Iranian opposition members in Germany have warned of a "massacre" in their home country. They've demanded that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "must go" during a protest outside the foreign ministry in Berlin. This as protests continue in Iran against the Islamic Republic's leadership after it admitted its military shot down a Ukrainian airliner by accident, despite days of denials that Iranian forces were to blame. For the latest on the Iran and US tension, we are joined via skype by Executive Director at the Afro-Middle East Centre, Naeem Jeenah.
US President Donald Trump has sought to downplay the significance of Iran's missile attack on two US bases in neighbouring Iraq. Trump tweeted that all was well and that the damage was being assessed. This after Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing US troops in retaliation for the killing of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.
Despite the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on 30 November 2019, protests in Iraq endure, with protester demands having evolved to include calls for a restructuring of the political system. An indication of how serious the situation is, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has become more vocal, calling, on 20 December, for immediate new elections. The protesters’ call for a revamp of the political system means that there is little possibility, in the immediate future, for the demands of the protesters to be met and for the uprising to end, since the likelihood of finding a compromise candidate who will be acceptable to protesters, and protect the country’s entrenched political actors, is remote. Instability is likely to intensify as the different actors continue jostling to instrumentalise the protest movement, especially in light of the attack on protesters securing the Sinak Bridge in Baghdad earlier this month, which killed over twenty people. What is certain, however, is that Iran’s role in the country, both as influencer and mediator, is increasingly being threatened.
The demonstrations, which consolidated into their current form in early October, were mainly a protest against the country’s endemic corruption and high unemployment rate, especially among graduates. Despite Iraq’s possessing the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world, around a quarter of Iraqis live on less than a dollar a day, and youth unemployment stands at between fifteen and seventeen per cent; Transparency International names it the twelfth worst country on its 2018 corruption perception index. These protests are a continuation of the July 2018 protests in Basra and other southern and central provinces, and have been spurred by grievances over corruption and poor public services. However, the movement has expanded in 2019 to include Baghdad.
Significantly, the 2018 and 2019 protests both have been mainly comprised of Iraqi Shi'a, who, despite being the majority in the country, had been marginalised during Saddam Hussein’s reign, but whose influence increased in 2005, during the US occupation. Previous popular protests, especially in 2013 and 2014, had largely comprised of disillusioned Sunnis, and thus were more easily dismissed by the new (Shi'a) political elite. They were also mainly restricted to majority Sunni provinces such as Anbar and Ramadi; the perceived sectarian composition meant that they did not seriously threaten the survival of the regime.
The Abdul Mahdi administration had acknowledged the legitimacy of protesters’ demands, and had resolved to enact electoral reform. However, as with its response in 2018, the government simultaneously attempted to violently quell demonstrations, killing over 400 and injuring around 8000 since October, mostly in Baghdad and in southern provinces such as Nasiriyah. This inflamed tensions further, with many now seeking a full overhaul of the country’s political structure.
The situation has been worsened by attempts to instrumentalise the protests, especially by the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose main support base is in the south, the epicentre of the protests, and who, in recent weeks, has dispatched armed personnel to protect protesters. Sadr had also previously advocated a general strike. Attempts to find a compromise between the different political blocs were bearing fruit in late October, following meetings between Sadr and the the Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) leader Hadi Al-Ameri. However, Iranian mediation stunted the effort. An agreement was concluded by most of the blocs, including Sadr’s, with Tehran’s mediation to protect Abdul Mahdi and to stall the protests, but protester anger rendered this impossible to implement. Protesters have since become more vociferously against Iran’s role in the country, and Iranian consular buildings were attacked in Najaf and Karbala in November.
Iraqi politics is largely dominated by blocs of veteran politicians, many with links to Iran or its clerical establishment. A 2005 Constitution divides power among Sunnis, Shi'as and Kurds. The 2018 parliamentary election saw no political bloc gain a majority. Sadr’s influence was, however, enhanced; his party received the highest number of seats but had to rule in coalition with the Hashd al-Shaabi, in a deal brokered by Iran. The established blocs, including Sadr’s, benefit from the current political configuration, hence. That is why, though Sadr and Ameri first agreed on the need for Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, they later closed ranks behind him following the Iranian mediation.
