Archive for the ‘Russia in Iraq’ category

Tehran’s New Scheme for Iraq

July 31, 2017

Tehran’s New Scheme for Iraq, Gatestone InstituteAmir Taheri, July 31, 2017

The apparent de-sectarianization of pro-Iran Shiite parties will make it difficult for Allawi and other genuinely non-sectarian Shiite politicians, who are hostile to Iranian influence in Baghdad, to appeal to the Shiite majority on the basis of citizenship and “uruqah“.

The new “de-sectarianization” gambit will also put pressure on Kurdish parties at a time some of them are campaigning for an “independence” referendum. It would be more difficult to sell the idea of an “independent” mini-state of Kurdistan to international public opinion at a time that Iraq is seen to be moving towards a non-religious democratic and pluralist political system.

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In his visit to Moscow last week, Iraqi Vice President Nuri Al-Maliki peddled what he presented as his big idea: inviting Russia to build “a significant presence” in Iraq to counter-balance that of the United States.

Since Maliki is reputed to be Tehran’s candidate as the next Iraqi Prime Minister his “invitation” to Russia cannot be dismissed as a mere personal whim.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Iraqi Vice President Nuri Al-Maliki in Moscow, on July 25, 2017. (Image source: kremlin.ru)

With ISIS driven out of Mosul and, hopefully, soon to be driven other pockets of territory it still controls in Iraq, the decks are being cleared for the forthcoming general election that would decide the shape of the next government in Baghdad. Fancying itself as the “big winner” in Iraq, Iran’s leadership is working on a strategy to make that fancy a reality.

That strategy has three key elements.

The first is to create a new, supposedly “liberal” and “non-sectarian” Shi’ite coalition to dominate the next parliament and, through that, the next government in Baghdad. That requires a reshuffling of political cards and the discarding of some old outfits.

In an editorial last Tuesday, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s official news agency, IRNA, argued that “old formations” that had come into being during the struggle against Saddam Hussein and the subsequent post-liberation crisis were no longer capable of dealing with “new realities in Iraq.”

It was on the basis of that analysis that Ammar al-Hakim, a leading politician-cum-cleric announced his separation from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the formation of a new party named “National Wisdom Movement” (Tayar al-Hikmah al-Watani).

Hakim, who hails from an old and respected dynasty of clerics originally from Shiraz, argues that time has come to “break barriers of sects and ethnicities” in favor of the concept of “citizenship”. Thus he comes close to advocating the concept of “uruqah” (Iraqi-ness) that has long been a theme of such Iraqi Shiite politicians as Ayyad Allawi and Adel Abdul-Mahdi.

Sources in Tehran expect the “new model” to be adopted by other Shiite parties and groups. Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi is reportedly studying the creating of a new “secular” formation away from his original political home in the Ad-Da’awah (“The Call”) Party, which has always been a clearly sectarian formation.

Talks are already under way for the merger of Abadi’s support base with the Sadrist Movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, scion of another distinguished clerical dynasty originally from Mahallat, southwest of Tehran. According to unconfirmed reports the new Abadi-Sadr coalition will be called “Freedom and Reconstruction”, a clearly non-sectarian identity.

Tehran’s hope is that Maliki will transform his wing of the Ad-Dawah into yet another “non-sectarian” outfit to support his bid for premiership, presumably with support from Hakim.

The apparent de-sectarianization of pro-Iran Shiite parties will make it difficult for Allawi and other genuinely non-sectarian Shiite politicians, who are hostile to Iranian influence in Baghdad, to appeal to the Shiite majority on the basis of citizenship and “uruqah“.

The new “de-sectarianization” gambit will also put pressure on Kurdish parties at a time some of them are campaigning for an “independence” referendum. It would be more difficult to sell the idea of an “independent” mini-state of Kurdistan to international public opinion at a time that Iraq is seen to be moving towards a non-religious democratic and pluralist political system.

The gambit will also make it more difficult for Arab Sunni sectarians to garner support in the name of resisting a Shiite sectarian takeover of government in Baghdad. Salim al-Juburi, a leading Arab Sunni politician and Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament, is reportedly moving towards the creation of a non-sectarian party of his own.

The second element of the Iranian strategy is to almost oblige the clerical authority in Najaf (Marja’iyah) to endorse, even reluctantly, a Shiite political leadership clearly committed to Iran. Tehran knows that no government in Baghdad would have a chance of success without at least tacit blessing from Grand Ayatollah Ai-Muhammad Sistani.

Sistani has consistently refused to play the sectarian card and has advised politicians of all shades to think in terms of national rather than religious considerations. Thus, Tehran’s decision to “de-sectarianize” the Iraqi parties it supports will be a concession to Sistani.

