An Iraqi Electrical Engineer vs. the Islamic State

Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Ibadi has a lot on his plate before he can even think about tackling Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his Islamist forces.

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, July 2014.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, July 2014.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The price of Kalashnikov rifles has jumped by tens of percentage points in recent weeks in the weapons stores of Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region. They now cost between $1,500-$1,700 apiece, compared to $700-$800 before the invasion of northern Iraq by Islamic State forces in June.

The price of bullets has also soared, to $3 a bullet (up from $1.50), and demand is huge. “We feel threatened and the enemy is nearer to us than ever before,” say young Kurdish men in interviews with journalists.

Many of them are now volunteering for the Peshmerga, the Kurdish army that is suddenly being forced – without much success – to deal with a type of combat it hasn’t faced for decades.

Their withdrawal from several towns and villages in the Kurdish region that have been taken over by Islamist forces, and the failure to protect the Yazidi minority, has led to a wave of heavy criticism on the preparedness of the Kurdish army and the ability of its soldiers – who are equipped with obsolete weapons – to bring about a military coup.

The prestige of the Kurdish force, which succeeded in fighting against the forces of the late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, is now being tested even in the eyes of its soldiers and commanders.

Although the United States hastened to send shipments of new weapons to the Kurds and to reinforce them with about 300 military advisers – after more than a decade in which the Kurdish soldiers focused mainly on building checkpoints and checking civilians and vehicles – the Kurds’ complacency is starting to become evident.

About 200,000 Kurdish fighters are registered among the Peshmerga forces: Some of them are retirees; some lack combat experience; many are engaged in military activity on a part-time basis, receiving about $500 a month. But the main problem is that the Kurdish army is not yet a completely organic force, since parts of it are still split between tribal loyalty and ethnic unity.

The process of merging the Peshmerga actually began a few years ago, but every leadership – that of the region’s president, Masoud Barzani, and that of Jalal Talabani, who stopped serving as the president after a stroke in 2012 – still reserves the elite units for itself, while the joint units are composed of less skilled soldiers.

Still, there is no doubt that the Kurdish soldiers are demonstrating the determination to fight, and far more courage than the Iraqi soldiers who immediately fled their posts when Islamic State forces took over the northern city of Mosul in June.

In any case, the hope that the Kurds themselves will be able to get rid of the Islamist invaders is exaggerated. Without the addition of Iraqi forces, and, mainly, without massive mobilization of the Sunni tribes that are concentrated in the western part of the country, the Islamic State – which is becoming increasingly established in Iraq – will have no rival of equal strength.

Although the horrors being perpetrated by Islamic State fighters against the inhabitants of the occupied cities – beheadings, blowing up of mosques, selling women as sex slaves and a systematic extermination of the Yazidi minority – have momentarily spurred the U.S. administration and the French government to action, they are not ready (as yet) to send in ground forces.

The plan to set up security areas or to send a rescue force to the region of Sinjar, where thousands of Yazidis and other refugees are stuck, has apparently been shelved. The “fact-finding” mission sent by the Pentagon reached the conclusion that the situation is not as terrible as described.

The great powers and the countries in the region, as well as the citizens of Iraq, are now pinning their hopes on the appointment of Haider al-Ibadi as prime minister. Ibadi is not a military leader or a diplomatic strategist. He lived in London for decades after completing his doctoral studies in electrical engineering at the University of Manchester, returning to Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Ibadi, a leading activist in the Dawa party – the party of previous prime minister Nouri al-Maliki – is primarily an experienced politician who served as a minister in Maliki’s government, and apparently is also acceptable to other Shi’ite parties that supported his appointment.

The goal that united the Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish parties was achieved, and Maliki, who turned out to be a political dictator, failed to be elected to a third term as prime minister. Even his own party realized that if it wanted to retain power, it had to get rid of him.

Iran was of the same opinion. Although during his two terms Iran supported him, it did not conceal its satisfaction when Iraq’s Kurdish president, Fouad Massoum, asked Ibadi to form the government.

Although Iranian President Hassan Rohani didn’t send a letter of congratulations, the secretary general of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Samhani, expressed his hope that Ibadi will be able to stabilize the country.

Like Iran, the U.S. administration also spent three months meddling among Iraqi politicians in order to prevent the appointment of Maliki, as did the influential Shi’ite cleric Ali al-Sistani, who, in a published letter, urged the election of a prime minister who would represent all of the country’s ethnic groups. That, of course, does not describe Maliki.

But the election of Ibadi still doesn’t guarantee an effective battle against the Islamic State, or a victory. The leaders of the Sunni tribes, on whom the next stage of the battle is expected to rely, made it clear that they are willing to fight against the Islamic State, but first they want to see a political and economic plan that will ensure their participation in the government.

The committee established by Maliki a year ago, as a demonstration of his willingness to reconcile with the Sunnis – who constitute about a third of the population – listed dozens of Sunni demands.

They include the release of prisoners; the reinstatement of officials who worked for the regime during Saddam’s reign; the payment of salaries to members of the Sunni militias who fought Al-Qaida; a fair share of ministerial portfolios; a proper distribution of development budgets; and the cancellation of the Accountability and Justice Act, that was designed to sift out members of the Ba’ath party – where Sunnis were in the majority – from the government administration and the army.

The Sunnis, who have already proven their ability to defeat Al-Qaida, got tired of promises during Maliki’s presidency. After it became clear that his regime was only reinforcing their exclusion, siccing the army on them and arresting their followers, and that none of the committee’s promises were being kept, they now want to first see achievements for themselves before mobilizing against the Islamic State.

Ibadi is aware of these demands and knows he must carry out a comprehensive reorganization, both in the administration and the army, in order to be able to meet at least some of them.

But the Sunnis aren’t the only group with demands. The Kurds are demanding an oil and gas law that will arrange the sales of the oil that is located in Kurdish territory, leading to a lifting of the international boycott against its purchase; they want official recognition that the city of Kirkuk, which they took over last month, belongs to the Kurdish region; they are demanding payment for the Peshmerga soldiers from the state coffers; and an orderly and ongoing transfer of 17 percent of the government revenues to the coffers of the Kurdish region.

Ibadi is busy, meanwhile, with consultations for forming a government. At the same time, he has already appointed a committee for conducting negotiations with representatives of the Sunnis and the Kurds, so that in the near future he will have a government and military structure that will be able to embark on an organized war against the Islamic State.

Ibadi even announced that he is willing to conduct a dialogue with the armed militias that are operating alongside the Islamic State forces, but not with the Islamic State itself and not with former Ba’ath members.

But Ibadi’s public support still doesn’t guarantee that his negotiations with the Kurdish and Sunni minorities will be successful, since their success means that several members of the administration with power and status will have to give up their positions.

In addition, even if Ibadi is able to overcome the political hurdle successfully, there remains a great deal of work to rehabilitate the Iraqi army, which proved its ineptness against the Islamist forces.

Given this, it looks as though Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – the leader of the Islamic State, who already controls five oil fields in Iraq, the large Mosul Dam and about 40 percent of the country’s wheat reserves – still has enough time to become established and strengthen his forces before he has to confront an Iraqi offensive.

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