Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Musings On Iraq 2014 Year In Review

2014 was a traumatic year for Iraq. Open fighting started once again at the beginning of the year culminating in the fall of most of central Iraq to militants during the summer. The result was nearly 2 million people being displaced and over 60,000 casualties. There was also a bitterly disputed election that finally saw Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deposed. His replacement Haider Abadi was left with the daunting task of not only fighting the insurgency, but also trying to repair the political damage done by his predecessor as well as addressing the structural problems within the country. This is a review of last year’s events, but is in no way comprehensive. It is just some of the major stories covered by Musings On Iraq in 2014.


Last year got off to a bad start as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided to use the death of the leadership of the Army’s 7th Division to go after the Anbar protest movement. On December 21 the Islamic State (IS) launched an ambush in western Anbar, which led to the deaths the commander of the 7th Division and most of his staff. The government immediately announced a retaliatory operation against the insurgents, which received widespread popular support across the country. Instead of using this moment to bring the country together, the premier decided to use it against his opponents. He went on national TV accusing the protest movement of harboring Islamic State (IS) elements. The next day Maliki ordered the arrest of parliamentarian Ahmed Alwani who had been an organizer of the demonstrations, and who was known for his fiery and sectarian speeches attacking Shiites. His detention led to a shootout in which his brother and five of his guards were killed. Maliki then shut down the Ramadi protest area. The province immediately exploded in violence with clashes in cities like Ramadi, Garma and Hit, while Fallujah quickly fell to insurgents. This was the start of open fighting the country, which continues to this day. Protests had been going on for a year when the prime minister decided to try to shut them down. They began after Maliki arrested some of Finance Minister Rafi Issawi’s bodyguards on terrorism charges in December 2012. Protests quickly emerged in Fallujah, Tikrit, Baghdad, and other cities. These were eventually organized by the Mutahidun list and several Sunni clerics such as Sheikh Abdul Malik al-Saadi. While the insurgency attempted to exploit the demonstrations for their own means, and there were pro-militant factions at sites like Fallujah and Hawija, the mainstream assemblies were more of an expression of Sunni anger at the failure of the government and Prime Minister Maliki. This was a major change from just a few years ago when in 2009 the majority of Sunnis and even some insurgent factions decided to participate in provincial elections. The next year Maliki came in second in parliamentary balloting, but used the courts and played upon the divisions within his opponents to assure himself a second term. This caused widespread resentment against the prime minister. The leaders of the Iraqi National Movement (INM), which won the most seats in parliament, but failed in its attempt to stop Maliki proved no better as the list’s leader Iyad Allawi resorted to complaining and leaving the country to rally foreign support, while ignoring Iraqis. Other INM members cut deals with the prime minister in order to assure themselves ministries. This started the process of many Sunnis losing faith in their politicians, which culminated in the protest movement. When Maliki decided to shut down the Ramadi site in December 2013 it was the last straw that made people give up on the system, and turn towards violence. Maliki’s short sightedness at going after the demonstrators instead of focusing upon the insurgents played into their hands, and they are still benefiting from it to this day.

The fighting in Anbar had a ripple effect upon Iraqi society by forcing out thousands of families. By the end of January 2014 the Red Crescent reported that over 34,000 families had fled the province due to not only the fighting, but the indiscriminate shelling and air strikes by the government forces. Many of these people went to Kurdistan or Baghdad. Anbar was not the only place this movement of people was going on. In other governorates with insurgent activity Iraqis began to flee due to the violence. Starting in 2013 dozens of families were leaving areas of Diyala as the Islamic State was attempting to scare and intimidate the local population. This was occurring in Ninewa, and Babil as well. When the militants’ summer offensive began this crisis would turn into a tragedy as tens of thousands were forced out of their homes for a total of around 2 million displaced. To add to these problems the special committee set up to deal with displacement and the Migration Ministry were both accused of massive corruption, stealing most of the money set aside to help these people.


Moqtada al-Sadr proved to be a mercurial leader once again when he suddenly announced that he was retiring from politics in February. Several politicians from his political bloc, Ahrar followed suit and said they were resigning as well, while the head of his list in parliament was replaced, and a new board of trustees created to run his movement. Sadr was attempting to clean house of some politicians that he was unhappy with as well as rallying the base before the provincial elections as later in the month the Ahrar bloc said that it was still running. Sadr made a similar move in August 2013 only to come back again. While these might have been calculated moves it didn’t seem like anyone but Sadr knew what the plan was as each time he said he was stepping down there was widespread confusion within his movement. This was just the latest example of what a difficult personality Sadr was.


