Iraq’s Growing Pains

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Iraq has said that sending any ground troops into its territory will be seen as an act of aggression. REUTERS

Regional tensions bolster Iraq’s internal divisions

By Suadad Al Salhy and Mohammed A. Salih

Ankara’s push to bolster its position in the region has resulted in deployment of extra troops at a military camp in Iraq to train armed forces. This caused further sectarian tensions in the country, whose Iran-backed government considers the move a breach of Iraq’s sovereignty.

Although Turkish military trainers have been in the base near Bashiqa, an area just a dozen miles away from Mosul City, to train a ‘Sunni Arab-dominated’ force for the “liberation” of Mosul and adjacent areas from Daesh, the dispatch of new Turkish reinforcement to the base has sparked a rare, if not unprecedented, diplomatic row between Baghdad and Ankara.

The government of Prime Minister Haidar Al Abadi issued on Dec. 8, a 48-hour ultimatum for the Turkish troops to leave the country which expired without any consequences. Instead, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it straightforwardly that his country “will not pull out” the troops it dispatched to Iraq.

Meanwhile, experts see that the rising tensions, as a result of Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian warplane last month, have played a role in Ankara’s calculations to increase its military presence in Iraq.

“Turkey has lost its capacity —as an independent actor— to change the strategic situation, both on the ground and in the air in Syria,” Metin Gurcan, a former Turkish military adviser and current commentator on Turkish affairs, told Newsweek Middle East.

“The military reinforcement to the training camp, which has turned into a permanent military base would be considered as Turkey’s answer… It is like opening cards for a new game by changing the space of crisis between Turkey and Russia.”

Gurcan believes Turkey’s objective is to balance the “Russian-led Baghdad-Tehran-Damascus alliance” of supporting forces which include the Sunni Arabs in both Iraq and Syria and also the Iraqi Kurds.

Kurds are Divided Over Turkish Troops

The area where the Turkish reinforcements have been sent is under the control of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and falls within the influence of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Inevitably, many Kurds wonder if Turkey’s seemingly expanding role in Iraq will play out in their interest or not. The KDP has attempted to not associate itself with the Turkish decision, urging Turkish authorities to resolve the issue with Baghdad through dialogue.

“As the KDP bloc, we have delivered the Kurdish government’s message in the Iraqi parliament that we are not a party to this dispute,” said Shakhawan Abdullah, a KDP Parliamentarian and member of Parliament’s defense and security committee. “Iraq’s sovereignty has lost its sacredness after Daesh’s invasion last year,” he added.

But intense rivalries among Iraqi Kurds mean they are not united in their position toward the Turkish troops’ increased involvement. While the KDP is seen as closer to the Turkish side, the other major Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, is viewed as closer to Iran and Baghdad.

“I consider the Turkish deployment to be a dangerous development,” Shwan Dawudi, a PUK parliamentarian in the Iraqi Parliament told Newsweek Middle East.

“This situation is like an oven and maybe we won’t be safe from its sparks,” he warned.

Meanwhile, there are disputed accounts as to the number of the troops and the type of weaponry they carry, but Kurdish sources put the number of troops at around 900, armed with tens of tanks.

Atheel Al Nujaifi, who heads the force at the Bashiqa base, did not exactly confirm or reject those figures.

However, he said that until this recent deployment, the number of those Turkish military advisors fluctuated “between 50 to 100,” depending on the need for their presence.

“Baghdad officials have visited the camp several times and know about that,” Nujaifi told Newsweek Middle East.

“The [Turkish] force is stationed on the surroundings of the camp, not inside, and their mission it to protect the [Turkish] trainers,” he added.

Nineveh’s population fears the involvement of Iran-backed Shia paramilitary forces in any future offensives to expel Daesh from their area. It is for that reason that they welcome forces from Sunni countries, said Nujaifi justifying the presence of Turkish military personnel in his camp.

Shiite Groups Weary of Iraqi PM’s Political Games

Jassim Mohammed Jafar, a parliamentarian from the Shia-dominated State of Law Coalition (SLC), fears that Ankara’s move “could be in preparation for the deployment of a much larger force from Turkey and [Sunni] Arab countries.” Jafar did not elaborate on the source of such information.

