As the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen enters its fourth year, the prospects for the UN peace process are limited. Rawan Shaif and Jack Watling assess the outlook for the country amid a growing risk of de facto federalisation.
The Saudi-led coalition’s intervention in support of Yemen’s internationally recognised government, which began in March 2015, had not demonstrably achieved its objectives by the beginning of June 2018. Abdurabu Mansour al-Hadi, Yemen’s president in exile, had not been returned to power. According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 Yemenis have been killed since the start of the war, but the true figure is likely to be higher. The peace process has stagnated for more than two years.
Attempts by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths to restart peace talks were disrupted on 22 April, when the United Arab Emirates killed Saleh al-Samad in an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strike. Samad was the president of the Supreme Political Council of Ansar Allah (commonly known as the Houthis), which is one of the main protagonists in Yemen’s civil war.
Since the death of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh on 4 December 2017 following a four-day street battle with the Houthis in the capital Sana’a, armed factions have rapidly fragmented across the country. An internal power struggle has emerged within the Houthi movement, with hardliners in the ascendant, which means that a settlement is more difficult to achieve. However, if the Houthis lose the port of Hodeidah, the group will potentially be forced to the negotiating table.
With Hadi’s government lacking any presence on the ground, areas outside Houthi control have largely been left to improvise their administrations; a resurgence in local governance has consequently occurred in Marib and Hadramawt provinces. Across the south of Yemen, locally raised units – trained by the UAE – have begun to provide security and to confront Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State militant group. At a regional level, local actors are successfully imposing stability, although with no clear connection to the central government.
In the short term, this process of fragmentation, with isolated local theatres in the conflict, presents a serious obstacle to a national peace process and an all-inclusive dialogue. In the long term, the likelihood of the de facto federalisation of Yemen has increased.
In late April, the Saudi-led coalition launched a major offensive on several fronts. The objective was to capture Hodeidah, Yemen’s primary port on the Red Sea. Forces with UAE backing under the command of General Tareq Saleh – nephew of the former president – had reached the southern outskirts of Hodeidah by the end of May. Saudi efforts in the north of Yemen had also achieved some progress towards the Houthi stronghold of Saada, the birthplace of the movement.
When Jane’s visited Gen Saleh’s forces in March 2018, these comprised 300 former Republican Guards, acting as non-commissioned officers to around 2,800 levied troops. This core assault force was well-equipped, with Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected Vehicles (MRAPs), Leclerc main battle tanks, and UAVs for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), provided by the UAE. The assault force was supported by the Salafi Al-Amaliqah Brigade, the Tahami Resistance, and the National Southern Resistance, which collectively amounted to approximately 20,000 personnel who were securing captured territory.
“There is unity in defeating the Houthis,” Nabil Al-Soufi, a spokesperson for Gen Saleh’s staff, told Jane’s. “Different forces from different backgrounds are working together in cohesion.”
Gen Saleh’s forces have a considerable intelligence advantage over the Houthis; the general and his staff played a prominent role in the Houthi war effort – overseeing operations on Yemen’s western coast – until December 2017, when Gen Saleh sought refuge in the UAE following the collapse of the alliance of convenience between the Houthis and his uncle.
This enabled a spate of targeted strikes against Houthi commanders in the area – including the strike on Samad – which have degraded Houthi command and control. Mansour al-Saidi, the commander of Houthi naval forces, his deputy Salah al-Sharqai, and Nasser al-Qaubari, the commander of Houthi missile forces, were all killed in airstrikes in the early stages of the offensive in mid-April.
Officers on Gen Saleh’s staff, speaking to Jane’s on condition of anonymity, noted that the Houthis were outnumbered in Haima, a port city in the south of Hodeidah province. Houthi resistance in the early stages of the offensive was light. As of late May, the Houthis were struggling to reinforce their units under intensifying aerial bombardment. Gen Saleh’s troops had advanced steadily, seizing supply and communication routes between Houthi territory in Taiz and the Yemeni coast. Progress had been slowed primarily by the need to clear hundreds of TM-57 landmines planted by the Houthis.
Hodeidah provides a steady source of income and black-market fuel for the Houthis. The city is the Houthis’ last stronghold in the west of Yemen and the group’s only means of threatening commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Houthi resistance is likely to harden around the port, but if coalition forces maintain their current momentum, Hodeidah is likely to fall within the next three months.
Co-ordination of Saudi and UAE operations is hampered by the promotion of competing proxies. A continuing power struggle is becoming more difficult to conceal, particularly in liberated areas. In February 2017, fighting erupted in the southern city of Aden when members of Hadi’s Presidential Guard – backed by Saudi Arabia – attempted to seize the airport from UAE-aligned forces. In January 2018, fighting broke out again in Aden when UAE-backed secessionists encircled the presidential palace.
The latest flashpoint in Saudi-UAE rivalry is Socotra island. The island had previously been used to carry out military exercises; however, in late April 2018, UAE cargo aircraft flew an assortment of tanks, armoured vehicles, and artillery to the island, and UAE troops discharged Yemeni customs, security, and intelligence officers.
Hadi’s government protested to the UN Security Council, calling the UAE’s conduct an “unjustified military action”. Protests also broke out across the island for and against the UAE military presence; the UAE partially withdrew its forces after Saudi Arabia intervened to mediate. UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash told Jane’s , “We have no higher ambitions in Yemen or Socotra, our only goal is to bring Yemen back to the hands of Yemenis.”
These tensions disrupted lines of supply and staging areas for military operations in Yemen. Although the UAE and Saudi Arabia subsequently took responsibility for different fronts, the likelihood of similar clashes in the future is high. Neighbouring Oman views this rivalry with trepidation, and is concerned by the expanded UAE military presence – including the construction of military bases – in Mahra, on Oman’s western border. It has begun to make overtures to tribal leaders in eastern Yemen, which presages its increasing involvement in the conflict and further complicates the scenario.
Pockets of Stability
Some areas have avoided such infighting by establishing robust institutions of local governance, most notably Marib and Hadramawt provinces. Marib was a major front line in the battle against the Houthis until the end of 2015; however, fighting on the front has abated and Marib has become a safe haven for Yemeni internally displaced persons (IDPs), with more than 1.5 million people having entered the province.
When the Houthis defeated former president Saleh in December, many of those fleeing Sana’a passed through Marib. Business has also returned to the area; when Jane’s visited the province in March, many new construction projects were under way. Oil exports are restarting and an official in the office of Marib Governor Sultan al-Arada told Jane’s in late May that the region’s airport was due to open later in the year.
Jane’s assesses that Marib’s relative security is largely due to Arada’s success in building a broad coalition of local tribes to oppose the Houthis. In other areas, the Houthis have won over or subdued tribal leaders, but in Marib tribal units have been organised into an effective, inclusive security force. AQAP argues that tribal leaders are corrupt; the success of tribal leadership in Marib has challenged this narrative.
Although the area is ostensibly loyal to Hadi, Arada is responsible for most of the consequential decisions in the administrative, military, and economic spheres, as it is his relationship with tribal leaders that has ensured stability. The concentration of Yemeni military bases in Marib has not translated into influence for Hadi, and although Saudi Arabia has provided considerable funding for efforts in Marib, it wields little control.
Marib highlights a process that is occurring across the areas outside Houthi control: the resurrection of tribal governance. “Marib sets a strong example of local governance where others have failed. Al-Arada has used his political and tribal influence to create a certain level of stability in Marib,” said Majed Al-Madhaji, director of the Sana’a Research Centre, speaking to Jane’s on 29 May 2018. Although this has a stabilising effect, it also exacerbates fragmentation. It is likely that any future national dialogue will involve more local actors, with primarily local concerns.
The reassertion of tribal dominance is visible in Al Bayda province, where Houthi, AQAP, and Islamic State militants are active. When Jane’s visited the province in March, it was clear that Islamic State militants had begun to imitate AQAP’s tactics of coercing local tribes to enable them to operate in the latter’s territory.
Al Bayda is on the front line of Western counter-terrorism efforts in Yemen, conducted primarily by the US with the support of the UAE. This has included ground raids, but has mainly been conducted by UAV strikes. Although the majority of these are executed by the US, the UAE has expanded its use of armed UAVs. These strikes have killed civilians in 2018, and any local stability brought about by the strengthening of tribal sheikhs will be vulnerable in the face of external intervention.
Local tribesmen are also conducting their own operations in an attempt to expel the Houthis from their lands, with some success. However, the tribes lack the financial and material support afforded to Marib province. “We are anomalies,” Mohammed Al-Jabri, a tribal commander on the Qayfa front in Al Bayda, told Jane’s , “We don’t fall in line with any political party in Yemen, that’s why they don’t fund us.”
However, the scope of tribal operations is limited to securing the tribes' traditional lands. It is therefore unlikely that AQAP will be expelled entirely, or that Al Bayda’s tribes will put pressure on the Houthis if the latter leave the area.
The Houthis face pressure on all sides. To the north, Saudi forces are advancing towards the Houthi heartland, while the UAE pushes towards Hodeidah on the western coast. Marib offers a staging area for the Houthis’ enemies to the east of Sana’a. In the south, fighting in Taiz has reached a costly stalemate, and the Houthis lack the freedom of movement to redeploy their forces.
Much of the Houthis’ administrative infrastructure was disrupted when former president Saleh’s allies fled. However, the Houthis appear determined to fight, as evidenced by the outcome of an apparent power struggle within the movement.
In the wake of former president Saleh’s death, Jane’s understands that a disagreement emerged between the Houthi old guard, which advocated a negotiated solution, and a puritanical new generation seeking to continue the fight. Samad, having close ties to Saleh’s family, was potentially a credible negotiator; his death marked the final defeat of those advocating for peace talks. This assessment aligns with public statements by members of the group. Moreover, during the dispute, several prominent Houthis, including founders of the movement such as Mohammed Ayesh and Mohammed Azzan, went into exile.
Mahdi al-Mashat – Samad’s successor as president of the Supreme Political Council – previously ran the office of Abdel Malik al-Houthi, leader of the Houthi movement. Mashat is closely linked to the Lebanese Shia militant group Hizbullah. Sources in Yemen, speaking to Jane’s on the condition of anonymity, said that Mashat was partly responsible for Hizbullah’s provision of media and communications training to the Houthis, and that he was likely to attempt to expand this relationship.
However, Jane’s judges that the Houthi leadership has little interest in Iran’s political project – of which Hizbullah is a part – and shares few ideological or religious convictions with Tehran. It is unlikely that Iran has substantial influence over the Houthis’ decision-making.
Iran may not seek such influence. “Yemen was an opportunity, not a plan,” Nasser Hadian, professor of Political Science at the University of Tehran and a close friend of Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, told Jane’s on 18 March 2018. “Iranian involvement is minimal,” Hadian told Jane’s , “but the aim is to do to Saudi Arabia what they are doing to us in Syria. They must learn that hostile actions against us have consequences. There must be a cost to what they do.” Members of the Iranian Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC), speaking to Jane’s in interviews that took place in Iraq and Europe and on the condition of anonymity, similarly argued that Yemen was not a vital interest but rather an effective means of tying down Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, UK security officials told Jane’s in March that Iran had publicised its own involvement, and claimed responsibility for smuggling that was in fact carried out by others. The officials noted that with major and ongoing financial commitments to Syria and in Iraq – and with financial trouble at home – Iran was seeking the appearance of involvement in Yemen to pin the Saudis into the conflict, while committing as few financial resources as possible.