March saw a new and short-lived series of protests emerge against the privileges of Iraq’s political elite. At the start of the month people marched in Baghdad, Maysan, Dhi Qar, Najaf, Basra, Karbala, Kirkuk, Muthanna, Babil, and Qadisiyah against a new pension law passed in February. There were similar demonstrations in August 2013. The law gave a new round of benefits to Iraqi politicians who were already considered corrupt and incompetent. This was a sign that the public was tired of business as usual with parliament giving itself things like raises, while neglecting governing and developing the country. Unfortunately these demonstrations only lasted a short while and then disappeared meaning they applied no real pressure upon the government.

Iraq’s oil industry took a hit in March. The Kirkuk pipeline had been a favorite target of insurgents because it threatened the countries revenues, and was easy to attack since it travelled through provinces where militants were active. On March 2 the line was blown up in Ninewa, and then again a week later. What was different about this last incident was that the insurgents stayed to prevent repairs. The North Oil Company said that the line would be up and running again by April, but that never happened as repair crews with armed escorts were driven off. The Kirkuk pipeline has been out of service ever since costing Iraq millions of dollars in revenue. This was a major victory for the insurgents and another sign that they had been able to rebuild their cadres.

Maliki showed his political machinations once more by going after the provincial governments in Diyala, Wasit and Basra. In Diyala, State of Law was shut out of the government so it got an arrest warrant issued against the governor on corruption charges and went to court over how the ruling coalition was formed without it. The court ruled in State of Law’s favor leading to two rival governments being formed in the province. In Wasit the Sadrists and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISC) cooperated to keep State of Law out of the government there as well, and Maliki went to court over that process too. Finally, in Basra State of Law got the head of the provincial council, but wanted the governorship as well, so it went to court again. The situation got so bad that Iran had to mediate between Maliki and ISCI. These were all perfect examples of how Maliki considered everyone who was not with him as a potential enemy. The courts were under his influence and the justice system was often used to issue arrest warrants against the prime minister’s opponents. These moves were another example of how Maliki did not respect the political process. He’d gone to the courts to win a second term in 2010, and now used them again to try to overturn the outcomes of the 2013 provincial elections. This was also a warning of what might happen in April’s national vote.


At the end of April Iraq held another round of parliamentary elections. The conventional wisdom was that Maliki would win a third term as his opponents were once again divided. The country’s elections however, rarely turn out the way people expect. In 2009 the ruling parties in the governorates were largely thrown out of office for failing to develop the country. In 2010 Maliki came in second when he was expecting a sweeping victory, and then in 2013, his State of Law faced a major defeat as it too was penalized for being the incumbents in the provinces. 2014 would prove to be the same, because Maliki found it beyond his means to return for a third term, although that was still several months away.


In May the results for the April elections were announced with the State of Law increasing its share of seats in parliament. In 2010 State of Law won 89 seats, and in 2014 that went up to 95. The Sadrists came in second, but were only able to come away with one third of the number of seats, 34, as State of Law. ISCI finished third with 31 seats. That gave Maliki a decided advantage as the prime minister would come from one of these major Shiite parties and together the Sadrists and Supreme Council did not come close to State of Law. To add to that advantage the Sadrists and ISCI spent their time attempting to make their list the National Alliance a formal organization that would represent the Shiite parties and have the power to name the premier. Maliki believed he could ignore these moves and wait the two parties out until they would eventually agree to his re-election. Little did he know that the real threat would come from within his own list.


June was the month the insurgents launched their summer offensive. It began with the storming of Samarra in Salahaddin on June 5, followed by an assault upon the counter-terrorism bureau in Baquba, Diyala the next day, and then the seizure of the Anbar University campus in Ramadi on June 7. June 6 was also the start of the battle of Mosul, which fell a few days later. The Iraqi Security Forces collapsed and the route continued as the insurgents headed south taking Tikrit on June 10, along with sections of Kirkuk. Similar success was made in Anbar as the security forces suddenly withdrew from the Syrian border fleeing Rawa, Ana and Qaim on June 14 giving IS control of almost all of western Anbar. The insurgents had largely rebuilt their networks by 2013 after being devastated by the U.S. and Iraqi forces during the Surge. The result was attacks had been ramping up for that entire year culminating in the seizure of several cities in Anbar in December 2013 and January 2014 after Maliki’s misstep of closing down the protest movement. Violence continued to increase in the first half of 2014 pointing to a big push coming during the summer.

The Islamic State was in the forefront of this offensive, but that was in cooperation with other insurgent groups like the Baathist Naqshibandi and friendly tribes. IS had made deals with these other groups to jointly launch attacks starting in June. It seems like the militants were caught by surprise by their own success. They were likely just planning raids like what happened in Samarra, Baquba, and Ramadi, and instead ending up seizing around one quarter of the country. This was an overstretch as there was no way the insurgents were going to hold such a large section of territory, especially when the west decided to become involved.

