Two important developments are underway now in Iraq and deserve our consideration. The first is the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil on the issue of withdrawing Peshmerga forces from areas captured by the Kurdish troops from ISIL. The second is the fierce fight going on between al-Qaeda and ISIL, which may pave the road to the rebirth of al-Qaeda in central Iraq, to inherit what is left over from a defeated ISIL.
The first development revolves around different interpretations of the Memorandum of Understanding signed in early July between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Washington concerning the role of the Peshmerga in the fight against ISIL.
As it happened, Iraq’s Ministry of Defense announced on July 24 that the KRG agreed that the Peshmerga would withdraw from recaptured areas in order to bring stability to those regions. But the KRG responded angrily to Baghdad’s statement. “The war against terrorism has always been our unwavering guiding principle and it is part of the Kurdistan Region’s independence policy. The withdrawal [of the Peshmerga] is just for Mosul,” the KRG stated. “If some people in Baghdad think that Peshmerga weapons are for rent and we are dependent on their permission, they are wrong. It has been more than a year since the Peshmerga said it is ready for [the battle for Mosul], but the Iraqi forces were not prepared,” a communiqué from the Ministry of the Peshmerga in Erbil said.
However, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is under pressure from multiple Shia forces not only to get the Peshmerga out of the Sunni lands it has controlled since defeating ISIL, but also to prevent it from playing any prominent role in liberating Mosul.
The Shia militia group Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq has warned of the consequences if the Peshmerga participate in the liberation of Mosul. Jawad al-Tibawi, military spokesperson for the group, said: “We warn against the approval of Peshmerga participation in the Mosul liberation,” adding “participation of the Hashd [Shiite militias] will help the operation by making the victory faster.”
In another statement in June, the group had said that it is their duty to participate in the liberation of Mosul. “It’s our religious, moral, and patriotic duty to liberate Mosul, end the difficulties of the people, and help the people return to their homes in Tal Afar and other areas of Nineveh after the takeover of ISIS.”
Under pressure, Baghdad’s Ministry of Defense issued a communiqué stating that the MoU signed between the KRG and the US states that the Peshmerga must withdraw from the areas it captured from ISIL. Apparently, the MoU signed July 13, is vague in determining which areas exactly should be evacuated by the Peshmerga. According to Baghdad’s Ministry of Defense, it is all areas outside of the known borders of Kurdistan, though these borders are disputed. According to the KRG, the withdrawal clause concerns only Mosul and its environs.
Despite Sunnis rejecting the participation of Shia militia groups in the operation to liberate the Sunni-majority city of Mosul, the militias still insist they will participate. Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr confirmed as much in a recent announcement. “This is a military order to Saraya al-Salam [the military wing of Sadr’s Mahdi Army] to coordinate with special and security forces to accept your service immediately and without delay,” Sadr’s written statement said.
Forces of Saraya al-Salam will be deployed to Sharqat in Salahaddin province, north of Baghdad, to participate in the Mosul offensive, according to Sadr’s announcement. But the Peshmerga forces have already liberated many areas in Nineveh and they will take part in the main battle to liberate the center of Mosul.
In other words, it is a fight between Baghdad and Erbil on who will control the Sunni land liberated from ISIL. Both sides forget that this land belongs to neither of them. But with the defeat of ISIL, Sunni land is considered spoils of the war, regardless of its original owners.
While the elements of a future clash between the Peshmerga and the Shia militias on who will get what are rapidly coalescing, the US is trying to mediate. Masoud Barzani, the head of the KRG, received a delegation today headed by Jonathan Cohen, the US Deputy Ambassador to Iraq. Barzani and Cohen spoke extensively about the emerging problems between Erbil and Baghdad. The KRG was not invited to a conference on aiding Iraq held in Washington recently, in accordance with the US commitment to Baghdad not to consider Iraq’s Kurdistan as a separate entity.
The clash between the Shia and the Kurds over who will control Sunni land promises to bring more than additional troubles between the two sides. Al Qaeda is re-emerging in Diyala province, which stretches between Baghdad, Iran’s borders, and the southern limits of Kurdistan region.
A group of al-Qaeda fighters ambushed ISIL positions in al-Waqf region about 11 miles northeast of Baqubah. The fight raged on for days, starting in mid-July. Al-Qaeda is also emerging in other areas in Anbar and west of Mosul.
In Mosul itself, reports from the city indicate that the higher-ranking leaders of ISIL have already fled the city. The group has relaxed its tight grip on public life, allowing the inhabitants to smoke cigarettes without the usual public punishment. Members of the organization are telling the inhabitants that they, the members, will have to leave the town eventually.
Furthermore, the committee responsible for implementing Islamic laws, as ISIL understands them, has stopped forcing women to cover their faces completely and ceased to confiscate satellite dishes. It is rumored in Mosul that the higher ranking leaders have already departed for Syria in anticipation of the fall of the city.
ISIL members are telling the inhabitants of Mosul, mostly Sunnis, that the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, or Hashd) will control the city and slaughter the Sunnis as it has done elsewhere. ISIL is trying to galvanize the population behind its black flag in self-defense. Recapturing Mosul will not be easy. Moreover, the way it is done will have far reaching consequences on the chances of violent radical groups re-emerging in central Iraq in the near future.
Everyone in Iraq senses that ISIL is near collapse. This is not questioned anymore. The issue in the minds of all parties is who will succeed the organization. Short of a political solution that empowers the Sunnis in their own land, ISIL will be finished only for us to see al-Qaeda returning. A fight between the Peshmerga and the PMF over who will own the hide seems to have started even before the tiger has been killed.