to fund basic repairs such as fixing electricity and water systems in 2018, but the United States does not plan to contribute to the reconstruction effort. The U.S.-led military coalition “is not in the business of nation-building or reconstruction,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier this year.

One glimmer of hope lies in a recent rapprochement between the Iraqi government and Saudi Arabia, which have been icily estranged since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion brought a Shiite-dominated government to power in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has visited the kingdom, and so has the Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who has broken ranks with Iran’s Shiite allies in Iraq to champion calls for reconciliation with Sunnis.

U.S. and U.N. officials hope the wealthy Arab states of the Persian Gulf will provide much of the funding. But they are embroiled in their own conflicts, disputes and budget shortfalls, and may not have the will or inclination to come up with the many billions of dollars required.

Source: The Washington Post

In recent times, there have been two interesting developments in the efforts of the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iraq and Lebanon. Both events fall within the scope of the bid to impose the model produced by the Iranian Revolution, of creating a parallel military structure alongside the regular army, whereas the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq operate in parallel with the Iraqi army, and Hezbollah in parallel with the Lebanese army, just like the IRGC operates in parallel with the army in Iran. This project has faced resistance and it is worth considering its implications, not just for those behind it, but also for the future of Iraq and Lebanon. In Iraq, there is Shia resistance to the effort to legitimize the Iranian model and the PMUs at the expense of the Iraqi army. In Lebanon, there is a governmental and popular resistance to Hezbollah’s insistence on imposing its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army, not just from Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri but also President Michel Aoun, who has emphasized the Lebanese army as the leading legitimate protector of Lebanon. Tehran in the meantime fears that Iraqi-Gulf rapprochement could undermine its project, while it sees Lebanon as a necessary bridge to rehabilitate Syria in the Arab world and then internationally.

In this regard, US-Russian partnership in Syria and Iraq is key. In Lebanon, there is an international decision to prevent a security collapse and to empower the army to play its conventional role without partnership with Hezbollah in any legitimacy. Instead, there is a bid to head off any attempt by Hezbollah to replicate the Iranian model in Lebanon.

In Iraq, there is US-Russian accord to resist the perpetuation of the IRGC model through the PMUs. The Gulf element in this accord has emerged in the rapprochement with Iraq’s Shia leaders, which has prompted Iran to dispatch high-level delegates to Baghdad on an urgent mission. It has also emerged in a recent Saudi decision to resume interest in Lebanon’s developments. Despite all the one-upmanship and rhetoric regarding who liberated Lebanese territory from ISIS in the barrens of Arsal, al-Qaa, and Ras Baalbeck, what happened was that the Lebanese army has gained unprecedented legitimacy, because for the first time it acted proactively rather than reactively. One senior Lebanese official said this legitimacy is now realistic not emotional. He said that Hezbollah, despite all its insistence, has not obtained legitimacy because “the president has a distinguished, profound, emotional, and practical relationship with the army.” “His face lights up when the army is mentioned, and nothing will dissuade him from giving priority to the army,” he added. “The army is strong and has national legitimacy as a result of the battle it fought in Ras Baalbeck and al-Qaa”.

Washington has a keen interest in the Lebanese army and wants it safeguarded without the kind of partnership Hezbollah is desperate to impose. Hezbollah has failed to get what it wants despite all its lobbying and media machinery going into overdrive. The army has never and will never say that Hezbollah shares its legitimacy. This denies Hezbollah from replicating the IRGC model in Lebanon, and from becoming the Lebanese IRGC.

The other key prong of Hezbollah’s strategy is facilitating a ‘reunion’ between the government of Syria and Lebanon, not just through secret visits like the ones its leaders have undertaken in the past years as fully fledged allies, but through an official and public ‘marriage’ that would rehabilitate Damascus’s Arab legitimacy through the Lebanese gateway.

Saudi Arabia reentered the Lebanese arena recently to prevent this, according to one well-informed official. Riyadh has judged that the prime minister in Lebanon is the necessary spearhead in preventing this sought-after union. For this reason, Saudi Arabia has decided to return minister Thamer al-Sabhan to Beirut, preceded by escalatory tweets against Hezbollah calling on Lebanon to make a choice, either to stand against or fall behind Hezbollah and cautioning of the implications for the Lebanese over this choice.

