27 July 2017
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The Mosul offensive has come to an end. The Islamic State has been militarily defeated and its remnants destroyed within the city.

This is a victory for the state of Iraq. A new nation, remade after the evil of Ba'athism was removed from power, it has faced down a grave threat, and given much in a struggle against an existential enemy of the free world.

But this victory has been marred – and will continue to be diminished – by worrying reports reaching outsiders from Mosul.

Journalists are beginning to pick up on troubling stories, stories amplified by social media of sectarian crimes being committed by victorious Iraqi forces after recapturing the last stretches of Mosul from ISIS.

This is an entirely negative development – both in purely moral, humanitarian terms, and also tactically.

A thinking being cannot but be repelled by footage purporting to show Iraqi forces throwing people off cliffs, or executing people in the street, without trial or deliberation.

Whether these videos are exactly as they seem is almost immaterial. In this case, perception is all that matters. Though some in the West gloat at these pictures, taking it as read that all who suffer in them are ISIS and therefore deserving, this outcome is a tragedy for Iraq.

The international coalition planned the Mosul offensive cleverly and orchestrated it deliberately. It was not meant to turn out like this.

The whole point of taking Mosul using Iraqi state forces alone, rather than ethnic or religiously sectarian militias, was to avoid population-cleansing afterwards. The ambition was to build an image of unity.

The crimes of Iranian-supported and -organised Shiite militias are legendary, not least because the horror of these stories grow and mutate in the imagination. Practical examples abound: worried Sunnis can point to the desecration of corpses by men such as Abu Azrael, a celebrated Shiite jihadist and militiaman.

They can look to what happened in Ramadi, where much of the city was destroyed by sectarian militias, and see, fearfully, a reflection of a possible future.

The real tragedy of all this is that the recapture of Mosul is or should be an unambiguous triumph for Iraq. It is a new nation and has rebounded from defeat in 2014. In retaking Mosul, its soldiers have paid a heavy price for an offensive the whole world was rooting for.

Iraq has improved its tactics. It has managed to minimize overt Iranian influence on the latter stages of this offensive. In doing so, Iraqi forces bore the brunt of the fighting and some elite units, such as the Special Operations Forces (popularly known as the Golden Division), have taken notably high casualties.

But all of this risks being sabotaged by trigger-happy soldiers taking revenge on suspected ISIS remnants in Mosul. Many of those killed cannot be ISIS; they were instead trapped in the areas where militants fought to their last.

Those civilians are just as much victims of ISIS as any other inhabitants of Mosul, but their presence in is taken for complicity. This in an offensive which has featured conclusive evidence of Islamic State fighters using civilians as human shields.

Some of the reports have been truly awful; and the videos purporting to show torture and executions are already floating around on social media.

Such indiscriminate reprisals are sure to fuel Sunni fears and possibly lay the groundwork for long-term problems.

If an ISIS-like organisation either survives this current conflict or becomes a standard to which disaffected Sunnis to flock, the Iraqi state and its international allies will have failed.

Mosul was a battlefront and a warzone. Its buildings and streets have taken a battering, as has its population. They now need help rebuilding, and Iraqi authorities must receive assistance, moral and financial, strategic and tactical, to begin doing so.

But the new Iraq's military triumph in Mosul is already being undermined, both internally, by dissolute elements in its armed forces, and externally, by those who have decided that defeating ISIS in Mosul is not a victory worth the name.

This cannot be allowed to continue. Iraq's victory is being undermined and traduced, and this is a real worry for anyone who cares about future of the country and its people.

Source: Washington Examiner

MOSUL, Iraq -- For one Iraqi lieutenant, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul has been a slow, methodical quest for revenge. For three years, he has hunted for two ISIS militants from his village who he believes killed his father. Along the way, he has shot to death detained militants after interrogating them, he acknowledges unapologetically.

And if he catches either of the men he is searching for, the lieutenant vows he will inflict on him "a slow death" and hang his body from a post in the village after forcing him to reveal where his father's body is buried.

That sort of thirst for vengeance in the wake of military victories is fueling extrajudicial killings of suspected ISIS members at the hands of Iraqi security forces in and around Mosul. Videos that emerged last week showed troops in Mosul taking captured ISIS suspects and throwing them one by one off a high wall next to the Tigris River, then shooting their bodies below.

Speaking to The Associated Press, four Iraqi officers from three different branches of the military and security forces openly admitted that their troops killed unarmed and captured ISIS suspects, and they defended the practice. They, like the lieutenant, spoke on condition of anonymity because they acknowledged such practices were against international law, but all those interviewed by AP said they believed the fight against ISIS should be exempt from such rules of war because the militants' rule in Iraq was so cruel.

However, the killings risk tipping Iraq back into the cycles of violence that have plagued the country for over a decade, according to Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher with Human Rights Watch. ISIS was able to attract recruits in the past because of people's anger over abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings, she said.

If abuses continue, "all you're going to see is (that) young Sunni Arab men are going to want to join whatever the next extremist group looks like," she said. Despite the military's vows not to tolerate it, she said no soldier or commander has been held accountable for any killings.

The bloodshed reflects the deeply personal nature of the fight against ISIS. When the militants overran Mosul and large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, they specifically targeted members of the military and security forces and their families for brutal atrocities. Near Tirkrit, ISIS massacred some 1,700 captured military recruits and buried them in mass graves that have been uncovered since. Hundreds of policemen and soldiers in Mosul are believed to have been killed after the takeover. Militants made no attempt to hide atrocities.

Defense Ministry's spokesman, Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, said that authorities "have not registered any incident of revenge killing, whether carried out by security forces or residents. The situation is under full control and we will not allow such incidents to happen because this issue is very sensitive and leads to violent reactions."

But a senior Iraqi officer said his troops regularly killed men who were said to be ISIS among civilians fleeing the city at screening centers in and around Mosul. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the possibility it could prompt legal repercussions.

"When an entire group of civilians tells us, 'This man is Daesh,' yes, we shoot him," he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"When you're facing a man who has killed your friends, your family, yes, sometimes the men get rough," he added. "But for us, this is personal."

The lieutenant said the two men who killed his father were well known in his hometown, a small village south of Mosul. He agreed to share his story with the AP because he wanted to show how personal the fight is for Iraqi troops. Two of his colleagues confirmed his version of events. The AP is not revealing the names of the men he is pursuing because there is no way to confirm independently they belonged to ISIS.

The lieutenant said his father was an officer in the security forces who fought al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, in 2007, at the height of Iraq's sectarian violence. After ISIS seized the village in 2014, the tribes that were once kicked out for al Qaeda ties moved back in, and ISIS installed them in security and administrative positions.

According to the lieutenant, two men grabbed the lieutenant's father outside his home. The two were among those previously expelled for al Qaeda ties, he said.

The lieutenant was away, and his neighbors told him his father had been killed and who did it. He said he was told the men boasted about it in public. ISIS fighters also killed the lieutenant's uncle and more than a dozen other friends and relatives.

The lieutenant keeps an old picture of the two men on his phone. He said a handful of other troops know about his hunt and have helped him interrogate and kill ISIS suspects.

As Iraqi forces advanced toward the lieutenant's village last year in the lead-up to Mosul, he began interrogating captured ISIS suspects.

"Most of them I just asked questions," he said, "but for those who I knew had blood on their hands, I killed them on the spot."

He said he has killed more than 40 militants, whether in combat or in interrogations on the sidelines of the battle. He acknowledged most were not directly responsible for his relatives' deaths.

"I'm not selfish with my revenge, what I'm doing is for all Iraqis," he said.

Early on in the Mosul operation, he said he learned that one of the two men was in Tal Afar, a town west of Mosul that remains in ISIS hands, or had fled to Syria.

In early July, as Iraqi forces pushed into Mosul's Old City, he received a tip on the location of the second man. He said a colleague, an intelligence officer, called and said he was holding an ISIS suspect from the lieutenant's home town.

"I told him don't do anything, keep him there. I'm on my way," the lieutenant said.

The detainee was the uncle of the lieutenant's second target. The man was left alone with the lieutenant in a bare concrete room without a table or chair.

"I didn't torture him. I cut the plastic handcuffs from his wrists and gave him water," the lieutenant said. The man was elderly, with a grey beard and hair.

"He begged me not to kill him as I questioned him," he said, smiling. "He could barely walk (he was so scared)."

Eventually, the man told the lieutenant that his second target was alive and in Mosul's Old City.

"After I questioned him I sent him to hell," the lieutenant said flatly. He said he shot the man with his side arm and left his body on the floor.

The first reports of revenge killings appeared within weeks of the launch of the Mosul operation last year and continued throughout. But the government and rights groups do not have an exact number.

In June, Human Rights Watch said at least 26 bodies of blindfolded and handcuffed men had been found in dumped in government-held areas in and around Mosul. A month later, HRW said it had further reports of extrajudicial killings. Wille of Human Rights Watch said it was taking place "basically everywhere that is touched by this conflict" and by every armed force involved in the fight.

The military says troops have orders to hand any captured ISIS militants over for interrogation ahead of future trial.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday acknowledged that rights violations took place during the Iraqi forces' battle in Mosul but described them as "individual acts" by persons who were either "ignorant" of the consequences or who had struck a deal with Daesh with the intent "to defame us and the security forces."

He pledged the government would punish the perpetrators.

The lieutenant dismissed the idea of going to the courts, saying they are corrupt and suspects could bribe their way to freedom.

"I know some people believe that this kind of killing is wrong, but Daesh, they are not human beings," he said. "I am the one who still has my humanity."

When al-Abadi declared "total victory" in Mosul last week, the lieutenant said he believed his target is still in one of the last ISIS pockets in the Old City.

"I hope I find him alive," he said, "because I want to make sure he dies a slow death, not quick. I want him to tell me where my father's body is buried, and then I want to take his body and hang it from a post in my village."

Source: CBS

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. envoy for Iraq warned Monday that the road ahead for the Mideast nation is “extremely challenging” following the liberation of Mosul, stressing that freeing other territory controlled by Islamic State extremists won’t be easy.

Jan Kubis told the Security Council that supporters of the militant group are also continuing “their vicious terrorist activities against civilians in Iraq and beyond.”

With the liberation of Mosul declared on July 10 by Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the country’s coalition-backed forces must now reclaim other IS-controlled territory in parts of Ninawa and Anbar governorates, in Hawija in Kirkuk governorate and in pockets elsewhere, he said.

At the same time, Iraq must start demining, stabilizing and rebuilding Mosul so people who fled the fighting can return home, Kubis said, and it must eliminate IS cells, criminal gangs and militias operating outside government control.

Since military operations began in October to retake Mosul from IS extremists, he said approximately one million people have been displaced.

 Addressing the issue of civilian casualties, Kubis said that at al-Abadi’s direction, the liberation operation was marked by “an exceptional effort” by Iraqi forces and their international partners to avoid civilian deaths.

In stark contact, he said, IS “terrorists showed absolute disregard for human lives and civilization” by booby-trapping and destroying houses, infrastructure and religious and cultural monuments and deliberately targeting civilians.

The extremist group used civilians as human shields, locked people in their homes and used rooftop snipers to kill those attempting to flee to safety, Kubis said. “They butchered them by using suicide bombers who included females and brainwashed children,” even in camps for the displaced.

Kubis said it is also “crucial” for the government to enforce law and order, the rule of law, justice and accountability as well as implement reforms and good governance practices and promoting development. He said this must also be done in southern Iraq, which was far from the battleground.

“To turn the gains of the military victory into stability, security, justice and development, the government will have to do everything possible to give the people back their lives in society and dignity,” the U.N. special representative said.

Kubis stressed that Iraq will need substantial regional and international support to accomplish this.

He also urged the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has announced plans for a referendum Sept. 25 on independence for Kurdistan, to start negotiations “without further delay ... to urgently find common ground” and a roadmap to address critical issues.

 These discussions should focus on oil and revenue sharing, the status of disputed territories including Kirkuk, budget issues and relations between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, Kubis said.

“The absence of meaningful political dialogue could turn a conflict of interests into a different kind of conflict,” he warned.

Source: The Washington Post

With the recapturing of Mosul, the rein of ISIS in northern Iraq is coming to an end. This, however, can lead to the reemergence of a far more dangerous threat for the future of this fledgling democracy.

Iran and its destructive meddling Mesopotamia has devastated this entire nation, leaving at least tens of thousands killed, scores more wounded, injured and displaced.

Tehran has continuously targeted the Sunni community in Iraq and taken advantage of the war against ISIS to change the very fabric of this minority. Sunni provinces have been the target of this wrath especially after Nouri al-Maliki, described by many as Iran’s puppet in Iraq, reached the premiership in 2006.

Dark history

Ever since 2003, with a surge beginning under al-Maliki’s watch, Iran has flooded its western border neighbor with financial, logistical and manpower resources, spearheaded by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).

The track record of Iran-backed proxy groups and death squads in Iraq is nothing short of deadly and atrocious. One group alone, Asai’b Ahl al-Haq, claims to have launched over 6,000 attacks targeting US soldiers from 2006 onward.

Amnesty International has also filed a disturbing report over Iran-backed militias being supplied US arms by the Iraqi government, only to carry out war crimes targeting the Sunni community.

War against ISIS

The defeat of ISIS must not be considered the end of the nightmare. Far from it. General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition forces against ISIS, recently emphasized the importance of all Iraqi parties reaching a political consensus in the post-ISIS stage.

To emphasize his point, Townsend touched on the sensitive topic of Iraqi Sunnis feeling unrepresented in Baghdad.

Former US defense secretary Ashton Carter, who supervised the anti-ISIS effort from early 2015 to January of this year, underscored “chaos and extremism” will follow if the “political and economic campaigns that must follow” fail to render the results needed for Iraq future’s.

The hidden occupation

On a side-note, the internal sectarian drives in Iraq are not be considered the result of an especially bloody history. Iraq’s conglomerate of communities experienced peaceful coexistence for over a millennium.

As Iran began its hidden occupation from 2003 onward, one campaign pillar focused on instigating sectarian strife with the objective of expanding its influence through Shiite communities in strategic areas across the country. Such policies have been carried out vividly in all Sunni provinces recaptured from ISIS control.

There is no need to divide Iraq into federalized states, as this would deepen the rifts amongst a nation that needs to begin rebuilding the bridges and bonds destroyed.

Independent figure

Despite all the flaws in the campaign against ISIS, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has the potential to be pulled out of Iran’s influence and act as an independent figure. This is especially true as he has stood in the face of Iran’s pressures, while there remains far more necessary cleansing of the mullahs’ influence in Iraq.

Following the historic Riyadh summit earlier this year, it is time for the Trump administration, allied with the Arab World, to take serious action curbing Iran’s influence in Iraq.

All al-Abadi government officials must prove their allegiance to the Iraqi people and not the Iranian regime. The Iraqi judiciary is also heavily under Tehran’s influence, seen specifically when the country’s supreme court last October blocking al-Abadi’s reform package aiming to “decrease the political space — and platform — for sectarian saboteurs and political spoilers like Maliki,” as explained in The Hill.

Steps ahead

Iraq now lays in devastation and the road ahead will be difficult. This country needs the correct support from its well-meaning neighbors – not the regime in Iran – and the international community to once again stand on its own and play its expected part in today’s world.

This is a breakdown of the utmost necessary measures:

1) Stanching Iran’s influence, especially at senior levels in Baghdad and the security apparatus, and supporting al-Abadi distance from Iran
2) Confront Iran’s meddling by preventing al-Maliki from regaining the premier seat, and dismantling the Popular Mobilization Units and all death squads, parallel to blacklisting Iran’s IRGC
3) Supporting the Sunni community in all Iraqi hierarchy and security forces, and establishing an equal method of governance across the country.

In a recent speech, Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi highlighted how Iran has for 38 years been at war with Iraq and other nations in the region and beyond.

She underscored, “…the ultimate solution to the crisis in the region and to confronting groups like ISIS lies in the overthrow of the Iranian regime by the Iranian people and it's Resistance.” That seems to be the only way to protect Iraq from Iran.

Source: Al Arabya

The fight to eject the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from Mosul — the terror group’s last stronghold in Iraq — has demonstrated that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government can be a proven counterterrorism partner in rolling back ISIS gains. Beyond this immediate goal, the Trump administration must turn its attention to three key governance issues that will determine Baghdad’s future beginning the day after it reclaimed Iraq’s second largest city:

  1. Stanching Iranian influence at the highest levels of government;
  2. Restraining powerful Shiite militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs); and
  3. Empowering Sunni elements within the Iraqi security architecture.  

Failing to curb Iranian meddling risks replanting the seeds that gave rise to the ISIS onslaught.

Iran considers Iraq its own “near-abroad:” a pliant and vulnerable country upon which Tehran can project its power and protect its interests.  To dominate the political scene inside Iraq, the mullahs employ a combination of money, matériel, and manpower, namely through Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operatives and Shiite militias.  Underscoring how embedded Iran is in the Iraqi government’s architecture, Iraq’s own interior minister, Qasim Mohammad Jalal al-Araji, is an IRGC-trained member of the Badr Organization — Iran’s oldest Iraqi proxy.  Additionally, Iraq’s Iran-backed vice president, Nouri al-Maliki — rumored to be attempting a political comeback—recently proclaimed that Tehran alone assisted Iraq in its hour of need fighting ISIS.

To halt Iranian expansionism, the Trump administration must help Iraq ensure its officials are loyal to Baghdad rather than Tehran.  One structural fix would be to push the Abadi government to follow through on its vow to abolish its system of dual vice presidents and deputy prime ministers.  Last October, the Iraqi Supreme Court overturned on procedural grounds Prime Minister Abadi’s landmark reform package, which included the dissolution of these honorary — yet powerful — offices.  The reform is important because it would decrease the political space — and platform — for sectarian saboteurs and political spoilers like Maliki who has routinely undermined Abadi, most recently being the driving force in the axing of two cabinet ministers.

 Secondly, doubling down on Shiite militias is paramount.  U.S. officials estimate that Iraq has as many as 80,000 Iran-backed Shiite fighters on the ground.  These militias — known collectively as the PMUs — have bolstered frequently beleaguered Iraqi army contingents in efforts to clear ISIS strongholds, particularly in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baiji.  Unfortunately, the militiamen also have a bloody sectarian track record.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iran’s Shiite brothers-in-arms in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. soldiers since 2006.  In January, Amnesty International found that the militias are using U.S. arms provided by the Iraqi government to commit war crimes, including tanks, combat vehicles, grenade launchers, and small arms.  Prime Minister Abadi has attempted to rein in the PMUs, with his government passing legislation last November (over widespread Sunni objections), which would officially classify the PMUs as an “independent” arm of the Iraqi army reporting to the prime minister.  He also endeavors to merge the existing Shiite militias with Sunni forces.

The PMU law legitimizes Shiite militias, some of which are designated terrorist organizations — for example, Katai’b Hezbollah by the United States and the Badr Organization by the United Arab Emirates.  In order to prevent the conditions which gave rise to ISIS — Shiite death squads, disappearances, and torture to name a few — the Trump administration should persuade the prime minister to better integrate the PMUs into the existing military and police structures, rather than give them parallel status within the Iraqi army.  Such independent standing risks undermining the integrity of the Iraqi state — consider that Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the PMUs who is a close ally of the Iranians, recently dubbed the dissolution of the PMUs a “big crime” that would not be “possible even if (the decision) was signed by the head of government.”

At the same time, the White House should persuade the Iraqis to adopt long-stalled legislation creating a national guard.  In February 2015, the Iraqi cabinet approved a draft law creating such a force to provide Iraqi Sunnis especially a sense of protection.  The guard would be a force that’s locally based, answerable to the respective provincial governments, and only then the prime minister.

Not offering more autonomy to Sunni provinces risks more instability.  We’ve seen this play out before in 2008, when then-Prime Minister al-Maliki essentially disbanded the Sunni Awakening Movement and its 50,000 strong fighters after they successfully crushed al-Qaeda at the local level.  After promising to assimilate a quarter of the members into the army and to provide other employment opportunities to the rest, Sunni tribes saw no tangible results, fueling their alienation.  Security for the Sunni minority is essential, and the creation of a national guard would be a step in the right direction.

The Trump administration must push for real reforms, otherwise a repeat of Iraq’s sad history will result.  American firepower is vital, but dissolving excess offices, restraining PMUs, and empowering Sunnis will be just as important to rebuilding Iraq as a trusted ally.

Source: The Hill

BAGHDAD — Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.

A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.

And that’s not even the half of it.

Across the country, Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.

When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.

From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.

In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.