Tehran is offering yet another concession to Sistani by abandoning its campaign to influence the Grand Ayatollah’s succession. The initial Iranian candidate for succession, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahrudi, a former senior official of the Islamic Republic, has been quietly cast aside and is reported to be in declining health.

Without formally saying so, Iran now admits that the issue of Sistani’s succession must be sorted out by the “howzah” (seminary) in Najaf possibly with some input from Qom and certainly not through diktat from Tehran.

The third element of the strategy is to draw Russia into Iraq as a façade for Iranian influence.

Iranian leaders know that the vast majority of Iraqis resent the emergence of Iran as arbiter of their destiny. Russia, however, is seen as remote enough not to pose a direct threat to the internal balance of power in Iraq. Yet, because Russia has no local support base in Iraq, it would have to rely on Iranian guidance and goodwill to play a leading role there.

A new Baghdad government composed of “non-sectarian” Shiite leaders, promising a better deal for Arab Sunnis and Kurds, and backed by Russia, will be a better cover for the spread and consolidation of Iranian influence in Iraq.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the new Iranian strategy will work. Many Iraqis, including some among those reputedly close to Iran, believe that Iraq itself can and must aspire after becoming a major player in the Middle East rather than playing Sancho Panza to the “Supreme Guide” in Tehran.

Iraqi leaders also see no logic in turning the United States and Arab states into enemies just to suit Tehran’s doomed empire-building project, especially at a time that the Islamic Republic seems to be heading for the choppy waters of Ayatollah Khamenei’s succession.

Remember:

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Often go awry
And leave us nought but grief and pain,
For promised joy.

Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran’s premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.

This article first appeared in Asharq Al Awsat and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.

Mosul assault – a military Tower of Babel

October 17, 2016

Mosul assault – a military Tower of Babel, DEBKAfile, October 17, 2016

mosul_offensive_declaration_16-10-16

The underlying US rationale for embarking on this high-wire operation is President Barack Obama’s aspiration to achieve Mosul’s liberation before his departure from the White House in January, in the hope that this landmark success will provide a major distraction from his administration’s failed policies in Syria.

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Sunday night, Oct. 16, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, supported by a bevy of generals, announced that the military operation to recapture Mosul from its two-year occupation by the Islamic State had begun.

Three formally approved participants are taking part in the operation, DEBKAfile’s military sources report:

1. American special operations, artillery and engineering units – equipped with floating bridges for crossing the Tigris River – plus the US air force for massive bombardment to crush enemy resistance.

2. Iraqi army armored divisions, special ops forces, regular troops and anti-terror police units.

3. The Iraqi Kurds’ Peshmerga.

The Iraqi prime minister pledged formally that only Iraqi fighters would enter Mosul, i.e. no Americans, Kurds or other non-Iraqi forces.

It was a pledge that neither the Iraqi Sunni and Shiite combatants nor the Kurdish and Turkmen fighters trusted him to uphold, after similar promises went by the wayside in the US-led coalition battles fought in the past two years to retake the Iraqi towns of Ramadi, Tikirit, Baiji and Fallujah from ISIS.

The first forces to enter those cities were by and large pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias, especially the Bader Brigades and the Popular Mobilization Units, under Iran’s supreme Middle East commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Nonetheless, despite the ravages they wrought in those Sunni cities, US air support was forthcoming for their advance, while in Washington US officials pretended they were helping Iraqi government army units.

With regard to the Mosul campaign, Obama administration officials and military officers, like the Iraqi prime minister, insist there will be no repetition of the Iranian-backed Shiite invasion and conquest of yet another Sunni city, where a million inhabitants still remain.

mosul_offensive_17-10-16

They don’t explain how this will be prevented when those same pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite forces are already massing northeast of Mosul, near the Iraqi-Syria border, and standing by for the order to advance into the city.

Tehran quite obviously has no intention of being left out of the epic capture of Mosul.

Neither is another uninvited party, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. He too has positioned a Turkish military concentration in Iraq, in defiance of strong objections from Washington and Baghdad. Turkish troops stand ready to move forward to do Erdogan’s will and achieve three strategic goals:

a) To actively frustrate Kurdish Peshmerga entry to Mosul, although its 15,000 fighters out of the 25,000 invasion force are a vital element of the spearhead thrust into the city. Ankara has warned that if Kurds set foot in Mosul, Turkish troops will follow.

b)  To block the path of Syrian Kurdish YPG militiamen from entering Iraq and linking up with their Iraqi brothers-in-arms.

c) To provide backing, including Turkish air support, for the Iraqi Turkmen militias still present in the Turkmen quarter of Mosul.

DEBKAfile’s military sources count six assorted military groupings taking part in the liberation of Mosul. They have nothing in common aside from their determination to drive the Islamic State out.

They are utterly divided on the two main aspects of the offensive: How to achieve their common goal and what happens to Mosul after the Islamist invaders are gone.

