At the headquarters of the Combined Joint Operations Centre in Baghdad the folder of documents in which armed attacks by extremists are recorded gets bigger by the day.
By Mustafa Habib, in Baghdad
The centre was set up to facilitate cooperation between Iraqi armed forces and the international coalition fighting against the extremist group known as the Islamic State. Recent attacks by the extremists have seen pages added to this file, even as the work done by the Iraqis with their international partners decreases.
Just a few kilometres away, also in the capital’s well-guarded Green Zone, the Iraqi government remains without any official leadership. A prime minister has yet to be chosen. Meanwhile the price for oil – the sales of which keep Iraq’s economy afloat – have been plunging. And the number of locals infected by the coronavirus, COVID-19, is rising.
It really does feel as though Iraq is on the verge of another crisis – yet again.
“History is repeating itself,” says Samer al-Jibouri, a police officer in Tikrit, the capital of the province of Salahaddin. “What’s happening now feels so similar to what happened in 2014 [when the security crisis sparked by the extremist Islamic State group began]. We only lack an insane caliph to declare an Islamic state!,” he jokes. “Although we won’t let that happen,” he said staunchly.
The last month has been tough though, al-Jibouri told Al Menasa. “We have been subjected to numerous attacks and ambushes by the terrorists,” he explained. “They’re happening almost daily now. The extremists come at night from remote villages in the desert, places we can’t go after dark. Then they disappear from there in the mornings when our forces enter the villages looking for them.”
From the beginning of April until May 4, security sources estimate that there have been around 50 attacks by armed extremists.
This has coincided with the arrival of the new leader of the Islamic State, or IS, group to Iraq. The man, known as Abu Ibrahim al-Qurashi – whose real name is thought to be Amir Mohammed Sa’id Abdul Rahman al-Mawli al-Salbi – apparently came back to Iraq from Syria because of the deterioration in security in Iraq. Al-Qurashi apparently comes from the town of Tal Afar and is one of the extremist IS group’s founding members.
The map of recent attacks and ambushes runs through the cities previously occupied by the IS group, starting from the west of the province of Diyala, passing through northern Salahaddin, over to the top of Ninewa and Kirkuk, and then through to the bottom of Anbar province. Dozens of Iraqi security forces, including members of the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, have been killed or injured in these attacks.
By the middle of April, Iraqi security forces said they had killed 135 terrorists, destroyed around 600 booby-trapped sites.
“The fact that most of Iraq’s politicians continue to play the game using these outdated rules, disconnected from reality, means they must bear much of the blame for these ongoing crises.”
And while attacks against Iraqi forces continue, the US-led international coalition has been forced to protect itself against attacks from pro-Iranian factions within the PMF. International coalition soldiers withdrew from smaller bases to larger ones where they could deploy anti-missile systems. The fate of their presence in the country also remains unclear – they are waiting for the new Iraqi government to be formed so that they can negotiate ongoing deployment in Iraq.
This has led to a significant reduction in their cooperation with the Iraqi military – the latter urgently needs the experience and intelligence that is usually provided by the coalition. Perhaps even more importantly they require the coalition’s air strike capabilities, something the Iraqi military lacks.
And of course, this is not the only bad news. After the resignation of prime minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, the country has not been able to form another government; Abdul Mahdi is currently running a caretaker one.
Two candidates for prime minister have already tried and failed and now a new candidate, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, is making an attempt. He is waiting for parliament’s blessing on his role and his proposed ministers, despite the fact that MPs are deeply divided about his choice of cabinet.
Making an already bad situation worse is the current global rout of oil prices. The country’s economy and its oversized public sector is largely funded by oil revenues and the ongoing fall in prices means that the Iraqi government will not be able to meet its budgetary requirements. Last year around this time, Iraq was making about US$6 billion a month from oil sales. Over the past two months, instead of bringing in US$12 billion, the country only made about US$4.42 billion on oil sales.
Over the coming weeks, this may result in half-paid salaries and pensions for government employees and retirees. That is something that would cause even more anger among Iraqis, some of whom have already been protesting on the streets for months against what they see as political corruption and mismanagement.
In the middle of last month, the Iraqi government was also forced to ease a curfew it had instated to deal with the global pandemic, caused by the COVID-19 virus. Instead of lasting all day, the curfew was reduced to 12 hours a day.
For so long, Iraq has not known true stability. Cumulative political, military and economic crises have kept the country in a cycle of insecurity with little hope for peace or growth.
Leadership is desperately needed in Iraq yet the political class are mired in their own partisan conflicts, focused on political and financial gains, and apparently unaware of the looming danger of (yet another) nationwide collapse. Politicians refuse to make any concessions or genuine changes and accuse anyone who criticises them – such as the ordinary citizen-protesters – of being motivated by external agencies.
The fact that most of Iraq’s politicians continue to play the game using these outdated rules, disconnected from reality, means they must bear much of the blame for these ongoing crises. They have not understood the lessons of the distant and recent past and sooner or later they will – once again – have to face the anger of the ordinary Iraqi on the street.