As the Houthis come under increasing pressure, the need to show that they are inflicting harm on the enemy will intensify, and ballistic missile strikes against Saudi Arabia are one of the few avenues available. Before his death, Samad announced that 2018 would be “the year of the missile”.
However, it is likely that the pace of missile fire is not sustainable. Previous long-range missiles launched by the Houthis – with some hitting the Saudi capital Riyadh – were manufactured by combining components from several stockpiled missile systems. These stocks are diminishing, and with few components for long-range attacks there may be a shift towards more short-range strikes across the border targeting the Saudi port of Jizan.
The security and stability outlook for Yemen for the next six months is negative. None of the parties involved in the conflict will be interested in a negotiated solution until a decisive military objective is met, whether in Hodeidah or Saada. The emergence of divisions among rival armed groups following the death of Saleh has not prevented the consolidation of territorial control in the north and south of the country.
However, the fragmentation of armed groups means that any negotiation must encompass many more parties, with diverging interests. A noticeable change in the front lines – most obviously, a push from the north of Hardh and Kitaf, in Saada province, combined with the loss of Hodeidah – could force the Houthis to negotiate. In the past, economic strangulation has allowed the group to blame hardship on the Saudi-led coalition, and has in fact strengthened its support in Sana’a.
In the long term, despite the ongoing conflict, the trend is towards regional stabilisation. The Houthis – no longer able to rely on Saleh’s family – are being forced into a governance role. In Marib, local government has created a haven for IDPs, enabling aid to reach displaced Yemenis. AQAP and the Islamic State are increasingly contained in Al Bayda province. Deconfliction between Saudi Arabia and the UAE has proven difficult, and there are several points of tension, but so far both parties have managed to de-escalate confrontations between their proxies.
The upshot of these developments is the emergence of political structures that have local legitimacy, or at least authority. Although this is a barrier to the start of negotiations, it means that those negotiating will be better able to implement any future deal. The National Dialogue Conference, which concluded in 2014, had proposed the federalisation of Yemen; that programme foundered over the details, but the conditions for a new framework may now be coalescing from the ground up.
Originally Published by Jane's Intelligence Review, on 5 June 2018.
An airstrike that killed a senior Houthi leader shows that the Emirates is growing more assertive in its military operations.
By Rawan Shaif and Jack Watling
On Monday evening, video began circulating online of a black-and-white drone feed monitoring a two-car convoy driving north along Road 45, east of Hodeidah, Yemen. In the video, the drone’s target — a blue Toyota Land Cruiser — turns onto a side street. Seconds later, it is struck by a Chinese-made Blue Arrow 7 missile.
The driver of the second vehicle slams on the brakes. He and his companions rush to the lead car, now in flames. “Identify the target,” an officer orders, monitoring the drone feed from an operations room in the United Arab Emirates. The survivors start to move away from the wreckage. “Kill them! Kill the people!”
At 2:02 p.m., the second strike hits. The command room erupts in applause. “Good hit guys, good hit! We got this son of a dog’s car,” an officer cheers in footage reviewed by Foreign Policy.
Saleh al-Samad, the president of the Houthis’ Supreme Political Council, was killed in the drone strike, delivering the deathblow to an already stagnant Yemeni peace process. Samad was regarded as a conciliatory figure within the Houthi rebellion and had sought to reach a negotiated settlement to Yemen’s civil war. He was scheduled to meet with Martin Griffiths, the U.N. special envoy for Yemen, on April 28.
The exact date of the strike is still unclear, however. The Houthis announced Samad’s death on Monday, and several Western news outlets reported that he was killed the prior Thursday. But Samad was reportedly at a funeral on Saturday, indicating the strike that killed him likely took place on Sunday, April 22.
Samad’s death comes as Yemen enters its fourth year of civil war. In 2014, the Houthis took control of the country’s northwest, including the capital, Sanaa. The following year, a Saudi-led coalition, which includes the UAE, started military operations to unseat the Houthis in a conflict that has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths in Yemen.
The strike, which is the first successful assassination of a senior figure in the Houthi rebellion, highlights the growing military assertiveness of the UAE. Since 2016, the Gulf nation has been trying to establish itself as the West’s primary counterterrorism partner in the region while simultaneously bolstering its military capabilities through arms deals with Beijing.
“They are working incredibly hard to be the new entrepreneurial contractor in the region, both politically and militarily,” says Farea al-Muslimi, an associate fellow at Chatham House. “They no longer want to remain on the sidelines. Yemen is one of the battles where they think they can improve both their credentials and capabilities.”
The UAE has invested heavily in military aid to coalition-backed forces in Yemen. It has constructed various security units, seen as proxy forces by the United Nations, to fight al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on the southern coast. Now, the UAE is directing its efforts to support Tareq Saleh, the nephew of late President Ali Abdullah Saleh who is leading an offensive to retake the strategic port of Hodeidah from the Houthis.
“In recent days, we had been closely monitoring the Houthi leadership’s movements,” says a senior commander of the coalition’s ground forces advancing from the port of Mokha.
The strike that killed Samad was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s offensive on Hodeidah. The Saudi ambassador to the United States, Khalid bin Salman, even tweeted about the strike earlier this week, claiming it was in retaliation for Houthi missile attacks. Samad “vowed [a] couple of weeks ago to make 2018 the ‘year of ballistic missiles on KSA,'” the Saudi ambassador wrote. “The response to him was a direct hit under the leadership of HRH Minister of Defense.”
Though the Saudis have claimed credit for the strike, the intelligence for the attack was routed through Tareq Saleh’s staff to the UAE, which also carried out the operation.
The UAE did not respond to a request for official comment.
Former President Saleh — who was ousted in 2011 during the Arab Spring — waged 10 years of war against the Zaydi revivalist Houthi insurgency attempting to overthrow the government. In 2014, Saleh entered into a partnership with the Houthis as an efficient means of undermining his successor, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. However, late last year, after a fierce battle in the capital, the alliance of convenience broke down resulting in Saleh’s death.
Tareq Saleh and his men were forced to seek refuge in the UAE, bringing with them a deep knowledge of the Houthis inner workings.
“We still maintain a talking relationship with some of the Houthis. … Sometimes, our agendas align,” explains a senior coalition commander overseeing operations to retake Hodeidah.
Samad’s death was not an isolated incident. A number of key Houthi figures, who shared close ties to former President Saleh, have been killed recently. Mansour al-Saidi, the commander of Houthi naval forces; Salah al-Sharqai, his deputy; Nasser al-Qaubari, the major general of Houthi missile forces; and Fares Manea, a notorious arms dealer and former governor of Saada, were all killed in airstrikes over the last week.
Samad’s death is likely to exacerbate existing divisions within the Houthi movement, which he had played an important role in holding together. Older members of the movement had been arguing that it was time to negotiate and secure a favorable deal. Samad was seen as a credible negotiator because of his strong links with the Saleh family. Most of the movement’s leadership, in contrast, believed defeating the former president proved the merits of a more aggressive approach.
The strike against Samad shows that the UAE is also seeking to continue the military struggle and is testing new capabilities. Last year, China sold to the UAE the Wing Loong II, an armed unmanned aerial vehicle equivalent to the American MQ-9 Reaper.
“The UAE has been forward leaning in their deployment of drones,” says Justin Bronk, a research fellow specializing in air power at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “We’ve seen that they are willing to use them in politically sensitive areas, such as Libya, where they have conducted strikes.”
Bronk says Samad was killed by a high-explosive warhead that is consistent with an AKD-10, a Chinese-made equivalent of the American Hellfire missile.
This is part of a broader UAE policy of expanding influence throughout the region, with several military bases along the southern coast of Yemen; a larger air base in Assab, Eritrea; and plans for defense cooperation with Somalia. The UAE has also been building relations with Sudan and Senegal, both of which have sent troops to Yemen’s front lines.
“They’re spending a lot to expand their military,” notes a NATO intelligence officer, speaking on condition of anonymity. Washington has given Saudi Arabia and the UAE “carte blanche to expand.”
The UAE’s growing role aligns with U.S. counterterrorism interests. Yemen has seen a dramatic rise in the number of drone strikes since the start of President Donald Trump’s administration. The United States also conducts its own strikes and raids, including a widely reported commando raid in Bayda province in January 2017. That raid, which led to the death of U.S. Navy SEAL William Owens and at least 16 Yemeni civilians, was regarded as a failure.
Having the UAE conduct raids directly relieves both the pressure on, and risk to, American forces, and so the United States has eagerly bolstered Emirati efforts. Washington has also been involved in Yemen’s civil war, providing arms and training to Saudi and Emirati forces as well as direct logistical and intelligence support for the coalition air campaign, including in-flight refueling for coalition aircraft.
But the Samad strike also presents a challenge to Western governments. The United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, and others have strongly backed the U.N. peace process. As Saudi Arabia and the UAE diversify their sources of equipment, they also increase their ability to operate unilaterally in ways that may diverge from U.S. interests.
“We are following reports of Samad’s death last week, which the Saudi military had publicly taken responsibility for,” a U.S. National Security Council spokesperson told FP.
The United States had previously refused to export armed drones to the UAE, but this month the Trump administration released a new set of policies, loosening previous restrictions. “We will facilitate international partners’ access to U.S. [unmanned aerial systems] in situations where it will enhance those partners’ security and their ability to advance shared security or counterterrorism objectives,” the policy reads. With the UAE already operating Chinese drones in combat missions, and with an expanding Chinese presence in Djibouti, the Gulf could become a new front in the U.S. struggle for influence with Beijing.
In the meantime, the UAE’s nascent war is having consequences on the ground in Yemen. Samad’s successor, Mahdi al-Mashat, who was appointed Monday, is a hard-liner with extensive links to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Ali al-Bukhaiti, a former senior Houthi figure now based in Amman, Jordan, claims that there is growing puritanism within the movement. “Mashat is the polar opposite of his predecessor: He is tactless, threatens, doesn’t compromise,” he says. “He does not build relationships — he damages them.”
Originally published on Foreign Policy.
For the past three years, Iraq has been held together by one common goal: the defeat of the Islamic State. In pursuit of this objective, the United States provided air support to Iranian proxies; Baghdad made concessions to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over disputed oil exports; and political parties contained protests against rampant corruption to preserve a sense of unity. This balancing of tensions, a consensus of sorts, saved Iraq. Then, on December 9, Haider al-Abadi, the country’s prime minister, gave a televised address in which he declared “final victory” over ISIS—effectively ending the consensus. Now, the question is whether he can tackle the myriad challenges rushing to greet him.
