Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Iraq's Long-term Future

As news came through of the re-capture of the Baiji oil refinery from ISIS, the campaign to drive ISIS from Iraq seems to be in the ascendency. During Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s recent trip to the US, he proclaimed that 25 to 30 percent of ground previously taken by ISIS has been retaken, a claim also espoused by the White House. ISIS has found it difficult to make advances in the face of US airstrikes, though it is exerting serious pressure in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province, where intense fighting is taking place. Recent airstrikes have largely focused on targeting ISIS in Iraq rather than Syria and it appears to be achieving results.

Despite this apparent success, the question remains: in the long term, will bombing ISIS out of Iraq alone save the country? Ethnic and sectarian divisions have worsened during the conflict and some experts believe the country is past the point of no return and a three-way partition may be the only solution. These problems go far beyond just defeating ISIS.

The image of ISIS in the West is one of a distinct group, consumed by their own hateful, absolutist ideology. In many cases this may have some truth. Certainly, with recruits willing to come from as far away as Australia, the powerful effect of the group’s ideology is important. For many in Iraq, though, there is a degree of pragmatism in supporting ISIS. The harsh de-Baathification laws, a legacy of the 2003 Iraq war, left the Sunni population marginalized politically. Add to this the insecurity and historic fears of sectarian violence and increasing number of attacks by Shia groups, and support for ISIS can be seen as a rational choice for some Sunnis. 

The prominent roles being played by former Baathists in ISIS’s command further demonstrates this point; men such as Fadel al-Hiyali and Adnan al-Sweidawi were important army officers under Saddam and now provide the same function for ISIS. It explains in part why ISIS has been so successful on the battlefield. The Baath party began showing Islamist tendencies in the 1990’s, as shown by the 1993 Return to Faith campaign which put a greater emphasis on Islam in Iraqi life including the adoption of some aspects of Sharia law. It was, however, originally a secular Arab nationalist movement and never adopted the strict Salafi ideology that ISIS adheres to. Baathist involvement in ISIS can therefore be seen as a marriage of convenience brought about by a continuing desire to regain power and the perpetual nature of the de-Baathification laws. The same Baathists were involved in Sunni insurgencies after US occupation, and will continue to instigate violence even after the potential demise of ISIS.

If Iraq is to survive then some form of national reconciliation is an absolute necessity. Perhaps the South African Truth and Reconciliation model, along with the elimination of the de-Baathification laws could prove to be effective in addressing past grievances. Without this there is little chance of preventing the insecurities that plague the country from reappearing in new forms. Atrocities committed by Shiite militias will hinder this process in the long term.

Furthermore, there are many structural problems crippling the country. The effects of war have left many homeless, with 90,000 displaced by fighting in Anbar province in just the last few days; housing and infrastructure in towns like Tikrit has been laid waste; unemployment has almost doubled in the last two years to over 25 percent; the government has a huge budget deficit; and there is an ongoing dispute about oil revenues with Kurdistan. Serious economic problems, such as these, have historically been a breeding ground for ethnic conflicts. With Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militias now heavily armed, there is the potential for sectarian and ethnic differences to continue violence in Iraq long after ISIS.

So although military aid seems to be helping in the fight against ISIS, is it humanitarian and economic aid that may do more to securing Iraq’s long-term future through establishing the structural basis for a long-term peace. The US last week pledged $200 million in humanitarian aid but it is less than was sought by Prime Minister Abadi and other donors have been less forthcoming.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The 'King of Clubs' is dead

Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, baptised the King of Clubs by the Americans, has been killed according to various news reports. The 72 year old allegedly died in the northern town of Hamreen. General Haider al-Basri, a senior regional commander in the Iraq army claimed that al-Douri and nine bodyguards were killed by gunshots while riding in a convoy outside Tikrit. The governor of the Saladin province, Raed al-Jabbouri confirmed his death, claiming he was a “mastermind of ISIS in Iraq” and that his death “was a blow to the group.”

The group he headed, the men of the Naqshbandi, have been providing critical assistance to ISIS in Iraq. It has been suggested that Izzat al-Douri encouraged Iraqi people to become more religious A report by Stanford University claims that al-Douri could have acted as commander of ISIS forces as their success in seizing Iraqi cities “was dependent on the military expertise and local connections brought by the members of the Naqshbandi.”

In 1993, al-Douri was involved in the state-sponsored Return to Faith Campaign which sought to encourage devotion to Islam in Iraqi social life. This saw aspects of Islam fused into the Iraqi media, educational system and judicial system. Then in 2013, al-Douri addressed the Sunnis saying: "The people of Iraq and all its nationalist and Islamic forces support you until the realisation of your just demands for the fall of the Safavid-Persian alliance".

Al-Arabiya news station published a photograph which they alleged was of al-Douri’s body; DNA tests are underway to confirm the identity of the body as that of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri. There have been no reports on the Naqshbandi website and the former Iraq Baathist party have released a statement denying the death of al-Douri.

Following the 2003 Iraq war and the fall of Saddam, al-Douri spent nearly a decade in hiding, with many believing him to be dead, before re-emerging as the spiritual figure head of a movement dedicated to restoring the Ba'ath Party to power. The US set a $10m bounty on him. Izzat al-Douri was one of Saddam's most trusted aids, helping to lead his 1968 coup.

If al-Douri is indeed gone, who will be his successor? According to Ghassan Attiyah, head of the UK-based Iraqi Foundation for Development, al-Douri’s “death is no doubt a significant achievement for Baghdad. He represented one of the main figures of the Saddam regime. In a way, his demise could be an opportunity for the Baathists to reorganize themselves and elect a new leadership which is more accommodating and more willing to adopt a more moderate line.”

