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How Iraq Got So Far Off Course: Globe & Mail, Jan. 7, 2014 — Just before Christmas in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama stood in a cavernous hangar at Fort Bragg and welcomed home the final exodus of American troops from Iraq.
Shiite Militias in Iraq Begin to Remobilize: Loveday Morris, Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2014— Scores of bodies have been dumped in Iraq’s canals and palm groves in recent months, reminding terrified residents of the worst days of the country’s sectarian conflict and fueling fears that the stage is being set for another civil war.
Iraq’s Sectarian Slide: Max Boot, Commentary, Feb. 10, 2014 — It seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun: when Sunni militants run wild, Shiite militants retaliate in kind.
The Iraqi Re-Awakening: Mark Perry, Foreign Policy, Feb. 5, 2014— Gen. Raad al-Hamdani holds a unique place among Iraqi military commanders: He openly confronted Saddam Hussein — and lived.
Suicide Bomb Trainer in Iraq Accidentally Blows Up His Class: Duraid Adnan & Tim Arango,New York Times, Feb. 10, 2014
Why Al-Qaeda Keeps Coming Back: George Jonas, National Post, Jan. 8, 2014
Veterans Feel Sting of Ramadi and Fallujah Losses: Jim Michaels & Gregg Zoroya, USA Today, Jan. 6, 2014
Iraq's Lessons on Political Will: Patrick Knapp, Middle East Forum, Winter 2014
Globe & Mail, Jan. 7, 2014
Just before Christmas in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama stood in a cavernous hangar at Fort Bragg and welcomed home the final exodus of American troops from Iraq. After a brutal, nine-year conflict, Mr. Obama sounded almost triumphant about a war that he had once called “dumb." “We are leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government that was elected by its people,” he said. The new Iraq, though not exactly perfect was, in his words, an “extraordinary achievement.”
Barely two years on, Iraq has gone from not exactly perfect to profoundly, violently flawed. The country is now a shadow of its 2011 self, when an overconfident Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki essentially forced American troops to leave. Back then, Mr. Maliki insisted Iraq could go it alone against any insurgent threat. He was keen to consolidate his power and reconfigure the relationship with the U.S., from protectorate to partnership. Politely, Mr. Maliki was asking America to butt out of Baghdad’s affairs.
The result has been a disaster. The level of violence has spiked back up to levels last seen in 2008. More than 8,000 Iraqis died last year, including nearly 1,000 members of the security forces. Al Qaeda’s regional affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has become the dominant force in northern and western Iraq, its ranks swelling with jihadist fighters drawn to the conflict in neighbouring Syria. Meanwhile, Fallujah and Ramadi – cities in the Sunni triangle that served as the backdrop for some of the fiercest fighting of the war – have once again fallen into the hands of insurgents. Bombings at cafés, mosques and checkpoints have become near-daily occurrences. For many Iraqis, it must feel like a horrific flashback. There is nothing pre-ordained about the current chaos. Yes, there are longstanding Sunni-Shia tensions. But before the United States withdrew, significant progress had been made towards minimizing that conflict, by reaching out to Iraq’s Sunni minority.
The Sons of Iraq, also known as the Arab Awakening, was one of the biggest success stories of 2006 and proved a turning point of the war. Sunni tribal sheikhs in Anbar province allied with American forces to fight al-Qaeda offshoots, in exchange for guns and money. Concerns that the tribesman would turn on their coalition allies proved unfounded. For several years, the Sons of Iraq helped bring security to the country’s most violent areas. But now, some of those same Sunni tribesman who once worked hand-in-hand with American troops have decided that their own government is their real nemesis. Some have thrown their support behind the al-Qaeda affiliates they once fought. Why? Mr. Maliki is largely to blame. He used his power to further his own political interests. By favoring fellow Shiites over minority Sunnis, he inflamed sectarian tensions that had been tamped down. He also undermined Iraq’s new constitution by concentrating power in himself and the central government, drawing the ire of Iraq’s Kurdish north.