Pessimism would seem appropriate. The KRG has already made one bid for independence. Splinter groups from ISIS and local militias are conducting attacks and assassinations in Diyala province. Insurgency is flaring across the disputed territories, a strip of land running from Khanaqin on the Iranian border through Kirkuk which is contested between the KRG and Baghdad. Organized crime is strangling Basra, and Iraq’s anti-corruption commission is struggling to enforce its writ. Then there is the matter of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of volunteer formations and militias, some of which are beholden to Iran. In 2015, Abadi ordered that all of its units be placed under his office’s command in the fight against ISIS. The PMF’s existence stands as a pointed reminder that Abadi’s government is a long way from establishing unqualified control of Iraq. And yet his decision to declare the end of the war against ISIS must be seen as a sign of confidence.
Such confidence was difficult to imagine when Abadi was appointed as Nouri al-Maliki’s replacement following the rout of Iraqi forces from Mosul in 2014. Abadi was a compromise candidate, respected for his competence but viewed as unthreatening to Baghdad’s political factions. As the former British diplomat Gerard Russell put it, Abadi “would probably not have been put forward without the approval of the Americans and the Iranians.”
But Abadi has shown a knack for getting things done. In the summer of 2014, for instance, after Iraqi forces evacuated the area around Kirkuk in their retreat from Mosul, Kurdish peshmerga occupied the disputed territories and laid claim to the country’s largest oil field. Baghdad had no choice but to accept the situation, and came to an agreement with the KRG to divide oil revenues. The subsequent Kurdish defense of these territories against ISIS allowed the Iraqi army to regroup and eventually turn the tide.
When the KRG announced its intention to hold an independence referendum this past summer, the oil-sharing agreement unraveled. For the cash-starved KRG, independence would be financially viable only with the oil revenues. Abadi, meanwhile, needed every dollar available to finance reconstruction. Hardliners in Baghdad and the KRG agitated for military action over what both deemed their sovereign wealth. War seemed likely.
While Abadi did resort to military force, he did so with restraint, targeting key oil installations and strategic military positions. It proved a success. After the operation, Kurdish leaders came to the negotiating table—an outcome thanks largely to Abadi’s deal making. In Baghdad, he convinced hardliners that Kurdish independence could be halted with limited military action, because of the KRG’s reliance on the Kirkuk oil field. Abadi also won the acquiescence of Iraq’s Shia clerical establishment by arguing that the campaign was a defensive one, aimed narrowly at recovering the country’s sovereign assets and upholding the constitution after the Supreme Court declared the Kurdish referendum unconstitutional. The crucial element, however, was Abadi’s outreach to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two main Kurdish parties that make up the KRG, whose forces were defending Kirkuk. Faced with superior Iraqi forces and trusting in Abadi’s assurances that the operation would be a limited one, the PUK made a tactical withdrawal.
Abadi took a serious risk in allowing Iran-aligned PMF units to play a central role in the operation. One unit, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, conducted over 6,000 attacks on coalition forces during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. According to Human Rights Watch, it has since been responsible for massacres of Sunnis. The KRG was quick to point to these PMF units as proof that Abadi was giving Iran free reign, potentially provoking U.S. objections. The following month, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded that these units “go home.” If Abadi avoided blowback for the role these units played, it was because he was perceived as powerless to prevent it.
But Abadi’s control over the PMF is frequently underestimated. His handling of the PMF in Kirkuk may well portend a longer-term plan to strengthen his hold on the organization. During the fight for Mosul, he assigned specific PMF units to specific sectors—for instance, using units close to the government to block units like Asaib Ahl al-Haq from entering sensitive areas. But in Kirkuk, Abadi appeared to have enhanced, rather than restrained, the role of the Iranian proxies. In the 48 hours before the retaking of Kirkuk, several PMF units closely aligned with the Iraqi government were moved from their positions just south of Kirkuk to the front lines against ISIS on the country’s western border.
In this way, Abadi divided the supposedly “good” PMF—those valiant Iraqis fighting ISIS—from the “bad”—the rogue militias with foreign connections. While such a characterization is crude and simplistic, it presents Abadi as a leader able to confront the PMF. Many of his opponents have criticized him precisely because of the limited control he has previously exercised over the PMF.
“Disarming the PMF is the prime minister’s job; it is an institution that is controlled by him,” Hannan Fatlaawi, an Iraqi parliamentarian and an Abadi critic, told me. “When Abadi gives a clear instruction for the PMF, it must obey. Otherwise the government should take measures against them.”
However Abadi chooses to confront Iran’s proxies, Tehran’s response will be critical. There is a widespread assumption that Iran is determined to replicate the successes of Hezbollah in Lebanon across the Middle East. In Iraq, however, Iran’s involvement has likely peaked, increasing the odds that Abadi will come to an arrangement with Tehran. “Tehran’s objectives are divided,” the Royal United Services Institute’s Aniseh Tabrizi told me. “They want to mobilize forces to support the Syrian government, but they also want to defeat ISIS, and secure their border.”
As the fight against ISIS moves into a counter-insurgency phase, strengthening the Iraqi government advances Iran’s interests. Conversely, funding expensive militias in Iraq, at a time of budget constraints in Tehran, with protests against foreign intervention and widespread anger at the government’s poor relief effort after a recent earthquake, may not be seen as the best use of limited resources. “Ultimately Iran is interested in having a stable ally and neighbor,” Tabrizi said.
One plausible outcome is that Iran could move members of its Iraqi units to Syria, where they desperately need manpower, avoiding a clash with Abadi. Iraq, meanwhile, is charting a course friendly to but independent of Tehran; attempting to re-forge diplomatic and economic ties with Saudi Arabia, with the blessings of King Salman, the Iraqi government, and Iraq’s Shiite authorities.
This rapprochement provides an opening for Abadi’s opponents. In Iraq, many believe that Saudi Arabia supported ISIS, and there is considerable sympathy for the plight of the kingdom’s Shiite minority. And yet Fatlawi held her fire. “If Saudi Arabia has real good will towards Iraq, I will be happy to have a good relationship,” she said.
The biggest challenge facing Abadi, however, is internal. Taha al Tamimi, a former advisor to the governor of Basra and political advisor to the British government, said that corruption in Iraq extends to its senior-most politicians. Anti-corruption institutions have proved unable to confront senior political figures, but al Tamimi predicted this will change, and that there would be little opposition to serious corruption charges against former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, and some of his allies. Anti-corruption protests are expanding, and have led to the resignation of several local officials. “I will admit that I didn’t have much faith in Abadi in the beginning but he is dealing with sensitive issues very wisely.”
None of this will be easy. A settlement with the KRG remains uncertain. The diminution of rogue PMF units will not end militias, or the egregious treatment of civilians in liberated territories. High-profile anti-corruption cases will not eliminate the problem. Progress towards peace will be gradual and difficult. But after decades of relentless violence, peace remains possible.
This article was originally published by The Atlantic
This report was undertaken with support from the Pulitzer Center
The dilemma is that it needs money—and will inevitably lose some to corruption.
Workers rebulid a shop that was destroyed during fighting between Iraqi forces and Islamic state fighters in eastern Mosul, Iraq, on April 21, 2017 (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters).
On Sunday, Haider al-Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, visited Mosul to herald the success of his army’s nine-month struggle to recapture the city from the Islamic State. In a speech on state television the next day, he declared “the end and the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism which [ISIS] announced from Mosul.” Even as pockets of militants continue to hold out in the Old City, the government is now effectively in control of both East and West Mosul. The capture of the Great Mosque of al Nuri, which sits at the heart of the Old City, on the west bank of the Tigris river, was a symbolic victory, since it was from this mosque that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of Islamic State, declared the foundation of the caliphate.
But the mosque also represents the scale of the challenge now facing Iraq. Before its capture, ISIS fighters blew up its iconic leaning minaret— an act described by Abadi as “an official acknowledgment of defeat.” At its height, ISIS controlled 40 percent of Iraqi territory, terrorizing a population of 10 million. The recapture of that territory, with only the towns of Hawija and Tal Afar remaining in ISIS hands, has seen the displacement of 3 million people, and over 13,000 coalition airstrikes. Combined with ISIS’s penchant for systematically carpeting towns with IEDs, a vast swathe of Iraq, including the al-Nuri Mosque, lies in ruins.
Prior to falling to ISIS in June 2014, Mosul was a center for medium-sized Iraqi industries. The city hosted pharmaceutical factories, and an abundance of craftsmen who made furniture, instruments, leather goods, and textiles. ISIS repurposed many of the city’s workshops to produce IEDs. Consequently they have been devastated in the fighting. Mosul’s modern pharmaceuticals factory, for example, was bombed in 2016 by the coalition, after it was linked to the manufacture of chemical weapons by ISIS. The restoration of these industries is crucial to bringing the city back to life.
What emerges from the rubble will determine the future of Iraq. If the government fails to provide services and security from militias seeking revenge, the recapture of Mosul could simply set up the next round of Sunni insurgency. But if the government can lure investment and reignite Mosul’s local economy, then its liberation could mark a turning point from one of the darkest chapters in Iraq’s history.
Earlier this month, the Iraqi government held a conference in London that brought Iraqi and foreign business owners together with government officials and experts to discuss the opportunities and barriers to developing the country’s economy. “Now we need a Marshall Plan,” Ibrahim al Jaafari, Iraq’s foreign minister, declared in his opening remarks—a reference to America’s massive reconstruction program following World War II. He argued that such a plan wouldn’t just be sensible policy, but an obligation of the international community. “Over a hundred nationalities came to Iraq as terrorists. Iraq is fighting to protect itself and on behalf of the whole world,” he said.
Western officials are sympathetic, not least because a peace dividend, in which citizens in liberated areas feel the immediate benefits from the return of government control, is considered essential to stave off a resurgent Sunni uprising. “The danger is to win the war but lose the peace,” Greg Hands, Britain’s minister of state for trade and investment, said in response to Al Jaafari’s remarks.
While all parties seem to recognize that a lasting peace depends on the Iraqi government quickly establishing services in liberated areas, international aid and investment has been sparse. The UN has called for $985 million to provide for immediate humanitarian needs—not to finance reconstruction. So far, only $423.5 million has been pledged. Estimates of the cost of reconstruction vary widely, but Iraqi officials are discussing a plan that would cost around $100 billion—just over half the total cost of the Marshall Plan, adjusted for inflation, which supported the reconstruction of Western Europe.
The international community’s reluctance stems, in part, from its skepticism over Baghdad’s capacity to properly distribute the funds. The Marshall Plan saw extensive American oversight of the process, in order to ensure that funds were spent effectively, and in line with U.S. interests at the onset of the Cold War. In Iraq, security concerns prevent western officials from maintaining a sustained presence to oversee projects.
The Iraqi government is looking to fill the gap with private investment, both because this could help establish long-term business relationships with foreign countries, and because individual investors, eager to make money, will, theoretically, be careful to make sure their money is properly spent. Baghdad is seeking to promote partnerships between foreign companies and lenders, with Iraqi firms, to redevelop the country’s infrastructure. These efforts have been well received abroad. The United Kingdom has made some $12 billion dollars available to support private investment in Iraqi infrastructure, through U.K. Export Finance, its export credit agency. But private investment is not charity. “There is no question that we’re eager to support them,” Louis Taylor, head of the agency, said at a recent event with Iraqi business owners. “But we need projects that will bring a financial return.”
