The battle to free Fallujah from ISIL has already started. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) estimate the number of ISIL fighters in the city at 700 only. Civilians in Fallujah are estimated to be 60-70,000, and the combined forces for the operation are in the neighborhood of 25,000. But liberating Fallujah will not be easy or quick. ISIL booby-trapped all main accesses to the city and hundreds of buildings, and is determined to cause maximum damage to the ISF. It is important to work on opening safe paths for the civilians in Fallujah and to fully protect those paths to minimize civilian casualties.
Iran’s news-service Mehr agency wrote a story on May 25 about the role of Qasem Soleimani “in leading the battle of Fallujah”. Iraq’s Military Media Service circulated a picture of Soleimani meeting with military commanders in the operational HQ of the campaign to liberate Fallujah. On May 25, Iraq media described the role of Soleimani as follows: Soleimani Leading the Battle of Fallujah”. But Fallujah is in Iraq, isn’t it?
Soleimani said that the presence of Iran in the battle of Fallujah is a response to the American role in Iraq. “It was the Americans who created all this. They understand that our revolution inspires all the countries of the world.”
Any sectarian attacks on Fallujah’s Sunni civilans would be the responsibility of Soleimani and his allies in the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF). Shia sectarian attacks could push the Sunni population to side with ISIL in other places like Mosul. Stories of atrocities against Fallujah Sunnis will echo everywhere in Central Iraq. Already, Anbar tribes issued a communiqué on May 24 opposing any decision by Baghdad to allow the PMF to enter Fallujah.
Preventing the PMF from playing a prominent role in liberating Fallujah and assigning only disciplined components of the ISF to enter the city would help. But the problems of Iraq have grown even more complicated during the last year. What is even worse is that there is no easy way to regain order and safely complete the current critical phase.
Freeing Fallujah of the terrorist group would probably give Abadi a needed boost. Yet, the growing political and social ruptures in Iraq will be remedied neither by a victory in Fallujah nor by the IMF’s $5.4 billion loan, signed with Baghdad May 19. A continuation of the existing trend, even with victories against ISIL here and there, would certainly lead to a failed state where governance has broken down and everyone is fighting everyone else.
In chaos, many ISILs would grow, as we have seen in Libya. Focusing on defeating the ISIL that is there, while many others are in the making, improves the situation temporarily and only in minor way. It is like trying to patch a leak in a sinking boat. Ultimately, there is little that the global community can do to save Iraq. Yet, a sincere attempt should be made. The Middle East cannot bear another failed state. While Iraq is not a failed state yet, it is progressing steadily in that direction.
We have already addressed the call for redrawing the Sykes-Picot borders in the Middle East. We argued that while the historic colonial agreement may be counted as one of the sources of troubles in the region, it comes at the bottom of the list. In the case of Iraq, we see now Shias fighting Shias. This is similar to what we saw in Libya where Sunnis fight Sunnis. Propositions of partitioning the region’s countries on the basis of sectarian or tribal identity are no solutions, they address the wrong ills. Furthermore, as Iraq and Libya both indicate, partition would be followed by more partition on the one hand and more wars to reunite or further subdivide on the other.
On May 20 Baghdad saw yet another spectacle revealing the depth of the crisis. Muqtada al-Sadr supporters stormed the Green Zone for the second time in three weeks. The move should be understood in the political context of the Shia-Shia political fight. The temperature of this intra-Shia fight is increasing alarmingly.
Even the Iranians, who have considerable leverage over several major Shia political blocks in Iraq, seem to be lost in the midst of the turmoil. It is indeed a challenge to work out a concept or plan a practical way out. In Baghdad alone, there are over 40 armed militias. It is a country that gives the impression that it is determined to commit suicide.
The crisis in Iraq is shifting from that of a stateless Sunni land to that of a stateless Shia land. However, through the smoke rising from the Iraqi political fire, we see that the starting point should be the nation-state. Though we are much less certain today that the national state is still salvageable, we think that all avenues should be exhausted before abandoning the boat of the nation-state. What makes any attempt to reinforce the nation-state useful is that the majority of Iraqis still believe in one unified Iraq.
Sunni Arab states have nothing to do with the current crisis in Baghdad. They did not cause it. They do not have the leverage to push it towards a conclusion. However, they have a stake in preserving order in Iraq in general. A Sunni ISIL threatens them. One can only imagine what a Shia ISIL could do.
