Tag: Iraq

The Return of Muqtada al-Sadr

I first heard of the Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr soon after American forces occupied Baghdad in 2003. His men were implicated in the stabbing murder of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Khoi, who was a custodian of a Shia holy mosque in Najaf. Soon after, Sadr’s men launched attacks on the US forces as well, and the occupation authorities issued a “kill or capture” warrant for Sadr that was not enforced or pursued with conviction.

To me, Sadr represented what was wrong with the ‘new’ Iraq. Though his father was murdered by Saddam Hussain, Sadr and his supporters never waged a war against the regime, unlike other opponents like the Kurds or, in the case of the Shia, the Badr organisation which had a few hundred armed men in the PUK-controlled territories of Kurdistan. Sadr was late to the party and picked a fight with the wrong guy.

Continue reading “The Return of Muqtada al-Sadr”

Goodbye anti-ISIS coalition?

The Trump administration is considering abolishing key diplomatic posts for the Middle East, and the future bodes ill for the ISIS-defeating Kurds and their allies and for the larger region.

The key counter-terrorism post currently occupied by Brett McGurk may be abolished with McGurk’s future uncertain.

Moreover, the former powerful US diplomat John Hannah, who served under former VP Dick Cheney, has turned down the position of Syria envoy after talks with the administration.

Both McGurk and Hannah are intensely disliked by Ankara which has long lobbied the US for the former’s removal from the CT post. According to Foreign Policy magazine:

The proposed move comes at a moment of renewed bloodshed and diplomatic chaos in Syria, with a NATO ally, Turkey, locked in combat with U.S.-armed and trained Kurdish forces. Some Western government officials and experts said it was too soon to consider withdrawing the envoy, particularly when the United States has struggled to articulate a coherent political strategy following military successes against the Islamic State.

It appears Rex Tillerson has given in to Erdogan’s “Ottoman slap”, and that mending relations with Turkey is becoming a priority for Trump, as the administration shifts its focus from defeating ISIS to containing Iran.

If the State Department returns to pre-ISIS “factory settings” -no special envoys, restoring relations with traditional allies, purging the growing numbers of anti-Turkey and anti-jihadi career diplomats-, then the Kurds in Syria and Iraq will lose enormously, and the resurrection of ISIS will be all but guaranteed.

What a shame!

On Human Rights Watch report

War is a dirty business and truth is the first casualty.

Back in August 2017, Iraqi security forces launched an offensive to retake the city of Tal Afar which is located in the north of the country. Kurdistan Regional Government forces did not take part in the operation, as was the case in the Mosul battle. Instead, they secured the lines in the north of the city to prevent ISIS jihadis escaping into Kurdistan.

The battle of Tal Afar was not a drawn-out affair as expected; ISIS lines quickly collapsed. In the 10-day battle, 2000 jihadis were killed. That is about 200 jihadis killed per day! For that to happen, either the city must have been completely flattened by the Coalition-Iraq carpet bombing, which was not the case, or the Iraqi army executed all men at arms-bearing age caught alive in the city.

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Reports also emerged at the time that about 150 ISIS jihadis, including foreign fighters, were captured, either trying to escape through the KRG lines or surrendering to the peshmerga’s Asayish (internal security) wing. This was the highest number of ISIS jihadis caught by the KRG forces in a single incident that made it to the mainstream news. And it inevitably raised the question of what to do with them.

If every ISIS suspect was kept in custody for trial and punishment, the Iraqi and KRG justice systems would collapse under the sheer number of tens of thousands who were captured in the combat zone. And we did not see the images of tens of thousands of ISIS suspects being held in jails. So what happened to them?

The rumours circulating throughout the war against ISIS in Iraq (and in Syria) can be summarised thus: 1- Foreign fighters were executed to prevent them returning to the West where they can commit terrorism, 2- Local high-level ISIS operatives who were captured alive were held for interrogation and trial, some of whom were found guilty and executed, and 3- Local low-level elements were either turned to fight for the government or were released back to their families following ransoms and sponsorships that they would no longer engage in armed insurrection.

Now, however, we have a Human Rights Watch report on the specific instance of 100+ ISIS jihadis who were captured by the KRG during the battle of Tal Afar. The report details allegations of how they were taken into custody, where they were held, and where they were executed and buried. The evidence is too thin to justify the charges of war crimes, but it is compelling enough to warrant further investigation, which the HRW calls for.