Protester demands were given a boost in November after receiving direct support from the country’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose criticisms of the government’s will to implement reforms was the main factor influencing Abdul Mahdi’s eventual resignation. Sistani has also been increasingly critical of Iran’s role in Iraq, and he has asserted that the formation of an Iraqi government had to be accomplished between Iraqis without outside meddling. Sistani’s support has provided further legitimacy for the protests, widening their appeal and dividing the Hashd, many of whom now support the protests, after Sistani’s criticisms of the government, while other Hashd groups take their cue from Iran. Sistani does not usually comment on party political matters, and is revered by most political actors in the country. His occasional political calls usually get implemented, such as his call for early elections in 2003, for the removal of Nuri al-Maliki in 2014, and for the taking up of arms against the Islamic State group, which resulted in the formation of the Hashd, were all largely implemented.
Tensions are boiling over, with suspicion intensifying in the protest camps. This has not been helped by the current stalemate between the government and protesters and is engendering a power vacuum, which can easily be exploited by different actors. Two attacks on 7 December on protesters camped on the Sinak bridge in Baghdad (which killed over twenty), and on Sadr’s home in Najaf, add to the potential for protests to become militarised, especially since Sadr’s supporters possess arms and the Iraqi military is in flux, after Abdul Mahdi’s resignation. Some have accused Sadr of being involved in the attack, but this is unlikely, since his supporters were helping secure the bridge and the drone attack was aimed at him. It is thus more likely that the attacks, especially on Sadr’s residence, were instigated by one of the Hashd groups opposed to the protests.
Following Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, the country has until 16 December to nominate a new candidate for prime minister, but the events of the past few weeks have impeded the impetus and abilities for the different actors to find a consensus, even though this failure will likely weaken their positions. No names have been put forward to replace Abdul Mahdi, with Sadr’s bloc, Sairoon, insisting that a new prime minister be chosen by the anti-government protesters, and that no previous minister or anyone that might be rejected by the protesters is a suitable candidate. Protesters have already been circulating their own lists for who should succeed Abdul Mahdi. Sistani, meanwhile, issued his own statement on 20 December, calling for immediate elections. The prime minister’s resignation has left a power vacuum and limited accountability, especially since the Abdul Mahdi government can only act in a ‘caretaker’ role for the next thirty days, curtailing both its powers and longevity to see any process through.
Sistani supports the UN Assistance mission in Iraq’s (UNAMI) November road map, which calls for constitutional change, electoral reform, the release of protesters, job creation and investigations into the deaths of protesters. It is probably the only means of exiting the current impasse. However, its implementation will weaken the powers of the entrenched political blocs, and the likelihood oof its success is therefore limited. Iran’s failure to mediate, like it did in 2018 with Abdul Mahdi’s appointment, might suggest its diminishing influence in Iraq; Sistani’s vailed criticisms of Iran could further weaken Tehran’s position, which remains strong.
The decision by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to hold a referendum on independence has proven to be a terrible miscalculation for the its president, Masoud Barzani, who announced on Sunday that he will not seek to renew his term of office when it expires on 1 November. The 25 September 2017 referendum was touted by Barzani as a momentous occasion in the Kurdish quest for secession from Iraq, and in the century-old struggle for a Kurdish state. It was also a reflection of the internal political struggles within the KRG, and an attempt by Barzani to retain favour with his constituency and solidify his legacy before his term ended. He went ahead with the move despite warnings and even threats from regional and global powers, including KRG allies Turkey and the USA. Indeed, the only state that supported the referendum and its results was Israel.
The referendum resulted in ninety-three per cent of those who voted supporting independence. In response, Iraqi military and police forces and Iran-backed militias clashed with Kurdish Peshmerga forces mid-October south of the disputed Kirkuk region, and, within days, Iraqi troops (re)took control of oil fields that were a key KRG funding source. With its military routing, loss of key finances, continued threats by Turkey, and the Iraqi central government demanding an annulment of the referendum results, the KRG offered freezing the results and opening talks with Baghdad. Unsurprisingly, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, rejected the offer.
