Iraq: Momentary Gains for a Jihadist Group

 

Video Transcript:

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham, ISIS, an al Qaeda-related group that is a principal extremist actor in the Syrian civil war and ongoing Iraqi insurgency, seized parts of Ramadi and Fallujah in Iraq on Jan. 3. Rather than viewing this as a fundamental power shift between ISIS and Baghdad’s security forces, however, it should be seen as a temporary victory.
Tensions between Baghdad and the Sunni tribes of Anbar province have been simmering through most of last year and boiled over on Dec. 30 when President Maliki ordered a Sunni protest camp to be dismantled by security forces. The arrest of a local senior Sunni politician led to clashes severe enough to prompt Maliki to withdraw security forces from the region in an effort to de-escalate the situation. It was this security vacuum that ISIS used to seize territory in both cities.
It is one thing to grab territory, especially if it is predominantly uncontested, and quite another to hold it against a concerted military operation mounted by the Iraqi security forces. Sources in Iraq claim that roughly 300 ISIS fighters remain in Ramadi while 800 or so are entrenched in Fallujah. While the urban terrain will give ISIS fighters a serious combat boost as the established defenders against the better equipped Iraqi security forces, they won’t have the numbers or ability to hold indefinitely.
ISIS survives in Iraq by being an insurgent group, avoiding direct confrontation and hiding and moving through the population. This territory grab in Ramadi and Fallujah gives them an address, alleviating the Iraqi security forces of one of their most difficult missions of just finding ISIS. Now they can actually concentrate force, and if executed correctly, degrade sizable chunks of combat power in detail.
The withdrawal of U.S. troops and their allies at the end of 2011 and the outbreak of the Syrian civil war next door has given ISIS the ability to rebound into a capable regional actor, but at the same time their aggressiveness has them overcommitted, outgunned and alienated on multiple fronts. Other rebel groups in Syria have started serious infighting with ISIS recently after they became disillusioned with their actions and have attacked several units despite the advantage this gives to the Assad regime.
This leaves the recent Fallujah and Ramadi seizures likely to be temporary at best. The only serious complicating factor for the Iraqi security forces is moderating their use of force so as not to antagonize the Sunni tribes further. While these tribes might covertly support ISIS or turn a blind eye to their actions against the Maliki government, they do not want to be drawn into an open civil war. Many of the tribes in Anbar have already come out in support of the government forces, with just a few throwing their lot in with ISIS.
ISIS’s ultimate goal is to destabilize Iraq to the point where they can accomplish their ultimate aim of a regional Islamic Emirate. They can only accomplish this if they can unite a sizable portion of the Sunni population into a sectarian civil war through their own actions or by provoking the Shiite government into actions that accomplish the same. Without this, they will come up short.

Iraq: President Obama Says Mosul Dam Retaken From Islamic State Militants

August 18, 2014 | 2117 GMT
U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters Aug. 18 that U.S. warplanes helped Iraqi Special Forces retake the Mosul Dam from Islamic State militants, The New York Times reported. The dam provides electricity to Mosul, and U.S. officials feared the militants could have blown up the dam and flooded parts of Iraq.

 

The Islamic State Loses Ground in Iraq

August 18, 2014 | 2315 GMT

Summary

Kurdish peshmerga forces have launched a counteroffensive into areas north of Mosul, taking back several villages and securing Mosul Dam after protracted fighting throughout the weekend. The move follows three weeks of efforts by the peshmerga forces, backed by international support, to readjust their security presence to blunt several Islamic State incursions into Kurdistan Regional Government-held territory on several fronts, including a drive aimed at the region’s capital, Arbil. To the south of these operations, Iraqi forces working with Anbar tribal militias were able to reassert complete control over the city of Ramadi.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish security forces are beginning to reassert territorial control, but their success depends on support from foreign actors and/or Sunni tribal elements. As this drive continues, the Islamic State’s ground operations in Iraq will likely undergo notable reversals.