Regardless of the plausibility of such accounts, they demonstrate the extent of weariness among some Iraqi circles toward the enhanced presence of Turkish troops inside Iraq.

Meanwhile, on Dec. 8, Abadi announced the liberation of large parts of the western Iraqi City of Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, and promised to bring some 20,000 displaced families back home.

Special combat troops made great progress, regaining control over vast areas in the northern and western parts of Ramadi. However, retaking Ramadi itself could take months.

“Iraq’s security forces made a significant, yet not strategic, progress [in Ramadi],” Emad Allaw, an independent Iraqi military analyst told Newsweek Middle East. The armed Iraqi forces halted its advance towards Ramadi’s downtown, to clear the area from roadside bombs.

“The announced victory was desperately needed by the Iraqi government to relieve the masses’ congestion and absorb public anger caused by the humble performance of the government in response to the Turkish military violations,” Allaw added.

Abadi’s early victory announcement about Ramadi, raised a lot of questions. Was it an attempt to boost the morale of the Iraqi people, or to score political gain?

His speech was made four days following the deployment of Turkish troops in Mosul. His weak reaction towards Turkey’s refusal to withdraw its troops, triggered a storm of anger and criticism among most Iraqis who counted on Iraq’s air force to bombard the “invading troops,” after the deadline expired.

At the same time, the Shiite armed factions which were already upset and dissatisfied because of a U.S. announced plan to deploy further special operations troops to conduct raids in Iraq.

After the deadline expired, all that Abadi did was ask of the NATO to force Turkey to pull its troops from Iraq.

On Dec. 2, the U.S. said it “will send around 200 troops,” to Iraq. The mission of the new troops was restricted to conducting raids, freeing hostages and gathering intel. The White House had said then, that the new step was approved by the Iraqi government.

Yet, Abadi responded two days later with an unprecedented strongly-worded statement, warning that “sending any ground combat troops, from any country will be considered [by the Iraqi government] as an act of aggression and will be treated accordingly.”

Abadi’s statement aimed at calming Shiite militias including Badr, Asaib Ahl Al Haq and Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq, which threatened to bring Abadi down if he approved deploying further U.S. troops. They also threatened to fight these troops.

It is worth noting that the Shiite militias have played a key role in the war against Daesh terrorists since early last year. It is in that sense, that Abadi’s announced victory in Ramadi “was to reduce the state of frustration and building momentum for the government,” Fadhil Abu Ragheef, an independent Iraqi security analyst told Newsweek Middle East.

“There are still vast areas in the hands of the terrorists, while the recapturing of Ramadi would take weeks,” he added.

Badr, Kataib Hezbollah-Iraq and Asaib Ahl Al Haq, the well trained and equipped Shiite armed factions, warned that all Turkish interests and citizens across the country, have become “eligible targets” for their fire. “All the Turkish interests will be targeted and will be in danger,” Jawad Al Talebawi, Asaib Ahl Al Haq’s spokesperson told Newsweek Middle East.

On Dec. 11, Iraq filed a formal complaint to the United Nations Security Council. The next day, thousands of Iraq’s Shiite-dominated paramilitary forces protested in central Baghdad against Turkey’s military presence, demanding the immediate withdrawal of the Turkish troops from Iraqi territories; otherwise, they will see their warning through.

But opening a new front now with Turkey, will not be in the interest of Abadi’s government as Turkey enjoys strong ties with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurdish politicians, hence capable of creating serious problems inside of Iraq.

“Declaring a war [by Iraq] now, is a political decision and would widely open the door for more divisions between Iraq’s government and the Sunni politicians. This threatens the unified situation toward the war against Daesh,” according to Abdulwahid Touma, editor and political affairs analyst at the pan-Arab London-based daily Al Hayat.

“Turkey has many tools and hands inside Iraq and its able to destabilize the shaky security situation behind the front lines in Iraq and distract the efforts of the Iraqi government to battle Daesh,” Tuama added.

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