Many Sunnis have grown increasingly bitter under Mr. Maliki’s rule, and he’s just announced he will seek a third term as prime minister in April’s elections. Sunnis believe – in many cases with just cause – that the security forces and judiciary are aligned against them. The bodyguards of Iraq’s Sunni finance minister were recently arrested. There are reports of Sunni women being detained without cause. These grievances have snowballed, resulting in a Sunni backlash that gave rise to a protest camp in the city of Ramadi that thrived for a year before Mr. Maliki ordered it torn down on Dec. 30th, a decision akin to throwing a match in a tinderbox. Security was supposed to be Mr. Maliki’s strong suit, but he’s proved an utter failure. Things have unraveled to such a point that Mr. Maliki has gone back to Washington, asking for more weapons.
Mr. Obama acquiesced with a shipment of Hellfire missiles and a promise to provide dozens of drones and even F-16 fighter jets. But America today is a far different country than the one that marched into Baghdad in 2003. Secretary of State John Kerry has wisely ruled out a return of U.S. troops. “These terrorists aren’t just Iraq’s enemies. They are also America’s enemies,” Mr. Maliki pointed out in a recent op-ed published in the New York Times, to justify his weapons ask. This is pretty rich, coming from someone who could have very easily struck a deal back in 2011 that would have kept a skeleton force of American troops in Iraq after 2011. The trouble is, Mr. Maliki is partly right. A stable, peaceful Iraq is in the best interest of Washington, its allies and the entire region. But weapons alone can’t solve Iraq’s current crop of problems. Mr. Maliki has to reverse some of his own destructive handiwork, by doing a better job of reaching out across the sectarian divide. The alternative is looking a lot like civil war.
Washington Post, Feb. 9, 2014
Scores of bodies have been dumped in Iraq’s canals and palm groves in recent months, reminding terrified residents of the worst days of the country’s sectarian conflict and fueling fears that the stage is being set for another civil war. In the latest sign of the escalating attacks, the heads of three Sunnis were found Sunday in a market in northern Salaheddin province, while six Shiites were shot dead in the province after being questioned about their religious affiliation, officials said. The carnage has raised concerns that the Shiite militias that stalked members of the minority Sunni population in the dark days of 2006 and 2007 could be remobilizing, in response to attacks by Sunni extremists.
Members of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed Shiite group responsible for thousands of attacks on U.S. forces during the Iraq war, admit they have ramped up targeted killings in response to a cascade of bomb attacks on their neighborhoods. “We’ve had to be much more active,” said an Asaib Ahl al-Haq commander who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Sajad. “Those who are trying to incite sectarianism, we have to deal with them,” he said, drawing his hand over his throat like a knife. More than 1,000 people were killed in January in Iraq, according to Agence France-Presse. That was the highest death toll since April 2008.
Iraq’s Shiite-led government is struggling to maintain security as the al-Qaeda splinter group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, regularly bombs Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad. The Sunni-dominated group is also battling the army for control of cities in the western province of Anbar.
But analysts say that the absence of a major militant group on the Shiite side had prevented the violence from escalating into all-out war — until now. “The big dynamic we are dancing around is this move back into civil war, triggered by the Islamic State,” said Toby Dodge, a professor at the London School of Economics. “For a while there wasn’t the second hand to do the clapping, and now there is, and that’s Asaib Ahl al-Haq.” Formed in 2006, Asaib Ahl al-Haq was responsible for frequent bombings targeting U.S. forces during the Iraq war. Now members say its priority is ISIS. “You have this computer system, and this whole system was infected with a virus,” said Abu Sajad, referring to ISIS’s prevalence in Iraq. “You have to import something to deal with that. That’s what we are for.” But he said his militia is not trying to reignite Iraq’s civil war. “We realize this is a trap and [ISIS] wants us to make a sectarian war,” Abu Sajad said. “When we go targeting, we target specific people.” His colleague Abu Aya concurred. “The fight will not be public,” he said.