Some say that Riyadh is resolved to prevent the Beirut-Damascus reunion even if that took “sabotaging Lebanon”, though politically and not through security means, including by toppling the Lebanese government headed by Hariri in favor of a technocratic government, out of insistence on having a government with a more coherent position vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Others completely discount this scenario, saying removing Hariri’s government would bring an alternative that is not favorable to Saudi’s stance against Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon and political decision making in Beirut. The proponents of the first view say Thabhan’s remarks indicate Saudi Arabia is fed up of the “negative and weak performance of the Lebanese government,” and that the upcoming legislative elections in Lebanon will be an occasion for Saudi Arabia to seriously counter Hezbollah’s projects. If that requires “a shock for the government, then it will not hesitate,” they say.

The US and Saudi Arabia are in agreement over refusing Hezbollah’s bid to impose its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army. They make the distinction between a de-facto partnership with Hezbollah in the war against ISIS in Syria, and Hezbollah’s quest for legitimacy as a parallel IRGC-like entity. Washington is determined for the Lebanese state to deliver on its pledge that there would be no partnership between the army and Hezbollah. US envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley adopted a firm position regarding the mandate of the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon and the implementation to the letter of resolution 1701, affirming the total separation between the legitimacy of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah’s peculiar status.

The Trump administration has had a vague policy on Syria in terms of its silent consent to Iranian expansion in IS-held territory, part of the geography of its arc, corridor, or crescent linking Tehran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. This stance could be temporary tactics, imposed by the long-term grand strategy, or it could be a result of the US confusion that has long benefited Tehran. It is premature to determine this at this juncture.

Clearly, however, Iran remains part of the “continuation of unrest in the Middle East rather than stability in the region,” as one veteran political analyst put it. The proponents of this view say that the Americans will not allow Iran to gain a legitimate foothold on the Mediterranean. Therefore, Iran will remain a source of instability and Lebanon will remain forbidden ammunition. These voices say that US-Russian accord on removing militias from Syria will be executed within a year or two, after which Hezbollah will return to Lebanon with many question marks surrounding its role there. They say Iran does not intend to open the south Lebanese front with Israel, which has found itself relieved by the Syrian war with its border its hold on the Golan secured. Either this will be translated through some kind of truce that will spare Lebanon or it could lead Hezbollah to compensate for its resistance against Israel credentials by imposing its agenda on the Lebanese home front.

Things are different on many levels in Iraq. Iraq is more important in the Iranian-Gulf balance of power than Lebanon is in the Iranian-Israeli balance of power, which has been suspended with the consent of both sides as well as the US and Russia. Iraq today is in the eye of the storm of partition, which Washington and Moscow claim they oppose. Both agree on the priority of the regular army over the Iranian-sponsored PMUs. More importantly, however, is the decision of Iraq’s Shia Arabs who do not accept the idea of the Iranian model dominating their lives. This camp is behind a project for restoring Iraq’s central position in the Arab bloc and vice versa.

Tehran is concerned by this. This is why it has sought to contain the damage caused by the practices and projects of the IRGC, dispatching to Baghdad this week the head of the Chairman of Expediency Discernment Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi – an Iraqi by birth – and his deputy Mohsen Rezai to repair the Shia alliance in Baghdad. Iran is also equally concerned by the rapprochement between Iraqi Shia leaders such as Prime Minister Haider Abadi and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Saudi Arabia.

The Iranian side has often boasted of being a reliable partner and ally, unlike the inconsistent form of partnership and alliance between the US and the Gulf, as it sees it. Iran is betting on some kind of weakness afflicting the new Gulf push to open a new page with Iraq, and the recent enthusiasm shown for influencing Lebanon to contain Hezbollah. There is a history that supports Iran’s bets and boasts, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. If Gulf diplomacy decides to contain the damage resulting from the impression that it is impatient and late to act, it must invest in a strategy to counter Iran’s claims and thwart the bet that the Gulf push in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon will eventually cool down. Partnerships are difficult, but there is a dire need for new kinds of partnerships different from the ones that have given out the impression they were unbalanced and transient.

