Posts by JoelWing:

    Behind The Frontlines In Iraq, Interview With Inside Iraqi Politics’ Nathaniel Rabkin

    February 17th, 2016

    By Joel Wing.


    Nathan Rabkin

    As the Islamic State is losing on the battlefield in Iraq the question of what will happen to those areas now behind the frontlines is coming to the fore. In Baghdad and the south there is growing lawlessness and tribal disputes. Some sections of the country are under the control of the Hashd rather than the government, and the Kurds have taken many of the disputed territories. There is also the issue of who should be able to return to freed areas. To discuss those issues and more is Nathaniel Rabkin, managing editor of Inside Iraqi Politics. He can be followed on Twitter at @NateRabkin.

    1. Southern Iraq escaped the fighting with the Islamic State, but it has still been affected. Many army and police units were sent to the front leaving a security vacuum. That has led to growing crime and tribal disputes. Baghdad recently responded to this by launching a security operation in Basra. What was going on in that province and has the government’s crackdown worked so far?

    The story of Basra is that when the government is strong, the tribes are weak, and when the government is weak, the tribes are strong. The deployment of security forces away from Basra to confront IS in 2014 did weaken the state’s grip, but there are also political factors at play: Abadi’s coalition is more unruly than Maliki’s was, so there’s more political uncertainty, down to the local level. When police try to arrest suspects in tribal feuds or criminal activity, they have to worry about whether the suspects have political connections they can use to take revenge. The government’s response was late in coming, but in December they finally deployed a “strike force” of army troops from Baghdad who had no local connections, and therefore felt freer to make arrests. Most of that force has since redeployed, and it’s too soon to judge its long-term impact. The good news is that so far, the political parties are generally united in support of the security forces, which makes the situation now better than what existed in 2006-2007.

    1. In January 2016 the Hashd were accused of retaliatory attacks upon Sunnis in Diyala’s Muqdadiya after the Islamic State carried out a double bombing in the city. There was a near media blackout on the violence, and then a denial that the Hashd were involved. Was that related to Badr’s Hadi Ameri’s control of the province?

    Yes. Ameri has exercised overall command in Diyala over both security forces and militia units since the summer of 2014. Prime Minister Maliki accepted this as an emergency measure, but there is no end in sight, and Badr is trying to use the province to demonstrate its supposed security and administrative prowess. Ameri has never had much respect for formal institutions, and both he and his team in Diyala prefer operating through personal networks, using behind-the-scenes deals and avoiding media scrutiny. The violence in Diyala is embarrassing for Ameri. He wants the province to be a proving ground for Badr’s militia-centric security approach. So far, the results are mixed at best.

    1. Baghdad and its surrounding belts have the heaviest deployment of Iraqi Security Forces’ (ISF) units yet there is still daily bombings and shootings there. Like Basra and the south there also appears to be growing crime. Now there is talk of building a security wall around the capital. Why haven’t any measures really been effective in protecting Baghdad?

    What I’ve heard from people who visit Baghdad regularly is that the city on the whole is actually safer now than it was two or three years ago. The security forces should get some credit for that, although part of it is probably also that IS has shifted its resources towards more conventional battlefields. The security challenge in Baghdad is enormous, first just because the city is so large and there is so much movement of people and goods between it and every other province in Iraq. There are also inherent problems with the government’s approach to security: there are too many different forces and agencies involved, and too many different kinds of special access badges or VIP identifications that let people pass through checkpoints without search. This approach is a product of political considerations: different forces and militias are loyal to different parties, and the coordination among them is loose. Most politicians actually support this arrangement, since a truly unified command would either be dominated by one party or be tempted to launch a coup against the government. In Baghdad especially, Iraqi security forces’ weaknesses and poor coordination are inherent in the way these forces are structured. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

    1. Recent reports have life returning to normal in Tikrit, which was freed in March 2015. What is the situation like there?

    Unlike Diyala, independent journalists are able to visit Tikrit, and most reports say that much of the city is back to normal, by most accounts well over half of the residents have returned. Tikrit never had a significant Shia population, so the militias have mostly allowed the local police, who are Sunni, to handle the city’s security. But the militias still control important areas south and north of the city, which means they can block access to politicians or journalists who they don’t like. It also makes the population very uneasy, given reports of militias detaining Sunni young men more or less at random in other areas, especially Anbar, either to kill them as “revenge” for IS attacks, or to hold them hostage for ransom. So far the militias seem to have largely avoided preying on Tikritis in this manner, but no one knows when they might change their approach.

    1. After IS seized Mosul and Tikrit in the summer of 2014 the Peshmerga moved into many of the disputed territories of northern Iraq. Since then there has been a lot of tension between the Kurds and elements of the Hashd in places like Tuz Khurmato in Salahaddin and the Khanaqin-Sadiya area of Diyala. What is the cause of the dispute between the Kurds and Hashd and how has that played out in the north?

    We should distinguish between certain Hashd militias’ stated grievances and their actual political motivations. Rhetorically, Badr, Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), and some allied factions accuse the Peshmerga of abusing Shia Turkmen in Tuz Khurmato and more generally of “dividing Iraq.” There were some localized skirmishes in Tuz in November and December. A cease-fire achieved through Iranian mediation has largely held, but there’s still no clear division of power in Tuz. The area is likely to see future clashes in the next year or two.

    In terms of what’s driving the conflict, the militias are using tensions with the Kurds to assert their own supremacy in security affairs. The militias are presenting themselves to the Shia public as the defenders of Iraq, usurping the government’s role. And their message to the government, and actually to every political actor in Iraq, is that they can turn violence on or off as they see fit. The militias don’t have a clear list of demands they want the Kurds to meet. What they actually want is a constant state of military tensions with the Kurds and with other actors as well, such as the U.S. forces deployed to fight IS, so that the threat of militia violence becomes a constant in Iraqi politics. The goal isn’t to achieve a particular outcome in the disputed territories, it’s for militia leaders to win a seat at the table in national policy making more generally, which they can use to extract political concessions from the government in return for reining in their fighters. In strategic terms, the militias have torn apart the post-2003 Shia-Kurd alliance, weakening the Shia political bloc’s position in Iraq and in the region, so as to gain an advantage for themselves in intra-Shia politics.

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    Passing Of Iraq’s Sunni Old Guard Politicians? Interview With Inside Iraqi Politics’ Kirk Sowell

    January 19th, 2016

    Interview conducted by Joel Wing.


    Kirk H. Sowell

    The post-Saddam generation of Sunni politicians in Iraq have faced one setback after another. Their latest is the loss of power as many of the top leaders have either been dismissed or run out of office on criminal charges such as Tariq Hashemi, Osama and Atheel Nujafi, Rafi Issawi and Salah al-Mutlaq. Does this constitute a sea change in Iraqi politics or will the old guard hold onto power in the next round of elections? To help shed light on this subject is Kirk Sowell editor of Inside Iraqi Politics. He can followed on Twitter at @UticaRisk.

    1. Since 2003 Iraq’s Sunni politics have been deeply divided. Over time, a series of leaders did emerge and gained top positions within the government. That included figures like Vice President Tariq Hashemi, Speaker of Parliament and Vice President Osama Nujafi and his brother Ninewa Governor Atheel Nujafi, Deputy Premier and Finance Minister Rafi Issawi, and Deputy Premier Salah al-Mutlaq. They came from different backgrounds and parties and would work with each other as much as argue with one another. Overall, could you say that they had any common themes or was there always dissonance between them?

    These men have shared common challenges, and despite differences, they’ve all had to grapple in one way or another with the common challenge of facing Sunni Arab loss of power and place in society. This has corresponded with a loss of identity, as Sunni identity has been based for decades upon an identification between Sunnis and state power, complemented by the erroneous notion that they were the demographic majority. Hashemi and the Nujayfi brothers have in common that they were always closely tied to regional states – Hashemi was the leader of the Islamic Party, the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and so tied to Qatar. The Nujayfis are proxies of Turkey, and their 180 degree flip-flop on dealing with the Kurds and Sunni autonomy in the 2010-2011 period was because of the change in policy in Ankara.

    Isawi and Mutlak, both of whom are from Fallujah, I view as more pragmatic, trying to find a way to represent their people’s interests and reach a middle ground. From a coalition standpoint Isawi has been closer to Nujayfi in recent years than Mutlak, but I view this partly as a response to former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s decision to prosecute him after Isawi turned against him politically. Isawi is dependent on regional states now, but I think this was forced on him.

    1. All of those politicians are either on the run from the law or are out of office. Do you think this marks the passing of the old guard or do some of them still have enough of a base and patronage networks to get elected again and regain top jobs?

    I think Iraq’s citizens, be they Sunni Arab, Shia or Kurd, would benefit from the entire political class passing on, but unfortunately I don’t see this happening. The Nujayfis, despite having lost official positions, are still holding on and planning a comeback. In the case of former Ninawa Governor Uthil al-Nujayfi, despite his many failures he has a chance to come back. There are two reasons for this. One is that he retains Kurdish backing, so (assuming there can be a new election) to be reelected as governor he only needs about 30 percent of the Arab vote, either voting for his list directly or for blocs that are willing to re-elect him. The Kurdish parties have total security control in their areas, so depending on how many votes they can gin up, they might be able to increase their allocation from 11 out of the 39 they got in 2013 (Nujayfi’s Mutahidun won just eight seats, and he was elected with the support of some small Arab parties, which have now abandoned him, and the Kurds.)

