Iraqi Mud and Political Quagmire Bog Down Battle for ISIS-held Mosul

Widespread corruption and budget problems make it hard for Iraqi government to fund fight against ISIS.

Iraqi soldiers hold a position on the frontline on the outskirts of Mahmour, to the south of Mosul, March 30, 2016.
AFP

Iraqi forces were stranded for hours in one of the villages south of Mosul this week, after an Islamic State sniper fired at them and wounded 10 soldiers. Some of the troops then decided to desert in the direction of the nearby Kurdish forces, while others chose to retreat.

The Kurds transferred the Iraqi deserters to an improvised base, took away their cellphones and placed them under heavy guard out of fear that they were really jihadists in disguise.

“The Iraqi army is incapable of fighting,” one of the Kurdish commanders told an Iraqi newspaper. “They remind me of the soldiers who fled Mosul in June 2014 when the jihadists captured the city.”

The Iraqi commanders sent to the Mosul area as part of the Al-Fatah operation – which is meant to serve as a prelude to the larger battle to liberate the city – admit the army is struggling to carry out its missions. The plan is for the Iraqi army to capture some 50 villages stretched out over 45 kilometers (28 miles) before the troops reach the outskirts of Mosul. So far, only a few villages have been captured, largely in places where the Islamic State group no longer maintains a presence. The rains in the region saw mud being used as the main excuse for the failure, along with the jihadists’ control of the “high places.”

The mud, incidentally, did not interfere with the thousands of village residents who fled their homes near Mosul out of fear that they would be caught in the middle of the fighting. In light of these tactical problems, the battle for Mosul could be postponed yet again, after being postponed for months already.

No easy conclusions

The liberation a month ago of Ramadi, in the Anbar Province, was supposed to provide the necessary motivation – along with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s success in capturing the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra from ISIS. But it seems every victory in the fight against Islamic State needs to be examined on its own merits, and no conclusions can be drawn from one victory on the status of the campaign.

The battle against the extremist Islamic organization in Iraq is stuck not only in the mud of Mahmour – the city south of Mosul where the Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are concentrated – but also in Iraq’s deep political quagmire. Many Iraqis are eagerly awaiting an upcoming vote in parliament, after which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may find himself out of a job.

Last Monday, the parliament gave Abadi a three-day extension in order to present the next government (which is supposed to be composed of technocrats). Abadi came before the parliament on Thursday, The Associated Press reported, to tell lawmakers he had managed to reduce the number of cabinet ministers from the previous 21 to 16. He submitted the names of nominees for 14 ministerial positions, but said he would not replace the current defense and interior ministers, “given the current hard situation.”

The parliament now has 10 days to confirm Abadi’s nominees – or potentially gridlock the process further, AP wrote.

The problem is that even though everyone supposedly supports the removal of any ministers suspected of corruption, behind every senior politician stands a movement and ethnic group, and each of them has reservations over the new candidates – in particular, the removal of their own ministers.

In addition, every of the groups is demanding their own pound of flesh from the ministerial quota. For example, the Kurds were demanding an allocation to their five parties of 20 percent of all cabinet members – a demand that would have required an expansion in the number of ministers and dismantlement of the present government budget framework.

However, the biggest threat to the government comes from the separatist Shi’ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers staged a sit-in strike at one of the entrances to the Green Zone in Baghdad. The Green Zone, fenced off and relatively well protected, is where the government ministries lie, including the Prime Minister’s Office. It also features the rather grandiose residences of ministers and other senior officials, who live in the villas left by Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr shout slogans during a protest against corruption in Baghdad's Sadr City, April 1, 2016.
AFP

Sadr’s supporters, numbering in the millions, held angry demonstrations near the Green Zone in recent weeks, even threatening to invade it if what they see as a corrupt government was not replaced. On Thursday, the influential Shi’ite cleric ordered his followers to end their two-week sit-in, after Abadi proposed the new ministers for a technocratic cabinet. Even so, this powerful threat continues to hang over everything.

Sadr’s supporters hold 34 out of the 328 seats in the Iraqi parliament, as well as three ministerial portfolios. Similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon, they also have the power to determine the fate of the government. The major argument is over government spending and the flow of money into politicians’ pockets, which has created a deep deficit in the government budget. Iraq is currently trying to raise $15 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund and other institutions for the next five years, but these organizations are demanding that Abadi carry out serious economic reforms to guarantee the country’s rehabilitation.

New threat

It is clear to Abadi and his cabinet that such reforms will require major cuts in the number of government employees, who now number some 3.5 million. In addition to these salaries, the government also pays the pensions of over 6 million other citizens (out of a total population of some 33 million). The government service is filled with party activists, including 25,000 affiliated with the ruling party, and some 660,000 employees in the Interior Ministry. The worry is that the large government debt will delay the payment of salaries and pensions, which cost the state about $4 billion a month; revenues from oil are only about half that. The government also owes hundreds of millions of dollars to the oil companies, some of which have not received payments for over six months.

The state budget has already been cut by over $15 billion compared to last year, and it is not clear where the money to pay for the war against Islamic State and the capture of Mosul will come from – and this is just one part of the fight awaiting the new government.

Another aspect concerns the functioning of the military and its ability to compete with the Shi’ite militias, which are rapidly becoming the most important military force in the country. Some 50 militias are operating in Iraq, boasting between 60,000 to 140,000 fighters. The largest are connected to political parties, while other militias are funded and trained by Iran.

The militias participated in the liberation of Ramadi and have now set their sights on Sunni regions. For example, in Sunni villages that have already been liberated from ISIS, the Shi’ite militias have raised their own flags in a way that has infuriated the local population. The militias’ brutality toward the Sunnis has caused even the United States to intervene against their participation in the fight for Mosul, and Abadi has made a similar statement.

Nevertheless, the Shi’ite militias are not planning to stay out of the fight: Reports from senior Kurdish and Sunni commanders in the Mosul area say the militias’ fighters are wearing Iraqi army uniforms to disguise their identities, and militia leaders have said no one will stop them from participating.

Naturally, such declarations frighten the Sunni population in the Mosul region. They fear the capture of their city could turn into a massacre on the part of the Shi’ite militias – as previously happened in other places they captured. One estimate claims that the battle for Mosul could cause over a million residents to flee their homes, not just fearing the battles but also their future under Shi’ite militia rule. The Kurds express a similar concern and have joined the Sunnis in objecting to the participation of the Shi’ite militias in the battle.

The rivalry between the Shi’ite and Sunni militias requires the Pentagon to consider increasing the number of U.S. soldiers sent to Iraq to aid the Iraqi military and Kurds in the campaign for Mosul. It is still not known how many soldiers will be sent, and whether the U.S. commanders will cooperate with the Shi’ite militias – even though their fighters are considered the best trained.

ISIS also continues its attacks inside Baghdad and other cities: Just last week, more than 60 people were killed in such assaults – these attacks overshadow the American aerial bombings and killing of Islamic State’s finance minister, Haji Imam, last month.

One can assume the violent “dialogue” between ISIS and Iraqi citizens will go on for as long as the administration in Washington deliberates whether, and how, to participate in the campaign for Mosul.