The underlying US rationale for embarking on this high-wire operation is President Barack Obama’s aspiration to achieve Mosul’s liberation before his departure from the White House in January, in the hope that this landmark success will provide a major distraction from his administration’s failed policies in Syria.

The Islamic State might have been expected to take advantage of the prior warning of the offensive for a stand in defense of the Iraqi capital of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate and so exploit the conflicting interests of the invading force.

But ISIS leaders decided against waiting for the combined offensive. Indeed, according to DEBKAfile’s sources, thousands of jihadis made tracks out of the city two or three months ago, relocating the bulk of their combat strength and institutions in two new locations: in the western Iraqi desert province of Anbar at a site between the Jordanian and Saudi borders and eastern Syria. Several hundred fighters were left behind in Mosul to harass the US-Iraq-Kurdish armies as they advance into the city and exploit the invaders’ discord to retain a foothold in Mosul.

Turkey’s New Territorial Claims Threaten NATO

October 13, 2016

Turkey’s New Territorial Claims Threaten NATO, Counter Jihad, October 13, 2016

turkey-islamic

Should Russia be able to get a process of negotiation going between Turkey, Iraq and Iran on the issue of Turkish territorial expansion, Russia would assume the leadership role in the region.  Should it actually resolve the negotiations successfully, it could expect Turkey to become part of the Russian sphere of influence.  That would potentially derail NATO, as NATO’s decisions must be taken by a unanimous vote.  If Turkey becomes as strong a Russian ally as China, NATO could become as useless an organ for opposing Russian ambition as the United Nations Security Council (on which Russia has a veto).

American diplomatic weakness is partially a function of American military weakness in the region.  Russian diplomatic success is partially likewise a function of its deployment of air and naval-gunnery forces, as well as its so-far successful alliance with Iran.  Better American leadership might help, but for now, the situation is rapidly sliding away from America and towards the Russians.

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A significant claim is being pushed by the Turkish government, one that could redraw the lines of the old Ottoman Empire:

Тhe spat erupted after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the country and the region by surprise last month by calling into question the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined modern Turkey’s borders.  He declared Turkey had been blackmailed by foreign powers into giving up vast swaths of territory that were once part of the Ottoman Empire….

[A]ccording to visiting Carnegie Europe scholar Sinan Ulgen[:]  “The message should be seen more of a signal in relation to Turkish polices towards the south, Syria and Iraq. I read it as a backdrop to a policy that tries to build domestic support for a more long-term presence, particularly in Syria, by pointing out, at allegedly past historical mistakes,” Ulgen said.

Turkish forces are currently in Syria and Iraq. But the Turkish presence at the Bashiqa base, close to the Iraqi city of Mosul, has become the center of a deepening dispute with Baghdad. The base is ostensibly tor training Sunni militia to fight Islamic State.

On Tuesday, Erdogan dismissed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s calls to withdraw Turkish troops, telling him “he should know his place.”

Ulgen went on to point out that Turkey has historical claims not only to Mosul, currently contested in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).   Both Mosul and oil-rich Kirkuk were part of the original design of the modern-day Turkey.  The Turks’ traditionalists and nationalists view the treaty that gave them away as having been forced on them at the end of World War I.

If Russian diplomacy can broker a deal that allows Turkey to expand into Iraq and Syria, it could cement Turkey’s move into Russia’s sphere.  Until recently, that looked unlikely at best.  Last year, Turkmen fighters shot down a Russian jet over repeated incursions by the Russian air force.  At that time, relations between the two nations became quite tense.  Russia is backing Iran’s play in the region, apparently in the hope that a powerful Shi’a Iran will create a buffer zone between Russia and the Sunni jihadist forces that have acted to inflame Muslim minorities in Central Asia.  Likewise, the war in the Middle East draws attention away from Russia’s strategic moves in Eastern Europe, such as last week’s deployment of nuclear missiles on the very borders of Poland and the Baltic States.

Turkey’s latest move appears likely to inflame Iraq’s government, and Russia’s ally Iran intends to control Iraq at the end of this conflict.  Surrendering territory, especially oil-rich territory, may be a difficult negotiation.  On the other hand, Kirkuk is also disputed with the Kurds, and whichever government formally holds it after the war is going to have to fight to keep it.  Iran may be willing to be persuaded to concede the fight to Turkey in return for a more firmly-controlled corridor between Tehran and the Levant.