What worries British investors is that their potential business partners in Iraq have yet to provide sufficiently detailed proposals to convince them that they will make money. Ambiguous business proposals, investors fear, will allow money to be siphoned off to local officials. “The legal paperwork must be protected. We need to know who we are doing business with,” Raed Hanna, director of Mutual Finance, which supports investment projects in Iraq, explained to me.
One inconvenient, generally accepted truth, is that doing business in post-conflict territories and emerging markets necessitates some measure of corruption. Privately, business owners acknowledge that it simply is not possible to do business in Iraq without paying bribes. The country remains vulnerable to clientelism, in part because of the public sector’s dominance of the Iraqi business environment. The result is that political power often rests with whoever can provide his supporters with lucrative government contracts. All this contributed to Iraq coming in at 166 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s 2016 corruption index.
While it’s relatively easy for large companies in the oil and gas sector to factor the cost of corruption into their investments, the costs for investors in small-and-medium-sized businesses can be crippling. The costs of obtaining all the necessary permissions to set up the business may outweigh any potential profits, especially if a local official has a client who is a potential competitor. Yet manufacturing and medium-sized enterprises are the ones that have the capacity to deliver employment to liberated areas.
Iraq also needs private industry to flourish in order to expand its tax base and diversify the economy: The oil industry accounts for 99 percent of government revenues. Fluctuations in the price of oil cause huge fluctuations in the available funds for the budgets of government departments. At present, with oil below $45 per barrel, “Life has economically almost stopped. Our bureaucracy has taken much of our resources in order to waste them,” Sami al Araji, chairman of Iraq’s National Investment Commission, explained to me.
Al Araji believes that Iraq must diversify its economy, both to expand and broaden the job market, and also to provide a stable tax base. For this to happen, Baghdad needs to relinquish control of its monopolies. The government dominates the oil, energy, and service sectors through government-owned companies. In a bid to increase revenues, the state has often tried to compete aggressively with private firms, rather than support private sector growth. The Iraqi State Company for Land Transportation, for example, has doubled its profits since 2011, largely at the expense of private firms. “Not everything can be a part of mega projects. You have to have a private sector that is a productive element in society, not dependent upon government contracts,” al Araji said.
The growth of the small and medium-sized enterprises that Iraq needs, however, will only come with foreign investment. That’s because domestic banks are extremely risk-averse, and rarely lend money to local businesses. Often, they only offer loans to businesses that own their own land, and can offer it up as collateral—an unrealistic proposition for them, given that most don’t have the necessary capital. This leaves Iraqi businesses desperate for partnerships with foreign companies who can obtain capital.
Iraq’s rebuilding dilemma, then, is that, in order to rebuild, its small and medium-sized businesses must play a central role. But they require external investment, which will only arrive once investors are confident in the integrity of Iraqi institutions and the viability of projects. Getting to that stage depends on the Iraqi government embracing a radical program of privatization and economic reform, which, even during peacetime, would be ambitious.
Consider Iraq’s electrical sector. Generous subsidies drive down prices, leading to overconsumption by households, subjecting Iraqis to regular power outages. This, in turn, forces Iraqis to pay private diesel or petrol-powered generator firms. Prime Minister Abadi has sought to privatize parts of the energy sector and remove subsidies. In January, the Iraqi government signed a $1.4-billion deal with General Electric to expand its power supply and modernize the country’s gas-powered turbines. More controversially, the government is looking to reduce the provision of subsidized electricity, shifting Iraqis onto paid contracts. “It may be politically unpopular,” al Araji said, “but we have to stop subsidies.” The less the government spends on salaries and subsidies, the more it can spend on new infrastructure, and on the liberated territories like Mosul, which is currently without electricity.
Iraq therefore stands at a pivotal moment. There is potential for serious economic reform to drive reconstruction, and thereby build a pathway for stabilizing the liberated territories. There is also a serious possibility that bureaucratic paralysis and corruption will undermine reform, prevent investment from entering the liberated areas, and that, without jobs or services, insurgency will renew with a vengeance. For now, international investors and foreign governments are cautious, waiting to see whether the investment environment improves. In the meantime, Iraq’s future is in Iraqi hands.
This article was originally published on 11 July 2017 by The Atlantic.
The situation is developing rapidly, but here are the seven big takeaways from what we know so far.
Isabel Infantes / AFP
LONDON (Haaretz) - Doctors across the United Kingdom found themselves on the receiving end of a sophisticated cyberattack on Friday as computer systems in up to 40 organizations belonging to the National Health Service (NHS) fell victim to ransom-ware. Upon gaining access to a computer the attack would encrypt the device, requiring the user to pay a bitcoin (approximately $265 US Dollars) to be able to use any of the files on the computer. A message on the screen told users “if you don’t pay in 7 days you won’t be able to recover your files forever.”
In response the NHS shut down its computer network, leaving doctors without access to patient records or phones, or able carry out vital medical activities such as x-raying patients. The effect on health services extended far beyond the computers held ransom. “Everything seemed to be working, but we were told to shut down,” said a London based doctor. “I came from my surgery to the hospital in case they needed help triaging.”
The situation is developing rapidly, but here are the seven big takeaways from what we know so far.
The scale of vulnerability. This was not an attack targeting the NHS, but a global attack, which the Moscow based Kaspersky Labs estimates to have struck at least 45,000 times so far, affecting companies from FedEx to Spain’s Telefonica. The NHS, comprising a massive, complex, and old computer network, was simply a rich target. That such an attack could spread so quickly, through so many different organizations, underscores how vulnerable we are to cyberattack.
Update your systems. The reason the attack spread so quickly in large organizations is that it exploited a networking system for the Windows Operating System called SMB. The vulnerability has been fixed, if systems have been kept up to date. But in many large organizations, with thousands of devices, and old software that may not be updatable such as Windows XP, the vulnerability was not patched. This failure has legal ramifications. “Under the Data Protection Act 1998 there is an obligation to take appropriate organizational and technical measures to protect the data,” explained Mark Watts, head of the Commercial IT and Data Team at the London based law firm Bristows LLP. “The failure to patch software, or keep it up to date, or even the decision to run sensitive medical information on systems that are too old, could itself be a breach."
If it is decided that hospitals and doctors across the U.K. have failed to take appropriate measures, the costs of updating computer networks all over the country will be vast. Although organizations can take cost into consideration, in determining whether it is feasible to protect data, Watts noted that "there has been enforcement by the Information Commissioner where small businesses have been sloppy.”
Cyber proliferation. The evidence suggests that this attack was carried out by a criminal enterprise in pursuit of profit. But Eternal Blue, the penetration tool deployed in the attack appears to have been developed by America’s National Security Agency (NSA). The tool became public after a cyberattack against the NSA last year by a group calling themselves Shadow Brokers, who after trying to sell the software released it on the Internet. At present there is no substantive regulation of the development of cyber-weaponry, or robust measures to prevent their proliferation, especially into the hands of criminals and non-state actors.
Where are the criminals? The attack also exposes how difficult it is to find those responsible. “In cyberspace, authentication of the identity and location of an attacker is ordinarily difficult,” said Doctor Lucas Kello, Director of the Cyber Studies Programme at Oxford University. “In this case it may be impossible owing to the diffuse nature of the actions.”
The starting point in the investigation is to find where the attack got in, and then to trace where information was coming from, and going to, but “it is very difficult to pin down the point of entry,” explained Becky Pinkard, Vice President of Service Delivery and Intelligence at the US cyber firm Digital Shadows. In such an attack there are “thousands and thousands of events to find where they got in.” The other method is to track information travelling back to the hackers, by following the bitcoin payments.
One reason that we know the attacks around the world are by the same group is that the money is going to the same source. “The Bitcoin address associated with this attack on the NHS is the same as the Telefonica attack. Payments have been made,” Pinkard added.
We’re paying ransoms? The British Government has a long established policy not to pay ransoms. But what about the case of an NHS x-ray machine, needed for emergency surgery? And if a primary method of investigation is to follow the money back to the hackers, might paying up be the only way of catching them? That means the government paying criminals. The legal position here is unclear, and is going to need a lot more discussion.
It is only the beginning. The attack is unprecedented in scale, and it could bring unprecedented profits. If any data that has been ransomed is not backed up, it may be impossible to regain the data without paying the ransom. “Bad guys are watching this too,” noted Becky Pinkard; “watching how much money gets made. It will set the wheels spinning.” Cyber analysts are expecting to see an uptick in ransom-ware attacks, and are worried that more leaked government Cyber Weapons could soon be deployed. It will also take a long time to fix existing vulnerabilities.
And the stakes go up. “To-date, no cyber action has caused a loss of life,” noted Doctor Kello, whose forthcoming book The Virtual Weapon and International Order explores emerging cyber threats. “This may be the first to do so. At least, it reveals the real potential for cyberattacks to cause human death.” We are increasingly exposed to cyber threats, and yet policy responses are lagging far behind.
FIrst published on Haaretz.
Taking it, as Donald Trump has mused about doing, is not only illegal—it would tear the country apart.
On his first full day in office, Donald Trump stood before the CIA’s Memorial Wall, which commemorates the agency’s fallen officers, and railed against the media, boasted about the size of his inauguration-ceremony crowd, and took the opportunity to restate his conviction that “we should have kept the oil” in Iraq—a reference to America’s apparent failure to claim the country’s fossil fuels as its own following the 2003 invasion and subsequent war. “Maybe we’ll have another chance,” he mused, drawing laughter, reportedly from his own staffers in the room. But there is nothing amusing about Trump’s proposal, originally aired on the campaign trail and dismissed as something between a pipe dream and a war crime.
Trump’s nonchalant re-airing of the idea betrays a dangerous ignorance of Iraq’s petro-politics, which for years has both bound the country together and threatened to tear it apart. Petrodollars underpin the Iraqi economy, but as the country struggles to fund the war against the Islamic State, it has none to spare. Trump’s threat strikes at some of the most sensitive political fault lines in the country. And if he follows through, it may prove detrimental, not just to Iraq, but to two of Trump’s other stated policy objectives: defeating ISIS and supporting the Kurds.
Baghdad’s control of Iraq’s provinces is, in part, based on its custodianship of the country’s petrodollars, with the oil sector contributing up to 99 percent of government revenue. The war against ISIS, however, forced the government to divert huge sums of money to the army, as well as to the salaries of 110,000 fighters from the Popular Mobilization Forces in November, in a bid to rein in Shia paramilitary groups. This siphoned much-needed revenue from the provinces.
“We have not received any petrodollars from Baghdad since 2014. … Baghdad owes us hundreds of millions, and they owe Basra many times more,” Dr. Najmaldin Karim, governor of the northern Iraqi region of Kirkuk, told me. It is the same all over the country, as Nisayf Jasim al-Khattaby, president of the provincial council of the southern province of Karbala, explained. “We do not receive as much from the central government,” al-Khattaby said. “The main problem is the weak economy; the budget assigned to us is smaller than it should be.” As a result, Baghdad’s authority has fractured, as demands grow for federalization and the devolution of power to the provinces.
