March 20, 2017

Iraqi Prime Minister al-'Abadi in Washington - some realities

My quick readout of the Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-'Abadi visit to Washington and his meeting with President Donald Trump.

While the current media coverage of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has shifted to the fighting in Syria, the major battle continues to be the Iraqi campaign to defeat the Islamist group in the city of Mosul.

The Iraqi security forces - Army, Air Force, police, and special operations units, as well as several Iranian-backed Shi'a militias - have generally acquitted themselves well in the fighting. We all remember the Iraqi Army's dismal performance against ISIS in June 2014, when the Army collapsed as the group stormed into northern Iraq from Syria and began a lightning military campaign south down the Tigris Valley, and west into the Euphrates Valley.

Now, two years later, the Iraqis have reconstituted their forces with massive American support, and are on the verge of retaking the iconic city back from ISIS. Although Iraqi political leaders committed to having the city back under Iraqi control by the end of 2016, it was obvious to virtually all military analysts that it would take longer. I believe that by the end of April, they will have retaken the entire city.

That's the good news.

Here are some military realities that tend to get little media coverage. ISIS will be defeated in Mosul - the city is surrounded and isolated. It has taken some time to achieve that goal - I thought the Iraqis should have done that before launching the assault into the city. There is no escape route for the thousands of ISIS fighters now trapped in a portion of the right/west bank of the city.

While that is a good military position, it does not portend well for the thousands of Iraqi civilians trapped in Mosul with the remaining ISIS fighters. Unfortunately, they will be used as human shields in the street-by-street, house-by-house fighting over the next few weeks. It is a sad reality that the Iraqi and coalition forces can try to minimize, but by no means avoid.

After Mosul is liberated, ISIS will not be defeated in Iraq. There are still pockets of ISIS control, including a substantial area to the west of Mosul near Tal'afar towards the Syrian border. There is another stronghold in the Hawaijah area southwest of the city of Kirkuk, and several areas in al-Anbar province in the Euphrates Valley on the Syrian border.

Once the Iraqi security forces secure Mosul, they will address these remaining pockets and reduce them one by one. That said, the ISIS leadership is not stupid - they can read the handwriting on the wall.

As the group began to suffer militarily over the last year, it began returning to its roots as an insurgency. There has been a major uptick in suicide bombings in Shi'a areas in the Baghdad area. A major face-to-face and online recruiting effort is underway to re-create what was originally known as al-Qa'idah in Iraq.

It is unknown if they will succeed or not, but surprisingly, their message still resonates among Iraqi Sunnis who believe they will never be treated equitably by what they perceive is an Iranian-influenced Shi'a-dominated government in Baghdad.

There are political realities as well - again not widely reported.

A new round of elections is scheduled for September of this year - the voting might well be the end of Prime Minister al-'Abadi's government. The two major threats to his continued leadership are the radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki. In my opinion, either - especially al-Sadr - would be a disaster for Iraq, U.S.-Iraqi relations, and American foreign policy in the region.

Muqtada al-Sadr is a virulently anti-American Shi'a cleric from a respected family (in Shi'a circles) with a huge following among rank and file Shi'a. His militia has American blood on his hands - he is lucky to be alive.

Should the worst case happen and al-Sadr becomes the new prime minister, there will be no American military presence in the country - possibly no diplomatic relations between Baghdad and Washington - and Iraq will likely spiral into a Shi'a autocracy, making al-Sadr the poster boy for ISIS recruitment.

(Note: I have been highly critical of Muqtada al-Sadr since 2003, at one point advocating military action against him. My latest article is from last year: Iraq - Muqtada al-Sadr flexes his political muscles.)

An only slightly better scenario would be the return of Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister. Nuri al-Maliki, derisively known among his political enemies as nuri al-irani (Nuri the Iranian), would again be a puppet for the Iranian regime. It was Nuri al-Maliki - in concert with Barack Obama in what I believe was a colossal foreign policy blunder - who presided over the complete withdrawal of American troops from Iraq in 2011.

The result of the Obama - al-Maliki decision was the corruption and atrophy of the Iraqi Army, the resurgence of the almost-defeated al-Qa'idah in Iraq (AQI) terrorist group, the transformation of AQI into ISIS, and the mess that is the current geopolitical situation we now have in the region. Eight years of Nuri al-Maliki was more than enough.

The best option is the retention of Haydar al-'Abadi. Should the United States decide to try and meddle in someone else's election - a hot topic these days - we might want to support Prime Minister al-'Abadi.