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

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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