Petrodollars are particularly scarce in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. At the annual CWC Kurdistan-Iraq Oil and Gas Conference, held in London, a candid Qubad Talabany, the deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said the government’s monthly operational deficit was over $460 million by the beginning of 2016. Kurdish civil servants, and even the peshmerga, have gone without pay for months as the government has sought to slash salaries. One peshmerga commander told me he could barely afford to replace his men’s threadbare shirts. The KRG is also months behind on payments to the oil companies operating within its borders.
The economic outlook for the Kurds could improve this year, thanks in part to an oil deal struck with Baghdad in August 2016 that allows oil to be exported from the field in Kirkuk and splits the resulting revenues evenly between Baghdad and the KRG. When ISIS routed the Iraqi army from Mosul in 2014, Kurdish peshmerga moved to protect Kirkuk from the militants. In doing so, the fighters also took control of Iraq’s largest oil field. The ensuing dispute with Baghdad saw oil exports from the field stop completely, until last August’s oil sharing agreement.
But the deal was thrown into doubt by OPEC’s surprise decision last November to cut production in a bid to drive up sagging global oil prices. Iraq, as a member of OPEC, received a quota that capped its total exports, turning oil exports into a zero-sum game between Baghdad and Erbil. Now any increase in exports for Baghdad will come at Erbil’s expense, and with Baghdad desperately in need of money for reconstruction and security in territory liberated from ISIS, both sides are gearing up for a confrontation. “The basis for the good will created by the oil sharing agreement is quickly disappearing,” observed Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute.
If cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil broke down, disaster would ensue. The landlocked KRG depends on good relations with its neighbors in order to export oil. For the Kurdish economy to thrive, the oil must flow. “You can’t go independent when you’re bankrupt,” Talabany noted. A breakdown would also provide an opening for ISIS. “How do we prevent [ISIS] rebuilding itself under a new name?” asked Dr. Hanan al Fatlawi, an Iraqi member of parliament on the foreign affairs select committee. “We have to rebuild the trust between the components of Iraqi society.” Post-liberation reconstruction is expensive, as is providing security as communities attempt to reintegrate. “Security is paramount and without security you cannot go on,” Governor Karim said. All of this is dependent upon Iraqi petrodollars.
Catastrophe is avoidable, however. Dr. Ashdi Hawrami, the KRG’s Minister for natural resources, emphasized his commitment to cooperation with Baghdad. “There is no question that we will be having a dialogue and cooperation,” he said. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi will need to take a firm hand with the Kurds ahead of upcoming Iraqi elections, but he has a good relationship with the KRG. And all parties agree that a break in relations would spell mutual disaster.
It is into this delicate situation that Trump has pitched himself, without apparent regard to the consequences. That his threat to strip Iraq of its oil survived his transition into the White House demands careful consideration of what the proposal could actually entail. The U.S. military would not, as Trump has suggested, occupy Iraq to oversee the illegal extraction of crude from its oil fields, which are dispersed across the country. But in light of Trump’s other stated priorities that does not mean he will not move to try and extract money from Baghdad. He could seek to deliver on his suggestion that Washington should “reimburse” itself for some of the costs of its military operations in Iraq by negotiating Iraqi payments in crude for America’s substantial provision of arms, training and direct military assistance.
Or he could just push the Iraqi government to award favorable contracts to American companies like ExxonMobil, whose former CEO Rex Tillerson has just been confirmed as secretary of state. Tillerson’s previous escapades, of course, present a cautionary tale. Under Tillerson, ExxonMobil purchased oil rights to land blocks controlled by the KRG in 2011—a deal that directly challenged the authority of the Iraqi government and was partially responsible for an armed stand-off between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish peshmerga.
Tillerson’s record of aggressively asserting corporate interests into decidedly thorny diplomatic climates also reflects the lack of common purpose among Trump’s team. James Mattis, Trump’s secretary of defense, has a record of seeking to confront Iran’s growing influence in Baghdad. Destabilizing Iraq’s oil sector would weaken Baghdad’s hold on the country, thereby strengthening Iran’s position. Trump has established a reputation for letting his staff compete, rather than collaborate, and in Iraq this risks seeing the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom pursuing contradictory positions, just as tensions in Iraq reach their height.
What is indisputable is that for Trump to wade into this minefield demanding a cut would be destabilizing. It would, as Edmund Burke once described British efforts to recoup the costs of a foreign war from the people of the United States, be “to tax where no revenue is to be found,” and the result would be comparably volatile, destroying the KRG’s relations with its neighbors, stripping resources from Baghdad’s peace dividend and helping ISIS to prolong its insurgency.
Originally published in The Atlantic.
They’re essential to the fight against ISIS. But what happens when the Islamic State is gone?
KARBALA, Iraq—Along the road joining the cities of Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq is a line of placards, attached at 50-meter intervals to every lamppost. Each one shows the face of a volunteer killed in the fight against the Islamic State. But these are not the faces of Iraqi army soldiers. They are the faces of fighters from the Hash’d al Shaabi, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) created via fatwa by the senior-most cleric in Shia Islam, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in response to the fall of Mosul in 2014. Sistani declared the fight against the Islamic State “a sacred defense,” and promised that “whoever of you sacrifices himself to defend his country and his family and their honor will be a martyr.”
Today, the PMF is estimated to boast over 60,000 fighters, contributing 35,000 men to the 90,000-strong force currently besieging Mosul. The PMF has played a key role in the attacks on Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baiji, and recently spearheaded the Iraqi advance on Tal Afar, just west of Mosul. But despite the PMF’s importance to the war effort, its status remains ambiguous. On November 26, the Iraqi government passed legislation making the PMF an official component of Iraq’s security forces, subject to military law, with equal status to the army. But two days later, a senior Iraqi MP told me that “the bill is what we’re working towards; it will take time.” Full integration, then, is still some way off.
Members of the PMF refer to theirs as a movement of national liberation, or as a religious crusade against evil. International media have described the group as a “mostly Iranian-backed coalition of Shia militias,” barely controlled by the Iraqi state. Neither description is entirely correct. The PMF itself embodies many of the fault lines of modern Iraq, divided between religious and national identities, state and non-state actors, and private and foreign interests. The 40 core units that make up the PMF range from the Abbas Division, controlled by Sistani but closely aligned with the government and trained by Iraq’s special forces; to the Peace Brigades, loyal to the Iraqi cleric and politician Moqtada al-Sadr; to the Badr Organization, an Iranian proxy militia. Roughly half of the PMF units were formed out of pre-existing Iraqi militias, some of which fought against coalition forces after the 2003 invasion. The rest are new formations, mobilized by Sistani or Iraqi politicians.
The PMF is, itself, a process—a struggle for control over a myriad of armed groups. It could become the basis for a new Iraqi army, with much stronger ties to the communities it is supposed to protect; in Shia areas at least, the PMF are held in higher regard than the army. Or its ascension could lead Iraqi politics into an era of warlordism, in which party factions wield private armies. The worst outcome would see Iraq remain a battlefield, beset by proxies funded by Iran and Gulf countries.
The future of the PMF as an institution has massive implications Iraq. For many members of the PMF, the legitimacy of their struggle is derived from Sistani’s fatwa. If he withdraws it, and the units under his control demobilize, the PMF will be a set of Iranian proxies and political militias, officially part of the state, but not under its control. Alternatively, if corruption drives a wedge between the Iraqi government and Iraq’s clerical establishment, the loyalty of PMF units raised by the Shia shrines could be tested.
At the center of the Iraqi government’s efforts to control the PMF sits the imposing, white-haired Faleh al-Fayad, Iraq’s national security adviser. He is technically in command of the PMF; in practice, he plans operations through negotiations with PMF commanders. He sees Iraq caught in a struggle against global jihad, with sectarianism stoked by outside actors. “Some rich Gulf countries are using the measures of their wealth to give legitimacy to these groups," he said, noting the quality of the Islamic State’s equipment. “The money supporting Daesh stinks of oil. … Daesh exported oil through Turkey,” he suggested, using another name for ISIS. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are all part of the coalition fighting ISIS, but concerns have been raised over the flow of funds from individuals in these countries to groups in Syria. Furthermore, weapons supplied to groups in Syria have often found their way into the hands of ISIS. Al-Fayad claimed this was deliberate. But when asked about Iran’s influence on Iraq, he grew cautious. “We are allies of the U.S. and have good relations with Iran,” he said. “After the fall of Mosul, Iran supported us. It is in Iran’s interest to fight Daesh, which is why they support [the PMF]. We have American and NATO advisers. We accept everyone’s help.”
What al-Fayad didn’t say is that five of the largest units in the PMF receive money, support, and direction from Iran. Kata'ib Hezbollah and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq were significant Iranian proxies during the coalition occupation of Iraq, and are now major units in the PMF, while Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada has openly fought in Syria for the Assad government. The Badr Organization, perhaps the most prominent Iranian proxy, is commanded by Hadi al-Amiri, who fought for Iran in the Iran-Iraq war. Amiri is a close friend of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for covert warfare beyond Iran’s borders. For al-Fayad to openly criticize Tehran could impair his ability to direct those units.
But despite Iran’s machinations, Iraq does retain some control of the PMF. When I spoke to Lahur Talabany, the outspoken head of Kurdistan’s Zanyari intelligence service, about the planning process for the Mosul operation, he said, “You can’t stop the Shia militia taking part” in operations, but “you can give them zones of responsibility,” so that their actions assist the Iraqi army. The PMF, in his view, can be contained, if not controlled.
This process of negotiated cooperation was very much in evidence as PMF units moved toward Tal Afar in late October. The original plan had been to mostly encircle Mosul in a horseshoe, leaving ISIS militants an avenue for escape. The Badr Organization’s al-Amiri had other ideas, bringing intense pressure on the Iraqi government to allow his forces to advance on Tal Afar, and close Mosul’s encirclement. The Iraqis conceded, and the PMF spearheaded the capture of Tal Afar’s airfield, supported by the Iraqi air force.
The mounting concern now, according to British and Iraqi intelligence officers, is that Iran’s interest in Tal Afar had less to do with the town itself than with the highway running westwards across the Syrian border. Al-Amiri himself has weathered suspicions of harboring ties to Syria. In 2013, U.S. General James Mattis, Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of defense, accused al-Amiri of facilitating the movement of weapons to Syria during his time as Iraq’s minister of transportation, a post he left in 2014; al-Amiri denied those allegations. Meanwhile, the presence of Iraqi militias in Syria, including in the final assault on Aleppo this week, has been widely reported. The Badr Organization and other Iranian proxies now have troops traversing Iraq from Diyala province, through Salah ad-Din and Kirkuk provinces, to Ninevah Province and the road into Syria.
“What Iran wants to do with these units is limited. Their main interest is Syria, and the unit commanders have their own motives,” Tom Hardie-Forsyth, the former chairman of NATO’s Critical Infrastructure Protection Committee, and an advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government, explained. A senior State Department official concurred, noting that Iran’s primary interests in Iraq are economic. Iran also wants to ensure that Iraq never becomes powerful enough to pose a threat, as it did under Saddam.
Iran is not the only power with influence within the PMF either. Iraq’s holy shrines, which are controlled by Sistani, set up three of the best-trained and equipped units of the PMF: the Imam Ali Brigade, Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, and Abbas Division. Their officers are largely nationalists, mirroring Sistani, who is supportive of the Iraqi state. But his religious authority gives the shrines significant, competing political clout: It was Sistani’s loss of confidence in former Prime Minister Maliki that forced him from office.