    Also, based on our interviews with people still in Mosul, Uthil retains a base of support, mainly because of the Shia militia threat. While locals recognize Uthil as being a front for Turkey, many view it as a protector against Iran-backed forces. So if Baghdad can liberate Mosul without Shia militia involvement, then Uthil may be finished. But if there are reprisals, even if exagerrated (it is the perception that matters), or if Uthil’s Turkey-backed militia are able to play some kind of a role, then he could come back.

    The next election will determine whether Mutlak can hold on, but he’s pretty much out of the public view now, and there was a scandal with regard to a ministerial committee to help internal refugees which he headed, with allegations of overspending, skimming and the like. His bloc got 11 seats in the 2014 parliamentary elections, but nearly half of them belong to the faction of Ahmad Abdullah al-Jiburi in Salah al-Din. Mutlak is very flexible and pragmatic, so I would not count him out, but 2018 will be an uphill fight.

    As for Hashemi and Isawi, Hashemi is done for sure. And Isawi probably is as well, given the recent convictions for him, and the general political environment on the Shia scene. I’m less convinced of the allegations against him than against Hashemi, and even with Hashemi I think they were overblown. But Isawi will likely need to sit out another electoral cycle.

    1. Issawi was just found guilty but not for the terrorism charges that got him run out of office but rather minor corruption infractions. Could you explain what happened in his case and the background to what led to the warrants against him in the first place?

    The allegations against Isawi, the corruption charges for which he was convicted last month, originate from charges announced at a press conference by Integrity Commission Chairman Ala al-Saadi on March 31, 2014. On the same day, Saadi announced broad-based charges – without specifying the basis for the allegations against Isawi, Falah al-Sudani, Muhammad Allawi, Hazm al-Shaalan and Ayham al-Samarrai. It is notable that during Saadi’s period in office, which ran from 2011 through 2015, and who served unconfirmed as an “acting” chairman on Maliki’s behalf, he never charged anyone close to the prime minister. And this press conference came just one week before parliamentary elections held in 2014. These were the only five people specifically named – there were some low-level administrators as well – and three of them are tied to Iyad Allawi – Samarrai and Shaalan were ministers in Allawi’s government (electricity and defense, respectively), and Muhammad Allawi is his cousin and was promoted by him for the Communications Ministry post in the 2010-2014 Maliki government. Sudani, who served under Ibrahim al-Jaafari, just seems to have been thrown in because he is such a notoriously corrupt individual.

    1. Speaker of parliament Salim Jabouri is the only Sunni still holding onto a leading position in the current government. Is he from the same school as the older politicians mentioned before and pushing similar policies or is he trying new things?

    I would frame the issue in terms of pragmatism more than substantive policy, and there are two things to understand about Jiburi, regarding his party, and himself. He belongs to the Islamic Party, which has performed a total flip-flop politically since 2013. They were key leaders in the 2013 Sunni protest movement, and were part of Nujayfi’s Mutahidun in the last electoral cycle. So they were part of the group that was using the most extreme Sunni sectarian rhetoric in the run-up to that election. But over the past two years they have gradually shifted, and despite their ties to Qatar, and are now firmly aligned with the Hayder al-Abadi’s government, and with Baghdad against Turkey in regional politics.

    But Speaker Jiburi’s persona is also part of it. Whereas Nujayfi, his predecessor as speaker, is abrasive and ego-driven, Jiburi has a more mild and professional demeanor, and has been the perfect Sunni partner for Abadi. He is also from Diyala, along the sectarian fault-line, where the Badr militia is based, and he even gave a speech at Badr’s annual conference last year, praising their role in the fight against Sunni terrorists. With the Islamic State defeated in Diyala, his home province, which previously had a slight Sunni Arab majority, is now under Shia militia occupation, and Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri runs it as it were a semi-independent Afghan-style warlord sanctuary. So Jiburi is acutely conscious of the weak position Sunnis are in, and sticking close to Abadi, who is in the midst of a political struggle with Ameri, is his best choice.

    This has also blown open the Mutahidun coalition, of which the Nujayfi and Islamic Party were two of its four key factions. (The Mutahidun, with 25 MPs, had about two-fifths of all Sunni Arab MPs in the current parliament.) Mutahidun is effectively defunct now, and this first became obvious last May when Jiburi facilitated the vote, which had unanimous Shia backing, to impeach Uthil as Ninawa governor. The Islamic Party’s faction in Ninawa also turned against Nujayfi in the election to choose his successor, and the new governor, Nufal Hamadi al-Akub, defeated the Nujayfi-backed candidate by a margin which the IP provided. Turkey’s military action in Ninawa increased this split. Whereas Uthil was the primary defender of Turkey military deployment, falsely claiming Baghdad had approved it, on December 9 Jiburi sponsored a conference in Baghdad in which he gave a speech defending Baghdad’s rejection of the Turkish presence.

    1. Do you see any new Sunni politicians emerging either in parliament or at the provincial level that could become national leaders, and if so are they pushing any new ideas or the same ones as their predecessors?

    I think I would start by saying that any discussion of Iraq’s Sunni politics needs to start with this bifurcation which has taken place between those Sunnis who are aligned with Baghdad against regional Sunnis states, and those who are aligned with regional states. So the first place to look is Ninawa, since anyone new coming up on the Turkey/Qatar side will be subordinate to the Nujayfis. The most outspoken figure is MP Abd al-Rahman al-Luwayzi, who was elected on Nujayfi’s list in 2010, split with him, and is unquestionably Iraq’s leading anti-Turkey Sunni Arab politician.

    The new Ninawa governor, the above-mentioned Akub, may turn out to be a significant figure, but he’s only been in office for four months and is still working out of Irbil and Kurdish-controlled areas of Ninawa. Another figure to watch is Defense Minister Khalid al-Obaydi. He was a military advisor to Uthil prior to his appointment in October 2014, and indeed was with him when Mosul fell the previous June. But he has hewed closely to Abadi and has so far kept enough distance from his old political patrons to survive in Baghdad. He is a native of Mosul, and is well-respected there.

    The governors in Salah al-Din and Anbar, Raed al-Jiburi and Suhayb al-Rawi, respectively, are presently too dependent on Abadi for support to even negotiate with him in any meaningful sense. The Sunni political scene in Salah al-Din is especially a mess, as the province is largely under Shia militia security control yet the key Sunni figures are fighting one another. The main fight is between Raed and Ahmad Abdullah al-Jiburi, who was governor for two terms through 2014, but resigned (partway through the second term) to join the Abadi government. He was then left jobless when Abadi abolished his position, “Minister of State for Provincial Affairs,” in August. So Ahmad’s allies on the council held a meeting in Baghdad, better to be out of Raed’s security control, and removed him from office, and then tried to reelect Ahmad. But then Abadi, for no clear legal reason, declared the Salah al-Din council’s vote removing Raed invalid because it was held in Baghdad, and then recently appointed Raed “acting governor,” something he lacks the authority to do.

    The point is, Salah al-Din Sunnis are totally powerless and forced to vie for the patronage of Shia leaders to stay in office. In Diyala they were worse off, and I’ve mentioned above Badr’s dominance of it. Neither Speaker Jiburi nor any other Sunni has any heft there.

    In Anbar it is not much different. Governor Rawi is now in a position of great prominence with the liberation of most of Ramadi, but he is 100 percent dependent upon Abadi, who has decided on a discretionary basis to give Rawi’s employees and Sunni Hashd fighters salaries, and could turn the spigot off tomorrow if he wanted. Yet Rawi’s position is worth emphasizing, because of what it says about the Sunnis’ position: like Speaker Jiburi, he belongs to the Islamic Party, the party that was leading anti-government protests in 2013. Even after Rawi was elected in December 2014, he initially was still talking up the Sunni autonomy option, but quickly gave that up. The way Abadi manages Anbar policy, he has essentially appointed himself as Anbar governor, and made Rawi his chief-of-staff; Rawi oversees the machinery, but Abadi decides everything.

    In terms of other Anbar figures, I’ve already mentioned Mutlak and Isawi, both of whom have many strikes against them. Thafir al-Ani, whose namesake town of Anah in north-central Anbar remains under jihadi occupation, has grown more prominent in the media with so many others discredited, and has also developed a more modest and conciliatory demeanor in the face of the catastrophe that has befallen his province. Salman al-Jumayli, who was part of Mutahidun, is planning minister, and Qasim al-Fahdawi, a key Mutahidun neminsis, is electricity minister. But both have weaknesses – Jumayli failed to win a seat in the last election and was roundly criticized for taking a ministry; indeed I think that is the reason Abadi chose him, because he knew Jumayli would be weak. And then Fahdawi, who is from Ramadi, is electricity minister – and the ministry is like an albatross, he was strongly criticized over the summer.

    Unfortunately, if I had to put money on it, the chief alternative to Rawi in Anbar is likely to be Muhammad al-Karbuli, the head of al-Hal in parliament. He has been getting a lot of attention from his seat on the Security & Defense Committee. In the 2014 elections he appeared in more TV ads than any candidate in the country who wasn’t the head of a major bloc (Maliki, Nujayfi, Allawi). While the parties are all corrupt, others have a political program as well, whereas al-Hal is a Karbuli family business. Muhammad’s brother Ahmad al-Karbuli was the industry minister in the last government, and does not appear to have done anything with it other than try to make money on contracts, and then fled the country ahead of an arrest warrant. His elder brother, party leader Jamal al-Karbuli, has been chased by corruption claims since he was vice-president of the Iraqi Red Crescent nearly a decade ago. Recently there were new warrants issued for several former IRC executives, some with business ties to Karbuli, but there appears to be an unwritten rule that warrants are not to be issued for the politically connected (the warrant for his brother Ahmad was issued under Maliki, shortly after Karbuli turned on Maliki).