Below is a list of the Leadership of the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order with only Sheikh Abdullah Mustafa al-Naqshbandi remaining but little is known about his origins and whereabouts.

  1. Sheikh Abdullah Mustafa al-Naqshbandi, possible 2nd in command
  2. Wathiq Alwan al Amiri, Media Coordinator; arrested by Iraqi and US forces in Tikrit Iraq December 12, 2009
  3. Abd al Majid Hadithi, Former Media Manager, Propaganda Distributor; arrested by Iraqi and US forces in Tikrit Iraq December 12, 2009
  4. Muhanned Muhammed Abd al Jabbar al Rawi, Media Gatherer, Producer; arrested by Iraqi and US forces in Tikrit Iraq December 12, 2009
Naqshbandi is a branch of the Sufi order, a mystical Islamic sect that touts Arab nationalism, as evidenced by its Baathist links and the Arab World-encompassing graphic on the group’s website.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Islamic State’s Grip on Tikrit Appears Firmer Than Iraqis Acknowledge

My daughter has just come back from Tikrit:

The Iraq Army are pretty stretched - and we are busy bombing shopping malls.

Meanwhile Stafford writes: 
What's 'normal'?  The world appears no less 'normal' today than perhaps it's ever been.  Perhaps it's even 'more normal' today than during the past century when tens of millions were killed in (non-Muslim) wars and incredible destruction occurred throughout Europe and many other places.
 Today, this very day, there's a Saudi-led 10-nation (sectarian Sunni Arab) coalition attacking Yemen.  
And a US-led 60-nation coalition confronting the likes of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but with Iranian-backed (sectarian Shia Arab) militias.
And there's the potentially earthshaking nuclear accord that could lead to Iran providing its substantial economic and cultural (think also food) capacities to an anxiety-ridden, volatile Middle East.  Today, this very day, is a deadline.  Perhaps.
Some 50 years ago there was a popular folksong by The Kingston Trio entitled 'The Merry Minuet'. You can listen to it here:



What is the purpose of degrading and destroying the likes of  ISIS?  If armed action does not allow IDPs to return to their homes to rebuild and restart their lives where they not only survive but thrive, then what good is it?  What will it take to reestablish the communities IDPs called home? 
Removing the likes of ISIS is only a first step. There is, however, more preoccupation with weaponry and less appreciation for meeting high standards of planning and training --  too many assert that all that is needed is more weaponry and the war will be won.  There is also inadequate appreciation for developing and maintaining high standard intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities.
How else to explain the failure of tens of thousands of anti-ISIS forces to dislodge a few hundred ISIS fighters in Tikrit?  Irregular Iraqi sectarian militia forces unregulated by government far outnumber ISIS forces, some say 30,000 against 400. The militias are materially supported by the Iraqi government but act outside government command and control.  In effect, they are public-supported, private (nongovernmental) militias (gangs?). 
These militia forces are less organized, less disciplined, less trained and lack ISR capabilities of well-established, well-trained, and well-led military units. Numerous reports indicate they are guided by Iranians with assistance from Lebanese Hezbollah.
Similar to the media confusion about what to call the likes of ISIS -- Daesh, ISIS, ISIL, or IS -- these sectarian (Shia) militia groups are sometimes referred to as Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), or Popular Mobilization Committees (PMCs), or Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs).
Incidentally, during the mid-1990s in the Kurdistan Region a PMF was established in Erbil to monitor an internal ceasefire.  It was led by the Turkish military and included local forces.  Though this PMF had nothing to do with the UN, the Turkish military wore the blue berets of UN peacekeeping forces. This PMF was eventually disbanded.
If central/federal government supported forces are unable to retake Tikrit, then how will they ever retake Mosul?  And it's really not about retaking ISIS-controlled territory.  If successful, it's really about what happens AFTER the retaking.
Sectarian militia forces threaten Sunni and other non-Shia inhabitants of areas under ISIS control. Some Sunni areas retaken by these militias are uninhabitable by the original inhabitants who are unable to return. In other words, though ISIS has shattered what was left of the Iraqi state, the heavy-handed, revengeful behavior of sectarian militias against the likes of ISIS is reinforcing the shattering.
For example, Jurf al Sarkhar. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi proclaimed its liberation to be "a key to liberate every corner of Iraq."  He called it a victory against ISIS, and said it was a morale booster for Iraqi forces. But Jurf al Sakhar is a relatively small place that is now, after "liberation", uninhabitable by its original citizens.
Under what conditions will IDPs be able to return to their homes?  What needs to be achieved to regenerate those conditions?  What's the roadmap and timeframe? 
Degrading and destroying the likes of ISIS is only a first step.
The New York Times30 Mar 2015
Islamic State’s Grip on City Appears Firmer Than Iraqis Acknowledge
TIKRIT, Iraq — Iraqi officials insisted for weeks that Islamic State fighters had been all but exterminated in Tikrit, confined to a few pockets in the city center. Yet on Sunday, military officials in the city were reluctant to allow journalists to head back to Baghdad by road — even though the highway skirts Tikrit well to the west.
The supposed safer alternative was a general’s Iraqi Air Force Cessna waiting at the Tikrit Air Base nine miles northwest of downtown. But before takeoff, two mortar shells slammed into a grassy patch between the airfield’s two runways, within 100 yards of the small plane. Iraqi military escorts surmised that the person shooting had to have been within visual range — and probably to the west, although downtown was southeast.
“Daesh are everywhere,” one senior officer said, using the Arab nickname for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
During a two-day visit to Tikrit, a strategic city in Iraq’s central Sunni heartland, it was clear that after four weeks of the government offensive the Islamic State’s fighters are more numerous and still hold much more territory here than officials had previously allowed, even with heavy American airstrikes added in.
According to Iraqi military officials and fighters on the ground in Tikrit, ISISstill dominates or controls about 20 square miles of the city, everything from the edge of Tikrit University in the north, to the far end of the New Ouja neighborhood in the south, a distance as much as eight miles north to south. That encompasses most of the populous parts of the city, which generally lie west of the Tigris River; all of its main downtown and business districts; the government quarter and the former palace of Saddam Hussein.
Government forces remain mostly east of the Tigris, an area that is predominantly rural and agricultural, or on the suburban or rural outskirts of the city on the western and southern sides. The city’s population used to be more than a quarter million, but most residents have fled.
The army headquarters for the operation are situated at a campus building not far from the front line with ISIS — though here, front line is a relative term. Eight mortar tubes were set up around the headquarters to provide defense, and they were pointing not just south toward the center of Tikrit, but also to the north and northeast.
Those mortars were all fired relatively frequently Saturday and Sunday, their shots alternating with the ground-shaking blasts of bombs being dropped from time to time by coalition aircraft.
Lt. Gen. Abdul al-Wahab al-Saadi, the commander of the Tikrit offensive, said that while the Iraqi military’s positions around the city had not changed significantly, special operations forces and elite police units were carrying out reconnaissance in force into the city and had penetrated to within 600 yards of the government complex in the city center.
He said the going had been slow because at first Iraqi forces wanted to leave space for civilians to flee the city, and then wanted to proceed in a way that kept casualties among the military and its allied Shiite militias as low as possible.
Despite weeks of fighting, he insisted that the pro-government forces had sustained few fatalities, and estimated that ISIS had 450 to 750 fighters left in the city, and had lost an equal number killed.
Shiite militias were losing about an average of eight fighters a day killed, according to cemetery workers in Najaf, where most Shiite martyrs are buried. While that was a nationwide estimate, most of them would have been fighting in Salahuddin Province.
But Wafiq al-Hashemi, director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, an independent research organization that often provides advice to the Iraqi government, said his estimates of ISIS fighters still active in Tikrit were in the range of 2,000 to 3,000. He also said that not only did ISIS still dominate the 20-square-mile area between Tikrit University and Ouja, but that the Iraqi military still had not succeeded in taking control of Highway 1 north of Tikrit, between Tikrit and Mosul, where ISIS has its major base in Iraq.
The militants in Tikrit have been able to keep using that supply line to the north even though they are surrounded within the city, using tunnels to evade government lines and keep access to the road.
“The government cannot do it unless the international alliance keeps up these airstrikes,” he said.
According to Gen. Lloyd Austin, who as head of the United States Central Command is in overall charge of the coalition in Iraq and Syria, the Iraqi military has about 4,000 troops under its command in Tikrit — far less than the 30,000 figure Iraqi officials had cited, although that included militia forces as well.
He insisted that the Shiite militias were not involved in the Tikrit battle any longer, after the American military told congressional leaders last week that it had agreed to support Iraqi operations in Tikrit with airstrikes only after being assured that Shiite militias, many of them with Iranian advisers, had been pulled out of the fight.
There was considerable confusion in Tikrit, however, over the new terms of engagement. While some of the militiamen said they would pull out of the fight, many others could be seen on the front lines of it. In addition, many new militia fighters, officially known as the popular mobilization forces, were seen arriving in significant numbers in Tikrit on Saturday and Sunday.
However, Iranian advisers who had been working with some of the militias, in particular, have no longer been reported on the battlefields around Tikrit and elsewhere in Salahuddin Province.
“The popular mobilization did not withdraw, they are still here,” General Saadi, who is in overall charge of the Tikrit offensive, said in an interview over the weekend. “Some of them were sent to do different duties inside our area of operation.”
None of them, however, were removed from the battle when the coalition began bombing, the general insisted. “The people who are here with us are still here, they didn’t leave, some were just moved to another place.”
General Saadi said that while no military wants to be dependent on militias and irregular forces, Iraq had no choice. “If we were a complete army I would say no, but we need the popular mobilization forces. The battle requires them to be with us.”
On Sunday, about 60 Shiite fighters arrived at General Saadi’s headquarters from the Shiite heartland around Karbala as part of a militia called Qataba Imam Ali, wearing black uniforms with body armor and carrying a mixture of light and heavy weapons.
Their commander was Lt. Col. Salim Mizher, who said his men were eager to join the fight. But when an Iraqi officer, Brig. Gen. Abbas Khudair, explained that the militiamen were being incorporated into the army and would not operate independently, answering to Iraqi generals, Colonel Mizher objected.
“We answer to Sheikh Maithan and no other person,” he said, naming one of the militia’s religious leaders.


Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Trouble with the fight to win Tikrit

It seems we are having trouble defeating Isis rebels left behind in the abandoned city of Tikrit. Part of the problem are the extensive mine fields everywhere in the approaches to the city. Part of the problem are the efficient ISIS snipers who remain behind. Our allies attacking Tikrit are taking comparatively heavy casualties. We have been trying for days now but can't take the town. See this article by Loveday in the Washington Post:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Iraq's Sectarian Divisions

The Iraqi forces’ current offensive on ISIS in the city of Tikrit has been taking place without the help of US airstrikes as the US seemed uneasy about the increasingly sectarian nature behind the involvement of Iranian Shiite forces. It is thought that over two-thirds of the current Iraqi forces are made up of Shiite militias and that the Iranian Major General, Qassim Suleimani, is playing an influential role in the campaign. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps are also reported to be present in the fight, operating heavy weaponry. Although not confirmed, it is thought that the growing role of Iranian forces and the high volume of Shiite militia fighters may be the reason for the lack of airstrikes. However, it is evident that this conflict, which was supposed to be liberating Iraq from ISIS, is instead creating a platform for a large-scale sectarian conflict. And the coalition has been very slow to realise the severity of this situation.  