Over the past three years, Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, returning more than 5,000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily, and to use the country to effectively control a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

“Iranian influence is dominant,” said Hoshyar Zebari, who was ousted last year as finance minister because, he said, Iran distrusted his links to the United States. “It is paramount.”

The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states, and American allies, like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and throughout the region.

Iran is a Shiite state, and Iraq, a Shiite majority country, was ruled by an elite Sunni minority before the American invasion. The roots of the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, going back almost 1,400 years, lie in differences over the rightful leaders of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But these days, it is about geopolitics as much as religion, with the divide expressed by different states that are adversaries, led by Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other.

Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant, but diverse, projecting into military, political, economic and cultural affairs.

At some border posts in the south, Iraqi sovereignty is an afterthought. Busloads of young militia recruits cross into Iran without so much as a document check. They receive military training and are then flown to Syria, where they fight under the command of Iranian officers in defense of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Passing in the other direction, truck drivers pump Iranian products — food, household goods, illicit drugs — into what has become a vital and captive market.

Iran tips the scales to its favor in every area of commerce. In the city of Najaf, it even picks up the trash, after the provincial council there awarded a municipal contract to a private Iranian company. One member of the council, Zuhair al-Jibouri, resorted to a now-common Iraqi aphorism: “We import apples from Iran so we can give them away to Iranian pilgrims.”

Politically, Iran has a large number of allies in Iraq’s Parliament who can help secure its goals. And its influence over the choice of interior minister, through a militia and political group the Iranians built up in the 1980s to oppose Mr. Hussein, has given it substantial control over that ministry and the federal police.

Perhaps most crucial, Parliament passed a law last year that effectively made the constellation of Shiite militias a permanent fixture of Iraq’s security forces. This ensures Iraqi funding for the groups while effectively maintaining Iran’s control over some of the most powerful units.

Now, with new parliamentary elections on the horizon, Shiite militias have begun organizing themselves politically for a contest that could secure even more dominance for Iran over Iraq’s political system.

To gain advantage on the airwaves, new television channels set up with Iranian money and linked to Shiite militias broadcast news coverage portraying Iran as Iraq’s protector and the United States as a devious interloper.

Partly in an effort to contain Iran, the United States has indicated that it will keep troops behind in Iraq after the battle against the Islamic State. American diplomats have worked to emphasize the government security forces’ role in the fighting, and to shore up a prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has seemed more open to the United States than to Iran.

But after the United States’ abrupt withdrawal of troops in 2011, American constancy is still in question here — a broad failure of American foreign policy, with responsibility shared across three administrations.

Iran has been playing a deeper game, parlaying extensive religious ties with Iraq’s Shiite majority and a much wider network of local allies, as it makes the case that it is Iraq’s only reliable defender.

 

A Road to the Sea

Iran’s great project in eastern Iraq may not look like much: a 15-mile stretch of dusty road, mostly gravel, through desert and scrub near the border in Diyala Province.

But it is an important new leg of Iran’s path through Iraq to Syria, and what it carries — Shiite militiamen, Iranian delegations, trade goods and military supplies — is its most valuable feature.

It is a piece of what analysts and Iranian officials say is Iran’s most pressing ambition: to exploit the chaos of the region to project influence across Iraq and beyond. Eventually, analysts say, Iran could use the corridor, established on the ground through militias under its control, to ship weapons and supplies to proxies in Syria, where Iran is an important backer of Mr. Assad, and to Lebanon and its ally Hezbollah.

At the border to the east is a new crossing built and secured by Iran. Like the relationship between the two countries, it is lopsided.

The checkpoint’s daily traffic includes up to 200 Iranian trucks, carrying fruit and yogurt, concrete and bricks, into Iraq. In the offices of Iraqi border guards, the candies and soda offered to guests come from Iran.

No loaded trucks go the other way.

“Iraq doesn’t have anything to offer Iran,” Vahid Gachi, the Iranian official in charge of the crossing, said in an interview in his office, as lines of tractor-trailers poured into Iraq. “Except for oil, Iraq relies on Iran for everything.”

The border post is also a critical transit point for Iran’s military leaders to send weapons and other supplies to proxies fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.

After the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, swept across Diyala and neighboring areas in 2014, Iran made clearing the province, a diverse area of Sunnis and Shiites, a priority.

It marshaled a huge force of Shiite militias, many trained in Iran and advised on the ground by Iranian officials. After a quick victory, Iranians and their militia allies set about securing their next interests here: marginalizing the province’s Sunni minority and securing a path to Syria. Iran has fought aggressively to keep its ally Mr. Assad in power in order to retain land access to its most important spinoff in the region, Hezbollah, the military and political force that dominates Lebanon and threatens Israel.

A word from Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s powerful spymaster, sent an army of local Iraqi contractors scrambling, lining up trucks and bulldozers to help build the road, free of charge. Militiamen loyal to Iran were ordered to secure the site.

Uday al-Khadran, the Shiite mayor of Khalis District in Diyala, is a member of the Badr Organization, an Iraqi political party and militia established by Tehran in the 1980s to fight against Mr. Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

On an afternoon earlier this year, he spread a map across his desk and proudly discussed how he helped build the road, which he said was ordered by General Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for foreign operations. General Suleimani secretly directed Iran’s policy in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in attacks carried out by militias under his control.

“I love Qassim Suleimani more than my children,” he said.

Mr. Khadran said the general’s new road would eventually be a shortcut for religious pilgrims from Iran to reach Samarra, Iraq, the location of an important shrine.

But he also acknowledged the route’s greater strategic significance as part of a corridor secured by Iranian proxies that extends across central and northern Iraq. The connecting series of roads skirts the western city of Mosul and stretches on to Tal Afar, an Islamic State-controlled city where Iranian-backed militias and Iranian advisers have set up a base at an airstrip on the outskirts.

“Diyala is the passage to Syria and Lebanon, and this is very important to Iran,” said Ali al-Daini, the Sunni chairman of the provincial council there.

Closer to Syria, Iranian-allied militias moved west of Mosul as the battle against the Islamic State unfolded there in recent months. The militias captured the town of Baaj, and then proceeded to the Syrian border, putting Iran on the cusp of completing its corridor.

Back east, in Diyala, Mr. Daini said he had been powerless to halt what he described as Iran’s dominance in the province.

When Mr. Daini goes to work, he said, he has to walk by posters of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, outside the council building.

Iran’s militias in the province have been accused of widespread sectarian cleansing, pushing Sunnis from their homes to establish Shiite dominance and create a buffer zone on its border. The Islamic State was beaten in Diyala more than two years ago, but thousands of Sunni families still fill squalid camps, unable to return home.

Now, Diyala has become a showcase for how Iran views Shiite ascendancy as critical to its geopolitical goals.

“Iran is smarter than America,” said Nijat al-Taie, a Sunni member of the provincial council and an outspoken critic of Iran, which she calls the instigator of several assassination attempts against her. “They achieved their goals on the ground. America didn’t protect Iraq. They just toppled the regime and handed the country over to Iran.”

 

The Business of Influence

The lives of General Suleimani and other senior leaders in Tehran were shaped by the prolonged war with Iraq in the 1980s. The conflict left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides, and General Suleimani spent much of the war at the front, swiftly rising in rank as so many officers were killed.

“The Iran-Iraq war was the formative experience for all of Iran’s leaders,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization. “From Suleimani all the way down. It was their ‘never again’ moment.”

A border dispute over the Shatt al Arab waterway that was a factor in the hostilities has still not been resolved, and the legacy of the war’s brutality has influenced the Iranian government ever since, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its policy in Iraq.

“This is a permanent scar in their mind,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a lawmaker and former national security adviser. “They are obsessed with Baathism, Saddam and the Iran-Iraq war.”

More than anything else, analysts say, it is the scarring legacy of that war that has driven Iranian ambitions to dominate Iraq.

Particularly in southern Iraq, where the population is mostly Shiite, signs of Iranian influence are everywhere.

Iranian-backed militias are the defenders of the Shiite shrines in the cities of Najaf and Karbala that drive trade and tourism. In local councils, Iranian-backed political parties have solid majorities, and campaign materials stress relationships with Shiite saints and Iranian clerics.

If the Iraqi government were stronger, said Mustaq al-Abady, a businessman from just outside Najaf, “then maybe we could open our factories instead of going to Iran.” He said his warehouse was crowded with Iranian imports because his government had done nothing to promote a private sector, police its borders or enforce customs duties.

Raad Fadhil al-Alwani, a merchant in Hilla, another southern city, imports cleaning supplies and floor tiles from Iran. He slaps “Made in Iraq” labels in Arabic on bottles of detergent, but the reality is that he owns a factory in Iran because labor is cheaper there.

“I feel like I am destroying the economy of Iraq,” he said. But he insists that Iraqi politicians, by deferring to Iranian pressure and refusing to support local industry, have made it hard to do anything else.

Najaf attracts millions of Iranian pilgrims each year visiting the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali, the first Shiite imam. Iranian construction workers — many of whom are viewed as Iranian spies by Iraqi officials — have also flocked to the city to renovate the shrine and build hotels.

In Babil Province, according to local officials, militia leaders have taken over a government project to set up security cameras along strategic roads. The project had been granted to a Chinese company before the militias intervened, and now the army and the local police have been sidelined from it, said Muqdad Omran, an Iraqi Army captain in the area.

Iran’s pre-eminence in the Iraqi south has not come without resentment. Iraqi Shiites share a faith with Iran, but they also hold close their other identities as Iraqis and Arabs.

“Iraq belongs to the Arab League, not to Iran,” said Sheikh Fadhil al-Bidayri, a cleric at the religious seminary in Najaf. “Shiites are a majority in Iraq, but a minority in the world. As long as the Iranian government is controlling the Iraqi government, we don’t have a chance.”

In this region where the Islamic State’s military threat has never encroached, Iran’s security concerns are mostly being addressed by economic manipulation, Iraqi officials say. Trade in the south is often financed by Iran with credit, and incentives are offered to Iraqi traders to keep their cash in Iranian banks.

Baghdad’s banks play a role, too, as the financial anchors for Iraqi front companies used by Iran to gain access to dollars that can then finance the country’s broader geopolitical aims, said Entifadh Qanbar, a former aide to the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, who died in 2015.

“It’s very important for the Iranians to maintain corruption in Iraq,” he said.

 

The Militias’ Long Arm

For decades, Iran smuggled guns and bomb-making supplies through the vast swamps of southern Iraq. And young men were brought back and forth across the border, from one safe house to another — recruits going to Iran for training, and then back to Iraq to fight. At first the enemy was Mr. Hussein; later, it was the Americans.

Today, agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards openly recruit fighters in the Shiite-majority cities of southern Iraq. Buses filled with recruits easily pass border posts that officials say are essentially controlled by Iran — through its proxies on the Iraqi side, and its own border guards on the other.

While Iran has built up militias to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, it has also mobilized an army of disaffected young Shiite Iraqi men to fight on its behalf in Syria.

Mohammad Kadhim, 31, is one of those foot soldiers for Iran, having served three tours in Syria. The recruiting pitch, he said, is mostly based in faith, to defend Shiite shrines in Syria. But Mr. Kadhim said he and his friends signed up more out of a need for jobs.

“I was just looking for money,” he said. “The majority of the youth I met fighting in Syria do it for the money.”

He signed up with a Revolutionary Guards recruiter in Najaf, and then was bused through southern Iraq and into Iran, where he underwent military training near Tehran.

There, he said, Iranian officers delivered speeches invoking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the revered seventh-century Shiite figure whose death at the hands of a powerful Sunni army became the event around which Shiite spirituality would revolve. The same enemies of the Shiites who killed the imam are now in Syria and Iraq, the officers told the men.

After traveling to Iran, Mr. Kadhim came home for a break and then was shipped to Syria, where Hezbollah operatives trained him in sniper tactics.

Iran’s emphasis on defending the Shiite faith has led some here to conclude that its ultimate goal is to bring about an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. But there is a persistent sense that it just would not work in Iraq, which has a much larger native Sunni population and tradition, and Iraq’s clerics in Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the world’s pre-eminent Shiite spiritual leader, oppose the Iranian system.

But Iran is taking steps to translate militia power into political power, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and militia leaders have begun political organizing before next year’s parliamentary elections.

In April, Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite militia leader, delivered a speech to an audience of Iraqi college students, railing against the United States and the nefarious plotting of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Then, a poet who was part of Mr. Khazali’s entourage stood up and began praising General Suleimani.

For the students, that was the last straw. Chants of “Iran out! Iran out!” began. Scuffles broke out between students and Mr. Khazali’s bodyguards, who fired their rifles into the air just outside the building.

“The thing that really provoked us was the poet,” said Mustafa Kamal, a student at the University of al-Qadisiya in Diwaniya, in southern Iraq, who participated in the protest.

Mr. Kamal and his fellow students quickly learned how dangerous it could be to stand up to Iran these days.

First, militiamen began threatening to haul them off. Then media outlets linked to the militias went after them, posting their pictures and calling them Baathists and enemies of Shiites. When a mysterious car appeared near Mr. Kamal’s house, his mother panicked that militiamen were coming for her son.

Then, finally, Mr. Kamal, a law student, and three of his friends received notices from the school saying they had been suspended for a year.

“We thought we had only one hope, the university,” he said. “And then Iran also interfered there.”

Mr. Khazali, whose political and militia organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, is deeply connected with Iran, has been on a speaking tour on campuses across Iraq as part of an effort to organize political support for next year’s national election. This has raised fears that Iran is trying not only to deepen its influence within Iraqi education, but also to transform militias into outright political and social organizations, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“It’s another type of Iranian infiltration and the expansion of Iran’s influence,” said Beriwan Khailany, a lawmaker and member of Parliament’s higher-education committee. “Iran wants to control the youth, and to teach them the Iranian beliefs, through Iraqis who are loyal to Iran.”

 

Political Ascendancy

When a group of Qatari falcon hunters, “including members of the royal family, were kidnapped in 2015 while on safari in the southern deserts of Iraq, Qatar called Iran and its militia allies — not the central government in Baghdad.

For Mr. Abadi, the prime minister, the episode was an embarrassing demonstration of his government’s weakness at the hands of Iran, whose proxy militia Kataibb Hezbollah was believed to be behind the kidnapping.

So when the hostage negotiations were about to end, Mr. Abadi pushed back.

Around noon on a day in April, a government jet from Qatar landed in Baghdad, carrying a delegation of diplomats and 500 million euros stuffed into 23 black boxes.

The hunters were soon on their way home, but the ransom did not go to the Iranian-backed militiamen who had abducted the Qataris; the cash ended up in a central bank vault in Baghdad.

The seizure of the money had been ordered by Mr. Abadi, who was furious at the prospect of militias, and their Iranian and Hezbollah benefactors, being paid so richly right under the Iraqi government’s nose.

“Hundreds of millions to armed groups?” Mr. Abadi said in a public rant. “Is this acceptable?”

In Iraq, the kidnapping episode was seen as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and emblematic of Iran’s suffocating power over the Iraqi state.

In a post on Twitter, Mr. Zebari, the former finance minister, who was previously foreign minister, called the episode a “travesty.”

Mr. Zebari knows firsthand the power of Iran over the Iraqi state.

Last year, he said, he was ousted as finance minister because Iran perceived him as being too close to the United States. The account was verified by a member of Parliament who was involved in the removal of Mr. Zebari, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Iran.

Mr. Zebari, who recounted the events in an interview from his mountainside mansion in northern Iraq, said that when President Barack Obama met with Mr. Abadi last September at the United Nations, the American leader personally lobbied to save Mr. Zebari’s job. Even that was not enough.

Mr. Abadi now finds himself in a difficult position. If he makes any move that can be seen as confrontational toward Iran, or as positioning himself closer to the United States, it could place a cloud over his political future.

“He had two options: to be with the Americans or with the Iranians,” said Izzat Shahbander, a prominent Iraqi Shiite leader who once lived in exile in Iran while Mr. Hussein was in power. “And he chose to be with the Americans.”

Mr. Abadi, who took office in 2014 with the support of both the United States and Iran, has seemed more emboldened to push back against Iranian pressure since President Trump took office.

In addition to seizing the ransom money, he has promoted an ambitious project for an American company to secure the highway from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, which Iran has opposed. He has also begun discussing with the United States the terms of a deal to keep American forces behind after the Islamic State is defeated.

Some are seeing an American troop commitment as a chance to revisit the 2011 withdrawal of United States forces that seemingly opened a door for Iran.

When American officials in Iraq began the slow wind-down of the military mission there, in 2009, some diplomats in Baghdad were cautiously celebrating one achievement: Iran seemed to be on its heels, its influence in the country waning.

“Over the last year, Iran has lost the strategic initiative in Iraq,” one diplomat wrote in a cable, later released by WikiLeaks.

But other cables sent warnings back to Washington that were frequently voiced by Iraqi officials they spoke to: that if the Americans left, then Iran would fill the vacuum.

Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said that if the United States left again after the Islamic State was defeated, “it would be effectively just giving the Iranians a free rein.”

But many Iraqis say the Iranians already have free rein. And while the Trump administration has indicated that it will pay closer attention to Iraq as a means to counter Iran, the question is whether it is too late.

“Iran is not going to sit silent and do nothing,” said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician who has good relationships with both the Iranians and Americans. “They have many means. Frankly, the Americans can’t do anything.”

Source: The New York Times

(Beirut) – Allegations are emerging of Iraqi forces beating and unlawfully killing men and boys fleeing Mosul in the final phase of the battle against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.

Four witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw Iraqi forces beat unarmed men and boys fleeing the fighting within the last seven days, and said they also obtained information about Iraqi forces executing unarmed men during this time period.

“As Iraqi forces are poised to retake the entire city of Mosul, allegations of unlawful killings and beatings significantly raise concerns for the civilians there who have been living under ISIS control,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi forces are promising liberation, but they need to find out what’s happening now and stop any abuse.”

One witness said that three Emergency Response Division and Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members on a key route for civilians fleeing the city boasted to him that they were executing captured unarmed men who were thought to be ISIS-affiliated instead of detaining them. The Emergency Response Division and ISF fighters, stationed three kilometers from the heaviest fighting in the Old City, said they made an exception for elderly men, the witness said.

Two other witnesses said they saw Iraqi uniformed soldiers pick at least six men and boys out of crowds of fleeing civilians at a checkpoint, beat them, and drive them away. They said they saw soldiers pick out another man, beat him, and then move him into a building they were using as a base. One of the witnesses said that soldiers later said they had killed him.

“I have heard of countless abuses and executions in this battle,” one witness said. “But what’s changed is that in this final phase fighters are no longer hiding what they are doing and are comfortable allowing us to witness the abuses first-hand.”

The same witness said that earlier this week, he heard three screams coming from a building being used by the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), after which fighters from the unit ushered him away. That afternoon in another neighborhood of west Mosul, the witness saw two CTS fighters take down the corpse of an alleged ISIS fighter that had been strung up to an electrical pole, and stone the body before taking a few photos of each other posing with it.

That night, he said, a CTS fighter also showed him a video of a severely beaten man who the fighter said was an ISIS prisoner. In the video the CTS fighter shoots and kills the unarmed detainee, he said.

In the days before, the man said he saw five Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint pick out at least 10 men over a period of an hour, beat them, and drag them toward a building the soldiers were using as a base. He said that one of the men the soldiers were beating was wounded and that he had arrived with his family from a front-line field hospital. The witness said that as he was leaving the area he saw the soldiers single out more and more men, beat them and take them away, but lost count of how many.

An article published in a Swedish outlet on June 28, 2017, by a Swedish journalist who was on the front-line says that a Federal Police officer boasted about decapitating at least 50 men with knives and beating others, with fellow officers watching, cheering, and sometimes filming. The article said the Federal Police backed up these claims with photos and videos.

Throughout the operation to retake Mosul, Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi forces detaining and holding thousands of men and boys in inhumane conditions without charge, and in some cases torturing and executing them, under the guise of a screening them for ISIS-affiliation. In May 2016, Iraqi forces retook the city of Fallujah from ISIS, but in the operation committed horrific abuses, including executions, torture, and the disappearance of over 600 men whose bodies have yet to be found.

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns regarding allegations of ill-treatment, torture, and executions numerous times in meetings with Iraqi officials in Baghdad as well as with representatives from US-led coalition member countries. Human Rights Watch does not know of a single transparent investigation into abuses by Iraqi armed forces, any instances of commanders being held accountable for abuse, or any victims of abuse receiving compensation.

Iraqi criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings and mutilation of corpses, committed by any party in the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted. Extrajudicial executions and torture during an armed conflict are war crimes. Despoiling dead bodies and other outrages on personal dignity are violations of the laws of armed conflict and may amount to war crimes.

