The Iraq Report: Iraq attempts to move on after Islamic State defeat

The Iraq Report: Iraq attempts to move on after Islamic State defeat
In-depth: Our round-up of this week in Iraq
7 min read
03 May, 2018
The Iraq Report is a weekly feature at The New Arab.

In just under two weeks, Iraq will hold its local and national elections for the first time since 2014, an affair that was thrown into disarray by the Islamic State (IS) group's onslaught and the extreme sectarian response of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to largely peaceful protests in Sunni Arab governorates.

Optimists who view the defeat of IS as a political game changer view the elections as an opportunity to escape from the sectarian politics of the past 15 years, while cynics see the process as simply more of the same divisive politics that has torn Iraq apart at the seams.

In an attempt to show that Iraq is moving away from the politics of sectarian identity, and towards a national reconciliation that will allow the country to stand on its own in a region buffeted by chaotic winds and instability, Baghdad has been making significant efforts to show that it is a country to be taken seriously.

Not only has it steamed ahead with elections and tried to make a particular show out of former IS and insurgent hotspots, but it has also participated in multilateral counterterrorism initiatives with major influencers such as Russia and Iran.

Read also: Bringing politicians to heel, Bush boot-lobber a shoe-in for Iraq's election

Iraq seeks to strengthen ties with Iran, Syria and Russia

Iraqi, Iranian, Syrian and Russian officials held a meeting in Baghdad to coordinate "anti-terrorism" efforts, the Iranian defence ministry announced in the latter part of last month, indicating ever deepening ties between Baghdad and Tehran.

Iran has been using its influence with both Russia and Syria to forge a regional axis that could act as insulation against any United States or Saudi Arabian attempts to roll back Iranian strategic gains over the last decade and a half.

The fact that the meeting was held in Baghdad is also significant, in that it was not too many years ago that IS militants were at the Iraqi capital's gates. An urgent intervention by the US and Iran averted what would have been a catastrophe for the post-Baathist order that has been in effect since 2003.

By hosting a counterterrorism meeting attending by a UN Security Council member and a major regional power, the Iraqi authorities are attempting to portray that Baghdad is open for business and can engage in diplomatic efforts.

Aside from the meeting where the officials of all four countries pledged to continue the fight against IS and other "terrorist organisations," Iranian defence minister, Brigadier General Amir Hatami, also visited a joint intelligence centre operated by the four countries in the Iraqi capital last month. Hatami met with Iraq's interior minister and head of military intelligence, while praising the four-nation alliance and its victory of IS last year.

While these meetings were going ahead, Iraq deployed US-made warplanes to attack targets in Syria. According to Iraqi Brigadier General Yahya Rasool, Iraqi F-16s crossed the Iraqi-Syrian border and bombed alleged IS targets, killing 36 militants. Rasool added that the operation was conducted in coordination and in cooperation with the Syrian Bashar al-Assad regime, further claiming that six IS commanders were among the dead.

Iran has maintained close and influential ties with the Iraqi government since the US ousted former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iran finances, trains and supports dozens of armed Shia fundamentalist groups, many of whom now control major Iraqi agencies and institutions, including the interior ministry.

Iraq has very much become the lynchpin for Iranian expansionism in the Middle East, including being a major source of recruitment for Shia militants fighting in Syria on the side of the Assad regime, while also being a part of Iran's land bridge to the Mediterranean. Involving Iraq at a state level can be seen as Iran merely formalising a process that has been ongoing for 15 years.

Mosul reconstruction mired by mounting arrests

The United Arab Emirates agreed last week to put forward more than $50 million in grants to assist the Iraqi government in the reconstruction of Mosul's ancient Grand Mosque of al-Nuri and its iconic leaning minaret that was destroyed last year during the fight against IS.

Members of the Iraqi forces along with high-ranking officers gather to take pictures in the remains of the Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri at the site [Getty]
The five-year project is not just about rebuilding the mosque, the minaret and the infrastructure, but also about giving hope to young Iraqis

During a ceremony at Baghdad's National Museum, UAE Culture Minister Noura al-Kaabi announced the five-year effort and said: "The five-year project is not just about rebuilding the mosque, the minaret and the infrastructure, but also about giving hope to young Iraqis."