Preempting the attempts to create surrogates for conventional Arab armies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria is of paramount importance, because if successful, these attempts will mean the exportation of the Iranian Revolution and regime in Tehran to the Arab world.

Source: Huffpost

By: Raghida Dergham

The U.S. military is keeping a wary eye on Iran’s most violent proxy militia in Iraq, which has vowed to start killing Americans again once the Islamic State is expelled.

With the Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq coming closer — the U.S. estimates that the once 25,000-strong terrorist group is down to a few thousand followers at most holding only pockets of resistance — the danger from the HezbollahBrigades is fast approaching.

A commander in the Shiiite battalion, also known as Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH) and the largest and most ruthless Iranian-trained militia fighting in Iraq and Syria, warned Americans on Sunday that they must leave Iraq or face a new war, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported.

Said the Fars headline, “Iraqi Popular Forces Warn to Target US Forces after Defeating ISIL Terrorists.”

Spokesman Jafar al-Hosseini issued a similar threat in March. His scripted messages on Beirut’s al-Mayadeen Arab-language TV station suggest the militia is not bluffing and is preparing for that day.

A military official told The Washington Times that the U.S. has plans to counter KH if it begins attacking Americans.

“Regarding the sense of Iranian malign influence, we’re trying alert NATO, the coalition, the State Department, the U.N. and the Gulf countries,” the military official said. “It’s a really big question. We’re very aware of it. We’re watching the move to post-ISIS. What the Iranians are saying is of significant concern.”

The Hezbollah Brigades of 5,000 fighters already has American blood on its hands.

Tehran organized the group in 2007 via its Quds Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to target American troops in Iraq.

Quds operatives schooled the Shiites in building improvised explosive devices and rocket systems that ultimately killed about 500 U.S. personnel, the Pentagon reported.

Analysts say Iran’s broader goal is not just the defeat of the Salafist Sunni Islamic State in Iraq but also to spread a crescent of Shiite hegemony across IraqSyria and Lebanon. Tehran finances and equips the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah.

The 2015 nuclear deal with the Obama administration provided Tehran with billions of dollars to increase the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps budget and pay various militias, according to the National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Standing in the way is the U.S. military, which wants to maintain some force presence in Iraq and nurture a more independent Baghdad not controlled by Tehran.

“With the Iranians, clearly the goal is a pathway all the way to Lebanese Hezbollah,” the military official said.

This is why scholars such as Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute say that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “has a history of saying what it means, no matter how inconvenient that might be for the wishful thinking in which so many in Washington and Europe engage.”

He added, “Iranian leaders aren’t willing to let U.S. forces stick around. They see U.S. commitment as weak, especially on the homefront, and they believe that so long as they use proxies, they can enjoy plausible deniability. After three decades of not being held to account for their actions, the Revolutionary Guards has grown cocky.”

The military official said the U.S.-led coalition’s downing of an armed drone in Syria in June shows how closely it watches Iran’s proxies. U.S. Central Command described the drone’s operators as “pro-regime.”

“Our actions speak for ourselves,” the U.S. source said. “We’ve shown that if they come even close to threatening any position, we’re going to take action in self-defense. We absolutely take it seriously.”

The official said U.S. commanders talk to the Russians about the Shiite militia activities because Russian officials “talk to people we don’t talk to.”

There is a big difference in the Iraq battlefield from what it was in 2007 and 2008. At the peak of the troop surge, over 157,000 Americans fought in Iraq, primarily against a Sunni insurgency, al Qaeda in Iraq.

Today, only about 5,000 U.S. military personnel are inside Iraq. As trainers and advisers, they maintain an arm’s length from ground combat.

“We really changed our strategy,” the official said. “The good news is there is not a lot of force presence to be targeted for that sort of thing. That makes it a little less complicated for us.”

If the Hezbollah Brigades turns from being an odd U.S. ally against the Islamic State to a direct foe, then American troops will be facing an organization so dangerous that the Obama administration added it to the official list of terrorist groups.

“Kata’ib Hezbollah is one of the biggest and most vicious and dangerous Iraqi militia and terror groups,” said Shahin Gobadi, spokesman for the Iran opposition organization People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK).