Analysis

So far, U.S. airstrikes have been the most direct support for operations against the Islamic State. The United States conducted nine airstrikes on Aug. 16, 16 on Aug. 17 and 15 on Aug. 18 — a slight increase in the number of airstrikes per day seen previously — concentrating on the area near Mosul Dam to aid the peshmerga in regaining control of the dam. U.S. Central Command continues to cite humanitarian reasons for the airstrikes, noting that the Mosul Dam is key infrastructure and drastic humanitarian consequences could occur if the Islamic State sabotages it.
In addition to U.S. air support, several countries have agreed to send more weapons to Kurdish forces. At first, weaponry for the peshmerga was sent only through Baghdad to avoid the sensitive issues of sovereignty and oil disputes in the north inherent in arming the autonomous Kurds. As the Islamic State made further gains into the Kurdistan Regional Government’s territory, the United States — with Baghdad’s permission — began arming the Kurds directly. Soon afterwards, spurred by the humanitarian crisis near Sinjar, several other Western countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and France announced intentions to give the Kurds military support. This support has helped stabilize the Kurds’ military situation and seems to be slowly turning the tide against the Islamic State. However, this aid will also likely unsettle Baghdad as it gives the Kurds’ more military capability.

Iran Sends Limited Support

Moreover, unconfirmed reports emerged Aug. 16-17 in both English- and Arabic-language Iraqi press citing “an informed source” that claimed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force had moved troops and armored vehicles into Iraq’s northeastern Diyala province, where Kurdish peshmerga forces have struggled to manage increasing Sunni militancy. The original reports claim that Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps forces entered Iraq via the Kurdish bastion of Khanaqin, which is located only 7 miles (11 kilometers) from the Iranian border on a key north-south highway near one of the largest Iraqi-Iranian border crossings.
The incursion is reportedly meant to shore up peshmerga defenses around the Kurdish-majority city of Jalawla, where Islamic State militants and their Sunni allies recently forced fighters loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to withdraw. There has not yet been a noticeable shift in the battlefield around Jalawla, but any Iranian operation likely would still be in its early stages. Diyala remains one of the weakest links in peshmerga defenses, and the potential for increased Islamic State activity so close to the Iranian border is worrying for the leadership in Tehran.
Stratfor sources within the Iranian military apparatus were able to confirm that an Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operation was indeed underway in the northern border area with Iraq. If the reports are true, such an operation would by necessity remain limited, with the immediate goal of assisting the peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (a group with which Iran retains close security ties) in regaining control of key population centers along the border and preventing jihadists from threatening the western regions of Iran. One source even claimed the operation was undertaken with implicit approval from Washington, which has similar interests in preventing a Kurdish collapse and containing Islamic State militancy. Other Stratfor sources in government and security positions in Iran have neither confirmed nor denied the allegations.
Iranian leaders are aware that if they push too far, they risk uniting the region’s Sunni Arab militants against Iranian security forces and collapsing the ongoing negotiations with Iraq’s Sunnis to reintegrate into Baghdad’s political system and turn against the Islamic State. The further Iran moves from Khanaqin, the deeper it moves into areas with sizable Sunni Arab populations and the more likely it will face a greater militant threat. Moreover, the Turks will watch events in Diyala cautiously and could consider building up their military presence in northern Iraq to counter potential Iranian advances.

Progress with the Sunnis

More important was the announcement that 20 to 30 tribes from the Sunni-majority Anbar province have decided to join the Iraqi military’s offensive against population centers controlled by Islamic State and Sunni Arab fighters. Tribal elements in Anbar proved key to containing al Qaeda activity in the late 2000s. This decision came even though Anbar’s tribes have been particularly resistant to accommodation with Baghdad recently — especially the Dulaym tribe, the largest in Iraq. In the past few months, Sunni Arab tribes in the north, such as the Obeidis and Jubouris, have made occasional announcements that they would confront Islamic State forces, but no action of this size and scope has been announced before. Over the course of three days, the Iraqi army and its newfound tribal allies have been able to challenge Islamic State fighters in territory stretching from Haditha in the northeast to the historically restive city of Ramadi, the latter of which fell under Baghdad’s control completely on Aug. 16 after months of siege.
The sudden breakthrough in Sunni-Baghdad cooperation is linked to former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s decision to step down on Aug. 14 — a minimum demand for Sunni Arab negotiators seeking greater autonomy in exchange for expelling foreign jihadists and entering the political community. Much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab leadership has reacted positively to the incoming prime minister, Haider al-Abadi. Moreover, there have been numerous exchanges between Sunni and Shiite political figures — including a meeting between Iran’s ambassador to Iraq and Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni leader and the head of the Muttahidoon Coalition, on Aug. 16. Yet these same Sunni leaders have been quick to point out that there are still gaps in the two sides’ negotiating positions. Ultimately, 20 to 30 tribes (especially in a province where they are dwarfed in size by the Dulaym tribe) is not a force large enough to launch an uprising against Iraq’s jihadists. However, the announcement represents a key step toward greater security cooperation in exchange for concessions from Baghdad.
Both Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have had recent victories on the battlefield against Islamic State fighters. Their success has been contingent upon the help of other forces, and if this trend continues both Baghdad and Arbil will continue to succeed in their territorial counteroffensives. However, the Islamic State is far from defeated. Its militants are capable, mobile, entrenched in several major cities and numerous small villages across a vast area, and still have Syria as further security. Thus the Iraqis’ and Kurds’ success against the Islamic State will be measured in reductions of the threat to the core Shiite and Kurdish territories but not its full elimination.