“Reports of unlawful executions and beatings by Iraqi soldiers should be enough to raise concern among the highest ranks in Baghdad and among members of the international coalition combatting ISIS,” Fakih said. “Iraqi officials should translate that concern into accountability for war crimes.”

Source: human rights watch

Iraq and the international community must avoid the mistakes of the past

The Iraqi Security Forces are to be congratulated for the liberation of Mosul. It has come at a high cost. In the nine-month battle to liberate the city, around 1,000 Iraqi soldiers – the majority from the special forces – have lost their lives, half the city’s population has been displaced, historical sites have been destroyed and the infrastructure devastated. 

The immediate challenge is to restore basic services such as electricity and water, and ensure food supplies. Nearly a million people have been displaced by the conflict; they will need help returning to their homes and getting their lives back together. Local councils will need to agree on who gets what contracts and to oversee the implementation of reconstruction.

Security in the city will remain tenuous in the months ahead. There are likely to be revenge attacks and reprisal killings against those perceived to have collaborated with ISIL. And extremist cells may carry out bombings as they revert to insurgency tactics. It is imperative that security, especially policing, is localised and recruited from the citizens of Mosul. Once they are in place, Iraq’s army must withdraw to the barracks. In addition, the various militias will also need to withdraw and demobilize.

Iraq needs to develop legitimate and capable local governance to provide transitional justice, strengthen communities and take them forward together. This is made all the more complex given the relations between the population that ISIL controlled and the central government in Baghdad, which is perceived by many Sunnis as corrupt, sectarian and aligned with Iran.

Mosul – and Aleppo – were once great interlinked trading cities and centres of Sunni Islam in this part of the Arab world. Reconstruction is important not only to functioning services, but also to restore pride and demonstrate responsible governance after ISIL. Immediate initiatives should be to rebuild the university and the mosques. In its dying days, ISIL blew up the Al Nuri mosque and its leaning minaret. The 12th century minaret is featured on Iraq's 10,000-dinar banknote and was the main symbol of the city. A replica of some sort, or a monument to it, should be created. And as people come back to their city they will need housing: it would be a wonderful – and diplomatically smart – gesture from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi if they were to offer to underwrite the central government’s costs. 

The situation today is much worse than it was in 2003. Back then, Iraqi cities were not devastated. And Iraqis, for the most part, hoped the coalition would turn the country into Dubai within six months. Instead, the US policies of debaathification and dissolving the security forces led to state collapse and civil war. Rather, it is more similar to 2009 after the surge of US forces and the Sunni Awakening crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq. The military strategy had a great psychological impact and changed the strategic calculus of different groups in Iraq. Working closely together, American and Iraqi commanders pacified the country by protecting the population, reaching out to insurgents and brokering ceasefires. 

All the indicators at the time pointed in a positive trajectory. But then it all unraveled. Things fell apart because of the failure of politics. The Obama administration failed to uphold the 2010 election results and to broker the formation of a new government. In its rush for the exit, America gave up its role of moderator. It gave up its soft power as it withdrew its hand. 

It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will follow the same path as his predecessor, and seek to declare victory over ISIL and extricate US forces from Iraq. Should the US disengage again, it will enable Iran to project its influence even further. Iran is close to achieving its goal of a land corridor to the Mediterranean Sea, cutting across Iraq and through Syria.

Despite the awareness of the need for a plan post-ISIL, there does not seem to be clear leadership, resources or an agreed way ahead. The United Nations estimates that it will cost $1 billion to repair basic infrastructure. The international community is tired of throwing money at Iraq. This too is an area where Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states could help. Iraq is not a poor country – but it suffers from widespread corruption and remains embattled. 

To avoid a repeat of what happened before, Iraq’s political elites will need to pass and enforce important reforms. This includes tackling corruption, delivering on better governance, and, most especially, reintegrating the Sunnis into a genuine power-sharing government. It also means finding a way to work not just with Iran, Turkey and the US but also with its key Arab neighbours. If they fail to do so, there is a real risk of ISIL appearing a few years down the road.

As Iraqis today celebrate the demise of ISIL, the challenges ahead are great. They are extraordinarily resilient people. But the prospects for meaningful change are not encouraging. East Mosul was liberated five months ago, but there has only been a slow resumption of services. The province of Anbar is still without any. The Kurds intend to hold a referendum on independence in September, a step closer to the breakup of Iraq. Provincial and national elections are due to take place next year, with different militias looking to capitalize and translate their military successes into political gains. 

Despite everything, there remains a desire by Iraq’s Arab inhabitants, at least, to remain together as a country. If only Iraq’s leaders would listen to them.

Source: The National

MOSUL, Iraq — The fighting is all but over in Mosul, and the billboards are already up: hastily raised signs in which the government urged the city’s Sunni residents to “turn the page” from the terrorists of the Islamic State.

As Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Mosul to declare victory and call for unity, civilians on the longer-secured east side of the city danced and waved Iraqi flags. Some called for brotherhood between Sunnis and Shiites, or chanted, “By our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you, Iraq!”

It is a moment for Iraqis to celebrate after nearly nine months of bloody warfare against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. But despite the flaring of hope for a new national unity, the government’s costly victory in Mosul and the questions hanging over its aftermath feel more like the next chapter in the long story of Iraq’s unraveling.

Most pressing is the need to bring back hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunni civilians. But Iraq has failed to rebuild and resettle some other communities freed from the Islamic State as tensions between the Sunni minority and the majority Shiites still undermine efforts to reunite the country.

The Shiite government makes a desert of the mostly Sunni Mosul, and calls it peace.

Iraq can be happy for a very brief moment. ISIS is still out there and they should not let their guard down until they are wiped out. Also,...

Reports of past abuses by the Shiite-controlled government and its security forces and militia allies against Sunni families have kept sectarian divisions fresh. And with no sectarian reconciliation process to speak of, any setback in the resettling of Mosul could dangerously add to the list of grievances.

For the mostly Sunni residents of Mosul, there are the devastating aftereffects of living under the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. And there is deep doubt and fear over what will happen to them next.

“The people of Mosul need to be psychologically treated and rehabilitated through long-term programs,” said Intisar al-Jibouri, a member of Parliament from Mosul. “They have lost family members, been tortured, beaten for silly reasons by ISIS.”

Concerns are growing that Shiite militias that mobilized in other parts of the country to fight the Islamic State could turn their guns on one another in a scramble for power. And the thoughts of many in Iraq’s Sunni community have stayed fixed on revenge against their neighbors who supported the Islamic State, with increasing reports of violent reprisals.

The Kurds, who have operated an autonomous enclave in the north since the 1990s, are moving quickly to hold a referendum on independence in September, despite pleas from American diplomats to hold off.

So, the end of the Mosul battle, even with the Islamic State still in control of other areas of the country, resurfaces a vital question that has been asked ever since the modern and multisectarian state of Iraq was created from the ashes of World War I: Can the country hold together?

At great cost in lives and property, Iraqis have shown that they can defeat the Islamic State militarily. But whether they are up to the political challenges to bring the country together again — or even get the lights turned on in Mosul, or bring the displaced back home, for that matter — is another question entirely.

“Right now we are only fighting Daesh militarily,” said Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the pesh merga, the Kurdish security forces in northern Iraq.

As for politics and governance, Mr. Yawar, whose men participated in the early phases of the Mosul battle last fall, said: “There is nothing, no plan. We are fighting, and that’s it.”

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign minister, a Kurd originally from Mosul, said, “Everyone is in a hurry to achieve a military victory, without regard for the destruction or the day after.”

Mr. Zebari is now working to support the Kurdish referendum, which is likely to go forward despite objections from the United States, Turkey and Iran. Most expect a resounding “yes” vote, given the depth of feeling among Kurds to have their own state.

“Forget Kurdistan,” said Masrour Barzani, the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and the area’s top intelligence official. “Is the rest of Iraq united? Even the Arabs in Iraq are not united.”

He continued: “We are not the reason Iraq is falling apart. I think Iraq is a fabricated state. It was built on the wrong foundations.”

And then there is Syria. The civil war across the border, as much as the sectarian policies of the former prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, helped the Islamic State regenerate in Iraq after its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, was largely eradicated. The group was able to expand into Syria before sweeping across the border in 2014 and taking Mosul.

Without peace in Syria, officials say, there is little chance for peace and stability in Iraq.

“Syria and Iraq are closely connected,” Mr. Maliki said in an interview this year. “If the situation in Syria is unstable, Iraq will be unstable.”

When asked about the future of Iraq after the Islamic State, Mr. Maliki said: “The state cannot control the situation. The coming phase will be bad.”

With the larger questions hanging over the country, the immediate challenge of stabilizing Mosul is monumental, especially in the city’s west side. The fight has essentially turned the city into two, divided by the Tigris River. The west is a gray, dusty wasteland of flattened buildings and upturned, charred trucks; even the windows of the cars civilians are driving have been blown out. Cross the bridge, though, and suddenly the world emerges in light and color, with shops and restaurants open, and loud traffic jams.

Fighting continued on Monday in a small patch of the old city, and security forces there rescued two more girls from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority who had been held as sex slaves. The United Nations, meanwhile, put out an urgent call for funding from other nations to help the nearly 700,000 civilians still displaced from the fighting.

All day long on Monday, Iraqi state television played patriotic songs in honor of the security forces, and later in the evening, a news flash alerted that Mr. Abadi would make a “historic” speech, surrounded by soldiers. The prime minister, once again, declared victory in Mosul, saying, “Iraq is now more united than ever,” and he declared Tuesday a national holiday of celebration.In the skies over Mosul, Iraqi airplanes dropped three million leaflets on a city where many of the residents are no longer there.

Each leaflet showed a map of Mosul in the colors of the Iraqi flag — red, white and black — with the message: “Mosul has been returned to the bosom of Iraq.”

Source: The New York Times

The liberation of Mosul is complete. Islamic State is unlikely to again govern and control large swaths of territory in the near future. While the past three years of war have been brutal, there will be some justice and respite for those who have lost friends and family to Isis, as well as for the broader Iraqi population that has had to put up with it and its ilk for more than a decade.

However, while there is some reason to celebrate, the end of the so-called caliphate does not mean the end of Isis: the jihadi organisation still controls strategically important, if smaller, patches of territory in places such as Hawija and Tal Afar, and will continue to enjoy the infrastructure that will allow it to continue terrorist attacks in the country. To make the liberation of Mosul count, the Iraqi government will now have to take on the more difficult long-term challenge of confronting militant groups by way of reconstructing the country and reconciling its communities and political factions.

The war on Isis has resulted in a far-reaching humanitarian crisis. Multiple Iraqi towns and cities have been destroyed during the course of the military campaign, more than 3 million people have been displaced and 11 million require assistance, according to international organisations. Rehabilitating local communities and economies, and bridging the differences between and among the diverse sections of Iraqi society is fundamental to ensuring Isis does not enjoy the space and structural conditions that enable it to mobilise supporters and resources.

But will the government make the most of this opportunity? There is little to suggest that the Baghdad government has either the capacity or vision to move the country forward. This is, after all, a political class that has received billions of dollars in support and investment from the international community over the past decade, yet has little to show for it.

Prime minister Haider al-Abadi should be commended for his composure and conciliatory style of government since replacing the controversial former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014. However, the prospects for stability are reduced by both the lack of a framework that could reconcile differences among the political class and the heavy build-up of disparate, rival actors in and around Mosul, ranging from Shia militia groups to Arab Sunni tribes and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Isis and other militant groups will thrive unless credible, legitimate and viable governing structures are established. Iraq’s Arab Sunnis must never again have to be stuck between, on the one hand, a government perceived to be sectarian and whose sanctioning of Shia militias and neglect of northern Iraq has confirmed such fears and, on the other, militant groups that exploit these fears to swell their ranks.

Northern Iraq is now dominated by powerful Shia militia groups aligned with Iran (among them groups that have fought the Iraqi army in the past). They have repeatedly challenged the federal government and will represent a continuing problem for the Iraqi state. But Iraq’s Iran-aligned Shia militias are not going anywhere – they have capitalised on the war on Isis to establish themselves in northern Iraq, particularly in Tal Afar, which both lies close to key disputed territories and constitutes an important transit point for reinforcing fighters and supplies in Syria (where Iraq’s Shia militias and the Iranian regime are fighting in support of the Assad regime).

The presence of these groups does not bode well for Iraq’s crisis of authority and governance. They are feared by local Arab Sunni populations because of their sectarian atrocities and human-rights abuses. And it is unclear what form of political and administrative structure will replace Isis and address the concerns and grievances of the local population. Viable local government is not just a matter of security but is also fundamental to reconstruction efforts and the international support on which it depends. There will not be another chance for Iraq unless it begins to make the colossal investment count.

Amid the ineptness and corruption that plague the government in Baghdad and the Iraqi state, a thriving civil society has emerged in recent years that may represent the country’s best (and only) hope for the future. Iraq’s civil society has braved jihadis, Shia militias and the corrupt elite to do its utmost to foster pluralism and co-existence, and is attempting to hold the elite to account. Its people are better placed to do so than outside actors but lack sufficient support internationally. Indeed, while the west is grappling with its own challenges at home, that does not mean it should allow Iraq to fall off the radar, as it did before, in the years preceding the emergence of the so-called caliphate (the consequences of which have now been felt globally).

Many of Iraq’s problems are attributable to the failures of the international community. Long-term, proactive and creative engagement with the Iraqi state and population could reduce the space that groups such as Isis or Shia militias beholden to foreign interests enjoy. Where the US and its allies disengage, it is often its enemies that prosper, and the moderate, reformist Iraqis that suffer.

Source: The Guardian

The Mosul offensive has come to an end. The Islamic State has been militarily defeated and its remnants destroyed within the city.

This is a victory for the state of Iraq. A new nation, remade after the evil of Ba'athism was removed from power, it has faced down a grave threat, and given much in a struggle against an existential enemy of the free world.

But this victory has been marred – and will continue to be diminished – by worrying reports reaching outsiders from Mosul.

Journalists are beginning to pick up on troubling stories, stories amplified by social media of sectarian crimes being committed by victorious Iraqi forces after recapturing the last stretches of Mosul from ISIS.

This is an entirely negative development – both in purely moral, humanitarian terms, and also tactically.

A thinking being cannot but be repelled by footage purporting to show Iraqi forces throwing people off cliffs, or executing people in the street, without trial or deliberation.

Whether these videos are exactly as they seem is almost immaterial. In this case, perception is all that matters. Though some in the West gloat at these pictures, taking it as read that all who suffer in them are ISIS and therefore deserving, this outcome is a tragedy for Iraq.

The international coalition planned the Mosul offensive cleverly and orchestrated it deliberately. It was not meant to turn out like this.

The whole point of taking Mosul using Iraqi state forces alone, rather than ethnic or religiously sectarian militias, was to avoid population-cleansing afterwards. The ambition was to build an image of unity.

The crimes of Iranian-supported and -organised Shiite militias are legendary, not least because the horror of these stories grow and mutate in the imagination. Practical examples abound: worried Sunnis can point to the desecration of corpses by men such as Abu Azrael, a celebrated Shiite jihadist and militiaman.

They can look to what happened in Ramadi, where much of the city was destroyed by sectarian militias, and see, fearfully, a reflection of a possible future.

The real tragedy of all this is that the recapture of Mosul is or should be an unambiguous triumph for Iraq. It is a new nation and has rebounded from defeat in 2014. In retaking Mosul, its soldiers have paid a heavy price for an offensive the whole world was rooting for.

Iraq has improved its tactics. It has managed to minimize overt Iranian influence on the latter stages of this offensive. In doing so, Iraqi forces bore the brunt of the fighting and some elite units, such as the Special Operations Forces (popularly known as the Golden Division), have taken notably high casualties.

But all of this risks being sabotaged by trigger-happy soldiers taking revenge on suspected ISIS remnants in Mosul. Many of those killed cannot be ISIS; they were instead trapped in the areas where militants fought to their last.

Those civilians are just as much victims of ISIS as any other inhabitants of Mosul, but their presence in is taken for complicity. This in an offensive which has featured conclusive evidence of Islamic State fighters using civilians as human shields.

Some of the reports have been truly awful; and the videos purporting to show torture and executions are already floating around on social media.

Such indiscriminate reprisals are sure to fuel Sunni fears and possibly lay the groundwork for long-term problems.

If an ISIS-like organisation either survives this current conflict or becomes a standard to which disaffected Sunnis to flock, the Iraqi state and its international allies will have failed.

Mosul was a battlefront and a warzone. Its buildings and streets have taken a battering, as has its population. They now need help rebuilding, and Iraqi authorities must receive assistance, moral and financial, strategic and tactical, to begin doing so.

But the new Iraq's military triumph in Mosul is already being undermined, both internally, by dissolute elements in its armed forces, and externally, by those who have decided that defeating ISIS in Mosul is not a victory worth the name.

This cannot be allowed to continue. Iraq's victory is being undermined and traduced, and this is a real worry for anyone who cares about future of the country and its people.

Source: Washington Examiner

MOSUL, Iraq -- For one Iraqi lieutenant, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul has been a slow, methodical quest for revenge. For three years, he has hunted for two ISIS militants from his village who he believes killed his father. Along the way, he has shot to death detained militants after interrogating them, he acknowledges unapologetically.

And if he catches either of the men he is searching for, the lieutenant vows he will inflict on him "a slow death" and hang his body from a post in the village after forcing him to reveal where his father's body is buried.

That sort of thirst for vengeance in the wake of military victories is fueling extrajudicial killings of suspected ISIS members at the hands of Iraqi security forces in and around Mosul. Videos that emerged last week showed troops in Mosul taking captured ISIS suspects and throwing them one by one off a high wall next to the Tigris River, then shooting their bodies below.

Speaking to The Associated Press, four Iraqi officers from three different branches of the military and security forces openly admitted that their troops killed unarmed and captured ISIS suspects, and they defended the practice. They, like the lieutenant, spoke on condition of anonymity because they acknowledged such practices were against international law, but all those interviewed by AP said they believed the fight against ISIS should be exempt from such rules of war because the militants' rule in Iraq was so cruel.

However, the killings risk tipping Iraq back into the cycles of violence that have plagued the country for over a decade, according to Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher with Human Rights Watch. ISIS was able to attract recruits in the past because of people's anger over abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings, she said.

If abuses continue, "all you're going to see is (that) young Sunni Arab men are going to want to join whatever the next extremist group looks like," she said. Despite the military's vows not to tolerate it, she said no soldier or commander has been held accountable for any killings.

The bloodshed reflects the deeply personal nature of the fight against ISIS. When the militants overran Mosul and large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, they specifically targeted members of the military and security forces and their families for brutal atrocities. Near Tirkrit, ISIS massacred some 1,700 captured military recruits and buried them in mass graves that have been uncovered since. Hundreds of policemen and soldiers in Mosul are believed to have been killed after the takeover. Militants made no attempt to hide atrocities.

Defense Ministry's spokesman, Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, said that authorities "have not registered any incident of revenge killing, whether carried out by security forces or residents. The situation is under full control and we will not allow such incidents to happen because this issue is very sensitive and leads to violent reactions."

But a senior Iraqi officer said his troops regularly killed men who were said to be ISIS among civilians fleeing the city at screening centers in and around Mosul. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the possibility it could prompt legal repercussions.

"When an entire group of civilians tells us, 'This man is Daesh,' yes, we shoot him," he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"When you're facing a man who has killed your friends, your family, yes, sometimes the men get rough," he added. "But for us, this is personal."

The lieutenant said the two men who killed his father were well known in his hometown, a small village south of Mosul. He agreed to share his story with the AP because he wanted to show how personal the fight is for Iraqi troops. Two of his colleagues confirmed his version of events. The AP is not revealing the names of the men he is pursuing because there is no way to confirm independently they belonged to ISIS.

The lieutenant said his father was an officer in the security forces who fought al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, in 2007, at the height of Iraq's sectarian violence. After ISIS seized the village in 2014, the tribes that were once kicked out for al Qaeda ties moved back in, and ISIS installed them in security and administrative positions.

According to the lieutenant, two men grabbed the lieutenant's father outside his home. The two were among those previously expelled for al Qaeda ties, he said.

The lieutenant was away, and his neighbors told him his father had been killed and who did it. He said he was told the men boasted about it in public. ISIS fighters also killed the lieutenant's uncle and more than a dozen other friends and relatives.

The lieutenant keeps an old picture of the two men on his phone. He said a handful of other troops know about his hunt and have helped him interrogate and kill ISIS suspects.

As Iraqi forces advanced toward the lieutenant's village last year in the lead-up to Mosul, he began interrogating captured ISIS suspects.

"Most of them I just asked questions," he said, "but for those who I knew had blood on their hands, I killed them on the spot."