“It was one of the main Iraqi militia groups that the Quds Force dispatched to Syria to assist the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad in massacring the Syrian people,” he said. “At some points, up to 2,000 of Kata’ib Hezbollah forces were sent to Syria to help Assad.”

A report by the bipartisan Counter Extremism Project states, “KH earned a reputation for planting deadly roadside bombs and using improvised rocket-assisted mortars (IRAMs) to attack U.S. and coalition forces.

“According to U.S. diplomat Ali Khedery, KH is responsible for ‘some of the most lethal attacks against U.S. and coalition forces throughout [the war.] The group is suspected of involvement in extrajudicial killings and abductions in Iraq’s Anbar province, including the May 27, 2016, abduction of more than 70 Sunni boys and men from al-Sijir, and the murder of 49 men from Saqlawiyah,” the project’s report stated.

The State Department

In June 2009, the State Department put the Hezbollah Brigades on the U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, calling the group “an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, U.S. and coalition targets in Iraq.”

“KH has ideological ties to Lebanese [Hezbollah] and may have received support from that group. KH gained notoriety in 2007 with attacks on U.S. and coalition forces designed to undermine the establishment of a democratic, viable Iraqi state. KH has been responsible for numerous violent terrorist attacks since 2007, including improvised explosive device bombings, rocket propelled grenade attacks and sniper operations. In addition, KH has threatened the lives of Iraqi politicians and civilians that support the legitimate political process in Iraq,” the State Department wrote.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who commanded troops in Iraq, said American diplomacy post-Islamic State must persuade the Iraqi government to blunt KH’s anti-American messaging in the country and make U.S. troop security a top priority.

Part of KH’s propaganda war via Iranian media is to tell Shiites falsely that the U.S. created the Islamic State and is helping it on the battlefield.

Mr. Dubik, an analyst at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, questioned whether the Trump administration is planning for a new Iraq.

“Reading between the public statements does not lead me to conclude we have a strategy beyond ‘eject ISIS,’” he said.

He said one important agreement would be to have U.S. intelligence and special operations forces working closely with Iraq’s counterterrorism squads to track Iran’s militias.

Washington must also issue a clear warning to Tehran, Mr. Dubik said, one that would “make clear our intent to expose their nefarious actions, something that at times we refused to do, and to protect our own forces.”

The Washington Times asked the joint Iraq task force if it had plans to deal with Iran-backed militias once the Islamic State is defeated, but the statement declined to specify.

“Force protection is a critical element of coalition operations. However, in order to ensure operational security, force protection and tactical surprise, we do not confirm or deny information about capabilities, force numbers, locations, or intent for future operations, in or out of Iraq and Syria. Forces are always prepared to act in self-defense and plan accordingly,” the command said.

Source: The Washington Times

Baghdad- Indicators show a fierce and early electoral struggle in Iraq’s Dawa Party, the ruling party since 2005. This struggle is mainly between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Vice President Nouri al-Maliki.

Suspending party membership of Baghdad’s former governor Salah Abdulrazeq and leaking the internal investigation document reveal the ongoing struggle between the two parties. Sources from Dawa party affirm that the pro-Abadi party deliberately leaked the document to media to defame Maliki due to his tight relation with the former governor.

Some sources see that the continuous US pressures on Abadi to tackle corruption and hold corrupts accountable might have pushed him to address the corruption file of one of his party members. The organizational office of Dawa Party carried out a discreet investigation, five days before this was intentionally leaked to the media.

“Given the information raising suspicion about Salah Abdulrazeq financial corruption and the defamation caused by that, it has been decided to suspend Salah’s party membership until the matter is fully cleared,” the party investigation reported.

Despite the former governor denial, considering these accusations as an early electoral campaign that targets him personally, several documents from Baghdad province and council showed administrative and financial breaches made by him.

Besides Salah, also his two sons residing in Europe are facing similar corruption accusations – videos and documents showed their enormous wealth, knowing that one of them manages a nightclub in Netherlands.

This event embarrassed the ruling party, but the step was welcomed by national and political circles given that it opens the door to increasing accountability in prime parties and blocs.