War crime is not something Kurds are known for, even against Saddam’s army during the genocidal Anfal campaign of 1986-88. The HRW did a lot of credit to itself by meticulously documenting Iraq’s crimes against the Kurds at the time, including the Halabja gas attack. No independent observer ever charged the Iraqi Kurds of any criminal wrong-doing during and for this period.

War crime is what ISIS did during their short tenure in Syria and Iraq, especially after the capture of Mosul and Tikrit. War crime is what Turkey did during the 30-year civil war on Kurds, as recently as last year in Cizre and Sirnak. War crime is what the fascist Assad regime is known for, what the FSA jihadi rebels gleefully displayed, and what Iraq’s sectarian security forces did, in the combat zone of Tal-Afar, where 2000 were killed in 10 days.

As Kurds, we like to think we set the best standards in the region; in the way we conduct the war and prosecute the prisoners. We are supposed to be the beacon of civility in the sea of barbarism. If these allegations are true -it’s too early for that yet- then that beacon will not have been extinguished but dimmed somewhat.

Fortunately, the HRW report also acknowledges that this might be a local incident carried out by local commanders in the following terms:

“About 20 days after the last executions, Nadim’s Asayish friends told him that a very senior security officer made a high-level visit to the Asayish office in Zummar, he said. He said that several senior local Asayish officers have not been seen in Zummar since the meeting, and his contacts in the Asayish have told him they have been detained. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify if any officers were punished, and for what.”

The areas where the alleged executions and burials of ISIS jihadis took place is now under Iraqi government’s control. The area is also subject to seasonal flooding. Baghdad may well use this opportunity to discredit Erbil, while hiding its own war crimes in Tal Afar, but that is no reason why the bodies should not be exhumed and further investigation should not be carried out.

I should state without equivocation and prevarication that I am with the Human Rights Watch in this matter. The fate of this group did cross my mind at the time of their capture/surrender, but that they might be executed did not. If this is what the HRW alleges happened then the matter should be investigated straightaway before the evidence washes away.

That is the only way to ensure that truth does not also remain buried as the last casualty of war.

Continue reading “On Human Rights Watch report”

Hard fights begin in Mosul

Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR)
A U.S. Army artillery fires on ISIS at Qayyarah West, Iraq, in support of the Iraqi security forces’ push toward Mosul, Oct. 17, 2016. Photo by Pfc. Christopher Brecht

Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by the US-led coalition are facing stiff resistance from Islamic State jihadists as the first forays into Mosul city begin.

The government forces, which had until now cleared villages and towns surrounding the city of 1.7 million people, have entered urban areas from the East and have taken control of the state TV building, reports say.

Fighters belonging to Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, are using vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs, mortar fire, and snipers to counter the advance of Iraqi and Kurdish forces but have failed to slow down the momentum.

“There’s no question that counter-ISIL forces continue to have the momentum in this fight,” Pentagon spokesman,  Peter Cook, said at yesterday’s press briefing in response to questions about difficulties faced by the coalition forces. “The campaign is on track and moving forward according to plan,” Cook added.

The offensive to liberate the city from ISIS may cost many non-combatant lives as ISIS refuses to allow safe passage to civilians. Coalition forces will continue to advance with an “eye toward protecting the innocent lives ISIL is putting at risk in the course of this fight,” Cook said.

“The progress we have made to date is a testament to the bravery and dedication of the Iraqi soldiers, the Peshmerga fighters, the federal police and the others on the front lines,” he said. The Kurdish and Iraqi forces are also approaching the city from the south and the north and are within 1 KM of the city in both directions.

Since the beginning of the offensive on October 17, the coalition has assisted local forces with 2700 air and artillery strikes and continue to transport supplies to the front lines and help with medical evacuations.

ISIS captured the largely Sunni Arab-populated city of Mosul in June 2014. The increasingly sectarian Shia-led Iraqi army fled in the face of lightning strike, abandoning a vast arsenal of US-supplied arms to jihadists who later declared a so-called Islamic caliphate in the city.

While Mosul is under pressure, the international coalition is preparing to open another front in Syria. Local anti-ISIS forces, consisting mostly of Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing to launch an assault on the capital city of ISIS, Raqqa.

On Kurdistan

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In the Middle East, fortunes can change in unpredictable ways. Sometimes they change for the better as slow as shifting sand dunes. Other times they can change overnight like an earthquake. One moment we nearly had a Kurdistan on the map as was the case in the aftermath of First World War. Then came a century during which all traces of Kurdistan were lost except to those who could still dream of it.