He said he has killed more than 40 militants, whether in combat or in interrogations on the sidelines of the battle. He acknowledged most were not directly responsible for his relatives' deaths.

"I'm not selfish with my revenge, what I'm doing is for all Iraqis," he said.

Early on in the Mosul operation, he said he learned that one of the two men was in Tal Afar, a town west of Mosul that remains in ISIS hands, or had fled to Syria.

In early July, as Iraqi forces pushed into Mosul's Old City, he received a tip on the location of the second man. He said a colleague, an intelligence officer, called and said he was holding an ISIS suspect from the lieutenant's home town.

"I told him don't do anything, keep him there. I'm on my way," the lieutenant said.

The detainee was the uncle of the lieutenant's second target. The man was left alone with the lieutenant in a bare concrete room without a table or chair.

"I didn't torture him. I cut the plastic handcuffs from his wrists and gave him water," the lieutenant said. The man was elderly, with a grey beard and hair.

"He begged me not to kill him as I questioned him," he said, smiling. "He could barely walk (he was so scared)."

Eventually, the man told the lieutenant that his second target was alive and in Mosul's Old City.

"After I questioned him I sent him to hell," the lieutenant said flatly. He said he shot the man with his side arm and left his body on the floor.

The first reports of revenge killings appeared within weeks of the launch of the Mosul operation last year and continued throughout. But the government and rights groups do not have an exact number.

In June, Human Rights Watch said at least 26 bodies of blindfolded and handcuffed men had been found in dumped in government-held areas in and around Mosul. A month later, HRW said it had further reports of extrajudicial killings. Wille of Human Rights Watch said it was taking place "basically everywhere that is touched by this conflict" and by every armed force involved in the fight.

The military says troops have orders to hand any captured ISIS militants over for interrogation ahead of future trial.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday acknowledged that rights violations took place during the Iraqi forces' battle in Mosul but described them as "individual acts" by persons who were either "ignorant" of the consequences or who had struck a deal with Daesh with the intent "to defame us and the security forces."

He pledged the government would punish the perpetrators.

The lieutenant dismissed the idea of going to the courts, saying they are corrupt and suspects could bribe their way to freedom.

"I know some people believe that this kind of killing is wrong, but Daesh, they are not human beings," he said. "I am the one who still has my humanity."

When al-Abadi declared "total victory" in Mosul last week, the lieutenant said he believed his target is still in one of the last ISIS pockets in the Old City.

"I hope I find him alive," he said, "because I want to make sure he dies a slow death, not quick. I want him to tell me where my father's body is buried, and then I want to take his body and hang it from a post in my village."

Source: CBS

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. envoy for Iraq warned Monday that the road ahead for the Mideast nation is “extremely challenging” following the liberation of Mosul, stressing that freeing other territory controlled by Islamic State extremists won’t be easy.

Jan Kubis told the Security Council that supporters of the militant group are also continuing “their vicious terrorist activities against civilians in Iraq and beyond.”

With the liberation of Mosul declared on July 10 by Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the country’s coalition-backed forces must now reclaim other IS-controlled territory in parts of Ninawa and Anbar governorates, in Hawija in Kirkuk governorate and in pockets elsewhere, he said.

At the same time, Iraq must start demining, stabilizing and rebuilding Mosul so people who fled the fighting can return home, Kubis said, and it must eliminate IS cells, criminal gangs and militias operating outside government control.

Since military operations began in October to retake Mosul from IS extremists, he said approximately one million people have been displaced.

 Addressing the issue of civilian casualties, Kubis said that at al-Abadi’s direction, the liberation operation was marked by “an exceptional effort” by Iraqi forces and their international partners to avoid civilian deaths.

In stark contact, he said, IS “terrorists showed absolute disregard for human lives and civilization” by booby-trapping and destroying houses, infrastructure and religious and cultural monuments and deliberately targeting civilians.

The extremist group used civilians as human shields, locked people in their homes and used rooftop snipers to kill those attempting to flee to safety, Kubis said. “They butchered them by using suicide bombers who included females and brainwashed children,” even in camps for the displaced.

Kubis said it is also “crucial” for the government to enforce law and order, the rule of law, justice and accountability as well as implement reforms and good governance practices and promoting development. He said this must also be done in southern Iraq, which was far from the battleground.

“To turn the gains of the military victory into stability, security, justice and development, the government will have to do everything possible to give the people back their lives in society and dignity,” the U.N. special representative said.

Kubis stressed that Iraq will need substantial regional and international support to accomplish this.

He also urged the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has announced plans for a referendum Sept. 25 on independence for Kurdistan, to start negotiations “without further delay ... to urgently find common ground” and a roadmap to address critical issues.

 These discussions should focus on oil and revenue sharing, the status of disputed territories including Kirkuk, budget issues and relations between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, Kubis said.

“The absence of meaningful political dialogue could turn a conflict of interests into a different kind of conflict,” he warned.

Source: The Washington Post

With the recapturing of Mosul, the rein of ISIS in northern Iraq is coming to an end. This, however, can lead to the reemergence of a far more dangerous threat for the future of this fledgling democracy.

Iran and its destructive meddling Mesopotamia has devastated this entire nation, leaving at least tens of thousands killed, scores more wounded, injured and displaced.

Tehran has continuously targeted the Sunni community in Iraq and taken advantage of the war against ISIS to change the very fabric of this minority. Sunni provinces have been the target of this wrath especially after Nouri al-Maliki, described by many as Iran’s puppet in Iraq, reached the premiership in 2006.

Dark history

Ever since 2003, with a surge beginning under al-Maliki’s watch, Iran has flooded its western border neighbor with financial, logistical and manpower resources, spearheaded by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).

The track record of Iran-backed proxy groups and death squads in Iraq is nothing short of deadly and atrocious. One group alone, Asai’b Ahl al-Haq, claims to have launched over 6,000 attacks targeting US soldiers from 2006 onward.

Amnesty International has also filed a disturbing report over Iran-backed militias being supplied US arms by the Iraqi government, only to carry out war crimes targeting the Sunni community.

War against ISIS

The defeat of ISIS must not be considered the end of the nightmare. Far from it. General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition forces against ISIS, recently emphasized the importance of all Iraqi parties reaching a political consensus in the post-ISIS stage.

To emphasize his point, Townsend touched on the sensitive topic of Iraqi Sunnis feeling unrepresented in Baghdad.

Former US defense secretary Ashton Carter, who supervised the anti-ISIS effort from early 2015 to January of this year, underscored “chaos and extremism” will follow if the “political and economic campaigns that must follow” fail to render the results needed for Iraq future’s.

The hidden occupation

On a side-note, the internal sectarian drives in Iraq are not be considered the result of an especially bloody history. Iraq’s conglomerate of communities experienced peaceful coexistence for over a millennium.

As Iran began its hidden occupation from 2003 onward, one campaign pillar focused on instigating sectarian strife with the objective of expanding its influence through Shiite communities in strategic areas across the country. Such policies have been carried out vividly in all Sunni provinces recaptured from ISIS control.

There is no need to divide Iraq into federalized states, as this would deepen the rifts amongst a nation that needs to begin rebuilding the bridges and bonds destroyed.

Independent figure

Despite all the flaws in the campaign against ISIS, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has the potential to be pulled out of Iran’s influence and act as an independent figure. This is especially true as he has stood in the face of Iran’s pressures, while there remains far more necessary cleansing of the mullahs’ influence in Iraq.

Following the historic Riyadh summit earlier this year, it is time for the Trump administration, allied with the Arab World, to take serious action curbing Iran’s influence in Iraq.

All al-Abadi government officials must prove their allegiance to the Iraqi people and not the Iranian regime. The Iraqi judiciary is also heavily under Tehran’s influence, seen specifically when the country’s supreme court last October blocking al-Abadi’s reform package aiming to “decrease the political space — and platform — for sectarian saboteurs and political spoilers like Maliki,” as explained in The Hill.

Steps ahead

Iraq now lays in devastation and the road ahead will be difficult. This country needs the correct support from its well-meaning neighbors – not the regime in Iran – and the international community to once again stand on its own and play its expected part in today’s world.

This is a breakdown of the utmost necessary measures:

1) Stanching Iran’s influence, especially at senior levels in Baghdad and the security apparatus, and supporting al-Abadi distance from Iran
2) Confront Iran’s meddling by preventing al-Maliki from regaining the premier seat, and dismantling the Popular Mobilization Units and all death squads, parallel to blacklisting Iran’s IRGC
3) Supporting the Sunni community in all Iraqi hierarchy and security forces, and establishing an equal method of governance across the country.

In a recent speech, Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi highlighted how Iran has for 38 years been at war with Iraq and other nations in the region and beyond.

She underscored, “…the ultimate solution to the crisis in the region and to confronting groups like ISIS lies in the overthrow of the Iranian regime by the Iranian people and it's Resistance.” That seems to be the only way to protect Iraq from Iran.

Source: Al Arabya

The fight to eject the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from Mosul — the terror group’s last stronghold in Iraq — has demonstrated that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government can be a proven counterterrorism partner in rolling back ISIS gains. Beyond this immediate goal, the Trump administration must turn its attention to three key governance issues that will determine Baghdad’s future beginning the day after it reclaimed Iraq’s second largest city:

  1. Stanching Iranian influence at the highest levels of government;
  2. Restraining powerful Shiite militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs); and
  3. Empowering Sunni elements within the Iraqi security architecture.  

Failing to curb Iranian meddling risks replanting the seeds that gave rise to the ISIS onslaught.

Iran considers Iraq its own “near-abroad:” a pliant and vulnerable country upon which Tehran can project its power and protect its interests.  To dominate the political scene inside Iraq, the mullahs employ a combination of money, matériel, and manpower, namely through Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operatives and Shiite militias.  Underscoring how embedded Iran is in the Iraqi government’s architecture, Iraq’s own interior minister, Qasim Mohammad Jalal al-Araji, is an IRGC-trained member of the Badr Organization — Iran’s oldest Iraqi proxy.  Additionally, Iraq’s Iran-backed vice president, Nouri al-Maliki — rumored to be attempting a political comeback—recently proclaimed that Tehran alone assisted Iraq in its hour of need fighting ISIS.

To halt Iranian expansionism, the Trump administration must help Iraq ensure its officials are loyal to Baghdad rather than Tehran.  One structural fix would be to push the Abadi government to follow through on its vow to abolish its system of dual vice presidents and deputy prime ministers.  Last October, the Iraqi Supreme Court overturned on procedural grounds Prime Minister Abadi’s landmark reform package, which included the dissolution of these honorary — yet powerful — offices.  The reform is important because it would decrease the political space — and platform — for sectarian saboteurs and political spoilers like Maliki who has routinely undermined Abadi, most recently being the driving force in the axing of two cabinet ministers.

 Secondly, doubling down on Shiite militias is paramount.  U.S. officials estimate that Iraq has as many as 80,000 Iran-backed Shiite fighters on the ground.  These militias — known collectively as the PMUs — have bolstered frequently beleaguered Iraqi army contingents in efforts to clear ISIS strongholds, particularly in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baiji.  Unfortunately, the militiamen also have a bloody sectarian track record.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iran’s Shiite brothers-in-arms in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. soldiers since 2006.  In January, Amnesty International found that the militias are using U.S. arms provided by the Iraqi government to commit war crimes, including tanks, combat vehicles, grenade launchers, and small arms.  Prime Minister Abadi has attempted to rein in the PMUs, with his government passing legislation last November (over widespread Sunni objections), which would officially classify the PMUs as an “independent” arm of the Iraqi army reporting to the prime minister.  He also endeavors to merge the existing Shiite militias with Sunni forces.

The PMU law legitimizes Shiite militias, some of which are designated terrorist organizations — for example, Katai’b Hezbollah by the United States and the Badr Organization by the United Arab Emirates.  In order to prevent the conditions which gave rise to ISIS — Shiite death squads, disappearances, and torture to name a few — the Trump administration should persuade the prime minister to better integrate the PMUs into the existing military and police structures, rather than give them parallel status within the Iraqi army.  Such independent standing risks undermining the integrity of the Iraqi state — consider that Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the PMUs who is a close ally of the Iranians, recently dubbed the dissolution of the PMUs a “big crime” that would not be “possible even if (the decision) was signed by the head of government.”

At the same time, the White House should persuade the Iraqis to adopt long-stalled legislation creating a national guard.  In February 2015, the Iraqi cabinet approved a draft law creating such a force to provide Iraqi Sunnis especially a sense of protection.  The guard would be a force that’s locally based, answerable to the respective provincial governments, and only then the prime minister.

Not offering more autonomy to Sunni provinces risks more instability.  We’ve seen this play out before in 2008, when then-Prime Minister al-Maliki essentially disbanded the Sunni Awakening Movement and its 50,000 strong fighters after they successfully crushed al-Qaeda at the local level.  After promising to assimilate a quarter of the members into the army and to provide other employment opportunities to the rest, Sunni tribes saw no tangible results, fueling their alienation.  Security for the Sunni minority is essential, and the creation of a national guard would be a step in the right direction.

The Trump administration must push for real reforms, otherwise a repeat of Iraq’s sad history will result.  American firepower is vital, but dissolving excess offices, restraining PMUs, and empowering Sunnis will be just as important to rebuilding Iraq as a trusted ally.

Source: The Hill

BAGHDAD — Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.

A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.

And that’s not even the half of it.

Across the country, Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.

When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.

From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.

In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.

Over the past three years, Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, returning more than 5,000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily, and to use the country to effectively control a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

“Iranian influence is dominant,” said Hoshyar Zebari, who was ousted last year as finance minister because, he said, Iran distrusted his links to the United States. “It is paramount.”

The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states, and American allies, like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and throughout the region.

Iran is a Shiite state, and Iraq, a Shiite majority country, was ruled by an elite Sunni minority before the American invasion. The roots of the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, going back almost 1,400 years, lie in differences over the rightful leaders of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But these days, it is about geopolitics as much as religion, with the divide expressed by different states that are adversaries, led by Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other.

Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant, but diverse, projecting into military, political, economic and cultural affairs.

At some border posts in the south, Iraqi sovereignty is an afterthought. Busloads of young militia recruits cross into Iran without so much as a document check. They receive military training and are then flown to Syria, where they fight under the command of Iranian officers in defense of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Passing in the other direction, truck drivers pump Iranian products — food, household goods, illicit drugs — into what has become a vital and captive market.

Iran tips the scales to its favor in every area of commerce. In the city of Najaf, it even picks up the trash, after the provincial council there awarded a municipal contract to a private Iranian company. One member of the council, Zuhair al-Jibouri, resorted to a now-common Iraqi aphorism: “We import apples from Iran so we can give them away to Iranian pilgrims.”

Politically, Iran has a large number of allies in Iraq’s Parliament who can help secure its goals. And its influence over the choice of interior minister, through a militia and political group the Iranians built up in the 1980s to oppose Mr. Hussein, has given it substantial control over that ministry and the federal police.

Perhaps most crucial, Parliament passed a law last year that effectively made the constellation of Shiite militias a permanent fixture of Iraq’s security forces. This ensures Iraqi funding for the groups while effectively maintaining Iran’s control over some of the most powerful units.

Now, with new parliamentary elections on the horizon, Shiite militias have begun organizing themselves politically for a contest that could secure even more dominance for Iran over Iraq’s political system.

To gain advantage on the airwaves, new television channels set up with Iranian money and linked to Shiite militias broadcast news coverage portraying Iran as Iraq’s protector and the United States as a devious interloper.

Partly in an effort to contain Iran, the United States has indicated that it will keep troops behind in Iraq after the battle against the Islamic State. American diplomats have worked to emphasize the government security forces’ role in the fighting, and to shore up a prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has seemed more open to the United States than to Iran.

But after the United States’ abrupt withdrawal of troops in 2011, American constancy is still in question here — a broad failure of American foreign policy, with responsibility shared across three administrations.

Iran has been playing a deeper game, parlaying extensive religious ties with Iraq’s Shiite majority and a much wider network of local allies, as it makes the case that it is Iraq’s only reliable defender.

 

A Road to the Sea

Iran’s great project in eastern Iraq may not look like much: a 15-mile stretch of dusty road, mostly gravel, through desert and scrub near the border in Diyala Province.

But it is an important new leg of Iran’s path through Iraq to Syria, and what it carries — Shiite militiamen, Iranian delegations, trade goods and military supplies — is its most valuable feature.

It is a piece of what analysts and Iranian officials say is Iran’s most pressing ambition: to exploit the chaos of the region to project influence across Iraq and beyond. Eventually, analysts say, Iran could use the corridor, established on the ground through militias under its control, to ship weapons and supplies to proxies in Syria, where Iran is an important backer of Mr. Assad, and to Lebanon and its ally Hezbollah.

At the border to the east is a new crossing built and secured by Iran. Like the relationship between the two countries, it is lopsided.

The checkpoint’s daily traffic includes up to 200 Iranian trucks, carrying fruit and yogurt, concrete and bricks, into Iraq. In the offices of Iraqi border guards, the candies and soda offered to guests come from Iran.

No loaded trucks go the other way.

“Iraq doesn’t have anything to offer Iran,” Vahid Gachi, the Iranian official in charge of the crossing, said in an interview in his office, as lines of tractor-trailers poured into Iraq. “Except for oil, Iraq relies on Iran for everything.”

The border post is also a critical transit point for Iran’s military leaders to send weapons and other supplies to proxies fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.

After the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, swept across Diyala and neighboring areas in 2014, Iran made clearing the province, a diverse area of Sunnis and Shiites, a priority.

It marshaled a huge force of Shiite militias, many trained in Iran and advised on the ground by Iranian officials. After a quick victory, Iranians and their militia allies set about securing their next interests here: marginalizing the province’s Sunni minority and securing a path to Syria. Iran has fought aggressively to keep its ally Mr. Assad in power in order to retain land access to its most important spinoff in the region, Hezbollah, the military and political force that dominates Lebanon and threatens Israel.

A word from Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s powerful spymaster, sent an army of local Iraqi contractors scrambling, lining up trucks and bulldozers to help build the road, free of charge. Militiamen loyal to Iran were ordered to secure the site.

Uday al-Khadran, the Shiite mayor of Khalis District in Diyala, is a member of the Badr Organization, an Iraqi political party and militia established by Tehran in the 1980s to fight against Mr. Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

On an afternoon earlier this year, he spread a map across his desk and proudly discussed how he helped build the road, which he said was ordered by General Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for foreign operations. General Suleimani secretly directed Iran’s policy in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in attacks carried out by militias under his control.

“I love Qassim Suleimani more than my children,” he said.

Mr. Khadran said the general’s new road would eventually be a shortcut for religious pilgrims from Iran to reach Samarra, Iraq, the location of an important shrine.

But he also acknowledged the route’s greater strategic significance as part of a corridor secured by Iranian proxies that extends across central and northern Iraq. The connecting series of roads skirts the western city of Mosul and stretches on to Tal Afar, an Islamic State-controlled city where Iranian-backed militias and Iranian advisers have set up a base at an airstrip on the outskirts.

“Diyala is the passage to Syria and Lebanon, and this is very important to Iran,” said Ali al-Daini, the Sunni chairman of the provincial council there.

Closer to Syria, Iranian-allied militias moved west of Mosul as the battle against the Islamic State unfolded there in recent months. The militias captured the town of Baaj, and then proceeded to the Syrian border, putting Iran on the cusp of completing its corridor.

Back east, in Diyala, Mr. Daini said he had been powerless to halt what he described as Iran’s dominance in the province.

When Mr. Daini goes to work, he said, he has to walk by posters of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, outside the council building.

Iran’s militias in the province have been accused of widespread sectarian cleansing, pushing Sunnis from their homes to establish Shiite dominance and create a buffer zone on its border. The Islamic State was beaten in Diyala more than two years ago, but thousands of Sunni families still fill squalid camps, unable to return home.

Now, Diyala has become a showcase for how Iran views Shiite ascendancy as critical to its geopolitical goals.

“Iran is smarter than America,” said Nijat al-Taie, a Sunni member of the provincial council and an outspoken critic of Iran, which she calls the instigator of several assassination attempts against her. “They achieved their goals on the ground. America didn’t protect Iraq. They just toppled the regime and handed the country over to Iran.”

 

The Business of Influence

The lives of General Suleimani and other senior leaders in Tehran were shaped by the prolonged war with Iraq in the 1980s. The conflict left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides, and General Suleimani spent much of the war at the front, swiftly rising in rank as so many officers were killed.

“The Iran-Iraq war was the formative experience for all of Iran’s leaders,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization. “From Suleimani all the way down. It was their ‘never again’ moment.”