Source: Asharq Al-Awsat

Iraq’s anti-corruption court has issued 26 jail sentences to high-ranking Iraqi officials in a push to eliminate corruption and fraud in the country.

Prime minister Haider Al Abadi announced on Wednesday that his government had taken crucial steps to stem corruption, which has crippled the economy.

“We have taken rapid steps to tackle corruption, we have arrested and charged a number of corrupt officials,” Mr Al Abadi said in a tweet.

The sentences ranged from six months to 15 years.

Among the prominent names were the director of transparency and corruption prevention in the Integrity Commission, Abdel Ilah Khadim Al Aboodi, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Former defence ministry secretary general Bruska Noori Aweys was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Mr Aweys is the brother of Rowsch Nuri Shaways, former deputy prime minister. 

The previous defence minister Hazim Al Shalan was sentenced to 13 years in jail as well as Mohsin Shlash, the previous minister of electricity for seven years.

Abdel Amir Baker Khathim, the general manager of the department of finance, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mr Khathim is also the brother of previous national security adviser, Mowaffak Al Rubaie who currently resides in London.

The previous minister of agriculture, Sawsan Al Sharifi was also convicted of graft charges and sentenced to five years in prison, while former transport director general Faisal Naji Malo was jailed for seven years.

The sentences ranged from six months to 15 years.

Among the prominent names were the director of transparency and corruption prevention in the Integrity Commission, Abdel Ilah Khadim Al Aboodi, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Former defence ministry secretary general Bruska Noori Aweys was sentenced to 14 years in prison. Mr Aweys is the brother of Rowsch Nuri Shaways, former deputy prime minister. 

The previous defence minister Hazim Al Shalan was sentenced to 13 years in jail as well as Mohsin Shlash, the previous minister of electricity for seven years.

Abdel Amir Baker Khathim, the general manager of the department of finance, was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Mr Khathim is also the brother of previous national security adviser, Mowaffak Al Rubaie who currently resides in London.

The previous minister of agriculture, Sawsan Al Sharifi was also convicted of graft charges and sentenced to five years in prison, while former transport director general Faisal Naji Malo was jailed for seven years.

Other sentences include former ministers of oil, trade, youth and sport.

These charges come as Baghdad is steeped in a series of high-profile investigations into alleged corruption by Iraqi officials, including the trade minister and the governor of Basra.

“Those that are corrupt have abused the country’s freedom to serve their own personal interests,” Mr Al Abadi said last week.

“Corruption is a scourge and we will work to combat it and to defend justice and prevent corruption from creeping in," Mr Abadi said. Despite the billions spent, “there has not been evidence of development… Inequality and injustice leads to the destruction of society".

Iraq is ranked 166 out of 176 nations in Transparency International's Corruption Index.

Source: The National

The military phase of the fight against ISIS is winding down after the liberation of Mosul, and the battle for the nearby town of Tal Afar is predicted to end soon. This has provided an opportunity for Iraq to begin distancing itself from the influence gained by Iran following the disastrous 2003 war, and returning to its true Arabic heritage.

Iraq was known as a melting pot where Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens lived alongside and in mixed societies for centuries. Prior to Iran gaining its disastrous sway across Mesopotamia, this was a land where the majority of Shiites lived and prospered with their Sunni, Christian, Yazidi and all other religious minority brothers.

Has not the time arrived for Iraq to regain its true position as part of the Arab world, and rid its soil of the meddling of Iran’s clerics?

Long-awaited developments

Iraqi officials have embarked on a new campaign of visiting Saudi Arabia and other Arab Sunni states, signaling long-welcomed changes. The influential Sadrist leader Muqtada was seen in the final days of July meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

Only days later Sadr paid a visit to the United Arab Emirates, another critic of Iran’s policies, where he was welcomed as an Iraqi leader by a slate of leading politicians and clerics.

Sadr’s visit rendered a variety of measures by Riyadh, including launching a Saudi Consulate in Sadr’s hometown of Najaf, one of the two holiest Shiite cities in Iraq. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, known as Iraq’s most senior Shiite cleric, his distance from Tehran’s viewpoints and calling for Iraq to practice openness in establishing relations, did not block such a proposition.