In response to the fall of Mosul Iraq’s militias began to mobilize. Many of these groups had joined in the fight against the insurgents in 2013 as Maliki was unhappy with the Iraqi Security Forces, and called upon their help. Groups like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization were seen fighting in Anbar and the Baghdad belts throughout early 2014. The June offensive brought in the Sadrists and the Supreme Council as there was widespread fear that Samarra would fall along with its Askari shrine and Baghdad would be next. Iraqi militias from Syria like the Abu Fadhl Al-Abbas Brigade and the Khorasani Brigade also sent their men to fight in Iraq. Their ranks were swollen after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani issued a fatwa calling on Iraqis to protect the nation. Sistani meant for people to join the security forces, but many went to the militias as well. Since their deployment in 2013 these militias have been accused of a series of sectarian attacks, and the driving out of Sunni civilians from their homes in an attempt to deprive the insurgents of their support base and redraw the demographics of parts of the country. This repeats tactics they used during the civil war years of 2005-2008, and has added to the displacement crisis.

These militias were supported by Iran who sponsored many of them. Iran sent in hundreds of advisers, began providing military aid to Baghdad under an agreement signed with Maliki, and eventually delivered Su-25 fighter bombers, pilots, and air strikes by the Iranian Air Force as well. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force and its leader General Qasim Suleimani led these efforts, and followed the same strategy Tehran used in Syria. Iran lacked confidence in the security forces in both countries, and decided to employ its militia allies to defend the two governments. The Badr Organization was put in charge of both efforts as it had the longest relationship with Iran. That can be seen in Badr head Hadi Ameri leading many of the recent operations rather than Iraqi generals. Iran was just as threatened by the insurgents’ sudden advance in June. In coming to Iraq’s aid it also became the dominant power in the country with its allies in the forefront of the fighting, its advisers in the thick of the fighting, and its men drawing up most of the plans for the defense of the country. This is a position that it will be hard pressed to give up once the insurgency subsides.


As the Islamic State settled into governing its newly won territories in northern Iraq it was immediately apparent what their rule would mean. Throughout July there were reports of destroyed homes, mass kidnappings, and executions throughout central and northern Iraq as IS attempted to intimidate local populations to control them, and retaliate against those that opposed it. For example, on July 8 IS killed 50 villagers after it was driven out of Ziwiya, Salahaddin. When it was eventually taken the next day, 15 people were executed and almost the entire town was leveled with over 300 homes blown up. IS considers itself a state, and much has been written about the vast assets it controls to finance its operations, but its actions in Iraq showed that it was still about destroying Iraq as much as trying to run sections of it.


In August IS turned its attention northwards and seized Jalawla and Sadiya in northeastern Diyala as well as the Sinjar area of western Ninewa. The Kurdish peshmerga fled in the face of the assaults. In Ninewa it was largely due to Syrian and Turkish Kurdish fighters from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and the intervention of Iran that stopped the militants from moving into Kurdistan itself. The Yazidis of Sinjar were not as lucky as IS began massacring them and taking their women and girls for slaves. On August 3 for example, approximately 250 Yazidis were killed in Sinjar, Solagh, Qiniyah, and Wahtanya. This led to the intervention of the United States, which began launching air strikes in the area. IS had long considered Yazidis devil worshippers and had repeatedly attacked the community in previous years. Now that it controlled the main territory in which this group resided it went all out to destroy it.


September 8 the new government of Prime Minister Haider Abadi was sworn in. Rather than being defeated by his opponents, Maliki was forced out due to a split within his own State of Law list. Abadi was a long time Dawa member having joined in 1967, but his background was much different from the previous two prime ministers, Ibrahim Jaafari and Maliki. Abadi was a technocrat and considered a problem solver, while Jaafari was known as a philosopher and Maliki an autocrat. Abadi’s impact was immediately felt as he formed a smaller government than Maliki’s 2010 one. He also proposed a National Guard, which would include local forces recruited to fight the insurgency and be under the control of the provinces, he promised to end government shelling of civilian areas, said he would have no problem if Sunni governorates wanted to form federal regions, and retired General Abboud Qanbar the deputy chief of staff of operations and General Ali Ghidan the ground forces commander, both of which were known as Maliki loyalists, and were blamed for the fall of Mosul. Iraq is beset by a number of structural problems and deep divisions. Abadi knew that without addressing these issues Iraq would never be put right. These early moves were attempts to reach out to the country’s Sunnis, and get rid of some of the politicized and incompetent security leaders. This immediately set Abadi apart from his predecessors who would often talk about reform, and then do nothing substantive about it. The replacement of Maliki might have been the biggest story of 2014, even more so than the fall of Mosul, because it opened hope that Iraq’s long standing problems might finally be addressed, starting with the end of Maliki’s destructive politics.