The 12th century mosque was built on the orders of Sultan Nuruddin al-Zengi, famous for being one of the most successful Muslim commanders resisting the Crusaders, and also the patron of Salahuddin al-Ayoubi, better known as Saladin in the West. The mosque's iconic leaning minaret gave the mosque and Mosul its nickname of al-Hadba, or the hunchback minaret.

Less than a week following the Emirati announcement, Iraqi authorities inaugurated two of Mosul's bridges that have finally reopened after being dynamited by IS militants to limit the movement of Iraqi troops from the eastern bank of the Tigris River to the western half of the city. Western Mosul is still mostly ruins, abandoned sites and dangerous zones laced with improvised explosive devices, almost a year since Mosul was recaptured by Iraqi forces.

While this is welcome news, Mosul's residents still face the spectre of being branded IS extremists before being imprisoned, rushed through a suspected politically compromised judicial system, and then sentenced to death.

Since Mosul was recaptured, 212 residents have been sentenced to death by Iraqi courts for alleged membership of the IS extremist group, with thousands more either missing after being captured and abducted by sectarian Shia militant groups, or held incommunicado in Iraqi prisons. A further 150 have been sentenced to life in prison, according to judiciary spokesman Judge Abdul-Sattar al-Bayraqdar.

Human rights groups have decried the Iraqi government's use of the death penalty. In December,Human Rights Watch released an 80-page report saying that Iraqi courts were violating the rights of those accused of being IS members, with flawed trials, arbitrary detentions and state-appointed lawyers putting up no defence on behalf of their clients.

The Associated Press released an analysis in March of figures obtained from sources within the Iraqi government that showed almost 20,000 people had been arrested by government forces and allied pro-Iran Shia militias. Of those, some 3,000 people have been sentenced to death, leading to widespread outrage and questioning of the Iraqi judiciary's ability to hold fair trials.

Sunni Anbar put forward as an electoral example

Iraq's largest geographical governorate, Anbar, has been feted as a success story of democratic engagement by the Iraqi government, after candidates have continued to campaign and defied IS threats to attack polling stations come election day on May 12.

Anbar has been a hotbed of violence since the US-led invasion in 2003. Its vast desert expanse allowed groups as varied and disparate as Iraqi resistance factions, tribal fighters, al-Qaeda and subsequently IS to evade detection and carry out effective guerrilla warfare attacks. Most recently, IS launched effective attacks from the Anbari desert to capture Fallujah in 2014, and the provincial capital Ramadi less than a year later. In was not until 2016 that IS gains began to be rolled back.

The governorate is primarily populated by Sunni Arab tribes, many of whom fought against the US occupation of Iraq and even al-Qaeda after the extremists began targeting Sunnis who did not subscribe to their radical worldview. However, many of the governorate's long-standing figures are now being pushed aside, as factions more loyal to the authorities in Baghdad attempt to gain seats by aligning themselves with groups like the Shia-dominated militias of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

"The political class that existed before IS is no longer suitable. They have lost their credibility with the residents of Anbar," claimed Rafea al-Fahdawi, who heads the candidate list in the governorate for the Victory Alliance led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

"They were involved in bringing terrorism and made people believe that terrorists were just rebels belonging to our tribes," Fahdawi added.

The political class that existed before IS is no longer suitable

His comments are likely to draw the ire of many, particularly as Anbar was central to the largely peaceful protests against the sectarian policies of former Prime Minister Maliki that started in 2012 and lasted for a year before being violently dispersed. However, his campaign is enjoying significant support from the authorities in Baghdad, with even some candidates aligning themselves openly with the PMF in order to attract funding and support.

It remains to be seen whether voter turnout in Anbar will be significant or noteworthy, as their vote in the last elections in 2014 was entirely ignored due to the security situation triggered by Maliki's violent crackdown and IS' emergence onto the scene. If Anbar demonstrates a high turnout, it could show that faith is being restored in Iraq's controversy-ridden democracy. However, if turnout is low, then it could spell further Sunni Arab disenfranchisement that may lead to further chaos in the near future.

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