Sectarian violence from Shiite militias has been rife and at times comparable to that of ISIS. Last week a video of a young boy being executed was released online. His executioners were soldiers with the Iraqi flags on their arms and they could be heard calling for others to join the Shiite militias. This is not an isolated incident and Amnesty International released a report in October 2014 on the frequent abductions and killings of Sunni civilians by Shia militias. Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi has condemned and forbidden such sectarian violence but has been unable to prevent it.
Of course, the actions of ISIS have been fuelling sectarian fears and divisions. In June 2014, an ISIS twitter feed displayed pictures of hundreds of dead Shiites in Tikrit, surrounded by their ISIS killers. It is therefore inevitable that the thought of large Shia militias entering Tikrit provokes worries of vengeful, sectarian violence - particularly in the light of recent examples such as the execution of the young boy.

History seems to repeat itself in Iraq. Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath party consistently oppressed the Shiite majority and when he finally fell in 2003, a process of de-Baathification only served to polarise Iraqi politics. Since Saddam’s fall, Sunni politicians have been marginalised, particularly by previous Prime Minister, Nouri Maliki and in recent years many have been accused of terrorism – including former Vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, who was even sentenced to death although he managed to flee the country before charges could be brought against him.

Since 2003 sectarian tensions have intensified and for many Sunnis, resentment towards the government has been building. As a result there have consistently been sectarian clashes across the country, from Sunni insurgencies in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall to more recent clashes in Anbar province. Shiite military groups like Imam Ali Brigade and the Freeman of Mosul are leaving notes on the doorsteps of Sunni households with threats of an-eye-for-an-eye retribution. Regardless of whether these families are associated with ISIS, they fear becoming targets. Even some Yazidis who were ruthlessly persecuted and once co-existed peacefully with the Sunnis are pledging vengeance, quoting they will “never trust them again.”

The absence of a political process to accompany the air strikes is instead driving Sunni communities to consider allying with ISIS. However, reconciliation cannot take place without the complete removal of ISIS, the Shiites alone cannot defeat them. Some argue that if the Sunni tribes are armed then ISIS will not last a month. But there is simply no trust left between the communities.

It is for this reason that avoiding sectarian violence on the part of the Iraqi forces is of such importance. It will only serve to create further divisions and therefore give the opportunity for ISIS to be seen as protectors and liberators of the Sunni minority. It must not be allowed to descend into a sectarian civil war. If divisions continue to intensify then it could lead to a conflict that would continue long after the planned expulsion of ISIS.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dealing with Isis

A US-led airstrike on a Syrian gas facility in Kobane
The bombing in Kobani in Syria - little of the town remains

The behaviour of the barbarian organisation known as Daish or Isis is known to all and we can expect nothing better. Nothing excuses the brutal atrocity illustrated by the treatment of journalists and aid workers by Isis.

There are none the less some shortcomings in international policy that continue to foster support for Isis:
  1. The failure to insist on the total repeal of Bremer's de-Ba'athification law by Iraq; and
  2. The failure to insist that allied ground forces take prisoners alive, whether our allies on the ground be Kurdish, Iraqi, Syrian or Iranian. Daish invariably kill all their prisoners but our allies should not stoop to the same level and the capture of Daish prisoners would send a powerful message; and
  3. Excessive collateral damage from bombing as in Jurf Al-Sakhar. Though bombing has been a vital weapon in curbing ISIS expansion, it must be a tactic employed with far greater caution or it may become counterproductive (as have been the Yemen drone strikes for example).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

CRUDIFICATION: Art works document the curse of oil

Oil barrels are transformed into sculptures and unique works of art in the CRUDIFICATION
exhibition which documents the curse of oil.  

The following article comes to us from Karen Dabrowski:
The exhibition at London’s P21 Gallery brings together a collective of artists: nine from Iraq and two from the United Kingdom (Ala Bashir, Andrew Smith, Bassim Mehdi, Hani Mazhar, Jalal Alwan, Mariwan Jalal, Mohammed Ali Dawood, Raid Houby, Richard Janes, Soodad Al-Naib and Zina Al-Jauari) to creatively explore some of the ways in which oil has ruined our humanity.

This is especially the case for those living in nations with an abundance of oil, like the peoples of the Middle East, who have been subjected to foreign wars, invasion, occupation, authoritarianism, sanctions, shock and awe – the list goes on.

Apart from one of the installations with a pink balloon which represents the dreams of a child standing up to announce hope, all the works portray pain, suffering, crushed human beings, and human beings portrayed as the victims and slaves of oil. The oil barrels evoke the immense power of energy and the mannequins symbolise what this deadly force has done to human beings, not to mention the environment.

The first installation Slaves outside the entrance to the gallery by Andrew Smith was inspired by Michaelangelo’s slave works. The figure is crafted from polystyrene, a product of the oil industry embodying our enslavement to the power of oil. “The figure is large, larger than the barrel. However despite out obvious strength, we are still mere slaves to the power of oil,” Smith, a monumental mason turned sculptor explains.

Mohammed Ali Dawood’s installation Double Standards expresses his frustration about how some individuals are abusing oil and natural resources to gain power, using the media to achieve their goals and objectives. He wants to communicate how :”they tend to use different faces other than their true face to hide the reality which is why poor people are becoming poorer and the rich are becoming richer.”

Richard Janes real size oil barrel in an untitled work, shows three bronze figures bound by the barrel sections supporting it but trapped, representing three world: first, second and third. “While this classification and definition of development and political division is contentious, in my work it is meant to be inclusive. All the world is reliant, beggared and trapped by oil,” Janes said.