The intra-Shia feud has gone so far as to exchange accusations of coordinating with the Sunni ISIL. Hakem al-Zamli, a Sadrist MP, claimed that al-Dawa Party (of both current and former PMs Abadi and al-Maliki) is responsible for the recent terrorist attacks in Baghdad’s Sadr City. This is the first time that a Shia politician has accused al-Maliki’s militias of collaborating with ISIL. The accusation is certainly farfetched.
Sadr said that he was not aware of the move of his supporters into the Green Zone on May 20. His denial is, of course, hard to believe. Sadr believes that Tehran favors other groups, and he needs at the same time to prove his independence. Yet, the Shia cleric is aware that he should keep a thread of deniability following his invitation to Qom and recommendations by influential Ayatollahs to cool down his followers in Baghdad.
This tells us two things: first, that the situation in the Iraqi capital is getting out of Iran’s control, and second, that the political fight is floating adrift without any anchor or common objective. In other words, Abadi is weak due to the fact that his chair sits on a weak political system, and because it is difficult anyway to navigate such rough waters in a storm and find a safe path between as many sharp edged rocks as we see in Baghdad now.
For the time being, Abadi avoided the security vacuum that occurred in the Green Zone during the first Sadrist incursion by rapidly deploying elite units of Iraq’s security forces. Meanwhile, it is not clear yet if Ayatollah Sistani is ready to move boldly against the uncontrollable political blocks.
The impact of the destructive and coercive role of al-Maliki now is not less intense than when he was in power. During his years as Prime Minister, Iraq lost large swaths of its territories to ISIL, the public coffers were emptied, corruption spread, and security forces were weakened. While this record is enough to end the career of any politician anywhere else in the world, al-Maliki is still ticking.
He now, following intensive pressure from Tehran, is throwing his weight around in order to reconvene Parliament. This is a change from his previous moves to oust Abadi and replace him with one of his protégés. Al-Maliki excluded Sadr from his contacts to reconvene Parliament, in a sign of Tehran’s anger at the young cleric. This is not encouraging as Sadr can get back to his role as spoiler at any time.
The divorce between civil society and political elite in Baghdad has never been clearer. While al-Maliki is accused by most Iraqis of destroying the country, he controls a large block in the Parliament and is able to mobilize thousands of armed militia fighters. It is amazing to see such a corrupt politician still enjoying such influence even after his profoundly negative role in destroying Iraq. Tehran interfered heavily to prevent Abadi from publicly holding al-Maliki accountable and putting him in trial for corruption. Al-Maliki even resisted a decision by Abadi to oust him from the post of Vice President.
What should be done then?
While it is only natural to think of either Sistani or Tehran for assisting in enabling Abadi, it is possible that neither would be able to shape the current chaos to a meaningful conclusion. Sistani wants to preserve the neutrality of his office and is slow to react. The influence of Iran among Iraqi Shias in general is often exaggerated. For Iraq’s Shias, territorial integrity, nationalism and, independence are key parts of their ideological outlook.
Yet, the picture should be seen as one reflecting the wide gap between the various organized groups, whether armed militias or political blocs, and the public at large. The weakness of civil society in Iraq means the gap has been growing, and the current public protests should be seen as a natural result of this fact. But even when the public explodes in protest, the movement is hijacked by quasi-political leaders like the mercurial al-Sadr.
This gap has always led to a magnified image of Iran’s influence in Iraq. Iran’s influence is mainly confined to some powerful Shia militias and political groups.
The immediate way out of the current chaos in Baghdad may lie in gathering as many forces as possible around a specific road map which could help de-escalate tension. Giving something to Sadr, mobilizing Iranian efforts, and increasing international support to Abadi may help. The road map must start with reconvening Parliament, a clearer intervention by Sistani in favor of the implementation of Abadi’s reforms, clear signs of support for Abadi by all regional powers, and placing victories against ISIL on his side and that of the ISF, rather than the PMF.
This may help in the short term. In the longer term, more radical thinking should be encouraged to help find a way out of the chronic problems that threaten the future of Iraq.
What we see in Baghdad is not a mere bad version of the usual political fight. The system does not have strong checks and balances to keep it in order. Government authority is very weak, to say the least. Civil society’s weakness helps to prevent any attempts to reform the regime. These double weaknesses provide the militias with sufficient space to grow uncontrollably as we see now. Short-sighted Iranian intervention pushes things to the edge then rushes to pull them back. The US does not have enough leverage and can only work with the best bits and pieces available. The Shia political block is profoundly fractured and may tend to use violence against one another.
This crisis may pass. But the ground would already be laid for the following one. The current imbalance in Baghdad is quite obviously unsustainable.