By Afro-Middle East Centre
Reports in January 2017 that the leader of the Islamic State group (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been killed, reports that he had been captured by Russian troops in Syria, and the insistence by IS sources that he is still alive and fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul, raise a number of questions about the IS chief’s location, and whether he is still alive. The IS response to this, by nominating a potential successor to Baghdadi, and the fact that the group is in the process of moving its Syria capital from the city of Raqqa to Deir al-Zour, suggest important reorganising in the IS structure and leadership to cope with a new military and political situation.
The IS leadership has certainly taken seriously the possibility that Baghdadi could get killed (if he is not already dead) or captured in the near future in fighting with the Iraqi or Syrian armies, any of a number of militia groups in the two countries, or airstrikes by the USA, Russia or the Syrian regime. The group’s Shura Council, its supreme decision-making body, has taken the matter seriously enough that it nominated, earlier this month, a successor to the self-styled ‘caliph’, one Abu Hafsa al-Mawsely, in the event that Baghdadi might become incapcitated.
But that decision, which was not unanimously agreed-upon in the Shura, has led to conflicts among IS commanders and fighters, some of whom refuse to accept Mawsely as a possible new leader. Consequently, the Shura Council has decided to reconvene – on an as-yet-unspecified date, and most likely in the Iraqi city of Mosul, to again discuss the matter of Baghdadi’s successor. The new meeting could nominate another candidate.
Not much is known about Mawsely, except that he is the deputy commander of IS’s ‘Nineveh province’, has a reputation for being one of the more brutal commanders in the group, is a senior legislator in the group’s governance structure, and has occupied several important military and administrative positions. He is based in the ancient city of Nineveh, on the outskirts of Mosul, the city which IS has occupied since 2014, and is now being forced out of by the Iraqi army and a number of militias, with support from the US-led coalition.
The IS Shura Council consists of a selected group of military leaders and legislators from its various ‘provinces’. It is expected that once the Shura Council finalises its decision, IS fighters will accept it and will be willing to pledge their allegiance to the new ‘caliph’ in the event of Baghdadi’s death or capture.
Baghdadi became the leader of IS’s precursor, al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), in 2010. He was born near the Iraqi city of Samarra in 1971 , and obtained a PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University of Baghdad in 2013. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Baghdadi helped found the militant Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jamaah (JJASJ), which later joined the Mujahedin Shura Council (MSC) in 2006. The MSC became Islamic State of Iraq (ISI, also known as al-Qa'ida in Iraq) in 2006, with Baghdadi as head of its shari'ah committee and member of its senior consultative council. After a ten-month detention in the US prison Abu Ghaib and Camp Buca detention centres. Baghdadi was announced as ISI leader in May 2010, following the death of his predecessor Abu Omar Al-Baghdadi. He was the mastermind behind the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the establishment of the ‘Islamic State’ thereafter.
Reports indicate that Baghdadi had escaped from Mosul in February when the road to the west of the city was opened in the wake of a fierce attack launched by IS fighters. The group claims its fighters used seventeen suicide car bombs from Mosul and some units from Syria to temporarily clear the road out of the city it has held, uncontested, for about two years. Before he left the city, however, Baghdadi addressed supporters and fighters in what has been referred to as his ‘farewell speech’. According to a report from its members, the IS ‘caliph’ admitted that the group had been defeated in Mosul by US-backed Iraqi forces and militias, and urged his fighters to flee the urban areas and take refuge in the mountains.
While he was on his way out of the city, a US swat team ambushed a vehicle carrying a top IS commander who, it seems, the US military believed was Baghdadi or another senior IS leader. US troops in a helicopter exchanged gunfire with IS fighters who were protecting the vehicle. IS sources reported that only one person was injured and nobody was killed in the exchange, but some news agencies reported that Baghdadi was in the convoy and that he had been seriously wounded. The US Pentagon, however, admits that it is unsure where the IS leader might be.
Baghdadi allegedly broke a months-long silence in May 2016 by releasing an audio message in which he once again urged Muslims from around the world to emigrate to the ‘caliphate’ that the group has proclaimed in areas of Syria and Iraq. The group’s dire military situation and its battle for survival has, however, meant that the flow of fighters and other ‘immigrants’ to its ‘state’ has slowed down considerably.