Iran, however, resorted to strong remarks against Sadr for his visits to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The visit was even described by a local wire as an act of betrayal to the Houthis in Yemen.

Iran’s support for the Shiite proxy militias, through arms, logistics and finances, parallel to advisors dispatched by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah, have resulted in the humanitarian catastrophe Yemen finds itself today.

Sadr is also planning a visit to Egypt, adding to the list of senior Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, oil and transportation who are set to visit Saudi Arabia. Despite investing in Iraq for the past 14 years, Iran has been deprived of visits of such high stature.

No future

Iran’s proxies, while taking the credit for much of the fight against ISIS on the ground, have been accused of law violations and refusing to obey the state of Iraq. Iraqi authorities affiliated to Iran have a very poor report card of being involved in corruption and sacrificing Iraqi national interest in Tehran’s favor.

This became a major issue during the second term of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who some have even described as Iran’s “puppet.” Maliki is known to have close relations with Tehran and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself.

To make matters even worse, the recent departure of Majid al-Nasrawi, governor of the oil-rich city of Basra located at the southern tip of Iraq, has recently left for Iran. His departure followed being accused of numerous corruption offences by a government transparency committee. Choosing Iran as a destination has left further impression of him fleeing to a safe haven, and Tehran having a hand in Iraqi corruption.

Rebuilding cities

As Sadr and other Iraqi officials continue their meetings with senior Arab officials of the region, there are also major talks under way between Baghdad and Riyadh to establish a new alliance that would provide Saudi Arabia a leading role in rebuilding war-torn cities across Iraq.

On August 14th the Cabinet of Saudi Arabia announced a coordination committee to spearhead a variety of health care and humanitarian projects, including building hospitals in Baghdad and Basra, and providing fellowships to Iraqi students in Saudi universities. Opening border crossings and establishing free trade areas between the two countries is also on the agenda.

Riyadh should lead the Arab world in tipping the balance of power against Tehran’s interests in Iraq. The truth is Iran has not carried out any major economic project in Iraq from 2003 onward, due to the fact that the mullahs do not seek the prosperity of their western neighbor.

Saudi Arabia and the Arab world should provide the support Iraq needs after suffering from Iran’s menacing influence that has brought nothing but death and destruction. Evicting Iran from Iraq must come parallel to efforts of ending its presence in Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.

The main obstacle before the Arab world in establishing a coalition against Iran’s clerics is this regime’s meddling and the IRGC presence across the region. With Iran evicted from Iraq, the void should be filled by economic support by the Arab world for Iraq.

And with the US Congress adopting a bill against the IRGC, Riyadh must take the lead to have all IRGC members, proxies and Iran-related elements expelled from the region. Only such a policy will allow the Middle East to one day experience tranquility and peaceful coexistence.

Source: Al Arabiya

Can Anyone Stop Iran From Taking Over Iraq? Wednesday, 16 August 2017 13:29

BEIRUT — Mosul is back in the Iraqi government’s hands and the war against the Islamic State seems to finally be approaching its end. This is the good news. But one of the byproducts of the campaign is that Iran’s reach now extends even deeper throughout Iraq and seems unlikely to go away any time soon.

A crucial fighting force in the battle for Mosul and other areas liberated from the Islamic State was provided by paramilitary groups that receive supplies and support from Iran, and cross the Iran-Iraq border at will. These were sanctioned by the Iraqi government in November 2016 and made part of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a coalition of paramilitary groups, some of which have multiple loyalties.

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a paramilitary commander who is considered one of Iran’s closest Iraqi allies, declared on July 4 that the Popular Mobilization Forces will not go away, even if the government orders them to dissolve. Mr. Muhandis’s statement essentially amounted to Iran saying that it plans to protect its interests in Iraq for years to come. These units, and the political forces that are associated to them, intend to prevent Iraq from establishing its own independent security policy, which could limit Iran’s ability to support its allies in Syria and elsewhere.

But many Iraqis are not happy to see Iran working in their country through local armed groups. This is not just a sectarian issue, either. Many Shiites want to see Iran’s influence limited. In addition to historical animosities and theological differences with Iran, most Iraqis — Sunni and Shiite alike — are exhausted by decades of conflict, and worry that Iran’s meddling will promote confrontation.

