Abadi presses for control of Iraqi borders
LONDON - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi ordered Iraqi forces to reclaim control of two of the country’s border areas, one held by Islamic State (ISIS) militants and the other manned by peshmerga fighters loyal to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani.
Iraqi forces launched an offensive in Anbar province to capture the last ISIS-held towns of Qaim, which is on the border with Syria, and Rawa. At the same time, Iraqi military backed by the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) moved towards Dohuk province to claim control of the Faysh Khabur border post with Turkey.
Abadi ordered a 24-hour suspension to military operations against peshmerga fighters to allow them to hand over control of the border area, which Iraqi authorities say is critical for oil exports.
The decision to engage in two military operations simultaneously was considered a show of confidence by Abadi but critics say it may overstretch Iraqi forces. They are also present in Kirkuk after retaking the city along with other disputed territories from peshmerga control.
US Army Lieutenant-General Paul Funk said the dispute between the central government and the KRG was diverting resources as well as intelligence and focus from the war on ISIS. “We don’t need Iraqis killing Iraqis when we’ve got [ISIS] to kill out in the west,” Funk told the Associated Press.
The United Nations and the United States urged Baghdad and the KRG to stop clashes and engage in dialogue. Abadi insisted that Barzani declare the results of a referendum on Kurdistan’s independence void after the Kurdish leader offered to “freeze” it.
Iraqi forces have reclaimed most of the disputed areas that were under peshmerga control since 2014, giving Abadi unprecedented public support.
“Iraq is getting stronger, getting unified,” Abadi told the Washington Post and other Western media.
He hinted that this sense of unity would gradually push away Iran’s meddling in Iraq’s affairs.
“I think others or the interference of others in the affairs of Iraq will become less and less. This is a new-built confidence among Iraqis, the Iraqi national feeling, which our aim is to increase — people’s attachment to their own country,” Abadi said.
Tehran’s sphere of influence goes beyond its traditional allies — Shia Arabs and Shia Turkmen — and reaches Sunni Kurds, too. Observers said the referendum strengthened Iran’s grip on Iraq.
“The Kurdish referendum has further empowered undisciplined [Iran-backed] militias, giving them another reason to remain long after [ISIS] is defeated,” wrote Denise Natali, the director at the Centre for Strategic Research, on the website warontherocks.com.
“To help stabilise Iraq after [ISIS] and check nefarious Iranian influences, the United States needs to reinforce a strong and sovereign Iraqi state,” argued Natali. “Pleading with and coddling Kurdish officials is not a policy and does not advance US interests.”
Despite the distraction of the Kurdish referendum and the military success against ISIS, the threat of the militant group has not been eradicated.
Iraq needs stability and inclusiveness in order to make sure that ISIS and other jihadist groups do not resurface, observers said during a conference organised by the South Asia and Middle East (SAME) Forum in London.
“What’s important for Iraq is: Stabilisation, stabilisation, stabilisation,” said Brigadier Gareth Collett, the defence attaché of the British Embassy in Iraq. “Otherwise, another form of Daesh will come back,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Collett said people in the areas liberated from ISIS must be provided with jobs so they earn their own money and do not need inducements offered to them by ISIS recruiters.
He added that it was important for the anti-ISIS coalition “not to walk away from Iraq” immediately after defeating the militants on the battlefield because they could regroup.
Speaking at the same event, Andreas Krieg, an assistant professor at King’s College London, said Iraq needs to adopt a more inclusive policy towards all its citizens.
Krieg blamed former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for many of the country’s failures. The Iraqi Army had many Maliki loyalists, which is why its soldiers ran away in the face of ISIS in 2014, said Krieg. Pro-Iran politicians such as Maliki threaten the prospect of an inclusive Iraq, he added.
“Sunni Arabs have suffered torture, rape and extra judicial killing,” at the hands of the Shia-majority forces. “They also faced ethnic cleaning” carried out by Kurdish peshmerga fighters. That’s why Sunni Arabs “feel like second-class citizens,” said Krieg. In sensitive areas, people should be policed by members of their own communities, he added.