Following the announcement of the referendum, many countries in the region and globally, as well as the United Nations and the European Union, had discouraged the vote, calling for dialogue between the KRG and the Baghdad government instead. The KRG’s largest regional ally, Turkey, urged Barzani to reconsider, warning it might ‘exacerbate regional instability’. On 18 September, Iraq’s Supreme Court declared the referendum unconstitutional. Turkey, and Iran, along with Baghdad, also threatened an economic blockade. Nevertheless, the referendum went ahead, with Kurds in the KRG and Kirkuk region being asked whether they wanted the KRG and neighbouring Kurdish areas to become an independent state. The electoral commission announced a resounding majority resounding majority ‘yes’ vote in the three governorates of Erbil, Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah and in oil-rich Kirkuk.Although Barzani said the outcome would have no immediate administrative effect, he did, however, use the referendum for political manoeuvring near to the end of his term.
Barzani – president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region since its establishment in 2005, and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – has already exceeded his term limit, which expired in 2013 and was extended until 2015. His current mandate will expire in November 2017, when elections will take place to vote in a successor. Barzani’s pushing the referendum, despite advice against it – including from many Kurds, reflected his desire to gain the title of ‘bringer of Kurdish independence’. However, the loss of the Kirkuk oil fields, Kurdish anger at his miscalculation, opposition from his erstwhile allies, and bombardment by Iraq’s central government have forced his hand. With the prospect of losing even more territory, he has encountered growing animosity from rival political parties, especially the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose Peshmerga forces were the first to withdraw from the south of Kirkuk, leading to a takeover by Iraqi troops. In a statement on 25 October 2017, the KRG announced that its leadership was prepared to declare a ceasefire and engage in dialogue with Baghdad. The Iraqi government rejected the offer saying it would only allow the total ‘abolition of the referendum and the adherence to the constitution’.
The Iraqi Kurdish independence bid clearly lacks support from countries in the region and elsewhere in the world. Leading up to the referendum, countries with Kurdish minority populations, including Turkey, Syria and Iran, vocally opposed it, fearing it would inspire Kurds in their respective countries to seek greater autonomy or spur them on to their own independence campaigns. This criticism has continued even after the referendum, leading to a tripartite alliance between Iran, Iraq and Turkey, and revealing that even though they disagree on many issues, they all agree that an independent Kurdistan cannot exist. Seeming to express the view of all these countries, Turkey’s president threatened a harsh blockade against the KRG that would cause it to ‘starve’.
Only Israel has thus far pledged support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, is allegedly lobbying for global actors such as the USA, Russia and Germany to support Kurdish independence in Iraq, Syria and Iran. He described the KRG as a ‘strategic place’, and called on ‘someone’ to ‘[give] them weaponry, and whatever else’. His campaign seeks to garner Kurdish support to undermine the resistance of Arab states and Iran to Israel. More importantly, Israel hopes a Kurdish state can be used to legitimise Israel’s desire to legitimise for itself the status of an ethnic (Jewish) state.
With the KRG’s offer to ‘freeze’ the referendum’s results, and Barzani’s announcement about his role after November, it seems the KRG may be conceding defeat and succumbing to pressure, if only temporarily. The referendum, which appeared to have been Barzani’s ace card to achieve political popularity before the next election, backfired for him. Before his announcement, there were growing calls within Iraqi Kurdistan for his resignation, as his opponents argued that his political use of the referendum was a costly miscalculation that resulted in the loss of Kirkuk. Of course, Barzani withdrawing from his position in November is not the end of his political role. Members of his family are well-ensconced in the KRG government, and the Barzani family has controlled the KDP since 1946. Over the next weeks, Baghdad will likely be coerced to negotiate with the KRG, especially if Israel is able to lobby the USA to pressure Abadi to move in that direction. In the long run, however, Israeli support could disadvantage the Kurds against powerful regional actors such as Turkey, Iran and Syria, all of whom will use that to de-legitimise Kurdish claims. A war over the question of an independent Kurdistan is the last thing any state in the region (except Israel) wants, especially as the region remains mired with the ongoing Syrian crisis, and the devastating wars in Yemen and Libya.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The 16 October declaration by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of the beginning of the offensive to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State group (IS) was welcomed by a range of forces in the Middle East and globally. However, there was immediately an attempt to address fears of potential sectarian violence that might be unleashed upon the liberation of the city, IS’s de facto Iraqi capital.