The militiamen said Asaib al-Haq disguises its role by working with the security forces. “The army isn’t well-versed in street fights, so we go, we help them clean it up,” Abu Sajad said, adding that his fighters often wear military uniforms on operations outside the capital, including in Anbar. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who is accused by Sunnis of oppressing them, has insisted that he is tough on all militias. “There is no place for Asaib Ahl al-Haq militants within the security forces or armed forces,” government spokesman Ali al-Moussawi said. Any accounts that militias are connected to the security forces are “fabrications,” he said. However, Michael Knights, an analyst with the Washington Institute, said it was obvious that Shiite militias played a role in the security forces. “They can bring a very sectarian approach to security, but within the cover of the security forces, which is more worrying than militias that operate openly and illegally,” he said. The Badr Organization, formed by exiled Iraqis who fought on Iran’s side during the Iran-Iraq war, is particularly active in the security forces’ ranks, Knights said. An Iranian proxy known as Kataib Hezbollah is also increasingly active, he said.
Asaib Ahl al-Haq has been attempting to recast itself as a mainstream political player since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 2011. It has opened political offices in Baghdad and in Iraq’s predominantly Shiite south.
But it has not abandoned its weapons. Analysts estimate that the number of armed militants in the group ranges from 1,000 to 5,000. Members who were interviewed would not divulge the size of its military wing but said that the group’s active membership — including those involved in community outreach and a burgeoning political wing — is as high as 20,000. In Sadr City, an impoverished Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad, local council head Kamil Khanjar said growing frustration among youth could drive them to take up arms. Car bombs strike at least every 10 days and unemployment is about 25 percent, he said. The neighborhood is a stronghold of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose disbanded militia, the Mahdi Army, was once considered by the Pentagon to be the most dangerous accelerant of sectarian violence in the country. Several residents interviewed said they would not pick up arms again without Sadr’s directive, but they said there is talk of forming “neighborhood protection” groups.
“When the Mahdi Army was active, if any stranger came into the area, we had men on the street,” said Hussam al Sudani, 40, a former militiaman who lives in Sadr City. “Of course, now people are saying, ‘We hope that the Mahdi Army will come back.’ Maybe it will happen, but under a different name. For sure, one spark, and the militias will rise again,” said Ali Khadum al-Assadi, a 27-year-old real estate worker from Sadr City. “Citizens are prepared. If they attack a holy mosque or shrine, or if there are more car bombs, of course we are going to use our weapons.”
Commentary, Feb. 10, 2014
It seems to be an iron law of Iraqi politics, as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun: when Sunni militants run wild, Shiite militants retaliate in kind. For the past year we have been hearing a great deal about the return of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has now been transformed into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In that guise, the group has been expanding its control on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, its most alarming gains being the seizure of Fallujah. Al-Qaeda terrorists have also been setting off numerous car bombs in Baghdad and other cities, killing a growing number of civilians, many of them Shiites. Indeed January saw the highest death toll since April 2008.
So it should be no surprise that Shiite extremists are beginning to retaliate in kind. The Mahdist Army, run by Moqtada al Sadr, is largely defunct but out of its remains have sprung fresh, Iranian-supported groups such as Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah. Meanwhile the Badr Organization, Sadr’s old rival, remains very much in business as well, and many of its members are enlisted in the security forces where they are well positioned to use their uniforms as cover for ethnic cleansing–something last seen on a large scale in 2007…
This is yet another ominous sign of how Iraq is sliding back toward the abyss from which it was only narrowly rescued in 2007-2008 by the U.S.-led surge. The crux of General David Petraeus’s strategy was to target al-Qaeda first in the expectation that, once its threat had receded, Shiites would turn away from militant groups claiming to defend them. This gamble paid off in 2008 when Prime Minister Maliki targeted Sadrists in both Basra and Sadr City. Such a strategy could work again, but Maliki first would have to do a better job of recruiting Sunni sheikhs to his side to turn the tide against al-Qaeda and then he would have to show willingness to turn once again on his Shiite brethren. In short, the onus is once again on the prime minister to show statesmanship and vision–neither, alas, one of his strong suits to judge by his record in office.
