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Thursday, September 10, 2015

Security situation in Baghdad deteriorates as militias and opponents of reform demonstrate their level of control.

Links: A. Washington Post editorial on Iraqi reform crisis.
           B. Gunmen kidnap Turkish workers in Baghdad.

We've been following the evolving reform crisis in Iraq since Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi publicly announced his intention to eliminate the office of Vice President.  At the time, that particular office was held by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and it demonstrated from the very beginning that we were witnessing the opening salvo in a political struggle that will determine if Iraq remains politically independent, or becomes a satellite state of Iran.  Abadi was faced with a very difficult decision.  The lauded Anbar Offensive which began in late May was still bogged down outside of Ramadi, and the Iranian-back militias/Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) were engaging the enemy to the northeast, in Fallujah.  Any action which would upset the militias might lead to a withdrawal of their forces, which would undoubtedly compound whatever problems the ISF was having outside Ramadi.  But Abadi had very little room to maneuver with regards to timing.  A popular groundswell of anger, frustration and determination had swept through the capital, and found its way to many of the other Iraqi cities as well.  People were demonstrating for reform and an end to corruption.  Actually, they were demanding it.  Everyday the crowds grew larger in Basra, Baghdad, Baqubah and al-Kut, and they were protesting the endemic nepotism, bribery and outright theft that they believed existed in the Iraqi government.  This movement was supported by the media, who daily would print articles detailing hard-to-believe examples of kick-backs and "skimming" that was prevalent not only in Baghdad, but in the provincial administrations as well.  Abadi needed to take advantage of this public demand for change, and he bargained that the militias wouldn't walk off the battlefield because by doing so they would walk away from their main source of influence and authority.  Abadi was also helped to a great degree by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, whose open calls for reform were co-opted by Abadi and the reform movement.  Once Abadi started down the road of abolishing offices, eliminating redundancies, and cashiering thieves, he was determined to finish the job.  Those of us on the outside anxiously waited to see how many friends Maliki could still depend on, and how aggressive would the opposition be.

Any hope that Maliki had lost his influence and that the militias would play nice, ended with the Badr Organization's announcement that they would be enforcing the law in Basra and that illegal gatherings (meaning pro-reform demonstrations) would not be allowed.  The government, with its police fighting alongside the army in Anbar, had few law enforcement resources to counter the move by Badr, which certainly succeeded in shutting down the public cacophony from Basra.  The PMUs sided with Maliki in opposition to the reforms.  Simply put, with reforms, the Iranian government saw the potential for a stronger, independent Iraq.  Tehran is intent on creating a Shi'a client state in Iraq, with the militias forming the basis for an Iraqi Republican Guard Corps.  During his term, Maliki proved to be a dependable yes-man for the Iranians, and the militias, even with the majority of their resources in the field fighting ISIS, still controlled large numbers of armed soldiers in every large Iraqi city.  Once the word came down from Tehran, the militias started acting aggressively in opposition to Abadi's reforms.  By making Baghdad more difficult to govern, the militias damage Abadi's credibility and influence.  With the kidnapping last week of eighteen Turkish workers in Baghdad, Abadi's opponents hope to call into question the Abadi Administration's ability to protect foreign nationals in the nation's capital city.  It is strongly suspected that the kidnappings were carried out by Kata'ib Hezbollah, one of the more prominent militias.

The militias have the ability to bring the Abadi government down, but in doing so, they risk benefitting ISIS to a great degree.  The militias, with basically unlimited manpower and a steady flow of money and supplies from Iran, can make Basra, Baghdad, Al-Muqdadiyah, Samarra and Nasiriyah buckle to their authority through the simple use of curfews, and the control of water and electricity.  What could the Iraqi government do in response, given that they invited the militias into Iraq to help fight ISIS?  Certainly the government could pull troops back from the front to retake control away from the militias, but you can be sure that ISIS would take quick advantage of that opportunity to solidify their hold on Ramadi and Fallujah, and complete the occupation of Haditha.  Some heave questions remain: how far will the militias go in opposition to Abadi's reforms?  One of the most important new laws dealing with the National Guard and the entire militia issue altogether, has already been scuttled. Not surprisingly, the militias opposed the law, which would have brought them under the authority of the government in Baghdad.  Another important question: how far will Abadi go, and will he try to mobilize the public to protect his reform movement?  The most unfortunate element to this evolving situation is that the only apparent winner at present appears to be ISIS.    

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