Post-ISIS Iraq faces sovereignty challenges

November 05, 2017
Unfinished business. Iraqi forces and members of the Popular Mobilisation Forces advance towards the city of al-Qaim in Anbar province, on November 2. (AFP)

London- Iraqi forces recaptured al-Qaim, the last strategic town under control of the Islamic State (ISIS) in the country. How­ever, despite the significant territorial victory, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government faces many threats to Iraq’s sovereignty.

The military operation against al-Qaim, a town on the Syrian bor­der in Iraq’s Anbar province, was branded the “last big fight” against ISIS in Iraq.

ISIS militants are thought to be hiding in the vast Anbar desert, waiting to regroup and stage at­tacks. The dire living conditions of many Sunni Arabs would likely make the area fertile ground for ISIS recruits.

“With Iraq’s government now controlled by Shias and the Kurds governing their own autonomous area in the north, the Sunnis are in a political no-man’s land,” wrote David Zucchino in the New York Times.

Iraqi forces captured from ISIS the Akkas gas field, which has re­serves of 159 billion cubic metres. Iraq has reclaimed all the oil and gas facilities that it had lost to ISIS con­trol since 2014.

The central government in Bagh­dad has also been pushing to stop unauthorised crude exports by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, after the Iraqi Army, backed by Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), retook control of the disputed areas from Kurdish pesh­merga fighters.

After the KRG’s September 25 ref­erendum on the independence of Kurdistan, Baghdad began to view Kurdish secession as the biggest threat to its sovereignty and territo­rial integrity since ISIS.

Baghdad is working on an oil supply route to Turkey that would bypass KRG-controlled areas. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari visited Russia, which has become the largest foreign investor in Ira­qi Kurdistan, to make sure that trade deals with the KRG region go through Baghdad first.

The central government has also been seeking to put all of the coun­try’s border crossings — including in airports — that were previously manned by the peshmerga under direct federal control.

To reinforce federal author­ity across the whole of the country, Abadi is working to make the pesh­merga, which Kurdish officials say total approximately 300,000, part of the central government’s security forces or at least become smaller in number.

“I am prepared to pay those pesh­merga under the control of the federal state. If they want to have their local small force — it must not be that large — then they must pay for it,” Abadi told the Independent newspaper.

Abadi promised to pay all civil servants’ salaries in the Kurdis­tan region once Baghdad takes full charge of its oil exports but there are talks that the central government would be doing so di­rectly; in the past payment was made to the KRG.

“We are waiting for the Kurdish government to send the database of employees and peshmerga person­nel so that the QiCard system can be instructed to integrate databases of the Kurdish employees as well as peshmerga personnel to receive their salaries at any of the company offices inside or outside of Kurd­istan,” Jassim Mohammed Jaafer, a member of Parliament, told the website Al-Monitor.

In addition to strengthening fed­eral control, the move is likely to be welcomed by many Kurds — espe­cially in the opposition — who want their finances to be less controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates the KRG.

Despite the resignation of Ma­soud Barzani from his post as KRG president, the Kurdish leader still heads the Kurdistan High Political Council, which he recently formed, and has significant influence with the KDP and peshmerga.

The powers of the KRG presiden­cy have mainly gone to Barzani’s nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the region. This means that Abadi would likely con­tinue to face resistance from the KRG.

Abadi is expected to have to deal with the decades-old presence of militants from Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the Qandil Mountains, Sinjar and, most recently, Kirkuk. Having PKK militants in Iraq means that Turkish strikes against the PKK would con­tinue.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to Iraq’s sovereignty would be from Iran, which yields strong influence on its neighbour.

Abadi’s decision to integrate the Iran-backed PMF into Iraq’s security forces, and paying for their salaries, was meant to grant him full control of the militias but many of the fight­ers’ loyalties appear to be to their Tehran-backed factions.

Many pro-Iran Iraqi politicians are seeking to undermine Abadi ahead of the May 15 parliamentary elections. In an apparent bid to steal his thunder, they have been attrib­uting the swift — and largely blood­less — success in recapturing the disputed territories to Iran, despite Abadi’s insistence that his govern­ment planned the move.

Iranian influence is often re­ported as being over politicians in Baghdad only but many PMF leaders were on the same side as peshmerga fighters and the Ira­nian Army during the Iran-Iraq war in 1980s. The law to integrate the PMF into Iraqi security forces was passed with a major­ity of Kurdish lawmakers voting in favour of the bill in the Iraqi parliament.