Iraq’s PM Finds Himself Caught in The Crossfire, Again

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Iraq’s security forces have been engaged in battle against Daesh militants for the past year but the administration has struggled to defeat them. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad

By Suadad Al Salhy

WEB EXCLUSIVE

This past weekend has seen Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi at the center of yet another political storm following the announcement by U.S. officials that they planned to deploy more troops on the ground. Abadi has received messages—both direct and indirect—from Shiite political partners alluding to the risks he faced should he approve American plans.

In a Congressional testimony on Tuesday, the U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced his country’s plans to deploy a new special operations force to Iraq. Carter said the new “specialized expeditionary targeting force” would conduct raids against Daesh in Iraq as well as in neighboring Syria. A day later, the White House said that the Iraqi government had welcomed news of this news deployment but the story from Iraq suggested something otherwise.

Late on Thursday, Abadi’s office circulated an unprecedented strongly worded statement regarding the deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq. Abadi said foreign ground troops are not needed and “sending any ground combat troops (to Iraq) will be considered (by the Iraqi government) as an aggressive action and we will deal with it (the troops), based on that.”

Was Abadi’s reaction an expected one, or even justified? How would it impact the relationship between the United States and the Iraqi government? Furthermore, how would impact the war against Daesh? These questions have to be answered by the Iraqi government and the Americans—soon.

On June 10, 2014, hundreds of militants fighting under a black flag bearing the name of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant swept through Mosul, the second largest Iraqi city, and seized it after the dramatic collapse of Iraqi troops who abandoned their positions and weapons without putting up a strong resistance. Two days later, the radical group which today calls itself Daesh (or Islamic State in English) overran most of the Sunni-dominated cities and towns in the western and northern parts of the country. Many believe they were able to do so due to the support of Sunnis who were frustrated by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad which they believed had marginalized and excluded their representation. Before the end of that week, Daesh fighters and its supporters were advancing toward the capital and were just dozens of miles away.

On June 13, 2014, Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the most revived Shiite cleric in Iraq, called on Iraqis to arm themselves and defend their cities to stop the militants’ progress. Tens of thousands of young men have since joined the “Popular Mobilization” troops to combat Daesh. This body is the government one which was established last year by the Iraqi administration as a way to the formal cover for all the paramilitary anti-Daesh forces including the Shiites militias. Badr, Asaib Ahl Al Haq and Kataib Huzballa-Iraq, the most prominent Shiite militias have been representing the backbone of the popular mobilization troops and they have been playing a key role in the war against Daesh since early last year.

The atrocity with which Daesh extends its influence across the Syrian-Iraqi territory—using violence against religious minorities in northern Iraq for example—is reportedly one of the reasons the United States has chosen to intervene. Since August 2014, U.S. President Barak Obama’s administration has deployed 3,550 security personals across Iraq, to assist the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga troops, train and guide them. From that time too, U.S. troops have been conducting daily airstrikes hitting Daesh targets in Iraq and Syria.

Both, the U.S. troops and the Shiite-dominated paramilitary forces have been fighting the militants of the same group, but the distrust between the two is a long-standing one which appears to overwhelm. Both the U.S. and Iraq have not been able to unite and fight the militants on the same front. This in spite of Iraqi and U.S. military officials saying that new troops will be around 200 commandos and their mission is limited to conducting raids, freeing hostages, gathering intelligence and capturing Daesh leaders.

“We, as Asaib Ahl Al Haq, will deal with any U.S. or other foreign ground troops as occupying forces and they will be a target for our fighters,” said Jawad al-Telebawi, a senior commander from the Shiite militia. “We believe that they (U.S. troops) will target the commanders of the popular mobilization.”

Badr, Assaib and Kataib have proved to be the most organized, well trained and equipped Shiite militias to have taken on Daesh. The three armed factions are funded and equipped by Iran and they are considered by Iraqis and Americans as Iranians-controlled groups as they do not take orders from either the Iraqi government or Najaf Shiite Marjiyaa (clergymen).

They have been pressuring Abadi—since he replaced their former stronger allay, Nuri Al Maliki in September 2014—and threaten to topple the government if it does not give up the battle against Daesh.

“If the government agreed on the deployment of U.S. ground troops, they (the officials) will be in the range of our fire, and will not be protected, not by their fortified areas (the Green Zone) nor by their diplomatic passports,” a senior Shiite militia commander told Newsweek Middle East on condition of anonymity.

Abadi, in his late night statement on Thursday, mentioned the term “ground troops” many times as he was keen to emphasize that his government had not asked for any such troops. Abadi’s statement read: “The Iraqi government is committed to not allowing any foreign ground troops to be deployed on Iraqi soil and has not asked, either the regional (countries) or the international (U.S.-led) coalition, to send any ground troops to Iraq.”

This would clearly mean, as the White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Tuesday, that Abadi was talking about ground troops and he had no problem with deploying this new Special Force. All signs indicate that Abadi’s statement was for domestic consumption to ease tensions raised by his Shiite partners.

“Abadi has excluded himself from this issue after issuing that statement,” a senior Shiite official, who declined to be named, told Newsweek Middle East in an interview. “The troops will now be deployed and Abadi is likely to escape the consequences,” the official said.

“Abadi was trying to reduce the pressures imposed on him by the Iranians-controlled groups (Shiite militias), by pitting these groups face to face with the U.S.,” the official added.

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