A border dispute over the Shatt al Arab waterway that was a factor in the hostilities has still not been resolved, and the legacy of the war’s brutality has influenced the Iranian government ever since, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its policy in Iraq.

“This is a permanent scar in their mind,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a lawmaker and former national security adviser. “They are obsessed with Baathism, Saddam and the Iran-Iraq war.”

More than anything else, analysts say, it is the scarring legacy of that war that has driven Iranian ambitions to dominate Iraq.

Particularly in southern Iraq, where the population is mostly Shiite, signs of Iranian influence are everywhere.

Iranian-backed militias are the defenders of the Shiite shrines in the cities of Najaf and Karbala that drive trade and tourism. In local councils, Iranian-backed political parties have solid majorities, and campaign materials stress relationships with Shiite saints and Iranian clerics.

If the Iraqi government were stronger, said Mustaq al-Abady, a businessman from just outside Najaf, “then maybe we could open our factories instead of going to Iran.” He said his warehouse was crowded with Iranian imports because his government had done nothing to promote a private sector, police its borders or enforce customs duties.

Raad Fadhil al-Alwani, a merchant in Hilla, another southern city, imports cleaning supplies and floor tiles from Iran. He slaps “Made in Iraq” labels in Arabic on bottles of detergent, but the reality is that he owns a factory in Iran because labor is cheaper there.

“I feel like I am destroying the economy of Iraq,” he said. But he insists that Iraqi politicians, by deferring to Iranian pressure and refusing to support local industry, have made it hard to do anything else.

Najaf attracts millions of Iranian pilgrims each year visiting the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali, the first Shiite imam. Iranian construction workers — many of whom are viewed as Iranian spies by Iraqi officials — have also flocked to the city to renovate the shrine and build hotels.

In Babil Province, according to local officials, militia leaders have taken over a government project to set up security cameras along strategic roads. The project had been granted to a Chinese company before the militias intervened, and now the army and the local police have been sidelined from it, said Muqdad Omran, an Iraqi Army captain in the area.

Iran’s pre-eminence in the Iraqi south has not come without resentment. Iraqi Shiites share a faith with Iran, but they also hold close their other identities as Iraqis and Arabs.

“Iraq belongs to the Arab League, not to Iran,” said Sheikh Fadhil al-Bidayri, a cleric at the religious seminary in Najaf. “Shiites are a majority in Iraq, but a minority in the world. As long as the Iranian government is controlling the Iraqi government, we don’t have a chance.”

In this region where the Islamic State’s military threat has never encroached, Iran’s security concerns are mostly being addressed by economic manipulation, Iraqi officials say. Trade in the south is often financed by Iran with credit, and incentives are offered to Iraqi traders to keep their cash in Iranian banks.

Baghdad’s banks play a role, too, as the financial anchors for Iraqi front companies used by Iran to gain access to dollars that can then finance the country’s broader geopolitical aims, said Entifadh Qanbar, a former aide to the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, who died in 2015.

“It’s very important for the Iranians to maintain corruption in Iraq,” he said.

 

The Militias’ Long Arm

For decades, Iran smuggled guns and bomb-making supplies through the vast swamps of southern Iraq. And young men were brought back and forth across the border, from one safe house to another — recruits going to Iran for training, and then back to Iraq to fight. At first the enemy was Mr. Hussein; later, it was the Americans.

Today, agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards openly recruit fighters in the Shiite-majority cities of southern Iraq. Buses filled with recruits easily pass border posts that officials say are essentially controlled by Iran — through its proxies on the Iraqi side, and its own border guards on the other.

While Iran has built up militias to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, it has also mobilized an army of disaffected young Shiite Iraqi men to fight on its behalf in Syria.

Mohammad Kadhim, 31, is one of those foot soldiers for Iran, having served three tours in Syria. The recruiting pitch, he said, is mostly based in faith, to defend Shiite shrines in Syria. But Mr. Kadhim said he and his friends signed up more out of a need for jobs.

“I was just looking for money,” he said. “The majority of the youth I met fighting in Syria do it for the money.”

He signed up with a Revolutionary Guards recruiter in Najaf, and then was bused through southern Iraq and into Iran, where he underwent military training near Tehran.

There, he said, Iranian officers delivered speeches invoking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the revered seventh-century Shiite figure whose death at the hands of a powerful Sunni army became the event around which Shiite spirituality would revolve. The same enemies of the Shiites who killed the imam are now in Syria and Iraq, the officers told the men.

After traveling to Iran, Mr. Kadhim came home for a break and then was shipped to Syria, where Hezbollah operatives trained him in sniper tactics.

Iran’s emphasis on defending the Shiite faith has led some here to conclude that its ultimate goal is to bring about an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. But there is a persistent sense that it just would not work in Iraq, which has a much larger native Sunni population and tradition, and Iraq’s clerics in Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the world’s pre-eminent Shiite spiritual leader, oppose the Iranian system.

But Iran is taking steps to translate militia power into political power, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and militia leaders have begun political organizing before next year’s parliamentary elections.

In April, Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite militia leader, delivered a speech to an audience of Iraqi college students, railing against the United States and the nefarious plotting of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Then, a poet who was part of Mr. Khazali’s entourage stood up and began praising General Suleimani.

For the students, that was the last straw. Chants of “Iran out! Iran out!” began. Scuffles broke out between students and Mr. Khazali’s bodyguards, who fired their rifles into the air just outside the building.

“The thing that really provoked us was the poet,” said Mustafa Kamal, a student at the University of al-Qadisiya in Diwaniya, in southern Iraq, who participated in the protest.

Mr. Kamal and his fellow students quickly learned how dangerous it could be to stand up to Iran these days.

First, militiamen began threatening to haul them off. Then media outlets linked to the militias went after them, posting their pictures and calling them Baathists and enemies of Shiites. When a mysterious car appeared near Mr. Kamal’s house, his mother panicked that militiamen were coming for her son.

Then, finally, Mr. Kamal, a law student, and three of his friends received notices from the school saying they had been suspended for a year.

“We thought we had only one hope, the university,” he said. “And then Iran also interfered there.”

Mr. Khazali, whose political and militia organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, is deeply connected with Iran, has been on a speaking tour on campuses across Iraq as part of an effort to organize political support for next year’s national election. This has raised fears that Iran is trying not only to deepen its influence within Iraqi education, but also to transform militias into outright political and social organizations, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“It’s another type of Iranian infiltration and the expansion of Iran’s influence,” said Beriwan Khailany, a lawmaker and member of Parliament’s higher-education committee. “Iran wants to control the youth, and to teach them the Iranian beliefs, through Iraqis who are loyal to Iran.”

 

Political Ascendancy

When a group of Qatari falcon hunters, “including members of the royal family, were kidnapped in 2015 while on safari in the southern deserts of Iraq, Qatar called Iran and its militia allies — not the central government in Baghdad.

For Mr. Abadi, the prime minister, the episode was an embarrassing demonstration of his government’s weakness at the hands of Iran, whose proxy militia Kataibb Hezbollah was believed to be behind the kidnapping.

So when the hostage negotiations were about to end, Mr. Abadi pushed back.

Around noon on a day in April, a government jet from Qatar landed in Baghdad, carrying a delegation of diplomats and 500 million euros stuffed into 23 black boxes.

The hunters were soon on their way home, but the ransom did not go to the Iranian-backed militiamen who had abducted the Qataris; the cash ended up in a central bank vault in Baghdad.

The seizure of the money had been ordered by Mr. Abadi, who was furious at the prospect of militias, and their Iranian and Hezbollah benefactors, being paid so richly right under the Iraqi government’s nose.

“Hundreds of millions to armed groups?” Mr. Abadi said in a public rant. “Is this acceptable?”

In Iraq, the kidnapping episode was seen as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and emblematic of Iran’s suffocating power over the Iraqi state.

In a post on Twitter, Mr. Zebari, the former finance minister, who was previously foreign minister, called the episode a “travesty.”

Mr. Zebari knows firsthand the power of Iran over the Iraqi state.

Last year, he said, he was ousted as finance minister because Iran perceived him as being too close to the United States. The account was verified by a member of Parliament who was involved in the removal of Mr. Zebari, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Iran.

Mr. Zebari, who recounted the events in an interview from his mountainside mansion in northern Iraq, said that when President Barack Obama met with Mr. Abadi last September at the United Nations, the American leader personally lobbied to save Mr. Zebari’s job. Even that was not enough.

Mr. Abadi now finds himself in a difficult position. If he makes any move that can be seen as confrontational toward Iran, or as positioning himself closer to the United States, it could place a cloud over his political future.

“He had two options: to be with the Americans or with the Iranians,” said Izzat Shahbander, a prominent Iraqi Shiite leader who once lived in exile in Iran while Mr. Hussein was in power. “And he chose to be with the Americans.”

Mr. Abadi, who took office in 2014 with the support of both the United States and Iran, has seemed more emboldened to push back against Iranian pressure since President Trump took office.

In addition to seizing the ransom money, he has promoted an ambitious project for an American company to secure the highway from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, which Iran has opposed. He has also begun discussing with the United States the terms of a deal to keep American forces behind after the Islamic State is defeated.

Some are seeing an American troop commitment as a chance to revisit the 2011 withdrawal of United States forces that seemingly opened a door for Iran.

When American officials in Iraq began the slow wind-down of the military mission there, in 2009, some diplomats in Baghdad were cautiously celebrating one achievement: Iran seemed to be on its heels, its influence in the country waning.

“Over the last year, Iran has lost the strategic initiative in Iraq,” one diplomat wrote in a cable, later released by WikiLeaks.

But other cables sent warnings back to Washington that were frequently voiced by Iraqi officials they spoke to: that if the Americans left, then Iran would fill the vacuum.

Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said that if the United States left again after the Islamic State was defeated, “it would be effectively just giving the Iranians a free rein.”

But many Iraqis say the Iranians already have free rein. And while the Trump administration has indicated that it will pay closer attention to Iraq as a means to counter Iran, the question is whether it is too late.

“Iran is not going to sit silent and do nothing,” said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician who has good relationships with both the Iranians and Americans. “They have many means. Frankly, the Americans can’t do anything.”

Source: The New York Times

(Beirut) – Allegations are emerging of Iraqi forces beating and unlawfully killing men and boys fleeing Mosul in the final phase of the battle against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.

Four witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw Iraqi forces beat unarmed men and boys fleeing the fighting within the last seven days, and said they also obtained information about Iraqi forces executing unarmed men during this time period.

“As Iraqi forces are poised to retake the entire city of Mosul, allegations of unlawful killings and beatings significantly raise concerns for the civilians there who have been living under ISIS control,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi forces are promising liberation, but they need to find out what’s happening now and stop any abuse.”

One witness said that three Emergency Response Division and Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members on a key route for civilians fleeing the city boasted to him that they were executing captured unarmed men who were thought to be ISIS-affiliated instead of detaining them. The Emergency Response Division and ISF fighters, stationed three kilometers from the heaviest fighting in the Old City, said they made an exception for elderly men, the witness said.

Two other witnesses said they saw Iraqi uniformed soldiers pick at least six men and boys out of crowds of fleeing civilians at a checkpoint, beat them, and drive them away. They said they saw soldiers pick out another man, beat him, and then move him into a building they were using as a base. One of the witnesses said that soldiers later said they had killed him.

“I have heard of countless abuses and executions in this battle,” one witness said. “But what’s changed is that in this final phase fighters are no longer hiding what they are doing and are comfortable allowing us to witness the abuses first-hand.”

The same witness said that earlier this week, he heard three screams coming from a building being used by the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), after which fighters from the unit ushered him away. That afternoon in another neighborhood of west Mosul, the witness saw two CTS fighters take down the corpse of an alleged ISIS fighter that had been strung up to an electrical pole, and stone the body before taking a few photos of each other posing with it.

That night, he said, a CTS fighter also showed him a video of a severely beaten man who the fighter said was an ISIS prisoner. In the video the CTS fighter shoots and kills the unarmed detainee, he said.

In the days before, the man said he saw five Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint pick out at least 10 men over a period of an hour, beat them, and drag them toward a building the soldiers were using as a base. He said that one of the men the soldiers were beating was wounded and that he had arrived with his family from a front-line field hospital. The witness said that as he was leaving the area he saw the soldiers single out more and more men, beat them and take them away, but lost count of how many.

An article published in a Swedish outlet on June 28, 2017, by a Swedish journalist who was on the front-line says that a Federal Police officer boasted about decapitating at least 50 men with knives and beating others, with fellow officers watching, cheering, and sometimes filming. The article said the Federal Police backed up these claims with photos and videos.

Throughout the operation to retake Mosul, Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi forces detaining and holding thousands of men and boys in inhumane conditions without charge, and in some cases torturing and executing them, under the guise of a screening them for ISIS-affiliation. In May 2016, Iraqi forces retook the city of Fallujah from ISIS, but in the operation committed horrific abuses, including executions, torture, and the disappearance of over 600 men whose bodies have yet to be found.

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns regarding allegations of ill-treatment, torture, and executions numerous times in meetings with Iraqi officials in Baghdad as well as with representatives from US-led coalition member countries. Human Rights Watch does not know of a single transparent investigation into abuses by Iraqi armed forces, any instances of commanders being held accountable for abuse, or any victims of abuse receiving compensation.

Iraqi criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings and mutilation of corpses, committed by any party in the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted. Extrajudicial executions and torture during an armed conflict are war crimes. Despoiling dead bodies and other outrages on personal dignity are violations of the laws of armed conflict and may amount to war crimes.

“Reports of unlawful executions and beatings by Iraqi soldiers should be enough to raise concern among the highest ranks in Baghdad and among members of the international coalition combatting ISIS,” Fakih said. “Iraqi officials should translate that concern into accountability for war crimes.”

Source: human rights watch

Iraq and the international community must avoid the mistakes of the past

The Iraqi Security Forces are to be congratulated for the liberation of Mosul. It has come at a high cost. In the nine-month battle to liberate the city, around 1,000 Iraqi soldiers – the majority from the special forces – have lost their lives, half the city’s population has been displaced, historical sites have been destroyed and the infrastructure devastated. 

The immediate challenge is to restore basic services such as electricity and water, and ensure food supplies. Nearly a million people have been displaced by the conflict; they will need help returning to their homes and getting their lives back together. Local councils will need to agree on who gets what contracts and to oversee the implementation of reconstruction.

Security in the city will remain tenuous in the months ahead. There are likely to be revenge attacks and reprisal killings against those perceived to have collaborated with ISIL. And extremist cells may carry out bombings as they revert to insurgency tactics. It is imperative that security, especially policing, is localised and recruited from the citizens of Mosul. Once they are in place, Iraq’s army must withdraw to the barracks. In addition, the various militias will also need to withdraw and demobilize.

Iraq needs to develop legitimate and capable local governance to provide transitional justice, strengthen communities and take them forward together. This is made all the more complex given the relations between the population that ISIL controlled and the central government in Baghdad, which is perceived by many Sunnis as corrupt, sectarian and aligned with Iran.

Mosul – and Aleppo – were once great interlinked trading cities and centres of Sunni Islam in this part of the Arab world. Reconstruction is important not only to functioning services, but also to restore pride and demonstrate responsible governance after ISIL. Immediate initiatives should be to rebuild the university and the mosques. In its dying days, ISIL blew up the Al Nuri mosque and its leaning minaret. The 12th century minaret is featured on Iraq's 10,000-dinar banknote and was the main symbol of the city. A replica of some sort, or a monument to it, should be created. And as people come back to their city they will need housing: it would be a wonderful – and diplomatically smart – gesture from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi if they were to offer to underwrite the central government’s costs. 

The situation today is much worse than it was in 2003. Back then, Iraqi cities were not devastated. And Iraqis, for the most part, hoped the coalition would turn the country into Dubai within six months. Instead, the US policies of debaathification and dissolving the security forces led to state collapse and civil war. Rather, it is more similar to 2009 after the surge of US forces and the Sunni Awakening crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq. The military strategy had a great psychological impact and changed the strategic calculus of different groups in Iraq. Working closely together, American and Iraqi commanders pacified the country by protecting the population, reaching out to insurgents and brokering ceasefires. 

All the indicators at the time pointed in a positive trajectory. But then it all unraveled. Things fell apart because of the failure of politics. The Obama administration failed to uphold the 2010 election results and to broker the formation of a new government. In its rush for the exit, America gave up its role of moderator. It gave up its soft power as it withdrew its hand. 

It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will follow the same path as his predecessor, and seek to declare victory over ISIL and extricate US forces from Iraq. Should the US disengage again, it will enable Iran to project its influence even further. Iran is close to achieving its goal of a land corridor to the Mediterranean Sea, cutting across Iraq and through Syria.

Despite the awareness of the need for a plan post-ISIL, there does not seem to be clear leadership, resources or an agreed way ahead. The United Nations estimates that it will cost $1 billion to repair basic infrastructure. The international community is tired of throwing money at Iraq. This too is an area where Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states could help. Iraq is not a poor country – but it suffers from widespread corruption and remains embattled. 

To avoid a repeat of what happened before, Iraq’s political elites will need to pass and enforce important reforms. This includes tackling corruption, delivering on better governance, and, most especially, reintegrating the Sunnis into a genuine power-sharing government. It also means finding a way to work not just with Iran, Turkey and the US but also with its key Arab neighbours. If they fail to do so, there is a real risk of ISIL appearing a few years down the road.

As Iraqis today celebrate the demise of ISIL, the challenges ahead are great. They are extraordinarily resilient people. But the prospects for meaningful change are not encouraging. East Mosul was liberated five months ago, but there has only been a slow resumption of services. The province of Anbar is still without any. The Kurds intend to hold a referendum on independence in September, a step closer to the breakup of Iraq. Provincial and national elections are due to take place next year, with different militias looking to capitalize and translate their military successes into political gains. 

Despite everything, there remains a desire by Iraq’s Arab inhabitants, at least, to remain together as a country. If only Iraq’s leaders would listen to them.

Source: The National

MOSUL, Iraq — The fighting is all but over in Mosul, and the billboards are already up: hastily raised signs in which the government urged the city’s Sunni residents to “turn the page” from the terrorists of the Islamic State.

As Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Mosul to declare victory and call for unity, civilians on the longer-secured east side of the city danced and waved Iraqi flags. Some called for brotherhood between Sunnis and Shiites, or chanted, “By our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you, Iraq!”

It is a moment for Iraqis to celebrate after nearly nine months of bloody warfare against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. But despite the flaring of hope for a new national unity, the government’s costly victory in Mosul and the questions hanging over its aftermath feel more like the next chapter in the long story of Iraq’s unraveling.

Most pressing is the need to bring back hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunni civilians. But Iraq has failed to rebuild and resettle some other communities freed from the Islamic State as tensions between the Sunni minority and the majority Shiites still undermine efforts to reunite the country.

The Shiite government makes a desert of the mostly Sunni Mosul, and calls it peace.

Iraq can be happy for a very brief moment. ISIS is still out there and they should not let their guard down until they are wiped out. Also,...

Reports of past abuses by the Shiite-controlled government and its security forces and militia allies against Sunni families have kept sectarian divisions fresh. And with no sectarian reconciliation process to speak of, any setback in the resettling of Mosul could dangerously add to the list of grievances.

For the mostly Sunni residents of Mosul, there are the devastating aftereffects of living under the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. And there is deep doubt and fear over what will happen to them next.

“The people of Mosul need to be psychologically treated and rehabilitated through long-term programs,” said Intisar al-Jibouri, a member of Parliament from Mosul. “They have lost family members, been tortured, beaten for silly reasons by ISIS.”

Concerns are growing that Shiite militias that mobilized in other parts of the country to fight the Islamic State could turn their guns on one another in a scramble for power. And the thoughts of many in Iraq’s Sunni community have stayed fixed on revenge against their neighbors who supported the Islamic State, with increasing reports of violent reprisals.

The Kurds, who have operated an autonomous enclave in the north since the 1990s, are moving quickly to hold a referendum on independence in September, despite pleas from American diplomats to hold off.

So, the end of the Mosul battle, even with the Islamic State still in control of other areas of the country, resurfaces a vital question that has been asked ever since the modern and multisectarian state of Iraq was created from the ashes of World War I: Can the country hold together?

At great cost in lives and property, Iraqis have shown that they can defeat the Islamic State militarily. But whether they are up to the political challenges to bring the country together again — or even get the lights turned on in Mosul, or bring the displaced back home, for that matter — is another question entirely.

“Right now we are only fighting Daesh militarily,” said Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the pesh merga, the Kurdish security forces in northern Iraq.

As for politics and governance, Mr. Yawar, whose men participated in the early phases of the Mosul battle last fall, said: “There is nothing, no plan. We are fighting, and that’s it.”