 

Iraq: France, U.K. Say They Will Directly Support Kurdish Fighters

August 15, 2014 | 0902 GMT
France will increase its support to Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq after a phone call between French President Francois Holland and Iraqi President Fuad Massum, The Local reported Aug. 15. Hollande confirmed the imminent delivery of military equipment. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron also said he is prepared to supply weapons directly to Iraqi Kurdish forces, The Guardian reported.

 

Iraq: Sunni Leaders Would Join Government Under Conditions

August 15, 2014 | 1353 GMT
Iraqi Sunni tribal and religious leaders involved in the uprising against outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Anbar and other provinces are willing to join the new administration under certain conditions, spokesman Taha Mohammad al-Hamdoon said Aug. 15, Reuters reported. The group compiled a list of demands to submit to incoming Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-abaci.

 

Iraq: Peshmerga Fighters Retake Key Dam

August 18, 2014 | 1000 GMT
Kurdish fighters have taken back Mosul Dam from Islamist militants, AP and Rudaw reported Aug. 18. Peshmerga forces moved to retake control of the dam as U.S. fighter planes carried out airstrikes on Islamic State positions.

 

Turkey: Government Asks U.S. To End Ban On Sales Of Kurdish Crude Oil

August 14, 2014 | 1821 GMT
Turkey has asked the United States to end prohibition of the sale of crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan, The Financial Times reported Aug. 14. An unnamed Turkish official claimed that the Islamic State is selling crude oil at cut-rate prices and smuggling crude oil shipments into Turkey and across the region controlled by the jihadist organization. The offical compared this with the fact that the Kurdistan Regional Government is banned from selling shipments of crude oil.

 

In Iraq, al-Maliki Finally Retires

In Iraq, al-Maliki Finally Retires

August 14, 2014 | 2244 GMT

Without resorting to military force or a drawn-out parliamentary battle, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced his decision to resign Aug. 14. Al-Maliki also clarified that he would not seek another position in the government, though he has likely received immunity as party of his retirement package. Put simply, this was not al-Maliki’s decision to make. After he indicated a possible intent to defend his position with force Aug. 10, his support base rapidly dwindled.

Al-Maliki knew his fate was sealed when the Islamic Dawa Party — the country’s largest Shia political party and home to al-Maliki and Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi — aligned with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in expressing its wish for a new prime minister. In short, consensus politics prevailed, and the country’s institutions, from the military to the federal court to the parliament, held up against a deeply embedded threat to political stability during a time of internal crisis. Iraq is exhibiting many weaknesses, but it is not fundamentally broken.

With al-Maliki out of the way, the Iraqi government will focus on the formation of al-Abadi’s new Cabinet and a security plan to unite enough of the Sunni tribal community to counter the Islamic State. There is also greater potential for resuming negotiations to address the long-running energy dispute between Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Baghdad. Even with al-Maliki out of the picture, Baghdad will not acquiesce to the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral export of crude oil produced in the north. The Kurds will want to maintain their control over the Kirkuk oil fields, but with the Kurdish peshmerga also under heavy pressure to the north, Arbil will have a harder time resisting calls by Washington and a new government in Baghdad to cooperate on energy matters.