With IS’s Syrian capital, Raqqa, under attack by a range of forces in the past few months, the group began moving its governance structures from Raqqa to the eastern province of Deir al-Zour earlier this month. Its military commanders, bureaucracy and some fighters are now headquartered 140 kilometres southeast of Raqqa.
This follows a difficult month of March for IS in Raqqa, with US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and other groups moving on the city, having captured the Tabqa airbase, and cutting off the road between al-Thawrah (where IS fighters had retreated to) and Raqqa. It is almost certain that Raqqa will fall to opposition groups in the next few months, necessitating the emergency measures undertaken by the IS leadership.
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.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The Iraqi army’s assault on the city of Fallujah held by the Islamic State group (IS) has ground to a halt in light of fierce house-to-house fighting with IS fighters. The city has been under IS control since January 2014, with 90 000 civilians trapped inside. Some 20 000 civilians fled during the first few weeks of the fighting, which began on 25 May, through IS lines, dodging Iraqi army fire, and even swimming the Euphrates river. In the initial push towards Fallujah, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Sha'bi) were at the forefront of the battle. These Shi'a militias have been accused of numerous human rights violations against Sunni communities, since their cooption by Baghdad in the fight against IS.
Merely fifty kilometres north of Baghdad, Fallujah is strategically important to the Iraqi capital. IS has used it as a staging ground for infiltrating the capital, and executing attacks that have sapped confidence in the government’s ability to provide security. The manner in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi retakes Fallujah and returns it to Baghdad’s authority will serve as the template for the Iraqi army’s impending assault on Mosul, which will be conducted in coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The battle of Fallujah also represents an internal political issue for Iraq’s Shi'a political class. The successes of the Badr Brigade, a Shi'a militia with strong links to Tehran, in securing Baghdad and beating back IS from Diyala province has provided Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri with significant political capital. Meanwhile the protest movement in Baghdad against corruption and poor service delivery threatens to de-legitimise Abadi’s fledgling government.
The inability of Iraqi forces to coordinate with Sunni tribal leaders – who the government had alienated through heavily sectarian security measures – granted IS the ability to consolidate its control over Fallujah in 2014. In light of the failures leading up to the fall of Fallujah, the government has recently worked to increase coordination with Sunni tribes and militias in battles to retake territory seized by IS since mid-2014. This coordination is a conscious attempt by Abadi to provide a united national front against IS, exemplified through the increasing purchase Sunni tribes and militias have over Baghdad’s approach to retaking Sunni areas. Sunni tribes have called on the government to reign in Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Fallujah assault. Abadi had attempted to hold them on the outskirts of the city. In the days leading up to the current assault, reports of abuses by these forces against Sunni civilians in the liberated areas south of Fallujah prompted Anbar’s Provincial Council to call on ‘sectarian factions [to keep] away from the battle of Fallujah’. In light of these abuses, Abadi also ordered the government to prosecute fighters accused of committing violations.
Within the Shi'a political class, Abadi is on the back foot. The Badr Brigade has become a prominent force within Iraqi politics through its successes against IS. Badr’s political front, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is poised to become kingmaker in Iraqi elections. This party receives much financial support from Tehran, and uses its control of Diyala province to exhibit its potential as a ruling partner. Meanwhile, the Sadrist camp, led by influential Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seized upon the May protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone to demand the prime minister changes his cabinet to a technocratic one, eradicates corruption, and enhances service delivery. Sadr and Abadi support the incorporation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces into the Iraqi army, a move opposed by Badr head Ameri. Other militia leaders echo this.
The battle for Fallujah will be a protracted engagement for Iraqi national forces, is becoming increasingly bloody as Iraqi forces get closer to the centre where IS militants are holed up, allegedly using civilians as human shields. Abadi knows that using the militias will grant political points to his rivals. However, these forces have proved effective at clearing and occupying rural zones around contested cities. Abadi thus devised a formula in which Popular Mobilisation Forces are held at the outskirts to prevent IS reinforcements entering the cities, but play no visible role in the liberation of the city. This is a positive development in the battle against IS. The perception of the Iraqi army as liberators in Sunni Fallujah will assist in the pursuit of national unity. Success could guarantee Abadi’s administration the popular support it drastically needs.
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The Islamic State militant group Isis - based in Syria and Iraq - claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks. It said the attacks were to punish France for its involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and for its attitude to Islam.