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign minister, a Kurd originally from Mosul, said, “Everyone is in a hurry to achieve a military victory, without regard for the destruction or the day after.”

Mr. Zebari is now working to support the Kurdish referendum, which is likely to go forward despite objections from the United States, Turkey and Iran. Most expect a resounding “yes” vote, given the depth of feeling among Kurds to have their own state.

“Forget Kurdistan,” said Masrour Barzani, the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and the area’s top intelligence official. “Is the rest of Iraq united? Even the Arabs in Iraq are not united.”

He continued: “We are not the reason Iraq is falling apart. I think Iraq is a fabricated state. It was built on the wrong foundations.”

And then there is Syria. The civil war across the border, as much as the sectarian policies of the former prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, helped the Islamic State regenerate in Iraq after its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, was largely eradicated. The group was able to expand into Syria before sweeping across the border in 2014 and taking Mosul.

Without peace in Syria, officials say, there is little chance for peace and stability in Iraq.

“Syria and Iraq are closely connected,” Mr. Maliki said in an interview this year. “If the situation in Syria is unstable, Iraq will be unstable.”

When asked about the future of Iraq after the Islamic State, Mr. Maliki said: “The state cannot control the situation. The coming phase will be bad.”

With the larger questions hanging over the country, the immediate challenge of stabilizing Mosul is monumental, especially in the city’s west side. The fight has essentially turned the city into two, divided by the Tigris River. The west is a gray, dusty wasteland of flattened buildings and upturned, charred trucks; even the windows of the cars civilians are driving have been blown out. Cross the bridge, though, and suddenly the world emerges in light and color, with shops and restaurants open, and loud traffic jams.

Fighting continued on Monday in a small patch of the old city, and security forces there rescued two more girls from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority who had been held as sex slaves. The United Nations, meanwhile, put out an urgent call for funding from other nations to help the nearly 700,000 civilians still displaced from the fighting.

All day long on Monday, Iraqi state television played patriotic songs in honor of the security forces, and later in the evening, a news flash alerted that Mr. Abadi would make a “historic” speech, surrounded by soldiers. The prime minister, once again, declared victory in Mosul, saying, “Iraq is now more united than ever,” and he declared Tuesday a national holiday of celebration.In the skies over Mosul, Iraqi airplanes dropped three million leaflets on a city where many of the residents are no longer there.

Each leaflet showed a map of Mosul in the colors of the Iraqi flag — red, white and black — with the message: “Mosul has been returned to the bosom of Iraq.”

Source: The New York Times

The liberation of Mosul is complete. Islamic State is unlikely to again govern and control large swaths of territory in the near future. While the past three years of war have been brutal, there will be some justice and respite for those who have lost friends and family to Isis, as well as for the broader Iraqi population that has had to put up with it and its ilk for more than a decade.

However, while there is some reason to celebrate, the end of the so-called caliphate does not mean the end of Isis: the jihadi organisation still controls strategically important, if smaller, patches of territory in places such as Hawija and Tal Afar, and will continue to enjoy the infrastructure that will allow it to continue terrorist attacks in the country. To make the liberation of Mosul count, the Iraqi government will now have to take on the more difficult long-term challenge of confronting militant groups by way of reconstructing the country and reconciling its communities and political factions.

The war on Isis has resulted in a far-reaching humanitarian crisis. Multiple Iraqi towns and cities have been destroyed during the course of the military campaign, more than 3 million people have been displaced and 11 million require assistance, according to international organisations. Rehabilitating local communities and economies, and bridging the differences between and among the diverse sections of Iraqi society is fundamental to ensuring Isis does not enjoy the space and structural conditions that enable it to mobilise supporters and resources.

But will the government make the most of this opportunity? There is little to suggest that the Baghdad government has either the capacity or vision to move the country forward. This is, after all, a political class that has received billions of dollars in support and investment from the international community over the past decade, yet has little to show for it.

Prime minister Haider al-Abadi should be commended for his composure and conciliatory style of government since replacing the controversial former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014. However, the prospects for stability are reduced by both the lack of a framework that could reconcile differences among the political class and the heavy build-up of disparate, rival actors in and around Mosul, ranging from Shia militia groups to Arab Sunni tribes and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Isis and other militant groups will thrive unless credible, legitimate and viable governing structures are established. Iraq’s Arab Sunnis must never again have to be stuck between, on the one hand, a government perceived to be sectarian and whose sanctioning of Shia militias and neglect of northern Iraq has confirmed such fears and, on the other, militant groups that exploit these fears to swell their ranks.

Northern Iraq is now dominated by powerful Shia militia groups aligned with Iran (among them groups that have fought the Iraqi army in the past). They have repeatedly challenged the federal government and will represent a continuing problem for the Iraqi state. But Iraq’s Iran-aligned Shia militias are not going anywhere – they have capitalised on the war on Isis to establish themselves in northern Iraq, particularly in Tal Afar, which both lies close to key disputed territories and constitutes an important transit point for reinforcing fighters and supplies in Syria (where Iraq’s Shia militias and the Iranian regime are fighting in support of the Assad regime).

The presence of these groups does not bode well for Iraq’s crisis of authority and governance. They are feared by local Arab Sunni populations because of their sectarian atrocities and human-rights abuses. And it is unclear what form of political and administrative structure will replace Isis and address the concerns and grievances of the local population. Viable local government is not just a matter of security but is also fundamental to reconstruction efforts and the international support on which it depends. There will not be another chance for Iraq unless it begins to make the colossal investment count.

Amid the ineptness and corruption that plague the government in Baghdad and the Iraqi state, a thriving civil society has emerged in recent years that may represent the country’s best (and only) hope for the future. Iraq’s civil society has braved jihadis, Shia militias and the corrupt elite to do its utmost to foster pluralism and co-existence, and is attempting to hold the elite to account. Its people are better placed to do so than outside actors but lack sufficient support internationally. Indeed, while the west is grappling with its own challenges at home, that does not mean it should allow Iraq to fall off the radar, as it did before, in the years preceding the emergence of the so-called caliphate (the consequences of which have now been felt globally).

Many of Iraq’s problems are attributable to the failures of the international community. Long-term, proactive and creative engagement with the Iraqi state and population could reduce the space that groups such as Isis or Shia militias beholden to foreign interests enjoy. Where the US and its allies disengage, it is often its enemies that prosper, and the moderate, reformist Iraqis that suffer.

Source: The Guardian

The Mosul offensive has come to an end. The Islamic State has been militarily defeated and its remnants destroyed within the city.

This is a victory for the state of Iraq. A new nation, remade after the evil of Ba'athism was removed from power, it has faced down a grave threat, and given much in a struggle against an existential enemy of the free world.

But this victory has been marred – and will continue to be diminished – by worrying reports reaching outsiders from Mosul.

Journalists are beginning to pick up on troubling stories, stories amplified by social media of sectarian crimes being committed by victorious Iraqi forces after recapturing the last stretches of Mosul from ISIS.

This is an entirely negative development – both in purely moral, humanitarian terms, and also tactically.

A thinking being cannot but be repelled by footage purporting to show Iraqi forces throwing people off cliffs, or executing people in the street, without trial or deliberation.

Whether these videos are exactly as they seem is almost immaterial. In this case, perception is all that matters. Though some in the West gloat at these pictures, taking it as read that all who suffer in them are ISIS and therefore deserving, this outcome is a tragedy for Iraq.

The international coalition planned the Mosul offensive cleverly and orchestrated it deliberately. It was not meant to turn out like this.

The whole point of taking Mosul using Iraqi state forces alone, rather than ethnic or religiously sectarian militias, was to avoid population-cleansing afterwards. The ambition was to build an image of unity.

The crimes of Iranian-supported and -organised Shiite militias are legendary, not least because the horror of these stories grow and mutate in the imagination. Practical examples abound: worried Sunnis can point to the desecration of corpses by men such as Abu Azrael, a celebrated Shiite jihadist and militiaman.

They can look to what happened in Ramadi, where much of the city was destroyed by sectarian militias, and see, fearfully, a reflection of a possible future.

The real tragedy of all this is that the recapture of Mosul is or should be an unambiguous triumph for Iraq. It is a new nation and has rebounded from defeat in 2014. In retaking Mosul, its soldiers have paid a heavy price for an offensive the whole world was rooting for.

Iraq has improved its tactics. It has managed to minimize overt Iranian influence on the latter stages of this offensive. In doing so, Iraqi forces bore the brunt of the fighting and some elite units, such as the Special Operations Forces (popularly known as the Golden Division), have taken notably high casualties.

But all of this risks being sabotaged by trigger-happy soldiers taking revenge on suspected ISIS remnants in Mosul. Many of those killed cannot be ISIS; they were instead trapped in the areas where militants fought to their last.

Those civilians are just as much victims of ISIS as any other inhabitants of Mosul, but their presence in is taken for complicity. This in an offensive which has featured conclusive evidence of Islamic State fighters using civilians as human shields.

Some of the reports have been truly awful; and the videos purporting to show torture and executions are already floating around on social media.

Such indiscriminate reprisals are sure to fuel Sunni fears and possibly lay the groundwork for long-term problems.

If an ISIS-like organisation either survives this current conflict or becomes a standard to which disaffected Sunnis to flock, the Iraqi state and its international allies will have failed.

Mosul was a battlefront and a warzone. Its buildings and streets have taken a battering, as has its population. They now need help rebuilding, and Iraqi authorities must receive assistance, moral and financial, strategic and tactical, to begin doing so.

But the new Iraq's military triumph in Mosul is already being undermined, both internally, by dissolute elements in its armed forces, and externally, by those who have decided that defeating ISIS in Mosul is not a victory worth the name.

This cannot be allowed to continue. Iraq's victory is being undermined and traduced, and this is a real worry for anyone who cares about future of the country and its people.

Source: Washington Examiner

MOSUL, Iraq -- For one Iraqi lieutenant, the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Mosul has been a slow, methodical quest for revenge. For three years, he has hunted for two ISIS militants from his village who he believes killed his father. Along the way, he has shot to death detained militants after interrogating them, he acknowledges unapologetically.

And if he catches either of the men he is searching for, the lieutenant vows he will inflict on him "a slow death" and hang his body from a post in the village after forcing him to reveal where his father's body is buried.

That sort of thirst for vengeance in the wake of military victories is fueling extrajudicial killings of suspected ISIS members at the hands of Iraqi security forces in and around Mosul. Videos that emerged last week showed troops in Mosul taking captured ISIS suspects and throwing them one by one off a high wall next to the Tigris River, then shooting their bodies below.

Speaking to The Associated Press, four Iraqi officers from three different branches of the military and security forces openly admitted that their troops killed unarmed and captured ISIS suspects, and they defended the practice. They, like the lieutenant, spoke on condition of anonymity because they acknowledged such practices were against international law, but all those interviewed by AP said they believed the fight against ISIS should be exempt from such rules of war because the militants' rule in Iraq was so cruel.

However, the killings risk tipping Iraq back into the cycles of violence that have plagued the country for over a decade, according to Belkis Wille, Iraq researcher with Human Rights Watch. ISIS was able to attract recruits in the past because of people's anger over abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings, she said.

If abuses continue, "all you're going to see is (that) young Sunni Arab men are going to want to join whatever the next extremist group looks like," she said. Despite the military's vows not to tolerate it, she said no soldier or commander has been held accountable for any killings.

The bloodshed reflects the deeply personal nature of the fight against ISIS. When the militants overran Mosul and large parts of northern and western Iraq in 2014, they specifically targeted members of the military and security forces and their families for brutal atrocities. Near Tirkrit, ISIS massacred some 1,700 captured military recruits and buried them in mass graves that have been uncovered since. Hundreds of policemen and soldiers in Mosul are believed to have been killed after the takeover. Militants made no attempt to hide atrocities.

Defense Ministry's spokesman, Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim, said that authorities "have not registered any incident of revenge killing, whether carried out by security forces or residents. The situation is under full control and we will not allow such incidents to happen because this issue is very sensitive and leads to violent reactions."

But a senior Iraqi officer said his troops regularly killed men who were said to be ISIS among civilians fleeing the city at screening centers in and around Mosul. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the possibility it could prompt legal repercussions.

"When an entire group of civilians tells us, 'This man is Daesh,' yes, we shoot him," he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

"When you're facing a man who has killed your friends, your family, yes, sometimes the men get rough," he added. "But for us, this is personal."

The lieutenant said the two men who killed his father were well known in his hometown, a small village south of Mosul. He agreed to share his story with the AP because he wanted to show how personal the fight is for Iraqi troops. Two of his colleagues confirmed his version of events. The AP is not revealing the names of the men he is pursuing because there is no way to confirm independently they belonged to ISIS.

The lieutenant said his father was an officer in the security forces who fought al Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor to ISIS, in 2007, at the height of Iraq's sectarian violence. After ISIS seized the village in 2014, the tribes that were once kicked out for al Qaeda ties moved back in, and ISIS installed them in security and administrative positions.

According to the lieutenant, two men grabbed the lieutenant's father outside his home. The two were among those previously expelled for al Qaeda ties, he said.

The lieutenant was away, and his neighbors told him his father had been killed and who did it. He said he was told the men boasted about it in public. ISIS fighters also killed the lieutenant's uncle and more than a dozen other friends and relatives.

The lieutenant keeps an old picture of the two men on his phone. He said a handful of other troops know about his hunt and have helped him interrogate and kill ISIS suspects.

As Iraqi forces advanced toward the lieutenant's village last year in the lead-up to Mosul, he began interrogating captured ISIS suspects.

"Most of them I just asked questions," he said, "but for those who I knew had blood on their hands, I killed them on the spot."

He said he has killed more than 40 militants, whether in combat or in interrogations on the sidelines of the battle. He acknowledged most were not directly responsible for his relatives' deaths.

"I'm not selfish with my revenge, what I'm doing is for all Iraqis," he said.

Early on in the Mosul operation, he said he learned that one of the two men was in Tal Afar, a town west of Mosul that remains in ISIS hands, or had fled to Syria.

In early July, as Iraqi forces pushed into Mosul's Old City, he received a tip on the location of the second man. He said a colleague, an intelligence officer, called and said he was holding an ISIS suspect from the lieutenant's home town.

"I told him don't do anything, keep him there. I'm on my way," the lieutenant said.

The detainee was the uncle of the lieutenant's second target. The man was left alone with the lieutenant in a bare concrete room without a table or chair.

"I didn't torture him. I cut the plastic handcuffs from his wrists and gave him water," the lieutenant said. The man was elderly, with a grey beard and hair.

"He begged me not to kill him as I questioned him," he said, smiling. "He could barely walk (he was so scared)."

Eventually, the man told the lieutenant that his second target was alive and in Mosul's Old City.

"After I questioned him I sent him to hell," the lieutenant said flatly. He said he shot the man with his side arm and left his body on the floor.

The first reports of revenge killings appeared within weeks of the launch of the Mosul operation last year and continued throughout. But the government and rights groups do not have an exact number.

In June, Human Rights Watch said at least 26 bodies of blindfolded and handcuffed men had been found in dumped in government-held areas in and around Mosul. A month later, HRW said it had further reports of extrajudicial killings. Wille of Human Rights Watch said it was taking place "basically everywhere that is touched by this conflict" and by every armed force involved in the fight.

The military says troops have orders to hand any captured ISIS militants over for interrogation ahead of future trial.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday acknowledged that rights violations took place during the Iraqi forces' battle in Mosul but described them as "individual acts" by persons who were either "ignorant" of the consequences or who had struck a deal with Daesh with the intent "to defame us and the security forces."

He pledged the government would punish the perpetrators.

The lieutenant dismissed the idea of going to the courts, saying they are corrupt and suspects could bribe their way to freedom.

"I know some people believe that this kind of killing is wrong, but Daesh, they are not human beings," he said. "I am the one who still has my humanity."

When al-Abadi declared "total victory" in Mosul last week, the lieutenant said he believed his target is still in one of the last ISIS pockets in the Old City.

"I hope I find him alive," he said, "because I want to make sure he dies a slow death, not quick. I want him to tell me where my father's body is buried, and then I want to take his body and hang it from a post in my village."

Source: CBS

UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. envoy for Iraq warned Monday that the road ahead for the Mideast nation is “extremely challenging” following the liberation of Mosul, stressing that freeing other territory controlled by Islamic State extremists won’t be easy.

Jan Kubis told the Security Council that supporters of the militant group are also continuing “their vicious terrorist activities against civilians in Iraq and beyond.”

With the liberation of Mosul declared on July 10 by Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, the country’s coalition-backed forces must now reclaim other IS-controlled territory in parts of Ninawa and Anbar governorates, in Hawija in Kirkuk governorate and in pockets elsewhere, he said.

At the same time, Iraq must start demining, stabilizing and rebuilding Mosul so people who fled the fighting can return home, Kubis said, and it must eliminate IS cells, criminal gangs and militias operating outside government control.

Since military operations began in October to retake Mosul from IS extremists, he said approximately one million people have been displaced.

 Addressing the issue of civilian casualties, Kubis said that at al-Abadi’s direction, the liberation operation was marked by “an exceptional effort” by Iraqi forces and their international partners to avoid civilian deaths.

In stark contact, he said, IS “terrorists showed absolute disregard for human lives and civilization” by booby-trapping and destroying houses, infrastructure and religious and cultural monuments and deliberately targeting civilians.

The extremist group used civilians as human shields, locked people in their homes and used rooftop snipers to kill those attempting to flee to safety, Kubis said. “They butchered them by using suicide bombers who included females and brainwashed children,” even in camps for the displaced.

Kubis said it is also “crucial” for the government to enforce law and order, the rule of law, justice and accountability as well as implement reforms and good governance practices and promoting development. He said this must also be done in southern Iraq, which was far from the battleground.

“To turn the gains of the military victory into stability, security, justice and development, the government will have to do everything possible to give the people back their lives in society and dignity,” the U.N. special representative said.

Kubis stressed that Iraq will need substantial regional and international support to accomplish this.

He also urged the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has announced plans for a referendum Sept. 25 on independence for Kurdistan, to start negotiations “without further delay ... to urgently find common ground” and a roadmap to address critical issues.

 These discussions should focus on oil and revenue sharing, the status of disputed territories including Kirkuk, budget issues and relations between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, Kubis said.

“The absence of meaningful political dialogue could turn a conflict of interests into a different kind of conflict,” he warned.

Source: The Washington Post

With the recapturing of Mosul, the rein of ISIS in northern Iraq is coming to an end. This, however, can lead to the reemergence of a far more dangerous threat for the future of this fledgling democracy.

Iran and its destructive meddling Mesopotamia has devastated this entire nation, leaving at least tens of thousands killed, scores more wounded, injured and displaced.

Tehran has continuously targeted the Sunni community in Iraq and taken advantage of the war against ISIS to change the very fabric of this minority. Sunni provinces have been the target of this wrath especially after Nouri al-Maliki, described by many as Iran’s puppet in Iraq, reached the premiership in 2006.

Dark history

Ever since 2003, with a surge beginning under al-Maliki’s watch, Iran has flooded its western border neighbor with financial, logistical and manpower resources, spearheaded by the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC).

The track record of Iran-backed proxy groups and death squads in Iraq is nothing short of deadly and atrocious. One group alone, Asai’b Ahl al-Haq, claims to have launched over 6,000 attacks targeting US soldiers from 2006 onward.

Amnesty International has also filed a disturbing report over Iran-backed militias being supplied US arms by the Iraqi government, only to carry out war crimes targeting the Sunni community.

War against ISIS

The defeat of ISIS must not be considered the end of the nightmare. Far from it. General Stephen Townsend, commander of the coalition forces against ISIS, recently emphasized the importance of all Iraqi parties reaching a political consensus in the post-ISIS stage.

To emphasize his point, Townsend touched on the sensitive topic of Iraqi Sunnis feeling unrepresented in Baghdad.

Former US defense secretary Ashton Carter, who supervised the anti-ISIS effort from early 2015 to January of this year, underscored “chaos and extremism” will follow if the “political and economic campaigns that must follow” fail to render the results needed for Iraq future’s.

The hidden occupation

On a side-note, the internal sectarian drives in Iraq are not be considered the result of an especially bloody history. Iraq’s conglomerate of communities experienced peaceful coexistence for over a millennium.

As Iran began its hidden occupation from 2003 onward, one campaign pillar focused on instigating sectarian strife with the objective of expanding its influence through Shiite communities in strategic areas across the country. Such policies have been carried out vividly in all Sunni provinces recaptured from ISIS control.

There is no need to divide Iraq into federalized states, as this would deepen the rifts amongst a nation that needs to begin rebuilding the bridges and bonds destroyed.

