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US strategy in Iraq may open the door for Al Maliki

The Iraqi leader is a man in a hurry, who feels he has only a brief window to retake Mosul before his rivals for power coalesce against him, writes Alan Philps
An Iraqi soldier rehearses room-clearing techniques under the supervision of a US Marine in Anbar province. AP Photo
An Iraqi soldier rehearses room-clearing techniques under the supervision of a US Marine in Anbar province. AP Photo

Last week, a surprising news story punctured the western media’s silence on developments in Iraq. Newspapers quoted an anonymous US military source as saying that the Iraqi government was planning an offensive in April or May to retake the city of Mosul. Five army brigades would attack, while Kurdish forces would block off the city from the north and west.

The report was bizarre on several levels. Armies do not usually signal in advance when they are going to attack or the disposition of their forces. Such things are for the enemy’s military intelligence to find out.

Apart from this, the plan contradicts the guiding principle of the anti-ISIL coalition. This is that the new Iraqi government under Haider Al Abadi has only one shot at retaking Mosul, a city of one million people. The military action cannot be rushed but has to be part of a broad effort to reconstitute Iraq as a state for all its citizens, reversing the Shia Muslim hegemony put in place by the prime minister’s predecessor, Nouri Al Maliki.

If the operation to retake Mosul fails, or causes so much destruction that it alienates the Sunni Muslim population or is seen as a victory for Shia paramilitaries not the Iraqi army, then the whole enterprise will disintegrate. The idea that the Iraqi army, which so spectacularly collapsed in June, could be capable of retaking Mosul by April is not credible.

The Pentagon has dissociated itself from the briefing after complaints from Iraq that it gave the impression that the US military was back in charge of the operation, not merely supplying training and support.

Many have asked what US Central Command was thinking of in making such a briefing. From a military point of view, they have a story to tell: ISIL has lost its offensive capability in Iraq due to US-led air strikes and the efforts of Iraqi army, Shia militias and Kurdish fighters. Perhaps the military thought it was time to undermine ISIL’s morale.

Mr Al Abadi, the new prime minister, has provoked the US military, by complaining he was “frustrated” that Washington had not been acting fast enough to help Iraq turn the tide against ISIL. Earlier this month, he said Iraq was planning an offensive to retake Mosul, but he was careful not to raise hopes of an imminent victory, saying only that he hoped it would be before the end of the year.

The truth is that Mr Al Abadi is a man in a hurry, who feels he has only a brief window to retake Mosul before his rivals for power coalesce against him. His strongest ally is America, but he cannot fail to be aware that Washington’s appetite for long-term engagement in Iraq has its limits.

Waiting in the wings is Mr Al Maliki, the former prime minister, who is far from a spent force. Energetic and forceful, he was chosen by Washington in 2006 to be prime minister after three years of transitional governments. Having been a self-exiled political activist for the opposition Da’wa Party in Syria and Iran since 1979, he gradually learnt to apply the arts of Middle Eastern autocracy. He made the army “coup-proof”, but unfit for any military task, by filling senior ranks with his placemen or corrupt and incompetent officers. He became the champion of the Shia, a long oppressed majority, while curbing the influence of the Sunnis and stoking enmity among the Kurds.

Despite being removed as prime minister last year under US pressure after the Mosul debacle, he remains a vice president, and is polishing his relations with Iran and its allies, including Hizbollah in Lebanon. While the current prime minister, whose years of exile were spent running an engineering firm in Britain, cannot disguise his dependence on Washington, Mr Al Maliki is carving out an anti-American position.

He blames Washington for creating ISIL and says it was American reluctance to supply the necessary weapons to the Iraqi army (rather than the weakness he created in it) that caused it to run away from the ISIL attack. He blames the Kurds for provoking ISIL to attack Mosul so they could achieve their long-held goal of sharing oil revenues with Baghdad.

While Mr Al Maliki may publicly forswear any immediate plans to return as prime minister, he is a constant reminder of the way politics has been done for the past decade: whatever his failures, he remains the political champion of Shias. Mr Al Abadi is a man of goodwill with a rational plan that fits the requirement to hold Iraq together as a single state. But he is not the champion of any of Iraqi’s ethnic or religious communities. Unlike his predecessor, he needs success to survive.

There are good military reasons to suppose that Mr Al Abadi could succeed in dislodging ISIL from the city of Mosul. The jihadists are at war with two-thirds of the Iraqi population. They maintain control through the exercise of unimaginable brutality. No regional state army will come to support them. This is not a promising alignment of forces for ISIL. Politics, however, will probably be decisive. The Sunni populations who live under the ISIL yoke need to be convinced that their life would not be worse under the rule of Shia paramilitaries.

In Mr Al Abadi’s favour is the position of Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq, who intervened in the political process last year to call for the removal of Mr Al Maliki.

Balanced against this is the history of civil conflicts, where sectarian or ethnic identity trumps all other assets. Mr Al Abadi needs to show Iraqis that his plan is working and Iraq can be rebuilt as a functioning state. He does not have unlimited time, but the US military trying to hurry things along does not help.

Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs

On Twitter @aphilps

Updated: February 26, 2015 04:00 AM

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