    Yet I am told that the Islamic Party and al-Hal may run together in the next election. If that intention holds, they should win, and the party that wins the most seats on the list would get the governorship. So post-Islamic State Anbar will most likely find itself in the hands of old-style parties, but ones aligned with Baghdad.

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    Can Iraqi Politics Find A Solution To The Causes Of The Insurgency? Interview With Prof. Ahmed Hashim

    December 6th, 2015


    Interview conducted by Joel Wing.


    Dr. Ahmed Hashim is an Associate Professor of Strategic Studies and Deputy Coordinator of the Military Studies Program at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His 2006 book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq was ahead of its time not only for its insight into the insurgency but identity politics as well. In 2009 he wrote a follow up book on the topic Iraq’s Sunni Insurgency. This is an interview with Prof. Hashim about why the insurgency emerged, how it operates, and whether there are any political solutions to resolve it.

    1. You wrote in your book Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency In Iraq that the Sunni insurgency didn’t start because of a loss of power so much as a loss of national identity. The Islamic State has played upon that proclaiming itself the protector of Sunnis in both Syria and Iraq. Can you explain what you meant by that and how dolling out government positions via quotas and other concessions wouldn’t solve this sense of loss?

    I may not have been completely clear; of course, it was partly due to loss of power. However, my major point was that the loss of identity hit them harder than the loss of power. Not all Sunni had power; but all Sunni Arabs had been indoctrinated into the belief that they had created and built up Iraq. They believed that it was “theirs,” and had been so since its inception.

    Indeed, since Ottoman times the Turks moved them into positions of power and provided secular education. Maybe positions and allocation of power and resources would have alleviated that but they did not get it when the Americans left in 2011. First, a breed of unscrupulous politicians and carpetbaggers took over in Anbar and tried to curry favor with Maliki. They got little, which leads to the second point. Second, Maliki gave the Sunnis little and the latter were not in a position to get much from a Shia establishment that had secured most of the levers of the state.

    1. Another point you’ve made in the past was that the Sunni community made a strategic mistake by supporting a strong central government after 2003 because it would be dominated by Shiites rather than backing federalism. It took until 2011 for a few provinces like Salahaddin and Diyala to call for regionalism, which was also taken up by some of the Sunni protest movement as well. Do you think federal regions would still be viable for Sunni governorates, do enough of the Sunni elite now agree with the idea, and would it be accepted by Baghdad and the ruling Shiite parties?

    It has slowly seeped into Sunni consciousness that they cannot seize power in the center again; this is why they now call for Sunni regionalism, much to the satisfaction of the Kurds and even with their encouragement. The Sunni areas are not as unviable as people ordinarily believe. They have gas and agriculture. I think more and more Sunni elites are coming round to the idea of federalism; it was and remains strange to their mindset, having been at the center of power for so long and in control.

    1. Iraq’s Sunnis have been fractured more than any other group in the country. This has only been made worse by the emergence of the Islamic State with some tribes backing the group, some with the government, and others sitting on the fence. Some politicians like the Nujafis have had their base in Mosul occupied by the insurgents. Can you see any solution to this political dysfunction and if it isn’t resolved does that mean militant groups will always have a chance to find supporters?

    There is an interesting paradox here, which I am exploring in my forthcoming book The Caliphate At War. Until 2003, they [Sunnis] were at the center of power, or elements of them. Precisely because of that, Saddam kept a close watch on them: Sunnis watched other Sunnis in a byzantine web of security and intelligence services. His particular worry was that disgruntled Sunnis would use the military to shoot their way into power. He had to be sure that would never happen; after all, he was not overthrown by the army.

    The Sunnis had no alternative power centers; the Islamic parties had been weakened. The tribes had been strengthened at the local provincial level but were not national players. The Shias and Kurds had alternatives: their alienation from power and exile of many of them allowed them to develop parties; the Kurds in particular had their sanctuary, which gave them the opportunity to build political machines.

    The Sunnis had the insurgency, which was frankly a dismal affair between 2003 and 2007 when many of the groups absconded and joined the Sahwa. They were fractious, did not have clearly defined political and military wings; wedded to their ‘restorationist’ agenda, and defined by the barbaric AQI of Zarqawi and his successors. The situation did not improve for them after the temporary defeat of ISI in 2009, a defeat that has been overrated as the organization came back again and took advantage of the Sunni weaknesses and their constant series of blunders.

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    Disputed Territories of Iraq, Interview With US Naval Academy Prof Wayne Hsieh On Tuz Kharmato

    November 24th, 2015

    Interview conducted by Joel Wing.

    U.S. Naval Academy Prof Wayne Hsieh

    During Saddam Hussein’s rule he carried out a deliberate policy of population transfer, border changing, divide and conquer policies, and ethnic cleansing to try to control northern Iraq and its Kurdish population. One of the areas affected by this strategy was Tuz Khurmatu in northeast Salahaddin just along the border with the Kirkuk governorate. The Kurds claim it as part of the disputed territories, and its population of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen dealt with all of the ethnosectarian tensions and violence that occurred after 2003. In the summer of 2014 much of the area was captured by the Islamic State, but freed at the end of that season. Today the district continues to face problems, which is connected to this history. To help explain some of the aspects of Tuz Khurmatu is Associate Professor of History Wayne W.S. Hsieh of the U.S. Naval Academy. From 2008-2009 he worked for the State Department with the Salahaddin Provincial Reconstruction team in Tuz Khurmatu dealing with disputed territories. He can be followed on Twitter @whsieh.

    Q: Was Tuz Khurmatu affected by Saddam’s Arabization program and what is its’ demographics today?

    Hsieh: Tuz was indeed affected by Saddam’s Arabization program. There used to be Kurdish villages in the northeastern part of the district, which are all depopulated now due to Saddam’s various campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, while there was not the same degree of demographic churn in Tuz from movements of Arabs as, let’s say, Hawijah in Kirkuk province (as I understand it), the old regime had some success in persuading Sunni Turkmen in Tuz that they were Turkmen-speaking Arabs. This is important now, because it helps explain the support of some Sunni Turkmen for groups like ISIS and its earlier iterations, and tensions between the Shia Turkmen in the town of Amerli, and the Sunni Turkmen in surrounding villages. Before all the population dislocations surrounding Amerli’s siege and its aftermath, the district was probably about 1/4 Kurdish, with the remainder divided evenly between Arabs and Turkmen. The Turkmen in turn would be divided between Shia and Sunni populations–my sense would be that there were more Shia than Sunni Turkmen in the district.

    Q: Tuz Khurmatu is different from the regular narrative about Iraq because of those demographics you just mentioned with Turkemn, Arabs, and Kurds. Arab politicians like Moqtada Al-Sadr supported Tuz’s Shiite Turkmen. The Kurds also had aspirations for the district. How did those forces interact after 2003?

    Hsieh: When I was in Tuz in 2008 and 2009, it was clear that the various Shia Islamist parties were making serious plays for Shia Turkmen support, but at that point, sectarian appeals had weaker support (as was arguably the case throughout Iraq). As a consequence, the party that did the most well in the January 2009 provincial elections was the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF), which was a party that appealed more to ethnic identification than a religious identity, even though it also made claims to defending Shia Turkmen interests. However, some of Tuz’s most important [parliament] members have been affiliated with Shia Islamist parties, and in the current environment, the latter are clearly in ascendance. It’s also my impression that the ITF no longer receives the same sort of support it once did from the Turkish government, whose good relations with the KRG’s leadership presumably makes the ITF’s mainly anti-KRG platform less useful for Ankara’s purposes. Finally, the ITF has never had the overt military muscle of organizations such as the Badr Corps, and in this environment, not having a strong militia attached to your political movement is probably fatal for serious political influence in Tuz.

    As for the Kurds, in order to dilute the demographic strength of Kirkuk province, the [Saddam] regime had detached Tuz from Kirkuk governorate and attached it to Salah ad Din, which in a variety of ways was a poor fit. But because of that transfer, Tuz was seen by some as an Article 140 region, and a potential future piece of Kurdistan by returning it to a KRG-governed Kirkuk governorate. However, whatever the aspirations of some local Kurds, my impression has always been that senior KRG leaders never seriously thought Tuz could be added to the KRG–and I think the Peshmerga climb down there after the recent violence, along with even earlier grumbling from local PUK leaders that Tuz didn’t get much attention in terms of services from the KRG bears that out. In my view, they always saw Tuz as a bargaining chip to be given away for gains elsewhere (Kirkuk, of course, being the most important).

    Q: How did the insurgency play upon the Arab and Turkmen community in Tuz to push its goals there?

    Hsieh: As mentioned before, Saddam’s Arabization program succeeded to some degree in persuading Sunni Turkmen to see Shia Turkmen as an adversarial group. The massive car bombing in Amerli in 2007 that killed around 125 residents (in a town that numbered only 10,000) also successfully inflamed sectarian tensions. Ever since then, the Shia in Amerli have looked at the surrounding Sunni villages with a great deal of suspicion, leading to a garrison mentality, even *before* the famous ISIS siege of the town last year. Furthermore, JRTN [Jiash Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshibandi] strength in Sunni villages in the Sulaiman Bak sub-district near the Hamrin remained a real problem even during my relatively quite year in Tuz between 2008 and 2009, when the insurgency had been so heavily damaged. Those villages were obviously prime breeding grounds for ISIS.