Foreign Policy, Feb. 5, 2014
Gen. Raad al-Hamdani holds a unique place among Iraqi military commanders: He openly confronted Saddam Hussein — and lived. The incident occurred during a high-level briefing in the summer of 2002. A war with the U.S. was looming, but Saddam told Hamdani not to worry. There won't be a war, he said confidently, because the American people "have no taste for blood." Hamdani, who commanded six divisions in Saddam's elite Republican Guard Corps and was viewed as one of his country's toughest fighters, disagreed. The Americans would not only invade, he responded — their plan was to occupy Baghdad after a lightning campaign. The only way to fight them, he argued, was to "bleed them slowly" in a series of delaying actions.
Saddam might easily have lost his temper, but he smiled and dismissed his general's prediction. After all, there was good reason to value Hamdani's knowledge: He not only owned a library filled with books on America's World War II campaigns, he was known for his obsessive study of U.S. military tactics. Saddam regularly taunted him about his obsession, calling him "my American General." After his conference with Saddam, Hamdani returned to his command. Less than a year later, his divisions fought the U.S. Marines in Nasiriyeh, but failed to hold the southern Iraqi city's bridges. Without air power, Hamdani's army didn't stand a chance; most of his units were destroyed. After Saddam was toppled, Hamdani returned to his home in Baghdad where, one night, American soldiers burst through his door, wrestled him to the ground, and questioned him. Hamdani was enraged.
The experience didn't rob Hamdani of his courage. After his questioning — and after receiving death threats from Iraq's new Shiite-dominated government — he moved to Amman. From there, he worked with Anbar tribal leader Talal al-Gaood to kick-start a political opening with the U.S. military that led to the Anbar Awakening. Hamdani's idea, proposed in a quiet meeting with U.S. Marine Corps officers in an Amman hotel in July 2004, was to arm Anbar's Sunni militias to face off against Islamic extremists flooding into the province from Syria. Anbar's insurgents, he told his U.S. military interlocutors, had at least one thing in common with their American occupiers — they both hated al Qaeda.
Gaood established a think tank called the Iraq Futures Foundation in Amman in the summer of 2005, and signed Hamdani on as the organization's military advisor. The think tank's goal was to unite Anbar's tribes against the al Qaeda threat. While it took many months for this vision to be realized, their pioneering work — alongside officers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division — resulted in the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council. The council fought off al Qaeda, empowered Anbar's Sunnis, and returned the province to political and economic stability.
Hamdani, who is still living in Amman, is now increasingly concerned that his achievements in Anbar are unraveling. Over the last few months, he's watched with growing alarm as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on an anti-government protest movement in the province, laying the groundwork for the resurgence of al Qaeda. His worries are shared by current and former U.S. military officials, who believe that Iraq will need to build another Awakening to defeat al Qaeda, but are convinced the obstacles to doing so will be even more daunting this time around.
Maliki appears to be preparing the Iraqi Army for a renewed assault on Anbar province. His forces shelled the outskirts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi on Monday, Feb. 3, and the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed that the attacks killed 57 militants. The violence has returned Anbar to the dark days of 2004 and 2005, when hundreds of U.S. soldiers lost their lives battling a jihadist insurgency there. "People who know Iraq and Anbar best saw this coming as early as this last summer," a former senior advisor to both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates told me. "Maliki kept poking at Anbar, inflaming the tribes. It was an absolutely cynical power play. He figured the angrier Anbar got, the more he could pose as Iraq's strongman. He thought he'd be viewed as the defender of the Shias and win himself another term as prime minister."
But by cracking down on Anbar's Sunnis, the Iraqi premier set the stage for a full-blown uprising.
On Dec. 28, Maliki declared martial law in Ramadi, Anbar's capital, and sent his security services into the city to arrest Iraqi parliamentarian Ahmed al-Alwani, one of the leaders of the protest movement. In the ensuing melee, five of Alwani's bodyguards were killed, along with his brother and sister. Two days later, after accusing the protest leaders of consorting with terrorists, Maliki imposed a curfew on the province.