The shrines also strongly oppose foreign interference in Iraq, and, unlike Faleh al-Fayad, are unafraid of criticizing Iran. The shrines have significant theological disagreements with Iran’s religious leaders, especially over the proper relationship between clerics and the state, with Sistani arguing that religious leaders must remain moral counselors, rather than political leaders in their own right.
Shortly after the shrine units were established, they were offered foreign assistance, including arms and training, from Iran. “We directed them to give the weapons to the Iraqi army to distribute to us,” Sheikh Maitham al-Zaidi, commander of the Abbas Division, told me. “Other countries should respect the sovereignty of Iraq and deal with the Iraqi government so weapons don’t go to the wrong hands.”
Sistani has directed the shrines’ units to work closely with the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. “These are the good Hash’d. We can work with them,” a senior Iraqi officer noted. For those who serve in these units, like Adil Talib, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s army who now oversees logistical operations for the Ali al-Akhbar Brigade, “the Brigade fights for Iraq. It is a national struggle. … We laugh at the name militia. There is no difference between us and the army.” Yet in spite of the shrines’ cooperation with the Iraqi military, differences remain between the two groups. And when they arise, the shrine units listen to Sistani. “We follow orders from Sistani, we don’t just carry his name,” Sheikh al-Zaidi said.
For now, the shrines’ biggest disagreement with the Iraqi government is over the PMF’s future. The shrines supported the PMF law of November 26, and have encouraged the government to bring the PMF under the control of the state. However, if Sistani demobilizes the shrine units, the balance of power within the PMF will swing toward those units currently beyond government control. If members of Iran’s proxies continue to fight in Syria, while the PMF are an official component of Iraq’s security forces, this creates a foreign policy dilemma for the Iraqi government.
“Our existence is temporary. Our vision as the Abbas Division is to follow the fatwa and we will go back to our jobs after victory,” al-Zaidi said. “The other vision comes from the government. They see the Hash’d as an official body of the state. My personal view is that we leave when Grand Ayatollah Sistani calls for us to go home.”
Perhaps, then, it is better to treat the PMF less as institution, and more as a struggle for influence that will decide Iraq’s future, long after ISIS is defeated.
First Published in The Atlantic, 22 December 2016.
Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of an offensive to retake the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State militant group on 17 October 2016. Within hours, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi army units were advancing on villages surrounding Iraq’s second-largest city, although hopes that the Islamic State would withdraw without a fight soon evaporated. The militants made use of burning pits of oil-soaked tyres, improvised explosive devices (IEDs), vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs), and underground tunnels across Mosul, and shot civilians trying to flee the fighting.
According to Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) commander Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, speaking at a press conference in the Kurdish capital of Erbil on 19 October, Mosul was being defended by 6,000 Islamic State fighters. The first stage of the operation will be to capture the hills and villages overlooking Mosul and to clear a route to the city of IEDs. The push into the city will be led by ISOF and the Iraqi federal police.
Falah Mustafa Bakir, minister of foreign affairs of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), speaking at a roundtable attended by IHS Jane’s on 12 October, made clear that the Peshmerga would hold the outskirts of Mosul, but would not enter the city unless units from Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – especially a number of Iranian-backed militias – began to do so. Baghdad’s control over these forces varies from unit to unit, but planners hoped that assigning PMF units zones of responsibility outside Mosul would keep those units out of the city.
Iraqi military and Western intelligence sources expected the east of the city to be re-taken within weeks. The west of the city, with a population more invested in the Islamic State’s survival, was expected to take two to three months. A concurrent operation was also set to begin south of Mosul to capture the town of Hawija. Its launch had been delayed to allow for the build-up of Sunni tribal fighters trained by the Peshmerga, which, along with the most reliable units of the PMF, notably the Al-Abbas Division, were poised to begin their assault.
The timeframe is uncertain, but the outcome is not. Iraq is finally in a position to drive the Islamic State out of its last strongholds. However, the real difficulties will only begin once Mosul has been recaptured. “It is the end of a chapter, and the beginning of a new chapter,” said Bakir. “We don’t want to lose the peace the day after.”
From a humanitarian and financial crisis to sectarian neighbourhood violence and a renewed insurgency, Iraq will face a range of challenges when Mosul is retaken. Moreover, the unity imposed on Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Erbil by the common enemy of the Islamic State will evaporate, limiting capacity to address those challenges.
Sectarianism and insurgency
“The shape of Mosul after it is captured will depend on the settlement between Baghdad and Erbil over its governance,” Michael Stephens, Middle East fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told IHS Jane’s on 19 October. “A lot will be determined by the behaviour of people on the ground.”
There is a range of proposals, from dividing the city into ethnic zones to the reinstatement of an appointed governor. With no prior agreement in place, the establishment of a clear division of responsibilities for security and humanitarian support will be slow.
Meanwhile, the security outlook is negative. The UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Iraq told the Associated Press on 17 October that up to 700,000 of Mosul’s civilian inhabitants were expected to flee over the course of the fighting. Iraqi intelligence officers, speaking to IHS Jane’s in early October, said that they expected Islamic State fighters to try to pass themselves off as refugees. That risk is likely to slow down the provision of aid and the processing of displaced civilians.
“Mosul is complicated, with Sunnis, Shia, Yazidis, Christians, Turkmen, [and] Kurds,” said Lahur Talabany, head of the KRG’s Zanyari intelligence service and commander of the Peshmerga’s counter-terrorism group, at a roundtable attended by IHS Jane’s on 7 October. “We can push Daesh [the Islamic State] out of the city, but what happens after? I’m not very optimistic.”
The most likely outcome is that order will be maintained by sectarian neighbourhood watches, as has occurred in Diyala, a governorate in eastern Iraq, northeast of Baghdad. Yet the experience of Diyala suggests that such a model could be highly problematic.
“My son was going to university in Diyala,” Abdul Rahman, a magazine editor, told IHS Jane’s in Karbala on 28 September. “Then he started to receive death threats and I decided that he had to come home. Diyala is mixed between Sunnis and Shias, and they are killing each other. Outsiders don’t have a community in the city, and so they don’t have anyone to protect them.”
Mosul is facing an offensive by Sunni tribal fighters trained by Turkey, the Peshmerga, and Iraqi security forces, who may carry out reprisals against suspected collaborators, Islamic State insurgents, and Shia PMF. A report by Human Rights Watch following the battle of Fallujah in June 2016 found that PMF and federal police members had carried out atrocities. The threat of similar acts in Mosul will likely prompt the formation of neighbourhood watches.
“Sectarianism is required to some extent for governance,” explained Iraqi national security advisor Faleh al-Fayad at a roundtable attended by IHS Jane’s on 14 September, reflecting the reality that Mosul’s population would feel safest protected by members of their own communities.
With law and order only partially overseen by the state, a large number of internally displaced people (IDPs), and multiple military units operating under separate commands, it could be easy for Islamic State insurgents to move out of Mosul. A corridor of instability runs from Mosul through Hawija and
into Diyala province, and the activities of Islamic State militants could be supported by sympathisers. “We find people inside the intelligence, security organisations, and local government who are with Daesh,” said Fayad.
Far from a pause in the fighting, the fall of Mosul will lead to an increase in VBIED attacks and insurgent attacks throughout Iraq. Such a development was already foreshadowed on 21 October, when Islamic State militants – possibly from sleeper cells, or who had earlier left Mosul disguised as refugees – launched multiple dawn attacks on government buildings in Kirkuk and a power station to the north of the city, killing at least 99 people. Such attacks in territories of disputed control will also raise tensions over who is responsible for security and could lead to stand-offs between Iraqi forces and the Peshmerga, especially around Kirkuk, whose status is disputed by the central Iraqi government and the KRG.
During the advance of the Islamic State towards Baghdad in 2014, the Peshmerga moved into a band of territory traversing the provinces of Ninawa, Kirkuk, Salah Al-Din, and Diyala to protect the population. The Peshmerga also seized a number of oil fields and the city of Kirkuk.
Kurdish politicians are unequivocal that they will not withdraw from these territories, arguing that the failure of the Iraqi army to defend the population leaves the Peshmerga with a responsibility to remain.
Furthermore, a referendum on whether Kirkuk should become a part of the KRG was scheduled for 2007 but never held. The KRG believes that holding the territory will ensure that the referendum occurs. There would also be electoral consequences in withdrawing, which, according to a Kurdish minister speaking to IHS Jane’s in early October, amounted to “political suicide”.
The position inside Kurdistan will greatly limit the KRG’s willingness to negotiate over the disputed territories. Both main Kurdish parties – the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – face growing protests among their supporters over the mismanagement of the economy that has left Kurdish civil servants unpaid for more than six months. Oil in the Kirkuk field and the city of Kirkuk itself – a major economic centre – will therefore be crucial for the Kurdish government.
Internal divisions are also being exacerbated due to the president of Kurdistan extending his term of office because of the conflict with the Islamic State. By agreement, he must give way to the PUK at the end of the conflict.
The disputed territories provide a vital bloc of the PUK’s electoral support to justify their holding the presidency. Fears of possible fighting between the PUK and KDP, in the event of a dispute over the transition of power, are plausible but unlikely. “They will do everything in their power to prevent it,” explained RUSI’s Stephens, adding that Peshmerga units aligned with both parties have indicated that they would not participate in any clashes.
Tom Hardie-Forsyth, a former British official and an adviser to the KRG, told IHS Jane’s on 19 October 2016 that the last time the KDP were in a position to hold on to power, with the PUK divided, “they let it go for the good of the country. If they hadn’t and the PUK broke up, it could have been the end of Kurdistan”.
It is more likely that there could be clashes with Iraqi units in the disputed territories. Calls by the KDP for a referendum on Kurdish independence were a concern to Baghdad even before the PUK took over one of Iraq’s major economic centres. Hardliners in Baghdad will push the government to adopt a tough negotiating position, and there is a danger of units loosely controlled by Baghdad clashing with the Peshmerga, especially militia groups such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq.
Iran’s attitude will be crucial in preventing a confrontation. “The PUK have been grateful when Iran has tried to reduce tensions around Kirkuk,” said Stephens.
As Iran has worked to lessen tensions around Kirkuk, Turkey’s involvement in the Mosul operation has alarmed Baghdad and Erbil alike. This was exacerbated by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s public references on 17 October 2016 to historic Turkish claims on Mosul. According to Hardie-Forsyth, “The Turks want to have a say over what happens to Mosul ... They will want to extract what they can from the negotiations after the city is retaken.”
Turkish involvement does not appear to be benign. “Some neighbouring countries are intervening in Iraq’s internal affairs, such as Turkey,” said Iraqi minister of foreign affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari during a speech in London on 14 September 2016. “We don’t want them to interfere.”