    The insurgency tended to focus not just on hostility toward Shia, but also on restraining Kurdish ambitions. As mentioned above, some local Kurds obviously hoped for eventual attachment to a KRG-governed Kirkuk, with Turkmen and Arabs all fearing such a prospect in turn–and the Sunni insurgency using that as a recruitment tool for their own purposes.

    Q:  In 2014 the Islamic State conquered the Tuz district.

    Then most of the area was freed by a joint Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Hashd al-Shaabi, and Peshmerga offensive that same year. Afterward the area was split up into spheres of control by the Shiite forces and Kurds. The two sides had flare ups, but that recently exploded in November 2015 with a shootout at a checkpoint. The Shiite Turkmen claimed they were targeted, and then both the Kurds and Shiite groups sent reinforcements quickly escalating the situation. What does this crisis say about the continued divisions between Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, the central government, and Kurdistan region over the future of Tuz?

    Hsieh: Tuz leaders sometimes described their small district as a larger microcosm of Iraq, due to its diverse population, with no ethnosectarian group having much of a predominance over the other (at least, not up until the fall of Mosul last year). Those leaders frequently made it clear to groups such as the UN that they had little desire to be a pawn in larger political games played by Baghdad and Irbil-based leaders–hence their somewhat quixotic (but sincerely held) hope that Tuz be declared its own governorate, which from what I gather actually gained some traction in Baghdad, despite its absurdity as a practical matter. It was still possible in 2009 when I was in Tuz to have Kurdish and Turkmen leaders meet in the same room and air out their differences, or for a Turkmen political leader to acknowledge and praise the political impartiality of the local Kurdish Iraqi Army commander (now since retired). Or to walk into a hardscrabble Arab village and find a local leader willing to talk, and who was indifferent to sectarian rhetoric about grievance and revenge.

    But the violence surrounding Amerli’s siege has made those sorts of events improbable, and added a relative power vacuum into which PUK and Shia militia rivalries have flared. The current power brokers are interested in pieces of Tuz, but not necessarily the whole (the same can be said of much of Iraq’s current political leadership). The Kurds are most interested in the economically important city, where the Kurds themselves reside, and which sits astride the important Kirkuk-Baghdad road. They would like the Sunni villages near the city to be quiet to keep the city secure, but it’s hard to believe the PUK cares much about Amerli, much less Sulaiman Bak–and certainly not enough to send scarce funds for government services. As for the Shia militias, many obviously took a harder line as to how to deal with various villages connected to the insurgency–and there is obviously friction between them and the Kurds as to influence within Tuz city proper, which includes many Shia Turkmen. As for Sunni Arabs and Turkmen, some were *already* sympathetic to groups like ISIS, and the heavy-handed tactics of the Shia militias have probably exacerbated those problems–at least among those Sunnis who haven’t fled the district. And while ISIS’ siege of Amerli was mercifully crushed, the group remains capable of conducting attacks in the district.

    To add another layer of complexity, recent events have highlighted sharp tensions between Peshmerga and Hashd leaders. My understanding is also that the tensions between local Kurds and Hashd have run so high that early interventions by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to broker a truce actually failed before things finally quieted down, despite the strong ties between Iran and the PUK. I’ll defer to folks like Mike Knights and the Iraqi Oil Report, who have more current sources in the area, as to the exact details of the fighting there, but from my standpoint, this is just another sign of how what used to be a reasonably hopeful situation in Tuz has collapsed in so many ways. Take, for example, the fighting involving the Tuz hospital, which was actually visited in 2009 by the health section of the Salah ad Din PRT. The medical professionals pronounced the hospital the best run in the entire province, with a strongly led local staff. There were various other examples of reasonably competent local officials, but open fighting between Kurdish and Hashd forces obviously makes things even more difficult.

    If Tuz is a microcosm of Iraq, or at least of the ethnically diverse and disputed regions in the north, then it’s current chaotic state shows the challenges faced by other such areas once they are “cleared” of ISIS forces.


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    Breaking Down The Islamic State’s Media Output

    October 26th, 2015

    By Joel Wing.


    Much has been made of the Islamic State’s announcements by its media office, which is mostly aimed at the international community. Less analysis has been made of its regional output. That’s what Charlie Winter of the Quilliam Foundation did in a recent report entitled “Documenting the Virtual ‘Caliphate.’” Winter focused upon one month’s worth of output by IS from July 17 to August 15, 2015 that came from both its provinces and its central media outlets. Here are some of his insights into the organization’s themes and how they might be countered. Winter can be followed on Twitter @charliewinter.

    1. Could you give a brief snapshot of what an average day’s worth of IS media releases looks like?

    On an average day, Islamic State’s official propaganda offices from Nigeria to Afghanistan release 38.2 separate propaganda ‘events’ – photo essays, videos, audio and text bulletins, and so on. The thematic make-up of these 38 units varies widely, but there are some broad, consistent trends. First off, brutality is far from prominent. Indeed, often, it doesn’t come up at all. Far more important is the content that prioritises conveying the themes of victimhood, war and civilian life. On a daily basis, numerous visual reports emerge of dead or maimed children and decimated infrastructure in the ‘caliphate’, things that are instrumentalised in order to legitimise and justify Islamic State’s very existence. Photo essays are circulated like clockwork showing soldiers training, engaging in offensive and fighting a war of attrition warfare, firing off mortars at named but unseen adversaries. Most prominent by far, though, are depictions of civilian life – from hudud punishments, handicrafts and stonemasonry to zoos, chicken farms and road-building. The intention of this content is obvious: Islamic State’s ‘state’ is being sold as a true utopia, a viable, practicable alternative to the status quo.

    1. In just 30 days you found 1,146 “units of propaganda” coming out of IS outlets. Was the group just trying to produce as much as it could or was there some goal behind that huge output?

    Such high volume is not something that has arisen spontaneously. Islamic State’s media strategists have cultivated this situation with great care. By creating so much content, they are expanding the ‘evidence base’ with which their recruiters can recruit and creating as comprehensive an image of life in the ‘caliphate’ as possible. On top of that, they are satisfying demand – after all, Islamic State’s global media success is predicated upon the existence and persistent enthusiasm of its online disseminator community. These ‘propagandees’ are active consumers of Islamic State’s branding and require a constant flow of content to keep them obsessively interested. For the self-styled disseminator community, Islamic State’s ever-accelerating rate of production ensures the continuation of intrigue – every new report is a not just a piece of propaganda to consume and spread, it is a new way to digitally support Islamic State’s jihad.

    1. Many people who talk about the Islamic State’s information output focus upon the violent videos it produces. In your study what was the rough breakdown between violent and military pieces and those about civilian and governance issues, and what did that say about the themes IS is pushing?

    In ‘The Virtual Caliphate: Understanding Islamic State’s Propaganda Strategy’, a report I wrote back in July 2015, I identified six key themes of the Islamic State narrative – mercy, belonging, brutality, victimhood, war and utopia. When I came to the end of the data collection period in August 2015, I wanted to test the ‘Virtual Caliphate’ hypothesis, so I ran the 1146 items through this framework to weigh the empirically themes against each other. What I found marked a distinctive shift away from the norms of bygone days, just 0.45% of the units prioritised mercy, 0.89% dealt with belonging, and 2.13% with brutality. 6.84% of the dataset focused on the victimhood narrative, while 37.12% were military-themed and 52.57% depicted civilian life in the ‘caliphate’.

    1. The violence you monitored coming from IS outlets you didn’t think was aimed at the international community or attracting new foreign recruits, but rather at people already living under IS control. What was the organization trying to tell that population?

    Since Islamic State grabbed the attention of Western media last year, there has been a consistent sense in the mainstream discourse on the group that its members are all irrational and bloodthirsty madmen. ‘Jihadi John’s’ stream of beheadings, the high-definition immolation of Muadh al-Kasasbeh’s, the mass executions in Libya – all of these were instances of Islamic State’s Propaganda of the Deed, focused on provoking and outraging the international community. These days, the spectre of ultraviolence remains, however, since mid-April 2015, the target audience has become decidedly more regional, as the motivations behind Islamic State’s brutality have erred away from global provocation towards local deterrence. These days, those being killed are alleged dissenters and spies, people living in the ‘caliphate’ itself. Above all, their deaths are publicised as warnings to toe the ‘caliphate’ line.

    1. Many radical groups of all persuasions like to portray themselves as being up against the wall, and facing insurmountable odds as the underdogs. What examples of victimization did you find in your study?

    The victimhood narrative is an age-old friend of jihadist groups and Islamic State’s manipulation of it is nothing new. Whether they are documenting the aftermath of ‘Crusader’ (coalition) missiles, ‘Safavid’ (Iraqi) bombs, ‘Saluli’ (Saudi) rockets or ‘Nusayri’ (Assad regime) barrels, Islamic State’s propagandists spend an exorbitant amount of time selling the ‘caliphate’ as the one truly defiant vanguard standing up to the global status quo and bearing the brunt of the international conspiracy against Islam on behalf of Sunnis everywhere.

    1. Did you learn any lessons about how western and Middle Eastern governments might be able to counter the Islamic State’s propaganda?

    When considering how best to challenge Islamic State’s propaganda, we must keep in mind that it is not just being consumed online. It’s really important to recognise that all these efforts are not just for international audiences – propaganda is not just limited to attracting new recruits or scaring enemies. After all, it is as ubiquitous in Islamic State-held territories as it is online, played on repeat at media points across the ‘caliphate’, and handed out as newspapers (al-Naba’) and in electronic magazines (al-Maysara). In the almost total absence of other streams of information, the picture of life that the civilian population of the ‘caliphate’ is able to piece together is drawn directly from this carefully refined content. This only complicated the situation.