At a conference of Iraqi tribes held in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to support the Mosul offensive, tribal leaders from Nineveh, the province in which Mosul is located, insisted Shi'a militias should not be involved in the military attempt to liberate Mosul. They feared that Mosul’s Sunnis will be blamed for IS’s crimes, and were afraid of revenge attacks. They based their fears on reports that more than 700 Sunni males had disappeared after Shi'a militias captured Fallujah, and that looting and mass killings occurred in Tikrit when that city was liberated from IS.
Responding to concerns about sectarian reprisals, Iraqi Kurdish leaders promised that their Peshmerga forces would not enter Mosul, and the USA conditioned its air support on Shi'a militias not entering the city. The alliance of Shi'a militias, the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), one of the more successful anti-IS forces, has not been excluded from the battle, however. As the Iraqi army advances from the south and west, and Peshmerga forces conduct a multipronged assault from the north and east, the PMF headed westwards to block IS’s escape route from Mosul into Syria. Adding another sectarian dimension, Turkish forces stationed in Bashiqa camp near Mosul joined the fighting against IS this week – despite protests from the Iraqi government – after an invitation from the Peshmerga. Turkey claimed concern for Mosul’s minority Turkmen population and for the Sunni majority.
Mosul and its surrounding area, although having a majority of Sunnis, is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse areas in Iraq. The last major stronghold of IS in Iraq, its three million population (before IS captured it) included Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, and Circassians, with a religious and sectarian diversity that included Sunnis, Shi'as, Salafis, Yezidis and Christians.
Over the past year IS has taken a battering on the battlefield. Its loss of the Syrian town of Dabiq earlier this month was a huge symbolic defeat. The Iraqi army, meanwhile, has regained morale and momentum with the recapture of major cities such as Sinjar, Ramadi and Fallujah over the past ten months. The Mosul offensive involves more than 30 000 forces, mostly made up of Iraqi troops and Kurdish Peshmerga, supported by US air strikes and special forces. IS probably has around 6 000 fighters in the city. The initial advance on Mosul saw more than twenty villages and hamlets liberated by Iraqi and Kurdish forces within two days, but the offensive then slowed down due to the number of explosives and booby traps on the roads. Earlier this week, around forty kilometres separated the coalition forces from Mosul.
There have already been reports of some local IS fighters abandoning Mosul, leaving foreign fighters behind. Nevertheless, IS is expected to mount stiff resistance from within the city. The fall of this crucial city will affect IS politically as it loses territory, thus jeopardising its state-building project, and also financially since Mosul has been a huge contributor of tax revenue for the group. Coalition forces claim, however, that Mosul will fall within two months. They are hoping that, as IS fighters defend the city against coalition forces, resistance within Mosul will rise up to battle IS from within. This has already begun with an Iraqi flag being raised over an IS government building last week.
Much of the city will likely be in ruins before it is liberated. It is uncertain whether the fragile Iraqi state will be capable of reconstructing this and other devastated areas. It will also have to take over the provision of services and security in areas in which it has not had the responsibility for the past two years, thus increasing its resource burden. Most importantly, the grievances and sense of marginalisation of Sunni communities in the north has not disappeared. The real mark of Iraq’s success in defeating IS will be whether the government is able to address this marginalisation, and include Sunnis in the state in a manner that removes these grievances. If not, then the reasons that IS was able to take Mosul so easily will persist, and the region will remain ripe for others who claim to support the Sunnis in the north against the central government.