Fayad went further, saying, “Turkey plays the same role with ISIS [the Islamic State] as Pakistan did with Al-Qaeda [sic]”, potentially alluding to Islamabad’s ambivalent relationship with certain Islamist militants. A Kurdish intelligence officer, speaking to IHS Jane’s in early October, claimed to have evidence to support this accusation. Turkey is clearly pushing for concessions, with its place in negotiations ensured by the presence of its troops – including 3,000 Sunni tribesmen – and could act as a spoiler on progress, given the hostility emanating from Baghdad. That in turn would slow the settlement of Mosul’s governance and contribute to ongoing instability.
In contrast, Iran appears to be satisfied with its current position in Iraq. It has control of a number of armed militias, is able to move men and materiel through Iraq to Syria, and Iranian businesses are expanding their interests in southern Iraq and Kurdistan. Iran is more likely to work to reduce tensions between the KRG and Baghdad to maintain its favourable position. However, the status quo also facilitates crime, corruption, and insurgency.
The PMF are not all Iranian-backed units, nor are they all accurately described as militia. The Ali al-Akbar Brigade and Al-Abbas Divisions were set up, funded, and run by the Shia holy shrines controlled by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. These units have worked closely with the government and are reliable and effective. However, the shrines are funding them for a specific purpose – to defeat the Islamic State. Once this is completed, the prevailing view among the shrines’ leadership is that they should be demobilised.
“If we defeat Daesh, most youth should go to their homes and back to their jobs,” Sheikh Ali al-Najafi, son of Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, told IHS Jane’s on 27 September 2016. “The best can join the army if they wish, and it would make sense for them to do so.”
The commander of the Al-Abbas Division, who is also a member of the board of directors of the Al-Abbas Shrine, Sheikh Maitham al-Zaidi, told IHS Jane’s on 28 September that he hoped that “the Hashd [al-Shabi] will become a social organisation to ensure employment and look after the wounded”, after the defeat of the Islamic State.
Members of these units have a mixed range of ambitions, but they all include moving on. Mohsen Kadhum, a 22-year-old infantryman in the Al-Abbas Division, told IHS Jane’s on 28 September that upon demobilisation, “I want to volunteer to stay in the army when Daesh is defeated. Some of my comrades also want to remain as soldiers. Many want to go home”. However, the government will not make the decision about whether these units remain.
“We came by a fatwa [religious ruling], and we will leave by a fatwa,” Adil Talib, overseer of logistical operations for the Ali al-Akbar Brigade, told IHS Jane’s in Karbala on 26 September.
The government has no substantive plan for handling the demobilisation process or reintegrating thousands of young men into the economy. “Once the war is over we will see the economy pick up because it will free up a lot of the budget,” suggested Nisayf Jasim al-Khattaby, the president of Karbala’s provincial council, speaking to IHS Jane’s on 26 September. This overlooks the costs of reconstruction and fighting the insurgency.
The security forces are unlikely to be able to integrate all of the demobilised PMF units, because they are funded by non-state organisations and the government’s budget will be focused on recruiting local fighters in Hawija, Mosul, and other liberated territories. The result will be large groups of trained but unemployed soldiers, and this will likely contribute to a rise in crime. Moreover, some limited weapons stockpiles are being buried near PMF bases in southern Iraq, and there is a danger that soldiers will move between PMF units that continue to operate, but pursuing new political agendas.
A political settlement in Baghdad that gives Sunni communities confidence that their interests are protected and resolves ongoing disputes over territory between the government in Baghdad and the KRG is essential for Iraq’s long-term stability. “There needs to be political dialogue with Baghdad,” said Bakir. “We cannot go on like this ... We need to find a political settlement.”
Iraqi prime minister Abadi may be competent, but he is politically weak. His position is further imperilled by former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ambitions to return to power are currently constrained by his responsibility for the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State in 2014. However, with the Islamic State defeated, Maliki’s political and economic leverage in southern Iraq will become a significant disruptive factor in Abadi’s capacity to negotiate.
A fundamental problem in any such negotiation is that many in the south do not believe that there is a problem with the status quo. “Our view towards the new Iraq, which is majority Shia, is that it is inclusive,” explained Sheikh Ali. “The speaker of parliament holds a lot of power, and he is Sunni. The minister of defence is Sunni. Our sons are giving blood to liberate Sunni land.”
Jaafari claimed that there was no Sunni-Shia problem, saying, “The governors in territories taken by ISIS are Sunni, as are most of their victims.”
However, if the power-holders in the current government enter negotiations believing that the status quo is fair, it is unlikely that they would be prepared to make concessions. Shia reluctance to hand power to Sunni communities is clear, given their experience under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and their majority status. Moreover, there appears to be a greater propensity for Sunni communities to view the conflict as sectarian than for Shia communities.
“We must talk to each other, Shia, Sunni, Christian, even non-believers,” said Sayid Saleh al-Hakeem, nephew of Grand Ayatollah Saeed al-Hakeem, speaking to IHS Jane’s on 27 September. “Sunnis follow four imams who died centuries ago ... Therefore their scholarship has not remained as relevant to today’s problems.” The risk is that such an attitude, combined with the fierce political rivalries that limit the government’s room for manoeuvre, will either prevent a political settlement, or cause negotiations to carry on indefinitely.
The breadth and depth of Iraq’s challenges are daunting and involve overlapping economic, political, security, and humanitarian crises. While the Islamic State has clearly been the top priority, the secondary problems are far harder to prioritise, and consequently do not provide the same impetus towards unity.
Clear political leadership, aimed at establishing a working political settlement in Baghdad and a detailed plan for the governance of Mosul, could pre-empt many of the challenges that will arise after Mosul’s fall. Iraqi officials stress the importance of post-Mosul planning at every opportunity, but the reality is, as an Iraqi minister admitted to IHS Jane’s in early October, that “there is no serious planning”.
In the absence of a coherent strategy, the security situation is likely to deteriorate, further weakening Abadi’s position, while Shia hardliners will limit the government’s room to manoeuvre in resolving the fate of the disputed territories. Kurdistan is also likely to become deeply divided, and in the absence of clear political leadership, Iraq will continue to face a long period of insecurity and instability.
First Published by IHS Jane's Intelligence Review, 1 November 2016
As the embattled country wages war on ISIS in the north, its future may be decided by clerics in the south.
KARBALA, Iraq—The inner sanctum of the Imam Hussein Shrine shines day and night, illuminated by jeweled chandeliers. Their light is reflected in the mirrored domes of the roof, and gleams across the gold-framed marble walls. At the center of the shrine, a stream of pilgrims presses against the gilded grating that surrounds the sarcophagus of Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. In 680 AD, Imam Hussein was killed in the Battle of Karbala fighting the forces of the Umayyad caliph, his death cementing Sunni political dominance across the Islamic world. The battle was the point of no return in the schism between Sunni and Shia Islam, becoming the basis for the Shiites’ distinct rituals and identity, at the center of which is Hussein’s sacrifice.
Arbaeen, the pilgrimage to commemorate Imam Hussein’s death, sees devotees walk to Karbala from the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Basra, and even from Iran. It has more than doubled in size since 2008, growing to over 20 million people in 2015. “Imam Hussein fought against tyranny with his life,” Sheikh Maitham al-Zaidi, commander of the Abbas Division, a unit of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, explained to me on a visit to Iraq this fall. “As a symbol he inspires our men and they wish to give their souls to protect Iraq.” Owing to the ever-present threat of car bombs, only vehicles from the shrines or the police can enter the holy district in Karbala; so I traveled with officials from the shrine authorities.
With the growth of Arbaeen come donations and business opportunities that give the ayatollahs revenue to rival that of the provincial government. Half an hour’s drive from the Hussein Shrine, one of the three major Shia shrines in southern Iraq, is a camp housing around 7,500 internally displaced people (IDPs), who abandoned their homes ahead of ISIS’s devastating march through northwestern Iraq two years ago. For a time, the shrines and the government shared the cost of supporting the province’s 200,000 IDPs, as Nisayf Jasim al-Khattaby, the president of Karbala’s provincial council, explained. But the burden has shifted dramatically. Whereas in 2015 the government provided IDPs across the province with medical care, housing, and water sanitation, “this year we were dependent on the donations of wealthy families and businessmen to support the IDPs because of the fall in the oil price” and the costs of fighting ISIS, al-Khattaby said. “Their support [now] comes under the management of the shrines.”
To cover the shortfall in the government’s budget, the shrines drew on gifts from around the world, donations from the ever-rising number of pilgrims, and a vast investment portfolio. “We have houses, with fans and air conditioning in the summer, and heaters in the winter. We have food,” said Shihab Jassam Mohammed, who fled Fallujah in January 2014 with 11 members of his family. “All is supplied by the shrines.”
Today, Iraqi Shiites dominate the country’s political, social, and economic spheres—an indirect result of the U.S. invasion in 2003, which unseated the Sunni dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Under Saddam, Shia clerics were suppressed, driven into exile, or imprisoned; in 1991, Saddam’s soldiers stormed and looted the Imam Hussein Shrine. As Shiites’ fortunes have risen, so, too, has the prominence of the three shrines.
Now, Shia clerics control the richest institutions in Iraq. Beyond supporting the region’s IDPs and running a vast network of charitable organizations, including schools, hospitals, and orphanages, the shrines have poured money into building infrastructure and investing in businesses. Shrine officials told me their printing presses produce the Iraqi Ministry of Education’s textbooks. A construction company, owned by the shrines, not only works on charitable projects, but paves roads and competes for contracts to build airports. In a concrete sense, the shrines have begun to assume the functions of the state.
Perhaps the clearest manifestation of the shrines’ ascendancy has been the formation of the Popular Mobilization Forces, a parallel army composed largely of Shia volunteers brought into the Iraqi military under a 2014 fatwa issued by 86-year-old Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the senior-most cleric in Shia Islam. Although Sistani does not directly control all of the approximately 40 units that constitute the PMF, each of the three shrines sponsors and manages its own unit. The Abbas Division, currently battling the Islamic State, is one such unit. Its commanders told me that it boasts over 5,000 infantrymen trained by Iraq’s special forces, and is supported by engineers, a logistical corps, armored units with over 80 tanks, and a reserve of approximately 44,000 trained personnel.
How the shrines invest their money, and who they are perceived to support, has political consequences. That, in turn, is transforming how the ayatollahs understand their own role in Iraqi society. Under the leadership of Sistani and his predecessor, Grand Ayatollah al-Khoei, Iraq’s Shia clerics have, for decades, regarded themselves as moral counselors, offering guidance in private to those that seek it, while evading the direct glare of the political spotlight. But there is a growing popular call for them to take a stand against a faltering government perceived to be ineffective and endemically corrupt. “There is an increasing demand for the Grand Ayatollah to intervene,” said Abdul Rahman, an editor at the Shrine’s magazine Hussein Revivalism, “but they don’t understand the role of the Grand Ayatollah, which is guidance.”
Corruption is undoubtedly one of Iraq’s foremost challenges. Iraq was ranked 161 out of 168 countries in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. From the pervasive culture of bribery, to nepotism in government contracts, to fake companies that allowed tax officials to siphon off over $250 million dollars in tax rebates, Iraq’s government is riddled with graft. Even the Iraqi security forces’ collapse to ISIS can, in part, be traced back to a series of scams in which commanders kept soldiers on the books that had been dismissed, and pocketed their salaries. Troops that existed on paper were nowhere to be found on the battlefield. Moreover, the prevailing belief that politicians continue to channel government contracts to their friends—a process that disproportionately benefits Shiites—both stoked resentment among Iraq’s Sunni minority before 2014, and will present a barrier to a political settlement after the expected liberation of the ISIS stronghold of Mosul.