By October the economic effects of the insurgency were beginning to emerge. Foreign investors were pulling out of the country, the real estate and car markets collapsed, hundreds of acres of farmland were now under militant control, and imports were down 60-70% with many of the trade routes to Jordan, Syria and Turkey having been cut off. 2 million people were also displaced and out of work, and putting major burdens on the provinces that they now resided in. Iraq was also facing a financial crisis as the 2014 budget was never passed due to Maliki using it against his opponents during the elections. The prime minister had also used money from the general budget and Development Fund for Iraq to pay for the war and the running of the government depriving the country of much of its ready cash. The economic costs of the war were likely the least reported story of 2014. Iraq was one of the fast growing economies in the Middle East after the civil war ended in 2008. Now that was all threatened.

The Islamic State made another big surge in Anbar from September to October. At the end of September it took Camp Saqlawiya, and then proceeded to take most of the center of the province the following month. This was being led by IS commander Abu Omar al-Shishani, who is a Chechen, and who excelled at insurgent tactics. In response the United States sent advisers to Al Taqadum base outside of Habaniya and Al-Assad base in Baghdadi. The Americans were hoping to train a new tribal force in the governorate to oppose the insurgents much like it did with the Awakening previously. Premier Abadi said he supported this idea, but was unwilling to commit any real assets to the province’s defense. The governor, the local council, and sheikhs have consistently complained that their pleas for assistance have been ignored by Baghdad, and that has resulted in 85% of Anbar falling to the Islamic State. The government is more concerned with Salahaddin, which plays a central role in the insurgency throughout central Iraq, and has largely written off Anbar for now.

In Salahaddin’s eastern Tuz Kharmato district the Islamic State was forced out by a combined ISF, militia and peshmerga offensive. This opened the door to a new set of problems as the Kurds and militias began confronting each other for control of the area. This was later repeated in Jalawla and Sadiya in Diyala after they were freed in November. All of these areas are part of the disputed territories the Kurdistan Regional Government lays claim to. The militias not only want them to remain under central control, but are being used by Iran to push the Kurds not to think that they can annex them and then declare independence. Tehran has warned Kurdistan that it opposes the break up of Iraq at this time.


Prime Minister Abadi took another stab at reforming the security forces when he forced out another 200 officers. This included several top commanders who were in charge of the regional operations commands. He also replaced deputy Interior Minister Adnan Asadi who was known as a Maliki man. The premier showed once again that he was committed to addressing the politicization of and corruption within the security forces. Many of these officers such as General Rasheed Flayh formerly of the Anbar Operations Command were known for stealing supplies from their men. These were the first moves in a long process to root out these elements and make the ISF a professional force.


Abadi’s final move of 2014 was to demand that due process be carried out within Iraq’s Justice System. He ordered that all arrests be recorded, that suspects go to trial within the assigned time, and that anyone acquitted or held without charges be released. Iraq’s prisons and courts have not worked for decades dating back to the Saddam era. The system is also notorious for abuse as confessions are the basis of cases and they are often beaten out of people. The prime minister was again attempting to tackle the nation’s structural problems, which were long overdue.

On the security front, the year ended with the government forces going on the offensive. Starting at the end of the summer the siege of Amerli in Salahaddin was ended, followed by the re-taking of the Tuz Kharmato district. The longtime IS base in northeastern Babil’s Jurf al-Sakhr was cleared out disrupting the group’s southern networks leading to no car bombings there for the last two months of the year. In Salahaddin the Baiji Refinery was relieved, while the southern Balad district was cleared. The Kurds also helped free Diyala’s Sadiya and Jalawla, while re-entering the Sinjar area. On the other hand, militants were still on the offensive in Anbar trying to take the provincial capital of Ramadi and other towns in the center of the province. Despite its setbacks in Salahaddin, IS was able to move back into Baiji, and continued attacks throughout the governorate. Most importantly it had been able to co-opt many smaller insurgent groups like Ansar al-Islam, while pushing out others such as the Baathist Naqshibandi. When the summer offensive began in June IS was the largest of the insurgent groups and made local deals with other factions to carry out joint operations against the government. By the end of 2014, it dominated the insurgency like never before. This poses a risk to the group however as its new recruits’ loyalty is largely based upon the success it has had in Syria and Iraq. If it faces more setbacks, especially if it were to lose a large city such as Tikrit, which will be the focus of the ISF and militias this year, IS could start facing desertions. There are already reports of it executing members who have left their posts. It still controls huge swaths of the country however. More importantly, the loss of territory in no way means the end of the insurgency. In 2004 militants launched a huge summer offensive in several cities. They were turned back, but that simply dispersed the fighters over a larger swath of territory, and the fighting went on. Until the government finds a way to turn Sunnis away from violence, something that was actually achieved from 2008-2009, but thrown away in 2010, the insurgency will continue.

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