That will require some subtle diplomacy to negotiate, but right now Russia is having significant success in its diplomatic moves.  In the wake of a new energy deal between Turkey and Russia, the Russian diplomatic corps seems to have a lot of momentum on its side.  Turkey was already looking away from NATO and Europe in the wake of its Islamist purge following an alleged attempted coup.  Should Russia be able to get a process of negotiation going between Turkey, Iraq and Iran on the issue of Turkish territorial expansion, Russia would assume the leadership role in the region.  Should it actually resolve the negotiations successfully, it could expect Turkey to become part of the Russian sphere of influence.  That would potentially derail NATO, as NATO’s decisions must be taken by a unanimous vote.  If Turkey becomes as strong a Russian ally as China, NATO could become as useless an organ for opposing Russian ambition as the United Nations Security Council (on which Russia has a veto).

American diplomacy is meanwhile spinning its wheels.  The United States broke off talks with Russia, and then called for war crimes investigations into Russia and Assad for their campaign in Syria.  American Secretary of State John F. Kerry also accused Russia of interfering with America’s elections.  However, it appears that Kerry now wants a new push for a cease-fire in Aleppo, which would require Syria and Russia to sign on.

American diplomatic weakness is partially a function of American military weakness in the region.  Russian diplomatic success is partially likewise a function of its deployment of air and naval-gunnery forces, as well as its so-far successful alliance with Iran.  Better American leadership might help, but for now, the situation is rapidly sliding away from America and towards the Russians.

US-Iranian-Russian-Iraqi offensive launched to recover Ramadi from ISIS

December 22, 2015

US-Iranian-Russian-Iraqi offensive launched to recover Ramadi from ISIS, DEBKAfile, December 22, 2015

Ramadi_Map

Ramadi, the capital of the vast Anbar Province, was the second major Iraqi city to fall to the Islamic State after the devastating loss of Mosul. The importance of the offensive launched Tuesday, Dec. 22 for its recapture from ISIS lies chiefly in the makeup of the assault force, which is unique in contemporary Syrian and Iraqi conflicts.

DEBKAfile’s military sources name its partners as US and Russian army and air force elements, two varieties of Iraqi militia – Shiites under Iranian command and Sunnis, as well as the regular Iraqi army.

The Iraqi army is depicted as leading the assault. But this is only a sop to its lost honor for letting this Sunni city fall in the first place. The real command is in the hands of US Special Operations officers alongside Iraqi troops, and the Russian officers posted at the operational command center they established last month in Baghdad.

This Russian war room is in communication with US military headquarters in the Iraqi capital. It is from the Russian war room that the top commanders of the pro-Iranian militias send their orders. The most prominent is Abu Mahadi al-Muhandis, who heads the largest Iraqi Shiite militia known as the Popular Mobilization Committee.

Noting another first, our military sources disclose that Iranian officers liaise between the Americans and Russians on the front against ISIS. If this combination works for Ramadi, it will not doubt be transposed to the Syrian front and eventually, perhaps next summer, serve as the format for the general offensive the Americans are planning for wresting Mosul from the Islamic State.

When US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in Baghdad last week to review the final preparations for the Ramadi operation, US officials were still insisting that the Iraqi army was fit for the heavy lifting after being trained by American instructors.

By Tuesday, US sources were admitting that pro-Iranian militias were also part of the operation.

DEBKAfile’s military sources report on the division of tasks as follows:

Iraqi army forces are attacking the Ramadi city center from the north; Shiite militias from the south. The US air force is pounding ISIS targets inside the town in order to cripple its ability to fight off the oncoming forces. The Russian air force is standing by, ready to destroy any ISIS reinforcements attempting to cross in from Syria to aid their comrades in beleaguered Ramadi.

Experts keeping track of the offensive have no doubt that it will end in success. The jihadists holding Ramadi are few in number – 400-500 fighters at most. However, cleansing the town after victory will presents a daunting difficulty. In Tikrit and the refinery town of Baiji, ISIS split its defense structure into two levels – one on the surface and the second hidden underground.

The top level was thinly manned by fighting strength, but crawling with mines, booby-trapped trucks and IEDs detonated by remote control.

The lower level, consisting of deeply-dug interconnected tunnel systems, was where ISIS fighters hid out and jump out at night for attacks. According to the experience gained in other Iraqi battle arenas against ISIS, neither the Iraqi army nor local Shiite militias have been able to plumb and destroy these tunnel systems. And so they could never really purge the Islamic State from “liberated” towns.

Ramadi will face the same quandary.

Baghdad allows Russia to attack ISIS targets in Iraq

October 24, 2015

Baghdad allows Russia to attack ISIS targets in Iraq, DEBKAfile, October 23, 2015

The Iraqi government on Saturday gave the Russian military authorization to extend its anti-ISIS operations into Iraq.

DEBKAfile military sources: The Iraqi government is allowing the Russians to use the Al Taqaddum airbase that is also being used by US troops for operations against ISIS. However, Baghdad has yet to mention the Russian presence at the base, located 74 kilometers west of Baghdad.

In other words, Russia is expanding its military presence in the Middle East. DEBKAfile’s military sources reported this development on October 2.