The final installation Descend Into the Abyss is on the steps leading out of the gallery. Raid Houby explains that in an ideal world, because humans are precious the environment should serve our needs. But while energy is one of those assets that supposedly serve human needs, humans have become the cheapest assets, assaulted for the sake of energy.

“In my vision energy becomes a burden on humans instead of lighting our path for a dignified life. In my artwork I want to highlight the heavy burden of energy that is threatening the existence of nations. Focusing on the relations between energy and humans, I envision the human stripped of all worth, while only oil is valued.”

The video art and mixed media installation by Hani Mazhar explores how nature, history, physics and chemistry all coalesce to create this strange and cruel machine that he has named with three letters O.I.L. He points out that it is no coincidence that the machine’s name starts with the “O” as its wheels spin and grind our bones; nor is it a coincidence that humans wrote the first line of human history and yet leave it to this machine to write the final line with its black ink.”

Curator Sarah Marusek described her time in Iran another country plundered by imperial powers. “I remember seeing a sign that read, ‘This earth is borrowed from our children’. I was later told that there is a similar saying in Native American cultures, as there is in many other ageless cultures, which is why these cultures are still alive today – still resisting against the colonial-imperial project. So when are we going to finally stop and ask, what kind of future will our children be inheriting as a result of the world we have created today?”

The P21 Gallery is an independent London-based charitable organisation established to promote contemporary Middle Eastern and Arab art and culture. The two-story venue in central London has been recently designed by the award winning Egyptian architect, Professor Abdul Halim Ibrahim, as a place where contemporary artistic statements are experienced and appreciated by a global artistic community. The facilities at P21 are planned to maximise the potential of contemporary art as a discourse, through multimedia exhibition spaces on two levels with supporting facilities for public functions and workshops for training and education. In addition, the P21 Gallery hosts a reference library, meeting rooms, a lecture hall as well as a specialised café and provides for a much-needed meeting place in the heart of London.

Exhibition continues until 2nd November
P21 Gallery, 21 Charlton Street, London NW1 1JD Tues – Fri 12pm – 6pm

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Qatar’s Support of Islamists Alienates Allies Near and Far

A senior member of the NCF writes: Accusations that Qatar has helped support a spectrum of Islamist groups by providing safe haven, diplomatic mediation, financial aid and, in certain instances, weapons keep growing. This issue escalated during a recent visit to Doha by three of Saudi Arabia's most senior princes -- the ministers of foreign affairs, interior, and general intelligence. 

With the U.S. now committing itself -- along with a still not fully confirmed list of allied powers -- to limit and ultimately destroy the Islamic State (IS) 'proclaimed' on 29 June, the pressure on Qatar to put more 'actions' behind its 'words' abhoring the activities of the IS and its extremist supporters will increase accordingly.


Standing at the front of a conference hall in Doha, the visiting sheikh told his audience of wealthy Qataris that to help the battered residents of Syria, they should not bother with donations to humanitarian programs or the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

“Give your money to the ones who will spend it on jihad, not aid,” implored the sheikh, Hajaj al-Ajmi, recently identified by the United States government as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

Qatar is a tiny, petroleum-rich Persian Gulf monarchy where the United States has its largest military base in the Middle East. But for years it has tacitly consented to open fund-raising by Sheikh Ajmi and others like him. After his pitch, which he recorded in 2012 and which still circulates on the Internet, a sportscaster from the government-owned network, Al Jazeera, lauded him. “Sheikh Ajmi knows best” about helping Syrians, the sportscaster, Mohamed Sadoun El-Kawary, declared from the same stage.

Sheikh Ajmi’s career as fund-raiser is one example of how Qatar has for many years helped support a spectrum of Islamist groups around the region by providing safe haven, diplomatic mediation, financial aid and, in certain instances, weapons.

Sheikh Ajmi and at least a half-dozen others identified by the United States as private fund-raisers for Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise operate freely in Doha, often speaking at state-owned mosques and even occasionally appearing on Al Jazeera.

The state itself has provided at least some form of assistance — whether sanctuary, media, money or weapons — to the Taliban of Afghanistan, Hamas of Gaza, rebels from Syria, militias in Libya and allies of the Muslim Brotherhood across the region.

Now, however, Qatar is finding itself under withering attack by an unlikely alignment of interests, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel, which have all sought to portray it as a godfather to terrorists everywhere. Some in Washington have accused it of directly supporting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria — an extremist group so bloodthirsty that Al Qaeda has condemned it — a charge that Western officials, independent analysts and Arab diplomats critical of Qatar all call implausible and unsubstantiated.

“That is just disinformation,” said Michael Stephens, a researcher based in Doha for the Royal United Services Institute, a British research center. “I am not going to excuse what Qatar has done: It has been grossly irresponsible when it comes to the Syrian conflict, like many other countries,” he said. “But to say that Qatar is behind ISIS is just rhetoric; it is politics getting in the way of things, and it blinds people to real solutions.”

Propelling the barrage of accusations against Qatar is a regional contest for power in which competing Persian Gulf monarchies have backed opposing proxies in contested places like Gaza, Libya and especially Egypt. In Egypt, Qatar and its Al Jazeera network backed the former government led by politicians of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Other gulf monarchies long despised the Brotherhood because they saw it as a well-organized force that could threaten their power at home, and they backed the military takeover that removed the Islamist president.

Qatar is hardly the only gulf monarchy to allow open fund-raising by sheikhs that the United States government has linked to Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, the Nusra Front: Sheikh Ajmi and most of the others are based in Kuwait and readily tap donors in Saudi Arabia, sometimes even making their pitches on Saudi- and Kuwaiti-owned television networks. United States Treasury officials have singled out both Qatar and Kuwait as “permissive jurisdictions” for terrorist fund-raising.