A call went out among Anbar residents to resist the curfew, and gunmen soon attacked government security forces, burning police cars and Humvees. The fighting was intense across the province, with Iraqi military units facing off against well-armed local militias. Maliki soon realized that he had overreached and, on Dec. 31, withdrew his forces from Anbar's largest cities. However, his move only compounded his earlier mistakes — Fallujah and Ramadi were now left undefended. Over the next several days, much of the province was overrun by tribal militias, as well as by fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).
In Amman, Hamdani was incensed. "Terrorism is born from the womb of despair," he wrote to me in January, "and is made worse by poor political decisions and bad policies. We are seeing this in Iraq now, when the people of Anbar who were protesting for their rights were called terrorists. The current problems weren't caused by terrorists, but by Nouri al-Maliki's poor political judgment. This didn't need to happen."
The Marine Corps officers and senior Pentagon officials who met Hamdani for the first time in Amman in 2004 share his bleak assessment. Among these is Col. Mike Walker, the former commander of the 3rd Civil Affair Group (CAG), a Marine Corps reserve unit that deployed to Anbar after being activated in March 2004. Walker, who spent his career as a California public school math teacher, argues that Maliki's actions are the result of American miscalculations that began when the U.S. failed to make Iran pay for crushing the 2009 Green Movement. Walker, who maintains sporadic contact with the Anbaris he met in Amman and Iraq, ticks off the resulting series of events, like a row of toppling dominos. The "failure to show resolve" in backing the Green Movement, he says, "signaled American disengagement from the region, emboldened the Assad government in Syria and forced Maliki into Tehran's grasp. As Washington retreated from the region, the vacuum they left behind was filled by Tehran's hardliners. That forced Maliki to tilt further toward Iran, and away from other Arab States and the West." "Maliki was never a Sunni 'hater,'" Walker adds, "but in seeking a modus vivendi with Iran, he had to pander to their surrogates in Iraq, the radical Shiite members in his ruling coalition. In doing so, he unwisely wasted much of the good will and trust he had developed with the Iraqi Sunni minority."
Walker's thinking reflects the views of the Marines he served with nearly a decade ago. These men are now haunted by news that al Qaeda has re-established a presence in Fallujah, after so many U.S. soldiers lost their lives to drive the jihadist group from the city in 2004. Much like the tribal leaders they met during their deployment, they once again find themselves caught between contending fears — of Iran on the one hand, and extremist Islamists on the other. "Once you're engaged in that kind of thing, you never forget it," says Marine Col. Dave Harlan (ret.), who was the 3rd CAG's liaison in Amman. "We forged a political opening because we knew that would save lives. It was the right thing to do. But we should have at least maintained our contact with the tribes. If we'd have built on those contacts, there's no way al Qaeda would have come back."…
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Suicide Bomb Trainer in Iraq Accidentally Blows Up His Class: Duraid Adnan & Tim Arango, New York Times, Feb. 10, 2014—If there were such a thing, it would probably be rule No. 1 in the teaching manual for instructors of aspiring suicide bombers: Don’t give lessons with live explosives.
Why Al-Qaeda Keeps Coming Back: George Jonas, National Post, Jan. 8, 2014—Why are Al-Qaeda seeping back into Iraq? Because they can. Because they don’t fear the consequences. Because we Westerners prepared the ground for them.
Veterans Feel Sting of Ramadi and Fallujah Losses: Jim Michaels & Gregg Zoroya, USA Today, Jan. 6, 2014—
Iraq's Lessons on Political Will: Patrick Knapp, Middle East Forum, Winter 2014 —After eight years of U.S.-led state-building efforts, thousands of coalition force fatalities, and nearly one trillion dollars spent, Iraq is drifting toward authoritarianism under Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa Party while al-Qaeda-stoked violence is running at levels not seen in years.
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