Independent figure

Despite all the flaws in the campaign against ISIS, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has the potential to be pulled out of Iran’s influence and act as an independent figure. This is especially true as he has stood in the face of Iran’s pressures, while there remains far more necessary cleansing of the mullahs’ influence in Iraq.

Following the historic Riyadh summit earlier this year, it is time for the Trump administration, allied with the Arab World, to take serious action curbing Iran’s influence in Iraq.

All al-Abadi government officials must prove their allegiance to the Iraqi people and not the Iranian regime. The Iraqi judiciary is also heavily under Tehran’s influence, seen specifically when the country’s supreme court last October blocking al-Abadi’s reform package aiming to “decrease the political space — and platform — for sectarian saboteurs and political spoilers like Maliki,” as explained in The Hill.

Steps ahead

Iraq now lays in devastation and the road ahead will be difficult. This country needs the correct support from its well-meaning neighbors – not the regime in Iran – and the international community to once again stand on its own and play its expected part in today’s world.

This is a breakdown of the utmost necessary measures:

1) Stanching Iran’s influence, especially at senior levels in Baghdad and the security apparatus, and supporting al-Abadi distance from Iran
2) Confront Iran’s meddling by preventing al-Maliki from regaining the premier seat, and dismantling the Popular Mobilization Units and all death squads, parallel to blacklisting Iran’s IRGC
3) Supporting the Sunni community in all Iraqi hierarchy and security forces, and establishing an equal method of governance across the country.

In a recent speech, Iranian opposition leader Maryam Rajavi highlighted how Iran has for 38 years been at war with Iraq and other nations in the region and beyond.

She underscored, “…the ultimate solution to the crisis in the region and to confronting groups like ISIS lies in the overthrow of the Iranian regime by the Iranian people and it's Resistance.” That seems to be the only way to protect Iraq from Iran.

Source: Al Arabya

The fight to eject the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) from Mosul — the terror group’s last stronghold in Iraq — has demonstrated that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government can be a proven counterterrorism partner in rolling back ISIS gains. Beyond this immediate goal, the Trump administration must turn its attention to three key governance issues that will determine Baghdad’s future beginning the day after it reclaimed Iraq’s second largest city:

  1. Stanching Iranian influence at the highest levels of government;
  2. Restraining powerful Shiite militias, also known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs); and
  3. Empowering Sunni elements within the Iraqi security architecture.  

Failing to curb Iranian meddling risks replanting the seeds that gave rise to the ISIS onslaught.

Iran considers Iraq its own “near-abroad:” a pliant and vulnerable country upon which Tehran can project its power and protect its interests.  To dominate the political scene inside Iraq, the mullahs employ a combination of money, matériel, and manpower, namely through Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) operatives and Shiite militias.  Underscoring how embedded Iran is in the Iraqi government’s architecture, Iraq’s own interior minister, Qasim Mohammad Jalal al-Araji, is an IRGC-trained member of the Badr Organization — Iran’s oldest Iraqi proxy.  Additionally, Iraq’s Iran-backed vice president, Nouri al-Maliki — rumored to be attempting a political comeback—recently proclaimed that Tehran alone assisted Iraq in its hour of need fighting ISIS.

To halt Iranian expansionism, the Trump administration must help Iraq ensure its officials are loyal to Baghdad rather than Tehran.  One structural fix would be to push the Abadi government to follow through on its vow to abolish its system of dual vice presidents and deputy prime ministers.  Last October, the Iraqi Supreme Court overturned on procedural grounds Prime Minister Abadi’s landmark reform package, which included the dissolution of these honorary — yet powerful — offices.  The reform is important because it would decrease the political space — and platform — for sectarian saboteurs and political spoilers like Maliki who has routinely undermined Abadi, most recently being the driving force in the axing of two cabinet ministers.

 Secondly, doubling down on Shiite militias is paramount.  U.S. officials estimate that Iraq has as many as 80,000 Iran-backed Shiite fighters on the ground.  These militias — known collectively as the PMUs — have bolstered frequently beleaguered Iraqi army contingents in efforts to clear ISIS strongholds, particularly in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baiji.  Unfortunately, the militiamen also have a bloody sectarian track record.

According to the Institute for the Study of War, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, one of Iran’s Shiite brothers-in-arms in Iraq, has claimed responsibility for more than 6,000 attacks against U.S. soldiers since 2006.  In January, Amnesty International found that the militias are using U.S. arms provided by the Iraqi government to commit war crimes, including tanks, combat vehicles, grenade launchers, and small arms.  Prime Minister Abadi has attempted to rein in the PMUs, with his government passing legislation last November (over widespread Sunni objections), which would officially classify the PMUs as an “independent” arm of the Iraqi army reporting to the prime minister.  He also endeavors to merge the existing Shiite militias with Sunni forces.

The PMU law legitimizes Shiite militias, some of which are designated terrorist organizations — for example, Katai’b Hezbollah by the United States and the Badr Organization by the United Arab Emirates.  In order to prevent the conditions which gave rise to ISIS — Shiite death squads, disappearances, and torture to name a few — the Trump administration should persuade the prime minister to better integrate the PMUs into the existing military and police structures, rather than give them parallel status within the Iraqi army.  Such independent standing risks undermining the integrity of the Iraqi state — consider that Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the PMUs who is a close ally of the Iranians, recently dubbed the dissolution of the PMUs a “big crime” that would not be “possible even if (the decision) was signed by the head of government.”

At the same time, the White House should persuade the Iraqis to adopt long-stalled legislation creating a national guard.  In February 2015, the Iraqi cabinet approved a draft law creating such a force to provide Iraqi Sunnis especially a sense of protection.  The guard would be a force that’s locally based, answerable to the respective provincial governments, and only then the prime minister.

Not offering more autonomy to Sunni provinces risks more instability.  We’ve seen this play out before in 2008, when then-Prime Minister al-Maliki essentially disbanded the Sunni Awakening Movement and its 50,000 strong fighters after they successfully crushed al-Qaeda at the local level.  After promising to assimilate a quarter of the members into the army and to provide other employment opportunities to the rest, Sunni tribes saw no tangible results, fueling their alienation.  Security for the Sunni minority is essential, and the creation of a national guard would be a step in the right direction.

The Trump administration must push for real reforms, otherwise a repeat of Iraq’s sad history will result.  American firepower is vital, but dissolving excess offices, restraining PMUs, and empowering Sunnis will be just as important to rebuilding Iraq as a trusted ally.

Source: The Hill

BAGHDAD — Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.

A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.

And that’s not even the half of it.

Across the country, Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.

When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.

From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.

In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.

Over the past three years, Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, returning more than 5,000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.

But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily, and to use the country to effectively control a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.

“Iranian influence is dominant,” said Hoshyar Zebari, who was ousted last year as finance minister because, he said, Iran distrusted his links to the United States. “It is paramount.”

The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states, and American allies, like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and throughout the region.

Iran is a Shiite state, and Iraq, a Shiite majority country, was ruled by an elite Sunni minority before the American invasion. The roots of the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, going back almost 1,400 years, lie in differences over the rightful leaders of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But these days, it is about geopolitics as much as religion, with the divide expressed by different states that are adversaries, led by Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other.

Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant, but diverse, projecting into military, political, economic and cultural affairs.

At some border posts in the south, Iraqi sovereignty is an afterthought. Busloads of young militia recruits cross into Iran without so much as a document check. They receive military training and are then flown to Syria, where they fight under the command of Iranian officers in defense of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

Passing in the other direction, truck drivers pump Iranian products — food, household goods, illicit drugs — into what has become a vital and captive market.

Iran tips the scales to its favor in every area of commerce. In the city of Najaf, it even picks up the trash, after the provincial council there awarded a municipal contract to a private Iranian company. One member of the council, Zuhair al-Jibouri, resorted to a now-common Iraqi aphorism: “We import apples from Iran so we can give them away to Iranian pilgrims.”

Politically, Iran has a large number of allies in Iraq’s Parliament who can help secure its goals. And its influence over the choice of interior minister, through a militia and political group the Iranians built up in the 1980s to oppose Mr. Hussein, has given it substantial control over that ministry and the federal police.

Perhaps most crucial, Parliament passed a law last year that effectively made the constellation of Shiite militias a permanent fixture of Iraq’s security forces. This ensures Iraqi funding for the groups while effectively maintaining Iran’s control over some of the most powerful units.

Now, with new parliamentary elections on the horizon, Shiite militias have begun organizing themselves politically for a contest that could secure even more dominance for Iran over Iraq’s political system.

To gain advantage on the airwaves, new television channels set up with Iranian money and linked to Shiite militias broadcast news coverage portraying Iran as Iraq’s protector and the United States as a devious interloper.

Partly in an effort to contain Iran, the United States has indicated that it will keep troops behind in Iraq after the battle against the Islamic State. American diplomats have worked to emphasize the government security forces’ role in the fighting, and to shore up a prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has seemed more open to the United States than to Iran.

But after the United States’ abrupt withdrawal of troops in 2011, American constancy is still in question here — a broad failure of American foreign policy, with responsibility shared across three administrations.

Iran has been playing a deeper game, parlaying extensive religious ties with Iraq’s Shiite majority and a much wider network of local allies, as it makes the case that it is Iraq’s only reliable defender.

 

A Road to the Sea

Iran’s great project in eastern Iraq may not look like much: a 15-mile stretch of dusty road, mostly gravel, through desert and scrub near the border in Diyala Province.

But it is an important new leg of Iran’s path through Iraq to Syria, and what it carries — Shiite militiamen, Iranian delegations, trade goods and military supplies — is its most valuable feature.

It is a piece of what analysts and Iranian officials say is Iran’s most pressing ambition: to exploit the chaos of the region to project influence across Iraq and beyond. Eventually, analysts say, Iran could use the corridor, established on the ground through militias under its control, to ship weapons and supplies to proxies in Syria, where Iran is an important backer of Mr. Assad, and to Lebanon and its ally Hezbollah.

At the border to the east is a new crossing built and secured by Iran. Like the relationship between the two countries, it is lopsided.

The checkpoint’s daily traffic includes up to 200 Iranian trucks, carrying fruit and yogurt, concrete and bricks, into Iraq. In the offices of Iraqi border guards, the candies and soda offered to guests come from Iran.

No loaded trucks go the other way.

“Iraq doesn’t have anything to offer Iran,” Vahid Gachi, the Iranian official in charge of the crossing, said in an interview in his office, as lines of tractor-trailers poured into Iraq. “Except for oil, Iraq relies on Iran for everything.”

The border post is also a critical transit point for Iran’s military leaders to send weapons and other supplies to proxies fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.

After the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, swept across Diyala and neighboring areas in 2014, Iran made clearing the province, a diverse area of Sunnis and Shiites, a priority.

It marshaled a huge force of Shiite militias, many trained in Iran and advised on the ground by Iranian officials. After a quick victory, Iranians and their militia allies set about securing their next interests here: marginalizing the province’s Sunni minority and securing a path to Syria. Iran has fought aggressively to keep its ally Mr. Assad in power in order to retain land access to its most important spinoff in the region, Hezbollah, the military and political force that dominates Lebanon and threatens Israel.

A word from Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s powerful spymaster, sent an army of local Iraqi contractors scrambling, lining up trucks and bulldozers to help build the road, free of charge. Militiamen loyal to Iran were ordered to secure the site.

Uday al-Khadran, the Shiite mayor of Khalis District in Diyala, is a member of the Badr Organization, an Iraqi political party and militia established by Tehran in the 1980s to fight against Mr. Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

On an afternoon earlier this year, he spread a map across his desk and proudly discussed how he helped build the road, which he said was ordered by General Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for foreign operations. General Suleimani secretly directed Iran’s policy in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in attacks carried out by militias under his control.

“I love Qassim Suleimani more than my children,” he said.

Mr. Khadran said the general’s new road would eventually be a shortcut for religious pilgrims from Iran to reach Samarra, Iraq, the location of an important shrine.

But he also acknowledged the route’s greater strategic significance as part of a corridor secured by Iranian proxies that extends across central and northern Iraq. The connecting series of roads skirts the western city of Mosul and stretches on to Tal Afar, an Islamic State-controlled city where Iranian-backed militias and Iranian advisers have set up a base at an airstrip on the outskirts.

“Diyala is the passage to Syria and Lebanon, and this is very important to Iran,” said Ali al-Daini, the Sunni chairman of the provincial council there.

Closer to Syria, Iranian-allied militias moved west of Mosul as the battle against the Islamic State unfolded there in recent months. The militias captured the town of Baaj, and then proceeded to the Syrian border, putting Iran on the cusp of completing its corridor.

Back east, in Diyala, Mr. Daini said he had been powerless to halt what he described as Iran’s dominance in the province.

When Mr. Daini goes to work, he said, he has to walk by posters of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, outside the council building.

Iran’s militias in the province have been accused of widespread sectarian cleansing, pushing Sunnis from their homes to establish Shiite dominance and create a buffer zone on its border. The Islamic State was beaten in Diyala more than two years ago, but thousands of Sunni families still fill squalid camps, unable to return home.

Now, Diyala has become a showcase for how Iran views Shiite ascendancy as critical to its geopolitical goals.

“Iran is smarter than America,” said Nijat al-Taie, a Sunni member of the provincial council and an outspoken critic of Iran, which she calls the instigator of several assassination attempts against her. “They achieved their goals on the ground. America didn’t protect Iraq. They just toppled the regime and handed the country over to Iran.”

 

The Business of Influence

The lives of General Suleimani and other senior leaders in Tehran were shaped by the prolonged war with Iraq in the 1980s. The conflict left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides, and General Suleimani spent much of the war at the front, swiftly rising in rank as so many officers were killed.

“The Iran-Iraq war was the formative experience for all of Iran’s leaders,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization. “From Suleimani all the way down. It was their ‘never again’ moment.”

A border dispute over the Shatt al Arab waterway that was a factor in the hostilities has still not been resolved, and the legacy of the war’s brutality has influenced the Iranian government ever since, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its policy in Iraq.

“This is a permanent scar in their mind,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a lawmaker and former national security adviser. “They are obsessed with Baathism, Saddam and the Iran-Iraq war.”

More than anything else, analysts say, it is the scarring legacy of that war that has driven Iranian ambitions to dominate Iraq.

Particularly in southern Iraq, where the population is mostly Shiite, signs of Iranian influence are everywhere.

Iranian-backed militias are the defenders of the Shiite shrines in the cities of Najaf and Karbala that drive trade and tourism. In local councils, Iranian-backed political parties have solid majorities, and campaign materials stress relationships with Shiite saints and Iranian clerics.

If the Iraqi government were stronger, said Mustaq al-Abady, a businessman from just outside Najaf, “then maybe we could open our factories instead of going to Iran.” He said his warehouse was crowded with Iranian imports because his government had done nothing to promote a private sector, police its borders or enforce customs duties.

Raad Fadhil al-Alwani, a merchant in Hilla, another southern city, imports cleaning supplies and floor tiles from Iran. He slaps “Made in Iraq” labels in Arabic on bottles of detergent, but the reality is that he owns a factory in Iran because labor is cheaper there.

“I feel like I am destroying the economy of Iraq,” he said. But he insists that Iraqi politicians, by deferring to Iranian pressure and refusing to support local industry, have made it hard to do anything else.

Najaf attracts millions of Iranian pilgrims each year visiting the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali, the first Shiite imam. Iranian construction workers — many of whom are viewed as Iranian spies by Iraqi officials — have also flocked to the city to renovate the shrine and build hotels.

In Babil Province, according to local officials, militia leaders have taken over a government project to set up security cameras along strategic roads. The project had been granted to a Chinese company before the militias intervened, and now the army and the local police have been sidelined from it, said Muqdad Omran, an Iraqi Army captain in the area.

Iran’s pre-eminence in the Iraqi south has not come without resentment. Iraqi Shiites share a faith with Iran, but they also hold close their other identities as Iraqis and Arabs.

“Iraq belongs to the Arab League, not to Iran,” said Sheikh Fadhil al-Bidayri, a cleric at the religious seminary in Najaf. “Shiites are a majority in Iraq, but a minority in the world. As long as the Iranian government is controlling the Iraqi government, we don’t have a chance.”

In this region where the Islamic State’s military threat has never encroached, Iran’s security concerns are mostly being addressed by economic manipulation, Iraqi officials say. Trade in the south is often financed by Iran with credit, and incentives are offered to Iraqi traders to keep their cash in Iranian banks.

Baghdad’s banks play a role, too, as the financial anchors for Iraqi front companies used by Iran to gain access to dollars that can then finance the country’s broader geopolitical aims, said Entifadh Qanbar, a former aide to the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, who died in 2015.

“It’s very important for the Iranians to maintain corruption in Iraq,” he said.

 

The Militias’ Long Arm

For decades, Iran smuggled guns and bomb-making supplies through the vast swamps of southern Iraq. And young men were brought back and forth across the border, from one safe house to another — recruits going to Iran for training, and then back to Iraq to fight. At first the enemy was Mr. Hussein; later, it was the Americans.

Today, agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards openly recruit fighters in the Shiite-majority cities of southern Iraq. Buses filled with recruits easily pass border posts that officials say are essentially controlled by Iran — through its proxies on the Iraqi side, and its own border guards on the other.

While Iran has built up militias to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, it has also mobilized an army of disaffected young Shiite Iraqi men to fight on its behalf in Syria.

Mohammad Kadhim, 31, is one of those foot soldiers for Iran, having served three tours in Syria. The recruiting pitch, he said, is mostly based in faith, to defend Shiite shrines in Syria. But Mr. Kadhim said he and his friends signed up more out of a need for jobs.

“I was just looking for money,” he said. “The majority of the youth I met fighting in Syria do it for the money.”

He signed up with a Revolutionary Guards recruiter in Najaf, and then was bused through southern Iraq and into Iran, where he underwent military training near Tehran.

There, he said, Iranian officers delivered speeches invoking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the revered seventh-century Shiite figure whose death at the hands of a powerful Sunni army became the event around which Shiite spirituality would revolve. The same enemies of the Shiites who killed the imam are now in Syria and Iraq, the officers told the men.

After traveling to Iran, Mr. Kadhim came home for a break and then was shipped to Syria, where Hezbollah operatives trained him in sniper tactics.

Iran’s emphasis on defending the Shiite faith has led some here to conclude that its ultimate goal is to bring about an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. But there is a persistent sense that it just would not work in Iraq, which has a much larger native Sunni population and tradition, and Iraq’s clerics in Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the world’s pre-eminent Shiite spiritual leader, oppose the Iranian system.

But Iran is taking steps to translate militia power into political power, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and militia leaders have begun political organizing before next year’s parliamentary elections.

In April, Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite militia leader, delivered a speech to an audience of Iraqi college students, railing against the United States and the nefarious plotting of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Then, a poet who was part of Mr. Khazali’s entourage stood up and began praising General Suleimani.

For the students, that was the last straw. Chants of “Iran out! Iran out!” began. Scuffles broke out between students and Mr. Khazali’s bodyguards, who fired their rifles into the air just outside the building.

“The thing that really provoked us was the poet,” said Mustafa Kamal, a student at the University of al-Qadisiya in Diwaniya, in southern Iraq, who participated in the protest.

Mr. Kamal and his fellow students quickly learned how dangerous it could be to stand up to Iran these days.

First, militiamen began threatening to haul them off. Then media outlets linked to the militias went after them, posting their pictures and calling them Baathists and enemies of Shiites. When a mysterious car appeared near Mr. Kamal’s house, his mother panicked that militiamen were coming for her son.

Then, finally, Mr. Kamal, a law student, and three of his friends received notices from the school saying they had been suspended for a year.

“We thought we had only one hope, the university,” he said. “And then Iran also interfered there.”

Mr. Khazali, whose political and militia organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, is deeply connected with Iran, has been on a speaking tour on campuses across Iraq as part of an effort to organize political support for next year’s national election. This has raised fears that Iran is trying not only to deepen its influence within Iraqi education, but also to transform militias into outright political and social organizations, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“It’s another type of Iranian infiltration and the expansion of Iran’s influence,” said Beriwan Khailany, a lawmaker and member of Parliament’s higher-education committee. “Iran wants to control the youth, and to teach them the Iranian beliefs, through Iraqis who are loyal to Iran.”

 

Political Ascendancy

When a group of Qatari falcon hunters, “including members of the royal family, were kidnapped in 2015 while on safari in the southern deserts of Iraq, Qatar called Iran and its militia allies — not the central government in Baghdad.

For Mr. Abadi, the prime minister, the episode was an embarrassing demonstration of his government’s weakness at the hands of Iran, whose proxy militia Kataibb Hezbollah was believed to be behind the kidnapping.