In many cases, several analysts said, Qatar has sought to balance a wager on the future of political Islam as a force in the region with a simultaneous desire not to alienate the West. It has turned a blind eye to private fund-raising for Qaeda-linked groups to buy weapons in Syria, for example, but it has not provided direct government funding or weapons. At times, Mr. Stephens and other analysts said, Western pressure has moved Qatar to at least partly suppress some of the overt fund-raising.

Qatar openly provides a base for leaders of the Palestinian militant group Hamas — deemed a terrorist organization by the United States and Israel — as well as money to help prop up its government in Gaza. But American and Israeli officials say Qatar has stopped short of providing the group with weapons, as Iran does.

Qatar has allowed members of the Taliban to open an office and make their homes in Doha, but as part of deals approved by Washington.

In Libya, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are now backing rival sides in Libya’s escalating domestic unrest, each with unsavory ties: The U.A.E. is backing former fighters for Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and members of his ruling elite, while Qatar is backing a coalition that includes militant Islamist groups.

During the 2011 uprising in Libya, Qatar supported an Islamist militia in Benghazi known as Rafallah al-Sehati that had relatively Western-friendly leaders but extremists in its ranks. The extremists later broke away to form Ansar al-Shariah, the militant group that played a role in the death of the American ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens.

Now Qatar is still backing militias at least loosely allied with the group in their fight against an anti-Islamist faction backed by the United Arab Emirates.

But Qatar has also tried to draw lines, according to Western diplomats and Islamists who have worked with Doha. Since the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood’s government in Egypt, for example, Islamists in exile say that Qatar has given them sanctuary but has pointedly refused to provide money to the Brotherhood for fear of further alienating its gulf neighbors who backed the takeover.

“They try to calibrate,” said one Brotherhood leader, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid alienating the Qataris.

Many analysts say it is Qatar’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood that has drawn accusations from other gulf states that have charged that Qatar is funding terrorism in Syria and elsewhere.

“The big falling-out is over Egypt, not Syria,” said Paul Salem, a scholar at the Middle East Institute. Now, he said, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the other gulf states “are putting the squeeze on Qatar.”

Since the military takeover in Cairo, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have all withdrawn their ambassadors from Doha. And Israel, which once praised Qatar as the only gulf state to open bilateral relations, appears to be capitalizing on the split to pressure Qatar over its support for Hamas. Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, recently called Doha “Club Med for terrorists” in an opinion article in The New York Times.

The United Arab Emirates have retained an American consulting firm, Camstoll Group, staffed by several former United States Treasury Department officials. Its public disclosure forms, filed as a registered foreign agent, showed a pattern of conversations with journalists who subsequently wrote articles critical of Qatar’s role in terrorist fund-raising.

“All the gulf intelligence agencies are competing in Syria and everyone is trying to get the lion’s share of the Syrian revolution,” Sheikh Shafi al-Ajmi, also recently identified by the United States as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, said in an interview on the Saudi-owned Rotana television network last summer.

He openly acknowledged his role buying weapons from the Western-backed military councils, who sometimes received arms from Qatar. “When the military councils sell the weapons they receive, guess who buys them? It’s me,” he said.

He defended the Nusra Front despite its ties to Al Qaeda. “We should not stop supplying them with weapons, because they are still fighting Assad,” he said. And he shared a joke with the host about Kuwait’s well-known role as the hub for Syrian rebel fund-raising. (Both Shafi al-Ajmi and Hajaj al-Ajmi are Kuwaitis; lawyers for both have said they raise money only for legitimate Syrian causes.)

Qatar says it opposes all “extremist groups,” including ISIS. “We are repelled by their views, their violent methods and their ambitions,” Khalid al-Attiyah, the Qatari foreign minister, said in a recent statement about the allegations.

In early 2013, when the West stepped up pressure on Persian Gulf states to crack down on Qaeda-linked fund-raisers, some complained that Qatar was turning against them. Other sheikhs “were welcomed as heroes at a conference in Doha and given lots of gifts, all to cut the support for the Nusra Front and to support the military councils, the pagan coalition,” Hamid Hamad Hamid Al-Ali, another Kuwaiti-born preacher designated last month as a terrorist fund-raiser, protested in an Internet posting in March 2013.

But social media posts and television appearances show that at least a half-dozen United States-designated terrorist fund-raisers, some designated years earlier, continued to frequent Doha.

In 2010, an arm of the Qatari government made a donation to help build a $1.2 million mosque in Yemen for a sheikh, Abdel Wahab al-Humayqani, designated as a fund-raiser for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. (Qatari Embassy officials and Yemeni government officials both attended the opening.)

In 2011, Harith al-Dari, an Iraqi sheikh and tribal leader designated as a terrorist fund-raiser in 2008, appeared on Al Jazeera praying at the opening of a state-owned mosque in Doha just steps from the crown prince of Qatar.

“Arab countries won’t let us in to discuss things with them and complain to them — except one or two,” Sheikh Dari said in a television interview in January. He spoke on Al Jazeera from Qatar, which was evidently among the “one or two.” 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Iraq Report 16

Developments in Iraq 14 August 2014

Following mounting pressure on Nuri al-Maliki from various sources including Iran, U.S., Ayatollah Sistani and his own party, Hezb al-Dawa, he has today stepped down as Iraq's Prime Minister, making way for Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi to become the leader.

Al-Maliki had previously refused to step down after al-Abadi was nominated, saying in a televised address Wednesday that the appointment was a constitutional violation.

Nothing was said as to his terms.