    Whatever the case, predicating our response upon the myth of the panacea counter narrative, that one idea or concept that can singlehandedly undercut Islamic State’s brand, is a wrong-footed approach. Indeed, by limiting the effort to looking for Golden Fleece ‘counter’ narratives, we are structurally impairing ourselves from meaningful progress. What we need to focus on is generating a set of ‘alternative’ narratives, things that challenge Islamic State by their very existence, not by their pithy attempts to slander it. Of course, figuring out just what these alternatives are is a whole other issue, something for which there is no easy answer. Categorically, though, it is a trajectory we must embark upon.

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    How Is The War Against The Islamic State Going? 10 Expert Opinions

    August 20th, 2015


     By Joel Wing.



    In August 2014 the United States joined the war against the Islamic State (IS). The massacre and enslavement of the Yazidi population in the Sinjar district of Iraq’s Ninewa province prompted Washington to cobble together an international coalition and start air strikes on IS positions in Iraq and Syria. That was one year ago. That has given plenty of time for people to form their opinions on how the war against the militants has progressed. Collected together here are ten experts: Ahmed Ali of the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, J.M. Berger of the Brookings Institution, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Dr. Michael Knights of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Aron Lund of Syria in Crisis, Alex Mello of Horizon Client Access, Douglas Ollivant of the New America Foundation, Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi of the Middle East Forum, Craig Whiteside of the Naval War College, and Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy all of which have been astute observers of the Islamic State, Syria and Iraq. Here are their personal opinions on how they believe the war against the Islamic State has gone.

    Ahmed Ali is a senior fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. He can be followed on Twitter @IraqShamel.

    The war against ISIS is at a critical juncture. ISIS is on defense and this is a change from a year ago. This outcome was not achieved easily. In 2014, ISIS took control of many cities in northern and western Iraq almost uncontested. Today, ISIS is not on the march, is contained in Iraq, and is being pressured in Syria. These positive developments do not mean ISIS is about to be defeated and certainly should not result in accepting the status quo. The developments indicate there is a way forward to defeat ISIS that will include enhancing the military and political components.

    In Iraq, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, and Iraqi Sunni tribes now know the enemy well. They have been fighting for over a year with successes and setbacks. These anti-ISIS forces are pursuing a strategy that is characterized by patience and a realization that ISIS can slowly be defeated even if it’s a difficult responsibility. These forces still need a great degree of support to include strategic planning and air support. The anti-ISIS forces should avoid the pitfall of internal rivalries and turf-war. ISIS thrives in these conditions. Politically, Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi has launched an ambitious reform agenda. He should not exclusively focus on the political challenge while ignoring the immediate ISIS military challenge. In Syria, ISIS faces challenges on the ground and from the air. Last year, ISIS had complete freedom in Syria.

    The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition is in a different posture at the moment. Airstrikes are more frequent and ISIS has had to adjust its operational tempo in response. The airstrikes will enjoy more success if they are accompanied by revised sets of the rules of engagement (ROE). The current ROE have in some cases hampered ground forces from being more effective. The uber-restrictive ROE have in some cases allowed ISIS to achieve avoidable gains as we saw in Ramadi. The new Turkish role in targeting ISIS is a positive overall. Turkey can be even more serious and effective by ensuring it suffocates the ISIS fighter supply line that used to run through Turkish airports and borders. However, Turkish targeting of the PKK can have an adverse effect on the fight against ISIS. The PKK and the PYD are fighting ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. Targeting them will undoubtedly shift their focus and likely some resources from fighting ISIS. Turkish-PKK tensions will continue and they certainly make their own decisions. Both sides have to be cognizant of timing and priorities. For now, the priority has to be fighting ISIS.

    ISIS remains a threat despite its weakened posture. Its regional presence in Egypt and Libya is concerning. The U.S. cannot be in all of these places to counter ISIS. It will have to depend on partners and local allies. This task is easier in Iraq and Egypt, but more difficult in Syria and Libya. The U.S. should refrain from being a reactive actor. It should not wait for another Ramadi to be more aggressive with ISIS. The requirements and needs are clear on the battlefield. The U.S. and its partners do not have the luxury to contemplate decisions. Quick action and deploying hard power can secure the U.S. influence now and in the long-term.

    J.M. Berger is Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror. He can be followed on Twitter @intelwire.

    While the war against ISIS has been full of sound and fury, the coalition has been largely stalemated in its efforts to force a meaningful change on the ground in Iraq and Syria. ISIS has lost some territory, but gained in other areas, particularly the international arena. With its annexation of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and its expanded terrorist operations in Yemen, Afghanistan, Tunisia and elsewhere, it’s difficult to make the case that ISIS is weaker today than it was a year ago. The major question now is whether a continuing stalemate is better for ISIS or for the coalition. If ISIS is forced to consume resources faster than it can replenish them with new conquests, it could suffer escalating setbacks given time. But if the center holds, its ability to project internationally and spark secondary conflicts among coalition members may tilt the advantage in its favor.

    Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He can be followed on Twitter@DaveedGR.

    Doyle McManus demonstrated in a recent L.A. Times column that the answer to how the war against the Islamic State (IS) is going depends in some small part on the metrics one uses. On the one hand, IS has lost about 10% of the territory it once held; but on the other, IS still controls a vast expanse of territory and can mount offensives, such as the one that captured Anbar’s capital of Ramadi in May. The reason I stress that an assessment of coalition efforts will only vary in a small way based on the chosen metrics is because these competing evaluations are a bit of a diversion. The overarching reality is that IS not only continues to control sizable territory after a year of fighting some of the world’s most powerful states, but also threatens to overrun even more ground. Given how difficult it is for violent non-state actors (VNSAs)—especially those with as many enemies as IS has—to control territory for sustained periods, it’s fair to assess IS as the winner thus far. Even if its “caliphate” ultimately lacks staying power, IS has shown that VNSAs can capture and control broad swathes of territory in regions of the utmost strategic importance. It has shown that jihadist groups can sustain these gains despite implementing an extraordinarily brutal form of sharia law, systematizing sexual slavery, and pursuing openly genocidal policies against religious minorities. While the United States was right to forego committing conventional ground forces, many coalition policies raise doubts about the current strategy. The strict rules of engagement imposed on U.S. air strikes have kept IS’s attrition rates lower than they might otherwise be. The coalition’s failure to meaningfully engage with Anbari tribes prior to Ramadi’s fall—the same tribes that successfully rebelled against IS’s predecessor—represents a missed opportunity. And Iraq’s decision to continue paying state employees who live in IS-controlled territory, while not altogether irrational, has certainly enriched IS. This is not to say all is going swimmingly for IS, which faces internal divisions, loss of supply routes, and challenges from Kurdish groups in its own capital of Raqqa. But IS’s continued ability to credibly claim that it is “remaining and expanding” despite the coalition assembled against it means the group is in a far better position than anyone should feel comfortable with—and other VNSAs are certainly watching, and will learn from its example.

    Dr. Michael Knights is a Lafer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He can followed on Twitter@Mikeknightsiraq.

    Speaking just about Iraq, which is clearly only one segment of the broader war, any assessment of the current level of progress has to take into account the perspective of the differing participants.

    The Shia-led government in Iraq might be impatient but they will see the defense of Samarra, Baghdad and Karbala as major successes. The liberation of Jurf as-Sakr (which overlooks Shia pilgrim routes), Tikrit and other areas will likewise be viewed with pride. There will be optimism about the unfolding battles in Ramadi and Haditha. In Baghdad’s view, Iraq’s military is recovering but it remains too reliant on autonomous Shia politicians with military forces of their own. Thus one of Baghdad’s key concerns about the war is not necessarily how slowly it progresses but what non-governmental Shia rivals are being enabled by the war. It also pays to look at the recaptured territories through Shia Iraqi eyes: to a Westerner much of Iraq still needs to be liberated, but to a Shia Iraqi politician almost all the Shia areas have already been liberated and remaining ISIL-controlled areas far away from Baghdad are a lower priority. Thus, from an Iraqi Shia perspective the war has seen an inspiring popular mobilization and secured most Shia areas from overrun, which looks like a qualified success.

    The Iraqi Kurds share some similarities with the Shia-led federal government view. The defense of Erbil showed that America and the West cared a lot about Iraqi Kurdistan’s survival, and subsequently an unprecedented level of international military support has been provided to the Kurds. This alone makes the war effort of the last year a diplomatic success of the first order. The Kurds recaptured most of the places they cared about and have established a very strong defensive line that incorporates most of Kirkuk. From the Kurdish perspective the job is not done, however: ISIL is simply too close for comfort. So the Kurds will say the war against ISIL is going OK but that it would be a disaster if it now shuddered to a halt and left them with ISIL-controlled Mosul just a half-hour’s drive from their capital Erbil.

    Most of the Sunni Arabs of Iraq would undoubtedly view the war against ISIL as going very badly. Those in safer areas like Baghdad fear backlash if ISIL starts to launch more bombings of Shia areas close to them. Those in liberated areas face a mammoth reconstruction challenge and many are being constrained from returning to their towns and villages. Those in ISIL-controlled areas or waiting to return to them from IDP camps are uncertain that anyone is really going to liberate the Sunni areas for them. If Sunni Hashd al-Sha’abi (Popular Mobilization) have to self-liberate the areas as the leading combat forces, a bloody road lies ahead for many of their sons. The war since 2014 has been a disaster of unprecedented scale and intensity for the Sunnis, even set against the Sunni Iraqi disasters of previous years.