Instead, we had in Syria a nation state re-invented by the French who empowered the minority Alewites over and above Sunnis and Kurds. And where Kurdistan was supposed to be, we had Iraq, a nation state invented by the British who made Sunni minority the overlords of Shias and Kurds.

Take now the changing fortunes in Syria’s civil war. No one thought Assad regime would last when the uprising began in 2011. No one thought Free Syrian Army rebels would be so radicalised as to be indistinguishable from al-Qaeda. No one expected the rise of an even worse jihadi outfit in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

And no one gave much chance to Kurds, who were the weakest and the most marginalised community in Syria when the civil war began, to emerge as the fiercest of all fighting forces with the international coalition’s air power above and the world’s goodwill behind them. The Kurds were not only the best fighters, men and women alike, but represented the secular democratic values that civilised nations held dear as well.

The ever shifting alliances in Syria’s four-sided civil war make the three-sided global wars involving Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in George Orwell’s 1984 look like a simple game of checkers. Unlike in 1984, however, this is not a ruse to keep the populace occupied with war. This is a real existential battle to stay alive as individuals and as communities.

Each one of the four sides, the Assad regime, the FSA jihadis, ISIS and the Kurds, have found themselves on the brink of defeat at some stage of the war, and yet they have managed to recover. Each one of them have had to fight the other three at the same time at some stage.

Today it is the Kurds’ turn to face attacks from all three sides. Having recovered from the brink of defeat in Kobani a year ago with the late-coming US air support, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their Arab allies went on to inflict ISIS a series of defeats. Manbij was liberated only two weeks ago.

Now, however, the YPG is warding off assaults from the Russian-backed Assad regime in Hasakah, Turkish-backed FSA jihadis near Jarablus and Saudi-backed ISIS in al-Shaddadi. And now Kurds cannot count on the US-led coalition air power any more because the US has just decided to shift its support to FSA jihadis again.

By abandoning the Kurds, the USA is repeating their mistake in Iraq. Not the historic mistake that Henry Kissinger made in mid-1970s when he betrayed promises to the Iraqi Kurdish leader Melle Mustafa Barzani. That mistake ended up strengthening Saddam Hussein and hastened the end of Shah of Iran, both of which proved wrong and very bloody in the long run.

The mistake the USA is repeating today is the one that they made after the overthrow of Saddam in 2003: not investing in a Kurdistan as a lasting reliable western ally and not placing sufficient trust in the regional government (KRG) to the benefit of untrustworthy partners in Baghdad. That too have come back and will continue to come back to haunt the USA.

For example, during the invasion and occupation of Iraq, Mosul and many nearby towns were captured from Saddam and later from the Sunni insurgency with the KRG help. Yet, the US forced the Kurds to hand them over to the Shia Arab government in Baghdad. In June 2014, the Iraqi army rapidly surrendered those towns and several billions dollars worth of arms back to the ISIS-led Sunnis.

Now it seems we are about to watch the same movie in Manbij. The USA is ordering the YPG to withdraw to the east of the Euphrates after liberating the city from ISIS. Why? Because the FSA jihadis are at hand to take over the crucial crossroad city that the Kurds and their Arab allies took at the cost of 300 lives.

Assuming the YPG did that, sooner or later the myriad of FSA jihadis will fight among themselves for full control of the city, or ISIS will return to capture it, or even the regime will march re-take it. And then the US will again ask the Kurdish forces to go liberate the city from whichever extremist group controlling it, just as it is likely to happen again across the border in Mosul.

This must stop. This vicious cycle must be broken. In Syria as well as in Iraq, Kurds must refuse to surrender lands they liberated from Assadist fascists, Sunni and Shia jihadis, and from medieval ISIS barbarians. I am heartened with the YPG’s statement that “in the west of Euphrates [we] are in our own country. We will not withdraw because Turkey or someone else wants it.”

For us Kurds, our once-in-a-century opportunity to establish an independent state is in danger as regional alliances have once again shifted against our national interests. We owe it to future generations to not let this opportunity slip away.

Now it is time for a greater Kurdish national unity. Now we must put aside all party politics and all petty tribal and personal squabbling, and speak to the world in a single united voice: “We are here in our own land and we are not giving it up without a fight!”

Biji Kurdistan!