Heitham  al-Jabouri, the speaker of the Alliance for Legal Government, revealed that al-Maliki and al-Abadi had agreed on the transfer of power in Iraq. Ali al-Mousavi, Maliki’s advisor, also announced that Maliki has given up his legal case against Foaud Masoum, the President of Iraq, in the Iraq Federal Court. Ayatollah Sistani had very specifically asked for a new prime minister. Losing the backing of Iran, Sistani and the United States seems finally to have convinced Maliki that he had to give up his hold on power. And even Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq (de-facto Malaki’s militia) now back Abadi (though individual fighters may not do so in some instances). Al-Abadi has the support of Iran, U.S.A. and Saudi Arabia.

We live in hope that this is not just a milestone, but a pivotal moment in broader regional peace.

The situation on the ground:

Things remain as dangerous as ever in Iraq. Part of the problem is the flexibility of IS. When IS is attacked in a counter-insurgency move in one place, they fight back somewhere else.

We must correct an item in our last report. We implied that the government held Jurf Al-Sakhar fifty miles south of Baghdad in Babil Province. This is of course incorrect. IS still holds Jurf Al-Sakhar. We do not use press reports as sources but regrettably some of the sources we use are themselves influenced by reports that minimise the strength of IS and inflate the strength of the Iraq Army. Sometimes the Iraq Government itself does not know what is going on as spokespersons fall into the trap of believing their own PR.

Certainly Baghdad itself is quieter. Though there have been a lot of bombings, including one near Haider al Abadi’s home in Karada. People are angry at the Iraq Security Forces for their failure to keep things under control.

Another correction, some of the population figures we have given you, particularly for the Yezidis, may have been incorrect. This from one of our most reliable sources within Iraq:

“The numbers being thrown around are being questioned. Numbers from Kurdistan sources are too often highly exaggerated.  While initial estimates may make some sense under the circumstances, later updated figures often do not lead to revisions in initial figures. A rule of thumb is to cut them in half and go down from there.

“For example, the number of Yazidis in Iraq is often said to be 500,000.  Vian Dakhil, the Yezidi MP who made such an effective impassioned plea, said in an interview with Dutch media there are 300,000.    There aren't many Yezidi population centers.  500,000 suggests 10 cities with 50,000 Yezidis each or 100 villages of 5,000 each.  Neither makes sense."

The broader picture

For an interesting perspective on the wider picture see Patrick Cokburn’s article on this link

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Iraq report 15

Latest developments in Iraq

The following information has been provided largely through Kurdish sources. The situation is fluid and intense, to say the least.  

One problem facing the Kurdistan Regional Government is a shortage of money to address its mounting responsibilities. There is a real concern being expressed in Arbil that -- despite the will -- available foreign exchange might soon dry up in the local banking centre if new infusions of cash are not received. This would affect the ability of the Kurdish Regional Government to pay the salaries of civil servants and even the vaunted Pershmerga militia fighters. 

One reason for this problem is that a dispute over oil has caused the central government to stop all payments to the KRG. That Baghdad would devote time and money to preventing the KRG from independently recovering even a small fraction of what it is owed is inexplicable, especially as the federal government fights a massive insurgency by IS and struggles to maintain its own institutions. 

Hopefully, the incoming administration of prime minister-designate, Haidar al-Abadi, will reverse this situation and seek to address Kurdish (as well as Sunni) grievances. 

The NCF met al-Abadi a few weeks ago and was impressed. He takes a no-nonsense view of Kurdish efforts to extract money from the central government while seeking an independent source of income abroad. However, he is far more flexible than his predecessor, Nuri al-Maliki, who continues to resist his replacement at the time of this writing, despite his rapidly diminishing support.

Diyala Province
Peshmerga forces have been forced to retreat from Jalawla by IS having failed in their counter offensive. An indeterminate number of Peshmerga were killed in the fighting and the area is now under complete IS control
Arbil Province
Refugees - those the UN disingenuously calls internally displaced persons (IDPs) - continue to flood into the Kurdistan Region, with estimates at well over one million people in need of critical humanitarian aid. This number will only rise as Yezidis from Sinjar continue to be rescued and brought to the Kurdistan Region for medical attention. Immediate humanitarian aid, in terms of food, water, housing, medical supplies, and funds, is desperately needed. Prior to the Islamic State's (IS) offensive in Sinjar (Singal) and theNinevah (Ninawa) Governorate, the Kurdistan Region hosted nearly one million refugees and IDPs. 
Makhmour town and the surrounding villages are back under Peshmerga control after four days of fighting (Makhmour District is in the extreme South of Arbil Province and is technically part of the disputed territories)The town Gwer, also in Makhmour District, located about 25 miles southwest of Arbil, is also under Kurdish Peshmerga control again. These efforts have been aided by US airstrikes, although continuous air support is necessary in order to hold these towns.

Lufthansa have cancelled flights to Arbil leaving MEA, Turkish Airlines, and Royal Jordanian as the only three major carriers operating to Arbil. The US Consulate in Erbil remains open and operational, although some non-essential staff have been relocated.
Ninevah Province
Bashika district in the Ninevah Plane (Eastern Ninevah) is now partially under IS control
Fighting between Peshmerga and IS continues in the Al-Shallalat district to the North of Mosul

The town of Zummar, near the Syrian border, remains largely under IS control, though the Peshmerga forces are making headway

IS remains in control of Christian towns and villages including Qaraqosh. IS fighters still control Tel Afar, Tel Keyf, and other towns in Ninevah Governorate. 