    The international community, including the United States probably has a very varied view of whether the war is going well in Iraq. The U.S. leadership wanted to check ISIL’s advance in Iraq without becoming an indispensable ground force provider again: it has succeeded in that narrow aim, which may give some satisfaction in the White House if not in many other places. The Iranians have gained a lot of influence at fairly low cost by being ungrudging and quick to act — exactly what the U.S. could and should have done. But they are probably not satisfied overall: Iran is increasingly paranoid that the war is not going fast enough in Iraq, that Western involvement is (very) slowly escalating and that ISIL may spread and pose a direct threat on and within Iran’s borders.

    Though it is harder to get inside the mind of ISIL’s leadership I suspect they are very content with the last year in Iraq on a number of levels. First, they have appeared virile and aggressive for much of that period, even if they struggled to move much beyond Sunni-populated areas. Over the last year global media has boosted them into 10 feet-tall supermen based on their achievements in Iraq and this has sparked a wealth of opportunities for expansion elsewhere. Iraq is where they made their brand over the last year. But there have also been disappointments in Iraq: in particular running an oil industry and holding the requisite terrain and infrastructure proved to be too hard. But generally the ISIL view of the last year in Iraq can probably be summed up as: “I can’t complain.”

    Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. @aron_ld.  

    The short answer to questions like these should of course always be “I have no idea”, but a slightly longer version could go something like this.

    Numerically and in terms of sheer firepower, the Islamic State is vastly outgunned in Iraq. (Syria is a slightly different story.) They seem to have great problems holding ground once they come under concerted assault that includes both Iraqi ground troops and airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition. They’re poorly equipped to rule and develop the areas under their control and will be forced to tune-up repression as this drags on, which can easily alienate the local population. But unless challenged decisively on their own turf and by Sunni rivals, they can probably remain indefinitely in many Sunni parts of Iraq as a Taliban style Quran-and-Kalashnikov warlord movement, bobbing up and down from subversive action to territorial control depending on the way their war is going at that moment and in that area. It’s not the shiny new caliphate they’ve been dreaming of, but it’s also not the Islamic State-free Iraq that the US is hoping for. It’s certainly nowhere close to the ideology-addled hallucinations offered up by invasion proponents in 2003.

    The fundamental problems that allowed the Islamic State to expand in the first place persist today and have in many ways hardened. The opponents of the jihadis are too badly divided — along ethnic and religious and political lines, and also in terms of foreign allegiances and support — to realize even a fraction of their collective might. It’s an alliance that is much less than the sum of its parts. For example, the Kurds should be able to blast the Islamic State out of Sinjar fairly easily, with US and Iraqi support. Instead, they have been stuck up there for months because the PKK and KDP are both more interested in pulling the rug from under the others’ feet than in actually pushing back the Islamic State. The protests in Basra and elsewhere highlight the cracks in the Shia bloc and show how brittle the Baghdad government remains, particularly with the onset of economic difficulties after the oil price drop.

    I think at this point, people looking at the Iraqi war need to start thinking more seriously about what the benchmarks are, or should be. How do you usefully quantify Coalition success against the Islamic State? Is it to halt, contain, and pressure them until we see some rollback and internal fissures opening up? If so, I guess things are going pretty well, despite some hickups like Ramadi. But if the metrics are about building Sunni leadership able to displace the Islamic State more permanently, in alliance with Baghdad, there’s been very little progress. I suppose a reasonable way of looking at it would be to accept the premise put forth by the US administration, that this is a multi-year engagement. If so, one could say that step one seems to have gone OK, but there’s been no transit to step two yet and it’s not clear that that’s ever going to happen.

    In the end, it’s not obvious to me that this is a fixable problem, at least not given the level of resources that the US and others are willing and able to put in. Iraq is an incredible mess. Syria is beyond salvation. Action to affect the situation in these countries is constrained by real and serious costs, many other global and domestic priorities, by the public’s war weariness, and much else. A first step should be for policy debate to line up with reality and look at what is achievable given the political situation on both ends of these interventions, instead of measuring success against the impossible standard of “if only”. The sooner the better. I’m not sure the world can handle this many whining wonks indefinitely.

    Alex Mello is lead Iraq security analyst at energy advisory service Horizon Client Access. He can be followed on@Alex_de_M.

    The Islamic State is now on the defensive in Iraq—but this doesn’t mean the Iraqi government is on the path to winning the war. Until April I think you could say pretty accurately that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) were broadly on schedule to roll up insurgent gains. Several important insurgent strongholds where security collapsed in June 2014 had already been cleared; the southern Baghdad belts, northern Diyala, Tikrit, and an assault on Mosul was mostly on track for late 2015. The fall of Ramadi in May 2015 upset the entire ISF and Coalition strategy. The ISF are now going have to clear Ramadi, and probably also Fallujah, and it’s not certain that they can. As the fighting in Bayji and its refinery is showing, the ISF and Hashd have a fundamental problem with complex urban combat operations and clearing and holding urban terrain. Another point is that even with the Hashd al-Sha’abi providing a huge manpower reserve and backstopping security in cleared areas the ISF—especially the battle hardened “fire brigade” units, the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), Emergency Response Brigades (ERB0, a few Federal Police units and Iraqi Army armored brigades—are badly attrited, exhausted and overstretched, with numerous brigades fixed in place or combat-ineffective. The ISF simply doesn’t have the strength to undertake simultaneous, coordinated operations in multiple areas—like the US corps-level surge offensives in 2007-2008—so they end up “squeezing the balloon”.  Insurgents are cleared from one area only to pop up in another—this is what we’re seeing in Diyala now. The worst case scenario is that if the ISF become bogged down in attritional urban fighting in Ramadi and Fallujah, the federal government may simply end up yielding control of large areas of Sunni Iraq—Mosul, the upper Tigris River Valley, Anbar—to the insurgents, and focus on holding areas that Baghdad considers vital to its security—the Baghdad belts, where most ISF strength is already tied up, Diyala province, and the Baghdad-Samarra corridor, and abandon the rest as permanent hunting ground for Coalition airstrikes and special forces raids. This is what an Islamic State victory could look like.

    Douglas Ollivant is a Senior National Security Studies Fellow at the New America Foundation, and is a managing partner at Mantid International. He can be followed on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.

    The war on ISIL, despite setbacks (yes–Ramadi was a huge disappointment) and sputterings, is moving apace in Iraq (no, no one has a plan for Syria), despite disappointing support from some neighboring countries. Further, the arrival of U.S. equipment this summer, the emergence of fresh Iraqi troops from the U.S. training pipeline, the maturing of the U.S. intelligence effort in Iraq, and the opening of Incerlik as an air base, should magnify the effect of coalition assistance.  Success in Ramadi and/or Fallujah this fall/winter will be the barometer of whether the effort is moving fast enough.  But more can be done to assist the Iraqis on the front lines of this effort–not more as in something different, but more as in better and faster along the currently efforts (training, equipping, intelligence, airpower).  Further, providing monies to help the Iraqis (and others with front lines with or near ISIL–the Jordanians come to mind) defray the costs of fighting this transnational threat (and ameliorating the humanitarian crises it is creating) do not seem inappropriate.  The blood (lamentably) spilled to destroy ISIL must come from the region–but the treasure involved could be more broadly sourced.

    Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He can be followed on Twitter@ajaltamimi.

    Overall, the war against the Islamic State has reached a stalemate with ebb and flow. Though the Islamic State may have lost substantial border holdings in northern Syria to the Kurdish YPG, it has continued to make advances in the Homs desert against the Assad regime, while fighting with the rebels in north Aleppo countryside remains deadlocked. In Iraq a similar trend has emerged with the Islamic State’s loss of Tikrit and all towns in Babil and Diyala provinces on the one hand but capturing important towns in Anbar such as Ramadi and Hit on the other. The stalemate aspect in Iraq is particularly evident with the continued fighting over Baiji district and the attempts to move on Ramadi and Fallujah in which government forces and Shi’a militias are taking heavy casualties, while Kurdish forces still cannot retake all of Sinjar town. Indeed, the endless claims in local media outlets of killing X number of Islamic State members in an operation or airstrike here and there can really irritate an analyst. Meanwhile the cities of Mosul, Tel Afar and the towns of far western Anbar show no sign of facing any serious challenge to Islamic State rule for the foreseeable future, and revenue streams have not been seriously hurt because airstrikes cannot dismantle the bureaucratic structure that finds so many avenues for taxation and fees, unless one wants to break all humanitarian boundaries and go for wholesale destruction of the areas the Islamic State controls.

    I think there is not enough honesty in policy discussion about what ‘defeating’ the Islamic State would require: namely, years of extensive ground troop deployments and nation-building projects of the kind no one is prepared to tolerate, limited as the confines of policy discussion are by the legacies of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as ever more polarized, partisan and dysfunctional politics. For example, one can talk of giving a more proactive role for the U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq and/or an increase in troop numbers by a few thousand but it will not tip the overall stalemate, leading instead to perceptions of mission creep and unnecessary troop casualties. So until one sees the willpower and consensus for what it would actually take to ‘defeat/destroy’ the Islamic State, the coalition should drop pretenses to realizing such objectives.

    Craig Whiteside is an Associate Professor at the Naval War College, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He can be followed on Twitter @CraigAWhiteside.

