Post-ISIS Iraq faces sovereignty challenges
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.