So when the hostage negotiations were about to end, Mr. Abadi pushed back.

Around noon on a day in April, a government jet from Qatar landed in Baghdad, carrying a delegation of diplomats and 500 million euros stuffed into 23 black boxes.

The hunters were soon on their way home, but the ransom did not go to the Iranian-backed militiamen who had abducted the Qataris; the cash ended up in a central bank vault in Baghdad.

The seizure of the money had been ordered by Mr. Abadi, who was furious at the prospect of militias, and their Iranian and Hezbollah benefactors, being paid so richly right under the Iraqi government’s nose.

“Hundreds of millions to armed groups?” Mr. Abadi said in a public rant. “Is this acceptable?”

In Iraq, the kidnapping episode was seen as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and emblematic of Iran’s suffocating power over the Iraqi state.

In a post on Twitter, Mr. Zebari, the former finance minister, who was previously foreign minister, called the episode a “travesty.”

Mr. Zebari knows firsthand the power of Iran over the Iraqi state.

Last year, he said, he was ousted as finance minister because Iran perceived him as being too close to the United States. The account was verified by a member of Parliament who was involved in the removal of Mr. Zebari, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Iran.

Mr. Zebari, who recounted the events in an interview from his mountainside mansion in northern Iraq, said that when President Barack Obama met with Mr. Abadi last September at the United Nations, the American leader personally lobbied to save Mr. Zebari’s job. Even that was not enough.

Mr. Abadi now finds himself in a difficult position. If he makes any move that can be seen as confrontational toward Iran, or as positioning himself closer to the United States, it could place a cloud over his political future.

“He had two options: to be with the Americans or with the Iranians,” said Izzat Shahbander, a prominent Iraqi Shiite leader who once lived in exile in Iran while Mr. Hussein was in power. “And he chose to be with the Americans.”

Mr. Abadi, who took office in 2014 with the support of both the United States and Iran, has seemed more emboldened to push back against Iranian pressure since President Trump took office.

In addition to seizing the ransom money, he has promoted an ambitious project for an American company to secure the highway from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, which Iran has opposed. He has also begun discussing with the United States the terms of a deal to keep American forces behind after the Islamic State is defeated.

Some are seeing an American troop commitment as a chance to revisit the 2011 withdrawal of United States forces that seemingly opened a door for Iran.

When American officials in Iraq began the slow wind-down of the military mission there, in 2009, some diplomats in Baghdad were cautiously celebrating one achievement: Iran seemed to be on its heels, its influence in the country waning.

“Over the last year, Iran has lost the strategic initiative in Iraq,” one diplomat wrote in a cable, later released by WikiLeaks.

But other cables sent warnings back to Washington that were frequently voiced by Iraqi officials they spoke to: that if the Americans left, then Iran would fill the vacuum.

Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said that if the United States left again after the Islamic State was defeated, “it would be effectively just giving the Iranians a free rein.”

But many Iraqis say the Iranians already have free rein. And while the Trump administration has indicated that it will pay closer attention to Iraq as a means to counter Iran, the question is whether it is too late.

“Iran is not going to sit silent and do nothing,” said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician who has good relationships with both the Iranians and Americans. “They have many means. Frankly, the Americans can’t do anything.”

Source: The New York Times

(Beirut) – Allegations are emerging of Iraqi forces beating and unlawfully killing men and boys fleeing Mosul in the final phase of the battle against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), Human Rights Watch said today.

Four witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they saw Iraqi forces beat unarmed men and boys fleeing the fighting within the last seven days, and said they also obtained information about Iraqi forces executing unarmed men during this time period.

“As Iraqi forces are poised to retake the entire city of Mosul, allegations of unlawful killings and beatings significantly raise concerns for the civilians there who have been living under ISIS control,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iraqi forces are promising liberation, but they need to find out what’s happening now and stop any abuse.”

One witness said that three Emergency Response Division and Iraqi Security Force (ISF) members on a key route for civilians fleeing the city boasted to him that they were executing captured unarmed men who were thought to be ISIS-affiliated instead of detaining them. The Emergency Response Division and ISF fighters, stationed three kilometers from the heaviest fighting in the Old City, said they made an exception for elderly men, the witness said.

Two other witnesses said they saw Iraqi uniformed soldiers pick at least six men and boys out of crowds of fleeing civilians at a checkpoint, beat them, and drive them away. They said they saw soldiers pick out another man, beat him, and then move him into a building they were using as a base. One of the witnesses said that soldiers later said they had killed him.

“I have heard of countless abuses and executions in this battle,” one witness said. “But what’s changed is that in this final phase fighters are no longer hiding what they are doing and are comfortable allowing us to witness the abuses first-hand.”

The same witness said that earlier this week, he heard three screams coming from a building being used by the elite Counter Terrorism Service (CTS), after which fighters from the unit ushered him away. That afternoon in another neighborhood of west Mosul, the witness saw two CTS fighters take down the corpse of an alleged ISIS fighter that had been strung up to an electrical pole, and stone the body before taking a few photos of each other posing with it.

That night, he said, a CTS fighter also showed him a video of a severely beaten man who the fighter said was an ISIS prisoner. In the video the CTS fighter shoots and kills the unarmed detainee, he said.

In the days before, the man said he saw five Iraqi soldiers at a checkpoint pick out at least 10 men over a period of an hour, beat them, and drag them toward a building the soldiers were using as a base. He said that one of the men the soldiers were beating was wounded and that he had arrived with his family from a front-line field hospital. The witness said that as he was leaving the area he saw the soldiers single out more and more men, beat them and take them away, but lost count of how many.

An article published in a Swedish outlet on June 28, 2017, by a Swedish journalist who was on the front-line says that a Federal Police officer boasted about decapitating at least 50 men with knives and beating others, with fellow officers watching, cheering, and sometimes filming. The article said the Federal Police backed up these claims with photos and videos.

Throughout the operation to retake Mosul, Human Rights Watch has documented Iraqi forces detaining and holding thousands of men and boys in inhumane conditions without charge, and in some cases torturing and executing them, under the guise of a screening them for ISIS-affiliation. In May 2016, Iraqi forces retook the city of Fallujah from ISIS, but in the operation committed horrific abuses, including executions, torture, and the disappearance of over 600 men whose bodies have yet to be found.

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns regarding allegations of ill-treatment, torture, and executions numerous times in meetings with Iraqi officials in Baghdad as well as with representatives from US-led coalition member countries. Human Rights Watch does not know of a single transparent investigation into abuses by Iraqi armed forces, any instances of commanders being held accountable for abuse, or any victims of abuse receiving compensation.

Iraqi criminal justice authorities should investigate all alleged crimes, including unlawful killings and mutilation of corpses, committed by any party in the conflict in a prompt, transparent, and effective manner, up to the highest levels of responsibility. Those found criminally responsible should be appropriately prosecuted. Extrajudicial executions and torture during an armed conflict are war crimes. Despoiling dead bodies and other outrages on personal dignity are violations of the laws of armed conflict and may amount to war crimes.

“Reports of unlawful executions and beatings by Iraqi soldiers should be enough to raise concern among the highest ranks in Baghdad and among members of the international coalition combatting ISIS,” Fakih said. “Iraqi officials should translate that concern into accountability for war crimes.”

Source: human rights watch

Iraq and the international community must avoid the mistakes of the past

The Iraqi Security Forces are to be congratulated for the liberation of Mosul. It has come at a high cost. In the nine-month battle to liberate the city, around 1,000 Iraqi soldiers – the majority from the special forces – have lost their lives, half the city’s population has been displaced, historical sites have been destroyed and the infrastructure devastated. 

The immediate challenge is to restore basic services such as electricity and water, and ensure food supplies. Nearly a million people have been displaced by the conflict; they will need help returning to their homes and getting their lives back together. Local councils will need to agree on who gets what contracts and to oversee the implementation of reconstruction.

Security in the city will remain tenuous in the months ahead. There are likely to be revenge attacks and reprisal killings against those perceived to have collaborated with ISIL. And extremist cells may carry out bombings as they revert to insurgency tactics. It is imperative that security, especially policing, is localised and recruited from the citizens of Mosul. Once they are in place, Iraq’s army must withdraw to the barracks. In addition, the various militias will also need to withdraw and demobilize.

Iraq needs to develop legitimate and capable local governance to provide transitional justice, strengthen communities and take them forward together. This is made all the more complex given the relations between the population that ISIL controlled and the central government in Baghdad, which is perceived by many Sunnis as corrupt, sectarian and aligned with Iran.

Mosul – and Aleppo – were once great interlinked trading cities and centres of Sunni Islam in this part of the Arab world. Reconstruction is important not only to functioning services, but also to restore pride and demonstrate responsible governance after ISIL. Immediate initiatives should be to rebuild the university and the mosques. In its dying days, ISIL blew up the Al Nuri mosque and its leaning minaret. The 12th century minaret is featured on Iraq's 10,000-dinar banknote and was the main symbol of the city. A replica of some sort, or a monument to it, should be created. And as people come back to their city they will need housing: it would be a wonderful – and diplomatically smart – gesture from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi if they were to offer to underwrite the central government’s costs. 

The situation today is much worse than it was in 2003. Back then, Iraqi cities were not devastated. And Iraqis, for the most part, hoped the coalition would turn the country into Dubai within six months. Instead, the US policies of debaathification and dissolving the security forces led to state collapse and civil war. Rather, it is more similar to 2009 after the surge of US forces and the Sunni Awakening crushed Al Qaeda in Iraq. The military strategy had a great psychological impact and changed the strategic calculus of different groups in Iraq. Working closely together, American and Iraqi commanders pacified the country by protecting the population, reaching out to insurgents and brokering ceasefires. 

All the indicators at the time pointed in a positive trajectory. But then it all unraveled. Things fell apart because of the failure of politics. The Obama administration failed to uphold the 2010 election results and to broker the formation of a new government. In its rush for the exit, America gave up its role of moderator. It gave up its soft power as it withdrew its hand. 

It remains to be seen whether Donald Trump will follow the same path as his predecessor, and seek to declare victory over ISIL and extricate US forces from Iraq. Should the US disengage again, it will enable Iran to project its influence even further. Iran is close to achieving its goal of a land corridor to the Mediterranean Sea, cutting across Iraq and through Syria.

Despite the awareness of the need for a plan post-ISIL, there does not seem to be clear leadership, resources or an agreed way ahead. The United Nations estimates that it will cost $1 billion to repair basic infrastructure. The international community is tired of throwing money at Iraq. This too is an area where Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states could help. Iraq is not a poor country – but it suffers from widespread corruption and remains embattled. 

To avoid a repeat of what happened before, Iraq’s political elites will need to pass and enforce important reforms. This includes tackling corruption, delivering on better governance, and, most especially, reintegrating the Sunnis into a genuine power-sharing government. It also means finding a way to work not just with Iran, Turkey and the US but also with its key Arab neighbours. If they fail to do so, there is a real risk of ISIL appearing a few years down the road.

As Iraqis today celebrate the demise of ISIL, the challenges ahead are great. They are extraordinarily resilient people. But the prospects for meaningful change are not encouraging. East Mosul was liberated five months ago, but there has only been a slow resumption of services. The province of Anbar is still without any. The Kurds intend to hold a referendum on independence in September, a step closer to the breakup of Iraq. Provincial and national elections are due to take place next year, with different militias looking to capitalize and translate their military successes into political gains. 

Despite everything, there remains a desire by Iraq’s Arab inhabitants, at least, to remain together as a country. If only Iraq’s leaders would listen to them.

Source: The National

MOSUL, Iraq — The fighting is all but over in Mosul, and the billboards are already up: hastily raised signs in which the government urged the city’s Sunni residents to “turn the page” from the terrorists of the Islamic State.

As Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited Mosul to declare victory and call for unity, civilians on the longer-secured east side of the city danced and waved Iraqi flags. Some called for brotherhood between Sunnis and Shiites, or chanted, “By our souls and blood, we sacrifice for you, Iraq!”

It is a moment for Iraqis to celebrate after nearly nine months of bloody warfare against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. But despite the flaring of hope for a new national unity, the government’s costly victory in Mosul and the questions hanging over its aftermath feel more like the next chapter in the long story of Iraq’s unraveling.

Most pressing is the need to bring back hundreds of thousands of displaced Sunni civilians. But Iraq has failed to rebuild and resettle some other communities freed from the Islamic State as tensions between the Sunni minority and the majority Shiites still undermine efforts to reunite the country.

The Shiite government makes a desert of the mostly Sunni Mosul, and calls it peace.

Iraq can be happy for a very brief moment. ISIS is still out there and they should not let their guard down until they are wiped out. Also,...

Reports of past abuses by the Shiite-controlled government and its security forces and militia allies against Sunni families have kept sectarian divisions fresh. And with no sectarian reconciliation process to speak of, any setback in the resettling of Mosul could dangerously add to the list of grievances.

For the mostly Sunni residents of Mosul, there are the devastating aftereffects of living under the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. And there is deep doubt and fear over what will happen to them next.

“The people of Mosul need to be psychologically treated and rehabilitated through long-term programs,” said Intisar al-Jibouri, a member of Parliament from Mosul. “They have lost family members, been tortured, beaten for silly reasons by ISIS.”

Concerns are growing that Shiite militias that mobilized in other parts of the country to fight the Islamic State could turn their guns on one another in a scramble for power. And the thoughts of many in Iraq’s Sunni community have stayed fixed on revenge against their neighbors who supported the Islamic State, with increasing reports of violent reprisals.

The Kurds, who have operated an autonomous enclave in the north since the 1990s, are moving quickly to hold a referendum on independence in September, despite pleas from American diplomats to hold off.

So, the end of the Mosul battle, even with the Islamic State still in control of other areas of the country, resurfaces a vital question that has been asked ever since the modern and multisectarian state of Iraq was created from the ashes of World War I: Can the country hold together?

At great cost in lives and property, Iraqis have shown that they can defeat the Islamic State militarily. But whether they are up to the political challenges to bring the country together again — or even get the lights turned on in Mosul, or bring the displaced back home, for that matter — is another question entirely.

“Right now we are only fighting Daesh militarily,” said Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the pesh merga, the Kurdish security forces in northern Iraq.

As for politics and governance, Mr. Yawar, whose men participated in the early phases of the Mosul battle last fall, said: “There is nothing, no plan. We are fighting, and that’s it.”

Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq’s former foreign minister, a Kurd originally from Mosul, said, “Everyone is in a hurry to achieve a military victory, without regard for the destruction or the day after.”

Mr. Zebari is now working to support the Kurdish referendum, which is likely to go forward despite objections from the United States, Turkey and Iran. Most expect a resounding “yes” vote, given the depth of feeling among Kurds to have their own state.

“Forget Kurdistan,” said Masrour Barzani, the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and the area’s top intelligence official. “Is the rest of Iraq united? Even the Arabs in Iraq are not united.”

He continued: “We are not the reason Iraq is falling apart. I think Iraq is a fabricated state. It was built on the wrong foundations.”

And then there is Syria. The civil war across the border, as much as the sectarian policies of the former prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, helped the Islamic State regenerate in Iraq after its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq, was largely eradicated. The group was able to expand into Syria before sweeping across the border in 2014 and taking Mosul.

Without peace in Syria, officials say, there is little chance for peace and stability in Iraq.

“Syria and Iraq are closely connected,” Mr. Maliki said in an interview this year. “If the situation in Syria is unstable, Iraq will be unstable.”

When asked about the future of Iraq after the Islamic State, Mr. Maliki said: “The state cannot control the situation. The coming phase will be bad.”

With the larger questions hanging over the country, the immediate challenge of stabilizing Mosul is monumental, especially in the city’s west side. The fight has essentially turned the city into two, divided by the Tigris River. The west is a gray, dusty wasteland of flattened buildings and upturned, charred trucks; even the windows of the cars civilians are driving have been blown out. Cross the bridge, though, and suddenly the world emerges in light and color, with shops and restaurants open, and loud traffic jams.

Fighting continued on Monday in a small patch of the old city, and security forces there rescued two more girls from Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority who had been held as sex slaves. The United Nations, meanwhile, put out an urgent call for funding from other nations to help the nearly 700,000 civilians still displaced from the fighting.

All day long on Monday, Iraqi state television played patriotic songs in honor of the security forces, and later in the evening, a news flash alerted that Mr. Abadi would make a “historic” speech, surrounded by soldiers. The prime minister, once again, declared victory in Mosul, saying, “Iraq is now more united than ever,” and he declared Tuesday a national holiday of celebration.In the skies over Mosul, Iraqi airplanes dropped three million leaflets on a city where many of the residents are no longer there.

Each leaflet showed a map of Mosul in the colors of the Iraqi flag — red, white and black — with the message: “Mosul has been returned to the bosom of Iraq.”

Source: The New York Times

The liberation of Mosul is complete. Islamic State is unlikely to again govern and control large swaths of territory in the near future. While the past three years of war have been brutal, there will be some justice and respite for those who have lost friends and family to Isis, as well as for the broader Iraqi population that has had to put up with it and its ilk for more than a decade.

However, while there is some reason to celebrate, the end of the so-called caliphate does not mean the end of Isis: the jihadi organisation still controls strategically important, if smaller, patches of territory in places such as Hawija and Tal Afar, and will continue to enjoy the infrastructure that will allow it to continue terrorist attacks in the country. To make the liberation of Mosul count, the Iraqi government will now have to take on the more difficult long-term challenge of confronting militant groups by way of reconstructing the country and reconciling its communities and political factions.

The war on Isis has resulted in a far-reaching humanitarian crisis. Multiple Iraqi towns and cities have been destroyed during the course of the military campaign, more than 3 million people have been displaced and 11 million require assistance, according to international organisations. Rehabilitating local communities and economies, and bridging the differences between and among the diverse sections of Iraqi society is fundamental to ensuring Isis does not enjoy the space and structural conditions that enable it to mobilise supporters and resources.

But will the government make the most of this opportunity? There is little to suggest that the Baghdad government has either the capacity or vision to move the country forward. This is, after all, a political class that has received billions of dollars in support and investment from the international community over the past decade, yet has little to show for it.

Prime minister Haider al-Abadi should be commended for his composure and conciliatory style of government since replacing the controversial former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2014. However, the prospects for stability are reduced by both the lack of a framework that could reconcile differences among the political class and the heavy build-up of disparate, rival actors in and around Mosul, ranging from Shia militia groups to Arab Sunni tribes and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Isis and other militant groups will thrive unless credible, legitimate and viable governing structures are established. Iraq’s Arab Sunnis must never again have to be stuck between, on the one hand, a government perceived to be sectarian and whose sanctioning of Shia militias and neglect of northern Iraq has confirmed such fears and, on the other, militant groups that exploit these fears to swell their ranks.

Northern Iraq is now dominated by powerful Shia militia groups aligned with Iran (among them groups that have fought the Iraqi army in the past). They have repeatedly challenged the federal government and will represent a continuing problem for the Iraqi state. But Iraq’s Iran-aligned Shia militias are not going anywhere – they have capitalised on the war on Isis to establish themselves in northern Iraq, particularly in Tal Afar, which both lies close to key disputed territories and constitutes an important transit point for reinforcing fighters and supplies in Syria (where Iraq’s Shia militias and the Iranian regime are fighting in support of the Assad regime).

The presence of these groups does not bode well for Iraq’s crisis of authority and governance. They are feared by local Arab Sunni populations because of their sectarian atrocities and human-rights abuses. And it is unclear what form of political and administrative structure will replace Isis and address the concerns and grievances of the local population. Viable local government is not just a matter of security but is also fundamental to reconstruction efforts and the international support on which it depends. There will not be another chance for Iraq unless it begins to make the colossal investment count.

Amid the ineptness and corruption that plague the government in Baghdad and the Iraqi state, a thriving civil society has emerged in recent years that may represent the country’s best (and only) hope for the future. Iraq’s civil society has braved jihadis, Shia militias and the corrupt elite to do its utmost to foster pluralism and co-existence, and is attempting to hold the elite to account. Its people are better placed to do so than outside actors but lack sufficient support internationally. Indeed, while the west is grappling with its own challenges at home, that does not mean it should allow Iraq to fall off the radar, as it did before, in the years preceding the emergence of the so-called caliphate (the consequences of which have now been felt globally).

Many of Iraq’s problems are attributable to the failures of the international community. Long-term, proactive and creative engagement with the Iraqi state and population could reduce the space that groups such as Isis or Shia militias beholden to foreign interests enjoy. Where the US and its allies disengage, it is often its enemies that prosper, and the moderate, reformist Iraqis that suffer.

Source: The Guardian

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