    A year has passed since the fall of Mosul, and yet the concerted forces arrayed against the Islamic State have had minimal impact.  It was in April 2007, around the advent of its darkest times, that emir Abu Omar al Baghdadi predicted that the “Islamic State will remain.” Whatever else its failings, the IS movement has a clear strategy, visible determination, and a realistic appraisal of the costs to achieve its goals.  The same cannot be said of our side. Our fear, hesitancy, and fecklessness stand out in all of our public statements. We are afraid the elimination of IS will empower both Assad and the Iranian militias, and that these same militias will target our soldiers in Iraq.  The reality is that IS must be defeated if the Syrian resistance is to defeat Assad, and only an IS loss can reduce Iranian influence in Iraq and create the trust necessary for national reconciliation. We are hesitant to help Iraqis and Syrians fight IS for fear of doing too much for them, yet our predecessors did the same for Europeans, Koreans, and Vietnamese once. We claim to uphold the standard of human rights, yet look away when confronted with incontrovertible, even self-admitted, evidence of genocide and sexual slavery. We have performed due diligence in exhausting diplomatic, economic, and other measures to defeat IS – and they have proven to be insufficient means. The fantasies about negotiating with IS or allowing it to socialize into the international order are detached from reality and demonstrate a lack of understanding of this revolutionary movement – which has expansionistic mandates and a culture that views negotiation as surrender. Finally, our preoccupation with terror attacks against our homeland as our only criteria for action blinds us to a slowly gathering threat which will undoubtedly and eventually bring war to us when the time favors their side. We must increase our efforts to destroy this nascent pseudo-state that poses an existential threat to our friends and allies in the region, before this cancer is untreatable.

    Aaron Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He can be followed on Twitter@azelin.

    One year since the military campaign started in Iraq there have been mixed results. For The Islamic State (IS), one of its main slogans is ‘remaining and expanding.’ While IS has taken over places such as Fallujah and Ramadi, it has seen its territory in Iraq on the whole shrink, especially in Salah al-Din, Diyala, and parts of Anbar governorates. That said, IS has further entrenched, consolidated, and advanced in its governance in its western provinces Wilayat Ninawa, Wilayat Dijlah, and Wilayat al-Jazirah in particular. Beyond its hisba justice, just in the past week, IS has been involved with cleaning and repainting roads, working at the salt production factory, surveying the landscape for establishing new sidewalks and pathways, repairing sewage lines, running hospitals, running various markets in many cities and villages, running poultry farms, running sewing shops, providing zakat funds and food distribution to those eligible, repaving roads and sidewalks, decorating streets, running car dealerships, building a sports hall, resuming a water filtration plant, settling disputes and reconciling differences between clans, and starting the second round of tests in schools. Of course, this is just a one week sample, illustrating the increasingly sophisticated nature of how IS runs the territory it controls, it goes well beyond the executions that most people only associate IS with. That said, there is still a major humanitarian disaster in areas IS controls and its governance still is not that impressive, it’s just that compared to prior jihadi governance, this is the most advanced we have seen as well as the fact that expectations are so low and IS is indeed trying on some level and because of this it might get the benefit of the doubt by some. Therefore, at least in the territories IS still controls and has a tighter grip on now, the military campaign should be viewed as a failure.

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    Former Ambassador Robert Ford Reflects On U.S. Policy Towards Iraq And Syria

    July 16th, 2015



    Interview conducted by Joel Wing.


    Robert Ford was one of the State Department’s leading Middle East experts. He joined the Foreign Service in the 1980s serving across the Arab world including appointments to Bahrain, Egypt and Algeria . During the 2000s he served three tours in Iraq as  a political adviser and Deputy Ambassador before going on to be the Ambassador to Syria from 2011-2014. Ford is now a resident scholar at the Middle East Institute . This is an interview with Ford about his time in Iraq and Syria and some lessons learned for American foreign policy.


    1. You first went to Iraq in 2003 to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Paul Bremer’s original plan was for a long term occupation that would include institutional reforms to Iraq’s politics and economy. That contrasted with the view of many in the American military leadership that believed the U.S. presence in the country was the cause of violence and therefore advocated for a speedy withdrawal. Was either of those a viable plan right after the invasion?

    It would be generous to say that there was any detailed American plan in 2003.  The complete meltdown of the Iraqi state was a surprise, and there was no detailed plan to manage security after the state collapse.  In the absence of serious provincial or national security forces, had the U.S. military withdrawn in 2003, most likely local armed groups would have seized control of localities.  We saw this in the autumn of 2003 when the nascent Jaysh al-Mahdi seized control of parts of Kufa, for example.  It perhaps would have come to resemble parts of Syria now under fragmented opposition groups’ control.  Meanwhile, by the summer of 2003 the CPA launched an effort to stand up in stages a new, permanent government. Sometimes its objectives were laudable — building up institutions to protect human rights, for example — but my own sense is that American efforts were too broad and because all institution building projects and draft laws were important, in the end nothing was.  Above all, we failed to understand quickly enough the latent divisions in Iraqi society that truly hobbled, for example, American efforts to build new Iraqi army units.

    2. In 2004 you went to work as an adviser to Ambassadors John Negroponte and then Zalmay Khalilzad. Both tried to come up with comprehensive strategies to take on the insurgency. Then in 2007 you were a member of the Joint Strategic Assessment Team put together by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker to give advice on the Surge. Despite the changes in personnel the U.S. goals in Iraq remained the same, bring down violence to an acceptable level that would allow for a U.S. withdrawal. The period of Negroponte and Khalilzad was considered a failure, while the Surge is widely praised. What do you think were the big differences between those two times in the occupation?

    Ambassadors Negroponte and Khalilzad had the same strategy:  strongly support Iraqi efforts to establish first a transitional and then a permanent Iraqi government that would (a) take some of the wind out of the various insurgencies by including representative political elements in political structures and (b) take the lead in maintaining internal security such that American military and political involvement could diminish steadily with time.  That was still the plan during the surge – the surge was simply a complement to efforts to better ground the permanent government.  Notably, the Jaysh al-Mahdi was still a serious problem in 2008 but especially after then prime minister Maliki confronted it successfully in Basra more of its moderate elements shifted their attention to politics.  Sadrist elements, for example, were in the Maliki cabinet. (This left out hardline groups like Asa’ib Ahl Haq, obviously.)

    We no longer had the constant JAM incursions into Najaf and Karbala, for example. The biggest strategy difference between the 2003-2006 period and that of the surge, starting in the second half of 2007, was that the Americans understood that they would need to be more serious about mobilizing Iraqi Sunni Arabs in order to marginalize the al-Qaida in Iraq elements.  Maliki’s confrontation with the Jaysh al-Mahdi in Basra helped the Americans make the pitch to the Sunni Arabs that Maliki was not an Iranian pawn, and there were promises of Sunni Arab access to government hiring, project largesse and power sharing all made to the Sahwa.  The goodwill among Sunni Arabs that the Americans managed to generate started to dissipate as the Iraqi government began to break these promises as early as 2009, and the Americans didn’t react much.  It was striking how Sunni Arab tribal figures from places like Diyala and Abu Gharieb who had been helpful to us landed in Iraqi detention without any kind of judicial process.  While I personally raised cases with Maliki’s chief of staff, overall we failed to react strongly.  That was a harbinger of what was to come later.  Also a lesson in the limits of institution building.

    3. Your third and final tour in Iraq was from 2008-2010 working as the Deputy Ambassador. That covered the 2010 elections where Iyad Allawi’s Iraqiya came in first place, but Nouri al-Maliki was able to maintain the premiership. Ali Khedery and Emma Sky have recently written about there being a huge divide amongst Americans officials over how to deal with the voting results and the government formation process. What was your position in this debate, and what did you think about the final decision that was made?

    There was a disagreement among American officials for a time after the 2009 Iraqi election, but when Vice President Biden decided we would back Maliki, those disagreements didn’t much affect U.S. policy.  My sense at the time in 2010 was (a) we needed a prime minister who would be much more supple dealing with Kurds and Sunni Arabs and (b) who could better focus on the economy, and in particular the energy sector so that Iraq could start to rebuild as the security situation in 2010 was improving.  I basically left Iraq in February 2010 for my Damascus assignment but my colleagues told me that the drive to back Maliki basically was that it would be faster for him to assemble the needed confirmation votes in the Iraqi parliament than anyone else, and as so often was the case with American policy in Iraq, we were in a hurry; in this case the Americans wanted a new government stood up as quickly as possible in order for us to have a partner with which to negotiate the future of American military forces in Iraq.  It is important for outsiders like us to understand that Iraqi politics and consensus-building is not only difficult but very time-consuming.

    4. In 2011 you moved on as Ambassador to Syria. The Obama administration’s policy there has been roundly criticized.Could you clarify what the strategy was and was it sound?

    The Syrian uprising started three weeks after I arrived in Damascus when there was a spontaneous demonstration in downtown Damascus in response to police abuse of a motorist.  From the beginning of the uprising we urged in public and in private for the Syrian authorities to (a) not use an iron fist against what were basically peaceful protest marches and (b) to open a genuine dialogue with opposition figures who would have some influence with the protesters.  I told senior Syrian officials at the Presidency and Foreign Ministry specifically that they couldn’t hope to repeat the Hama tactics of 1982 and succeed in 2011 in an age of phones with cameras, internet and satellite TV.  At the same time, we urged the Syrian opposition activists to eschew violence and I constantly warned them to avoid provoking a Syrian government crackdown since the U.S. would not respond militarily to such an iron fist.  I urged the opposition to negotiate with the government.