Iraq: Outgoing Prime Minister To Step Down

August 14, 2014 | 1057 GMT
Outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is giving up the quest to maintain his position, a source within the Dawa Islamic Party said, All of Iraq News Agency reported Aug. 14. The source said that al-Maliki will discuss his terms with the party soon.

 

The Tides of Power Shift Away from Iraq’s Outgoing Premier

August 12, 2014 | 2219 GMT

Summary

Over the past 24 hours, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has watched the vast majority of Iraq’s Shiite leadership announce its support for the newly appointed prime minister-elect, former Deputy Speaker of Parliament Haider al-Abadi. Al-Abadi is a senior leader and member of parliament in Iraq’s Shiite Islamist Hizb al-Dawah party as well as al-Maliki’s own State of Law coalition. Along with the major Kurdish and Sunni Arab political figures, Iraq’s Shiite community in particular has come out strongly against al-Maliki’s bid for a third term as prime minister, leaving him with a rapidly dwindling support base.

Analysis

In one day, al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, which exited general elections in April as the largest single political coalition with 92 of 328 parliamentary seats, reportedly saw its representation shrink to the low tens of seats. Political partners and formerly neutral Shiite blocs are abandoning al-Maliki’s side in droves. Meanwhile, the National Alliance, a mostly Shiite Islamist platform encompassing political challengers such as Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Muqtada al-Sadr’s Ahrar bloc, increased its seat tally to more than double that of al-Maliki, currently at around 170 according to media reports.
Smaller Shiite parties such as the Badr Movement, Islamic Fadhila, Asaib al-Haq and Iraqi Hezbollah – all of which, except for the latter, command powerful militias – have announced their support for al-Abadi and the National Alliance. Notably, Deputy Prime Minister Hussein Shahrastani, one of al-Maliki’s most important allies and advisers, has switched camps — along with his supporters — to back al-Albadi. Even al-Maliki’s former backers in Tehran have joined a chorus of Western and Arab nations in expressing support for new leadership in Baghdad. Both Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, and Ali Akbar Velayati, chief international affairs adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Aug. 12 that Iran supports a legal process that will choose a replacement prime minister in Iraq.
While al-Maliki’s support base is certainly dwindling, it is unlikely that the sudden loss of political backing is enough to eliminate the institutional links and power established over more than eight years of leadership. In fact, al-Maliki was rumored to have prevented the Council of Ministers from meeting in Baghdad on Aug. 11 due to a series of threats targeting each of the leaders. While it is doubtful al-Maliki will remain as prime minister moving forward, he will use this power as leverage to ensure that he and his followers’ interests are met before stepping down. According to a spokesman for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — and confirmed by Stratfor sources — a dialogue to persuade al-Maliki to take a lesser position in the future government, particularly the vice presidency, is ongoing.
Rumors persist that al-Maliki is seeking assurances of immunity to allow him to extend his political career, albeit in a diminished post. And despite the State of Law announcing today that it would not participate in the ruling coalition if al-Abadi becomes prime minister, Stratfor has received indications that lawmakers from the party will probably be granted key positions in the new government.
Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition, which has led ruling coalitions in Baghdad since its formation in 2008, is unlikely to survive the current crisis as a leading political force, given that it is largely a creation of al-Maliki centered on his cult of personality. From the larger Shiite perspective, however, the State of Law coalition remains relatively new and expendable compared to Hizb al-Dawah. The far more institutionalized Dawah, which has existed since the 1950s and remains the premier Shiite party, has proven resilient after persistent splits in the past and will continue to lead Iraq’s majority Shiite population for some time to come. Therefore, al-Maliki and the State of Law’s fall from grace does not signal a breakdown of Shiite power in Baghdad. It does, however, allow Iran and Iraq’s Shiite community to ease al-Maliki out of power without undermining the larger Shiite position in Iraq.

 

Iraq: U.S. Vice President Congratulates Prime Minister Nominee

August 11, 2014 | 2042 GMT
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden phoned Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s newly designated prime minister, on Aug. 11 to congratulate him on being nominated to help create a new Iraqi government, All Iraq News reported. Biden also relayed to al-Abadi President Barack Obama’s dedication to supporting a new, inclusive government in Iraq that is able to combat the advances of the Islamic State.