Sinjar district, still under IS control, is the scene of fierce clashes with Peshmerga. Limited airstrikes by the US military are taking place in and around Sinjar, in support of Kurdish Peshmerga operations to maintain a corridor to evacuate civilians, and a limited number have been escorted to safety. A massive air search and rescue is also underway to locate civilians stranded on Mount Sinjar. The Sinjar mountain range stretches almost 50 miles along the Iraq-Syrian border and is 3,000 foot high at its highest point, with extremely rugged terrain. Between 30,000 and 40,000 refugees (predominantly but by no means exclusively Yezidis) are estimated to still be on the mountain (some press estimates of numbers approaching 100,000 are not credible). Hospitals and clinics in the Duhok area have received thousands of rescued Yezidis, with over 100 doctors volunteering for the relief efforts. Unimaginable atrocities continue to be committed against Christian and Yezidi minority populations throughout Ninevah Governorate. In Sinjar, An indeterminate number of Sinjar women captured by IS have been relocated to Mosul and are being forcefully married off to IS militants. The US military has been conducting airdrops of food and supplies on Mount Sinjar since Thursday. It has been reported that these were dropped from a great height which would seem to negate or seriously reduce its actual effectiveness.  France, Canada, Italy, Germany, and the UK have also pledged to support humanitarian relief efforts. On Sunday August 10, the United Kingdom began with an initial airdrop of food and supplies over Mount Sinjar from two British C130s. The UK has pledged to contribute a total of £13 million for refugees and IDPs in Iraq.

The most immediate direct threat facing the area is IS control over Mosul Dam, putting the group in control of the most substantial water and electricity asset in the region. The dam is poorly constructed and aging, and requires regular maintenance to prevent catastrophic failure; a 2006 assessment by the US Army Corps of Engineers called it "the most dangerous dam in the world". IS has claimed that they will destroy the dam if they lose control of the area. Such an event would send a wave 63 feet high through the city of Mosul, and cause widespread flooding along the Tigris, one of the most densely populated regions of Iraq
Baghdad would also experience serious flooding. Analysts estimate over half a million people would be killed.

Babil Province

An IS attack on the town of Jurf Al-Sakhar fifty miles south of Baghdad has been repelled

Developments in Iraq

In an exciting development, Haider al-Abadi, who is a senior member of the Islamic Dawa Party, has been asked to form a government by the Iraqpresident, Fouad Massoum. Mr. Abadi now has 30 days in which to form a government. During that time, Mr. Nouri Al-Maliki will remain as a caretaker leader, and as commander-in-chief of Iraq’s security forces.

There have been fears expressed that Maliki may attempt a coup d'état to retain power, but in the unlikely event that should happen, that seems impossible to succeed. Maliki sped up his demise by an ill thought through show of force last night, which galvanised many against him this morning, including much of his own bloc. Maliki tonight gave a speech assuring the security forces that he'll reverse this “error” calling it unconstitutional. The army twitter account, however, tweeted earlier that it's “Iraq's army not Maliki's...” There was a pro-Maliki demo in Baghdad today, with an embarrassingly small number of people who had all been bussed in from the provinces, paid and given free food. The situation in Baghdad is tense, with army troops on high alert.

The choice of the shrewd Dr Haider Al Abadi, is about the best thing that has happened to Iraq this year. He is chairman of the parliamentary finance committee. Dr Haider has strong views though. The NCF talked to him in Baghdad recently:
1.       On Kirkuk: Al Abadi favoured giving special status to the province.
2.       Electorally he favours the ‘top-up’ system promoted by the UN back in 2010 that strongly favoured the largest parties. Rather than the present system of PR that gives a distinct advantage to the mid-weight parties.
3.       He regards corruption and bureaucracy as two of Iraq’s key problems.
His views are none the less considered and he is open to discussion. He is intelligent with a phenomenal memory for figures and statistics, affable and approachable. He is a remarkable man. He is not proud and there is indeed no element of hubris about him. It will be remarkably good news if he manages to form a government – and with a little good will on all sides there is no reason he should not. He is considered one of the “old leadership” of the Dawa Party in which he has had a leading role since the late 70s. He spent quite a lot of time in London in his exile years. He has good relationships with most of the political groups. He was Minister of Communications in Alawi’s government, the first government of post liberation Iraq. Amr al-Hakim’s ISCI party, the “conservative party” of ShiiteIraq, is supporting him strongly. One of their most senior men told NCF tonight, “We hope that the choice is right. It won’t be an easy job for him. He has made it clear that he is ready to make agreements with the other political forces.”

Meanwhile our sources indicate that Nouri Al-Maliki has agreed to step down as Prime Minister subject to certain conditions. Some of his terms are:

1.    That he is made either Vice President or Minister of Interior.
2.    Nouri Al-Maliki also asks for a personal guard of at least 2,500 soldiers under his direct command drawn from the Baghdad Brigade of the Iraq Army.

However, other members of the Shiite alliance say such demands “Can’t be taken seriously”. The new Premier has only one month in which to form a government. But members of the Shiite Alliance point out that 130 Shiite Alliance MPs agreed to the nomination of Haider Al Ibadi “without preconditions”.

President Barack Obama called to offer his support to Haider Al Abadi, and urged him to form an inclusive government, he said Monday afternoon.

"Today Iraq took a promising step forward" in the effort to create a new government "that can unite Iraq's different communities," Obama said from Martha's Vineyard, Mass.

On other developments – we have been reliably made aware of the fact that casualty claims from various parties with regard to air strikes made by US / Iraq Army forces in Northern Iraq have been grossly incorrect in most instances – we therefore advise all journalists associated with the NCF not to report casualty figures unless they have their own credible sources independent of any government. UN casualty figures for Iraq have also now been utterly discredited. They are far too low. Our own sources indicate almost 4,000 dead in the past week alone.

As regards the on the ground position – there is now fighting on so very many fronts that we can no longer list all the battlefronts – at least not at the moment. President Masoud Barzani of Kurdistan wrote an editorial in today’s Washington Post begging for more military aid to help the Kurds fight IS.