    Some in the Syrian government said they wanted dialogue and to be fair to the government in early 2011 they released some dissidents like Haithem al-Maleh.  A large number of key opposition activists got permission to hold a first-time meeting in Qabun to organize themselves to parley the government.  However, on the eve of the June 11 meeting Syrian secret police elements occupied the meeting hall and arrested scores, thus forestalling the meeting.  The most powerful elements in the Syrian government clearly wanted any dialogue to be only with opposition it chose and essentially controlled.  As the government cracked down harder and used more violence in late June and July, we recognized that no matter what a few disingenuous Syrian officials might say, the government was not interested in dialogue and negotiating reform.  Thus, the US government tightened sanctions and its rhetoric against Assad personally sharpened.  I cannot see how we could have followed any policy other than (a) and (b) at the start of the uprising in the spring of 2011.

    Our publicly saying Assad has no legitimacy and should step down turned out to hurt our credibility because we couldn’t take steps to make it happen.  There were big international and domestic pressures on the White House in mid 2011 for that statement, but the end result didn’t help us find a solution.  More importantly, however, we didn’t understand in the first half of 2011 how hard the regime would fight not only to stay in power but to avoid making any serious concessions.  It was clear by September 2011 that the country was headed towards widespread fighting and civil war; much of what I saw on the ground reminded me of Algeria in the early 1990s [during the civil war there]We still hoped to get to a dialogue and peaceful negotiation, but without changing the military balance on the ground, there was never any hope that would happen.

    5. You ended up resigning as Ambassador to Syria because you could not support the White House’s strategy. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates and ex-CIA Director Leon Panetta also criticized the administration’s Middle East policy. A common theme amongst all thee of you was that the president did not seem to want to be involved in either war. Would you say that is a correct characterization of Obama and what does it say about his stance towards the region?

    The President is rightly cautious about getting involved in other countries’ civil wars.  And after the terrible losses and problems in Iraq, and Afghanistan, the American public is extremely reluctant.  The President is also keenly interested in the legalities of what we do abroad, and much of our Syria policy stems from the interpretation of administration lawyers that we can’t intervene military across the Syrian border and thus violate Syrian sovereignty no matter how many people the Syrian government kills inside its borders.  There is a good study to be done one day on the humanitarian ramifications of existing international law and the shortcomings of responsibility to protect resolutions.

    6. What do you think the U.S. should be doing about the wars in Syria and Iraq?

    The administration now has a bifurcated approach.  It is backing a wobbly Iraqi state, and I sincerely hope it will be tough about the conditionality linked to political progress in return for American military support.  I worry about that because my experience is that once we get into these military situations in Iraq we tend to focus more on military angles rather than being tough on the politics.  Will we really be ready to withhold help if the Iraqis won’t make the hard political decisions and concessions to each other?  I get concerned when American officials praise the Popular Mobilization Units without also warning that we can’t work at all with fighters who viciously violate any community’s human rights.

    In Syria, by contrast, the administration has always avoided working with the Syrian state or the opposition.  It is not a secret that we have given a few armed opposition groups limited aid, but the accent has to be on the word “limited”.  Meanwhile, we have countenanced other countries’ giving material aid to their client groups.  The overall levels of aid have been far too small and thus armed opposition groups have competed with each other for scarce resources and foreign patronage. That is the key reason they are divided; withholding aid from them and allowing different countries to operate in a patron-client relationship has made them divided.

    In Iraq we have declined to provide direct aid to Kurds and Sunni Arab tribal elements, insisting upon respect for a central Iraq command.

    In Syria we have consistently done just the opposite. We could have built, and could still build, an effective Syrian armed opposition that would fight the Islamic State and Asad.  The advances the armed opposition groups have made on the ground in 2015 after other regional countries increased their aid sharply shows what might have been done far earlier.  But the most important thing to remember about our strategy in Syria that whatever we do has to aim at building support inside the Syrian government, inside the Syrian opposition and among the various international actors for a national political negotiation.

    7. Emma Sky who spent just about the same amount of time in Iraq as you did has written that what happened in Iraq after the 2003 invasion was not inevitable. She argued that there were many possible paths the country could have followed. That challenged the conventional wisdom that the U.S. made so many mistakes for so many years that Iraq was doomed to become a failed state. Where do you fall in that debate, and what kinds of lessons do you think Iraq and Syria can teach the U.S. about how it deals with the Middle East?

    I worked closely with Emma on many issues in Iraq and have huge respect for her views.  Absolutely mistakes we made in Iraq aggravated the situation.  For example, by excluding Saddam military and intelligence officers entirely, and leaving them destitute without even small pensions, we were bound to push some of them into the insurgency.  We stood by as then Prime Minister Maliki stood up military chains of command that excluded national structures and other community representatives that alienated both Kurds and Sunnis and even many Shia.  Most importantly, we often pushed the Iraqis to unsustainable political agreements, or to skip needed political agreements, in the interest of American time schedules.  Look at how many issues related to the 2005 Iraqi constitution are unresolved, ranging from oil to human rights to decentralization. That is above all because of our interest in keeping to an American timetable.  So, I conclude that there are three key lessons we must learn going forward.

    First, Americans are not now and won’t be the key actors in these countries.  Indigenous leaders, indigenous forces, indigenous factors will always be determinant.  We can influence but we cannot control and sometimes when we think we have a deal we discover it’s not sustainable because we didn’t consider or understand the local factors of the situation.

    Second, for whatever engagement we have in the region, because we must work with local partners who themselves need to generate broad support, we have to be patient.  Syrians won’t fix their country’s problems in a year.  Iraqis won’t.  Egyptians won’t.  Moreover, being patient is not the same as giving blank checks.

    Third, although it should be obvious, I want to highlight that we MUST be aware of unintended consequences of our military action.  We didn’t plan to melt down the Iraqi state, but we did.  We didn’t intend to set in train the establishment of a Kurdish separatist region in northern Syria, but we are doing just that in our drive with the PYD/YPG against the Islamic State.

    Lastly, I have a perhaps naive hope that we as Americans will stand up for the dignity and rights of the peoples and communities in the region.  It is the moral thing to do and over the long term it is the best thing to do in terms of our own national security.

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    Iraq Reaches Another New High In Oil Exports As Budget Deal With Kurds Breaks Down

    July 8th, 2015



    By Joel Wing.


    For the fourth month in a row Iraq reached another new high in oil exports. Previously this was accomplished due to the budget deal between the central and Kurdistan regional governments. That recently broke down after the Kurds complained about two consecutive months of low payments from Baghdad.

    Iraq exported an average of 3.187 million barrels a day in June 2015. That was a new high for the country, which had not exported those amounts since the 1990s. It surpassed the previous highs which were achieved in just the last few months when it exported 3.145 million in May, 3.077 million in April, and 2.98 million in March.

    The previous month’s figures were achieved by a large jump in output from the southern ports in Basra and the budget deal with the Kurds. In March the south exported an average of 2.71 million barrels, before dropping to 2.62 million April, but then climbed back up to 2.69 million in May and 3.02 million in June. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also added 268,000 barrels in March, 450,000 in April, and 451,000 in May. The Bagdad-Irbil understanding just broke down however.


    Iraq Oil Exports & Revenues 2014-15

    Avg. Price
    Per Barrel
    Jan. 14
    2014 Avg.



    2015 Oil Exports From Basra

    Jan 2.39 mil/bar/day

    Feb 2.29 mil/bar/day

    Mar 2.71 mil/bar/day

    Apr 2.62 mil/bar/day

    May 2.69 mil/bar/day

    Jun 3.022 mil/bar/day


    2015 Oil Exports By Kurds

    Jan 153,000 bar/day

    Feb 306,000 bar/day

    Mar 268,000 bar/day

    Apr 450,000 bar/day

    May 451,000 bar/day

    Jun 164,733 bar/day

    Under the Irbil-Baghdad pact the Kurds were to export an average of 550,000 barrels a day for the Oil Ministry, and in return the regional government would receive 17% of the budget. The Kurds never reached that quota nor a revised mark it set for itself of 375,000 barrels a day for the first quarter of 2015, and then 600,000 for the rest of the year to have an annual average of 550,000 barrels. Baghdad on the other hand, made inconsistent payments to the regional government, and never revealed what formula it was using to determine how much it was giving the KRG each month. In March for example, the Kurds accounted for 8% of total exports and received $439 million or 9% of the oil revenues from that month. In April and May the KRG made up 14% of exports each month, but received $445 million and $430 million or 9% and 8% of the earnings.

    The Kurds strenuously complained about these amounts and there were several meetings between top officials, but nothing was resolved. The result was that the Kurds sold most of their oil for themselves in June with only 164,733 barrels a day for the Oil Ministry. By June 29 the KRG had sold 9 million barrels via Turkey for itself. Both Irbil and Baghdad are desperately short of cash with the Kurds owing a huge amount of money to the oil companies that operate there and to their public employees. Despite the differences the Kurds said that they were still open to re-negotiating the terms of the budget. They would like to sell their oil independently and then determine how much of the profits they will share with Baghdad. The Abadi government probably wouldn’t agree to that, as it wants central control over the energy industry.

    The budget deal stood for five months, but eventually broke down like most of these agreements tend to do. The problem was that it never had enough details allowing each side to interpret it in their own and different ways. The Kurds wanted 17% of the budget to be delivered each month minus expenses, while Baghdad expected 550,000 barrels a day from Irbil. In the end, neither side followed through with their obligations, and the tensions that arose as a result led to its demise. The question now is whether they can come back together to forge another compromise, because the two do need each other as they face declining oil prices and the war with the Islamic State. The issue then arises as to how long any deal will last.

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