Ahead of next year’s general election, a large majority of Iraq’s political forces are seeking to reinforce their independence from Iran. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who can take credit for the recent victories against the Islamic State, has long had strained relations with Iran. Now he has become a critic of lawless behavior in some elements of the security forces, including Iranian-backed groups. His government’s position has been to strengthen state institutions and to reinforce the chain of command.

Meanwhile, Ammar al-Hakim, one of Iraq’s leading politicians and the scion of one of the country’s most prominent Shiite families, announced in late July that he would leave the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a political party that his family founded in Tehran with Iranian assistance in the 1980s. He has also formed his own party, from which he continues to establish his independence from Iran.

The Sadrist movement, which represents millions of poor Shiite Muslims in Baghdad and throughout southern Iraq, has also openly aligned itself in the anti-Iranian camp. The grass-roots movement’s leader, Moktada al-Sadr, paid a visit this summer to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s biggest regional rival. He also visited the United Arab Emirates, another Sunni state that opposes Iran. These trips were intended to help develop bilateral relations and, thus, Iraq’s independence from Iran.

The only major political coalition to have formally adopted a pro-Iranian approach is led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Since leaving office in 2014, Mr. Maliki has been tainted by the armed forces’ humiliating defeat by the Islamic State, for which he has rightly been blamed, and which has affected his popularity. He has since sought to reinvent himself as the patron saint of a pro-Iranian militant Iraq that is in confrontation with an ever-growing list of conspirators, including Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Kurds and the United States, among others.

With nearly all of Iraq’s political forces lined up against Iran in 2018, it looks likely that the pro-Iranians will be trounced at the ballot. And yet it looks just as likely that this will have little effect on Iran’s influence in Iraq.

In Iraq’s electoral system, it’s very difficult for any one alliance to take much more than 20 percent of the vote. This means the various alliances must engage in horse trading and coalition building to form a government. As parties try to secure lucrative ministries, they will lose sight of the goals that they campaigned on — like Iraqi independence. Like every government formed since the invasion in 2003, the next one will be made up of parties pulling the country in different directions. It is a recipe for inaction — and Iran will prey on this.

Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia nor any other country will be able to have a decisive influence. Outside countries have consistently failed to positively influence Iraqi politics. If these parties really want to prevent Iranian influence, they should provide assistance to security units, like the Counter Terrorism Service, which has been by far the most effective force against the Islamic State. The continued success of professional security services, rather than Iran-backed paramilitary groups, will allow for Iraq to guarantee its own security.

Against this backdrop, there remains one wild card that could present a real challenge to Iranian domination: intervention by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s Shiite spiritual leader.

In 2014, Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa that called for Iraqis to defend the country against the Islamic State. In response, tens of thousands of Shiites joined the army and other groups, including pro-Iranian paramilitary forces. The fatwa’s unintended effect was to give these groups some form of religious legitimacy. Many commentators have speculated that Ayatollah Sistani may now be on the cusp of rescinding his fatwa, which could, in turn, force the Popular Mobilization Forces to dissolve.

For now, that seems unlikely. The Popular Mobilization Forces enjoy broad legitimacy for their contribution to the war effort, and many Iraqis prefer that they be maintained as part of the official security forces. Even Mr. Abadi has opposed any such dissolution for many of these same reasons.

But a new fatwa from Ayatollah Sistani, following the total liberation of Iraqi territories from the Islamic State, could redefine the obligations of those Iraqis who volunteered in 2014 as being to support Iraq’s army and police — which prohibits Iraqis from engaging in any actions that would undermine Iraq’s national sovereignty. Mr. Abadi has already insisted that the Popular Mobilization Forces are prohibited from acting outside of Iraq. If the religious establishment supported the prime minister in this, it could nudge Iraq toward greater independence from Iran.

Since 2003, Ayatollah Sistani and the religious establishment have largely failed to control the worst tendencies in Iraqi politics. Now the stakes are so high that there is reason to hope for more decisive action. Iraq’s future is in their hands. The margin for error is worryingly small.

 Source: The New York Times

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