The government’s response does little to instill confidence. “Parliament is subjected to problems as at the beginning for any other democracy,” said Ibrahim al-Jafaari, Iraq’s foreign minister, hardly doing justice to the seriousness of the problem. Al-Khattaby agreed that corruption remains a sizeable challenge for the Iraqi government, but feared that the way that it is portrayed will hamper efforts to stamp it out. “The media is covering for corrupt people and suggesting that society has been corrupted. This will create no trust in the government,” he said.
It is easy to see, then, why the shrines command such respect. Beyond their moral authority, they have proven to be effective. Mr. Hassan, who runs a mobile-phone shop in the bazaar near the Hussein Shrine, said that “we do not talk to the government. Government corruption raises prices throughout the economy. We talk to the shrines about our problems, and they listen.”
But Grand Ayatollah Sistani and his closest ally, Grand Ayatollah Sayid Mohammed Saeed al-Hakeem, say through spokesmen that they do not want to supplant the state. Instead, they want only to offer politicians private counsel on morality, as Sayid Riyadh al-Hakeem, Grand Ayatollah al-Hakeem’s son and spokesman, explained. “We suggest to military commanders that they prioritize their responsibility to protect civilians, but it is not for us to decide what weapons or tactics must be used on the battlefield,” al-Hakeem said. “Whatever decision is taken, it should be taken with the aim of protecting civilians.”
The issue of corruption, however, represents a unique challenge to this approach: In the eyes of many Iraqis, it is essentially a question of moral conduct, and not party politics. For this reason, many Iraqis like Dr. Zaid, a radiologist in Najaf, expect the shrines to take a stand. “Why, if Sistani can see the corruption, does he not speak out and say not to vote for bad people?” Dr. Zaid demanded to know. “One word from Sistani would change everything on the ground.”
Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s fall from power in 2014 clearly demonstrated the influence of the clerical authorities. When it became apparent that he did not have Sistani’s confidence, he was forced to step down. But if the Shia clerics saw it as their role to publicly denounce ministers or laws they deemed inconsistent with sharia, it would present a serious challenge to Iraqi democracy. Such a move would make a political settlement with Iraq’s Sunni communities nearly impossible, for instance. And it could further antagonize Saudi Arabia, which views the encroachment of Shia power as an existential threat. The kingdom has already proven its willingness to push back against Shia revivalism in Yemen, where it is waging a war against Houthi rebels.
While Sistani has not gone as far in addressing corruption as Zaid would like, he has not been entirely silent. “Once the laws are not respected, corruption is spread on earth, and those who have violated the laws are cursed,” Sistani’s representative Sayid Ahmed al-Safi declared from the pulpit of the Imam Hussein Shrine on September 30, in a sermon written by the Grand Ayatollah that emphasized respect for the law among elected officials. “If there are no controls life will turn to anarchy. … If humans do not respect their laws they are worse than animals,” al-Safi said.
Not all of the clerical authorities share Sistani and al-Hakeem’s stated view that the ayatollahs should steer clear of politics. Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi advocates wilayat al-faqih, or “The Guardianship of the Jurist,” by which the cleric becomes the supreme legal authority. Iran’s clerics practice the most extreme form of wilayat al-faqih. There, the supreme religious authority, Ayatollah Khamenei, is also the head of state, with executive power. None of the Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf advocate such a system. But where Sistani, like his predecessor, sees the clerics’ pronouncements on legal matters as advisory, two of his potential successors believe the clerics should speak with legal authority. “Grand Ayatollah al-Najafi believes in this principle. Grand Ayatollah al-Fayadh is also sympathetic to the idea,” said Sheikh Ali al-Najafi, the son of, and spokesman for, Grand Ayatollah al-Najafi.
“We believe that Allah put sharia law in place to deal with society, and it is eternal. … The state’s law supplements Sharia law,” al-Najafi explained. “Sometimes sharia law and the law of the state conflict. Our duty is to make clear that this [state law] does not align with sharia.”
Which direction the clerics turn will be decided by Sistani’s successor, who will be chosen by the Shia community from among the other three Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf. The selection process is opaque and slow, but is aimed at establishing a consensus as to which Grand Ayatollah has the largest following and the recognition of his peers. Of Sistani’s potential successors, al-Hakeem is currently believed to have the greatest support. “Shia follow a living Ayatollah who can update our interpretation of the law and respond to modern challenges,” Sayid Saleh al-Hakeem, another son of Grand Ayatollah al-Hakeem, said.
With the defeat of ISIS on the horizon, it may be that Iraq’s future will be determined in theological debates in Najaf. Ironically, the institutions that have done the most to prop up the Iraqi state may, in an attempt to restore the moral integrity of the government, be its undoing.
First published in The Atlantic.
Electoral fraud? No. But there are other ways Russia’s hackers and propaganda outlets are likely to meddle in the results of the presidential vote.
A woman at a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Dan Goldman/AP
Speaking to journalists on her campaign plane above Illinois, Hillary Clinton said on Monday that she is “really concerned about the credible reports about Russian government interference in our elections.”
Russia’s digital espionage became a major campaign issue after Russian hackers broke into the Democratic National Committee’s server and released emails that caused a scandal on the first day of the Democratic National Convention. Since then a Russian hacking group has boasted of stealing hacking tools from the National Security Agency, and most recently has demonstrated that it can access voter registries on electoral computers, potentially allowing for false identities to be added to the register.
Combined with revelations that Russian hackers have been falsifying hacked documents to discredit their domestic opponents, the threat is being taken seriously.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has written to the FBI about fears that Russia may attempt “to falsify official election results.” This week it was announced that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is coordinating an investigation into Russia’s activities.
But there are good reasons to doubt that Russia intends to commit electoral fraud in the United States. Firstly, all of these hacks were quite easily linked to Russia by investigators, and while Russian hackers could do more to hide their tracks, these high-profile hacks have caused U.S. intelligence agencies to be on high alert. It is therefore difficult to see what Russia stands to gain by trying to directly tamper with the vote, given the risk of getting caught, and the serious damage this would do to its reputation. There is however a more plausible explanation for the spate of hacks.
“The aim is to sow distrust in our institutions and to undermine the idea of liberal democracy,” explained Peter Pomeranzev, who spent a decade working in Russian television before leading the Beyond Propaganda research project at the London-based Legatum Institute. He believes the hacks are part of a broader propaganda campaign.
“The Russians don’t put boundaries around psychological operations, the media, hacking — they see it all as connected, as tools they can use when needed.”
Russian online propaganda is often derided as crude. The Olginauts, named after the village of Olgino, north of St Petersburg where the St Petersburg Internet Research Agency set up its first office block for the production of online disinformation, have received plenty of media attention. They have evolved from hounding Putin’s domestic critics, to promoting anti-Ukrainian stories, to their recent incarnation as pro-Trump conservatives in the United States. But so far they have not been widely associated with the hacks.
At this Pomeranzev shakes his head, “they can work together when they need to.”
This was demonstrated on September 11, 2014 when Russia’s Olginauts fabricated a scare over a chemical leak in Louisiana. They supported this false news with doctored screenshots supposedly from CNN and fully functioning clones of websites of Louisiana media — all built to suggest that the disaster was being covered on major websites.
There are good reasons to believe that the electoral hacks are similarly designed to sow distrust and panic, to erode people’s confidence in the process, rather than to commit fraud. The hack of the Democratic National Committee, for example, released emails that suggested the DNC had prejudiced the Democratic Primary in favor of Hillary Clinton. This reinforced the view, already advocated by some on the far left of the party, that the system was rigged against their candidate Bernie Sanders.
The hack on the electoral computers achieves a similar function. Republican Nominee Donald Trump has for months been warning that the election could be rigged, and even started to organize “election observers” to ensure that there was no tampering at polling stations.
There were previously few reports of electoral fraud, but the Russian hack confirms that it is possible on a large scale, and gives credibility to those who already feared that it could happen. Combined with fake conservative accounts increasing the coverage of these stories on news websites through comments and shares, confidence in the electoral process is tarnished.
It would not be surprising if on election day ‘irregularities’ at polling stations, highlighted by Trump’s election observers, are given disproportionate attention by Kremlin-affiliated news organizations Russia Today and Sputnik International, amplified by the Olginauts. This precise tactic was carried out in the United Kingdom during the Scottish independence referendum. When it became clear that the Scottish Nationalists had lost the vote to leave Britain, Russian ‘electoral observers’ began to cite irregularities in the count, and the story ran on Russia Today . Most people in Scotland did not believe these reports, but for those who already thought there might be an “establishment stitch up” it confirmed their fears. Russian officials are still cited in the Scottish press on the subject.
All of this raises the question of what is to be done. It goes without saying that the intelligence services must be vigilant to ensure that the vote is not tampered with, but a purely security-minded response could be counter- productive. The FBI can reassure everyone that Russia did not meddle with the vote, but if the point of Russia’s hack was to show that manipulation of the ballot was possible, then such reassurances will not convince those who believe that the system is rigged from within. That Trump is applauded by a significant portion of the American electorate when he makes such claims indicates that there is a broader problem of trust, which Russian propaganda is exploiting, and magnifying, but did not create.
Nor does it seem likely that challenging Russian propaganda directly will reach out to those who have lost faith in the electoral process. Evidence from Eastern Europe suggests that challenging propaganda narratives directly can legitimize them. Maxim Eristavi, founder of the Russian and English newsrooms at Ukraine’s Hromadske, notes how “unfortunately for so many news organizations what they do is just follow what Russia says and try to fact- check it or to produce a counter-story.”
Eristavi argues that this approach both legitimizes the idea that there is “another side to the story” that isn’t being told, and risks speaking to an echo chamber. “There is a lot of empirical evidence showing that propaganda does not convince people to change their mind. Propaganda destroys the middle ground, so you lose the room for debate and for building bridges and then you can enter the area to manipulate opinions in a way that wouldn’t be possible if you had a civilized debate.”
In Ukraine where society is bitterly divided, Eristavi has worked to try and bridge the gap between communities, and to rebuild trust with Russian speakers in Eastern Ukraine, by pioneering independent reporting that addresses their concerns. There is evidence to suggest that his approach is working, as Hromadske has built up audiences across Ukraine, and in Russia itself. It also provides an example of what can be achieved by reaching out to disillusioned communities.
Trust in institutions in the United States is far higher than in Ukraine, but among particular constituencies it is waning , fuelled by the collapse of local reporting, and a growing distance between communities and sources of information, as highlighted by the Pew Research Center. Efforts to address propaganda are likely to be most effective if they address the underlying concerns within these communities that make them likely to believe propaganda in the first place. Without these steps, the effectiveness of Russia’s propaganda efforts is likely to grow.
“Ultimately you would hope,” said Pomeranzev, “that Russian propaganda prompts us to build a stronger democracy.”
First published on Haaretz.
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.